I am a fan of neorealism and minimalist cinema. I'm sure that to a lot of people, these kinds of movies just look boring. Who'd want to watch a bunch of people standing around, accomplishing minimal things at a realistic pace? I think for myself, the answer is comedy. Observational humor is my kind of humor, and almost all of the minimalist, realist movies that I've seen incorporate humor because most people don't lead completely humorless lives. One of my favorite examples of this is Stranger Than Paradise, which is hilarious, if you have the will to let it meander along, doing what it's going to do, without getting impatient.
Of course, there are limits to everything, but what they are exactly is harder to pin down. I am presented with Ulrich Seidl's Import/Export, and I'm not sure how to react. It takes minimalism and neorealism to some pretty extreme places, to the point where his characters not have an arc so much as they put a blip on the radar; where the movie begins and where the movie ends for its two intertwining stories is almost arbitrary. Yet, like Paradise and many others, this is a funny, occasionally touching movie with some good performances from non-professional actors.
On one side, (the side of Import), we have Olga (Ekateryna Rak), who struggles to keep herself afloat with a fussy child and two jobs, at a Ukranian hospital and as a performer for a webcam sex service. One day, she makes the move to leave her life and child behind, jumping at a job prospect in Austria. Conversely, Pauli (Paul Hofmann) has just lost his job, and is now drifting aimlessly through life, facing down friends and family at every turn who want to beat him up and forcefully take back the seemingly endless amounts of money he's borrowed from them. His stepfather Michael (Michael Thomas) offers him an olive branch in the form of a job helping him do the rounds collecting the change from gumball and arcade machines, but they spend the trip at odds with one another, with Pauli increasingly pushed towards his breaking point.
Both of these two performers are both excellent. Admittedly, the language barrier would effectively cover up any awkwardness in their line delivery, but the attitude and essence of these characters is clearly expressed by the looks on their faces. Rak has the more emotional side of the story. In Austria, she gets a job as a cleaning lady at an old folks hospital, and she forms a bond with one of the patients. She and the patient have two lovely scenes together, and there is also a simple but tragic scene where she calls her son and sings to him over the phone. Hofmann, meanwhile, brings more of the humor, both in a hilarious early scene where he tries to get his terrified girlfriend to pet the dog he's trying to buy, as well as later, when one particularly angry acquaintance tries to take his shoes as collateral.
These stories arrive at a relatively logical beginning and a relatively logical end over the course of the movie's 135 minutes, and these scenes I like so much take place in the middle, but is that a movie? Is that a story? In a sense, Import/Export is the equivalent of cinematic voyeurism; you're just spying on these people for a few weeks in their troubled lives. You might say the same things about Stranger Than Paradise, too, but Seidl does away with even the smaller plot beats of that film (like the winning of money and the desire to live the American Dream), to really get to the heart of everyday living for these two people. For me, I suppose that's enough, but others may not find it nearly as interesting.
Import/Export is graced with one of Palisades Tartan's most appealing DVD covers, a well-designed image that really caught my eye. The back cover is equally well-done, with small but appealingly arranged type that doesn't crowd everything together. Unlike many of Tartan's DVDs, there is no booklet inside the Infiniti case, and the disc . Sadly, the design skills do not extend to the cheap, corny menus.
The Video and Audio
Import/Export's 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is just barely pillarboxed on a widescreen television, and sadly, it doesn't look very good. Production and/or budgetary constraints might've played a part, and the film was shot on 16mm, but this looks more like a video transfer than a digital one, as if the copy given to Palisades Tartan was not first-generation. The image is fuzzy and speckled with blocky, artifact-y grain, while fine detail is often smeary and muddy. It also looks like the original source (if the transfer really was done off of a copy) may have had some edge enhancement applied to it, since I swear I saw a few blurry halos, and the contrast may have been cranked just a bit. On a small set, viewers might not notice most of these issues, but on an HDTV, the film just isn't going to look very good.
The case suggests that only 2 audio tracks are included, but there are actually three: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0, and DTS 5.1. I can't imagine why. Like Revanche, the film has only contains diegetic music, and even that is used sparingly. The track is not as adept as Revanche's at creating the awkward emptiness of silence, but it gets the job done just fine. English subtitles are provided, and I wonder if they couldn't be better. One particularly good exchange between Olga and the patient she befriends concludes with a line of hers that is not translated, and sometimes the subtitles are briefly confusing because the instinctual reaction to the way they are laid out is to assign the lines to the wrong characters.
2 interviews are included, with director Ulrich Seidl and cinematographer Ed Lachman (6:03 and 2:59). They're okay, and they're short. You'll watch them once, because they're there, and you'll never watch them again.
Trailers for You, The Living, Silent Light, Red Road, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, The Bow and 12:08 East of Bucharest play automatically when you put in the disc, and are also accessible from the special features menu. Import/Export's original theatrical trailer is also included.
Import/Export might be slightly determined to further the stories of its characters in an incremental fashion, giving new meaning to the word "deliberate". The film itself is not slow, but more than one person who sits down and watches this movie won't understand why these two people have been chosen, and why the periods of their lives the film chooses to depict are important. As someone who likes this kind of movie, I thought it was enjoyable, although the pleasure I got out of it was mild and comforting, rather than something I feel inspired to shout from the rooftops. If you've liked other films like this, I lightly recommend it, because at the very least, it's interesting to discuss the merits of the film's style (or lack of them). Everyone else should either rent it or let it pass them by.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.