Posted in: Disc Reviews by Paul O'Callaghan on November 30th, 2011
A baby’s soft and contented voice is heard over a white screen as the credits begin. Two young teenage boys dote over the happy child. These are the opening moments of Submarino, which quickly devolves into a story of total despair. It turns out the mother is a worthless and degenerate alcoholic. These two well-meaning boys are forced to be the parents. They wake up in the morning and the baby is blue and lifeless.
Danish cinema has carved a unique niche for itself. It is governed by a world class lunatic, Lars Von Trier, who grandly put forth a rigid artistic school of thought under the heading of Dogma. It had very specific rules for naturalistic use of lighting and music and behavior. The director Thomas Vinterberg is one of Von Trier’s confederates, and Submarino follows these artistic rules, more because it suits this material than any adherence to rules anyone bothers to follow any more. Von Trier doesn’t follow the rules of Dogma any more in his most recent films. This film, though, also follows a tradition typical of Scandinavian films in general, which is that it is intensely dour and depressing. One would have hopes that Denmark would be something of a utopian society, but not by what we see of their cinema. And this film is particularly sad.
The two brothers, Nick and Ivan, are now grown. They have grown apart and live in two different worlds of torment. Nick is a hardened yet stoic criminal. He seems to live in his head but is strong enough to take what he wants when he wants it. He is clearly governed by the guilt of his brother’s death many years before. It is clear he will never be happy, and he has accepted the inherent sadness of existence. He helps a particularly pathetic friend, and it only leads to more sadness and tragedy. He then seeks out his brother who he has clearly not seen for many years. His brother is a father who is failing in his responsibilities. He is a drug addict trying to reform himself for his son’s sake.
The film is filmed with natural light with minimalist music and is dark and dour in tone. The experience is relentless. At no point do you ever get a feeling of hope. The failure of these two lives was set in stone from their birth. Neither one has found any solace in the system which is governing both of them. The probation apparatus and the social service agencies can never truly monitor these kinds of lives. Lip service is made that these lives can be turned around with some help, but that is not the message of these movies. The message here is that some lives are beyond redemption. Some lives never get a chance. In this case, we start to wonder about Ivan’s son. Will he be able to break the cycle when his father passes out in the toilet after shooting up? Will the brothers band together and save this boy after failing their brother?
This is a tradition in movies all over the world to face the harsh realities of life, but rarely have I seen such a sense of nihilistic emptiness . In America or Britain there is usually a glimmer of hope through drugs or sex or alcohol, but not here. It couldn’t be more drab or seemingly without purpose. These lives seem unexamined, just drifting hopelessly. Nick connects with his brother and offers the proceeds of a sale of property to his brother Ivan. He wants Ivan to properly take care of the boy. Nick knows Ivan is sinking away into the same empty intoxication that swallowed their mother and ruined their lives. The only hope they have now is that the boy will be okay, that he will never live with the kind of gnawing pain that they live with every day. As the film works toward a conclusion, we start to have some hope for the boy. Ivan now has some money. He loves his son. He is trying to be the best father he can. But the tone of the film never changes. Ivan keeps using drugs. He eventually falls into a job as a dealer. Maybe this will give him some sense of purpose or identity?
These films have value despite their gloom and unpleasantness. They are examples of pitfalls to avoid in life. They are examples of things to be thankful for in your own life. No matter how bad things can get, you hope it will never get this bad. If you are a heavy drug user or an ex-con, you probably will identify with this. I will simply say at this point that it would be impossible to watch one minute of his movie and ever get the feeling that things will ever be okay for Nick or Ivan. They do get a bittersweet reunion that gives them some closure.
I would probably recommend watching a bunch of stupid sitcoms after watching this. You’ll need something to take the edge off. Otherwise, you can wallow in the depression this film amply provides. I would like to say that I wish that they had called the film anything but Submarino. They didn’t try to explain the title.