Cain's Children (2014, Marcell Gero)

Marcell Gero takes a searching look at the long term effects of youth incarceration with his follow on to cult Hungarian documentary Bebukottak (The Fallen). _Made in 1985, András Monory Mész’s film shows six teenage prisoners in one of Hungary’s harshest prisons, and exposes the kind of conditions that can turn a one-time mistake into a life of delinquency. After coming across _Bebukottak four years ago, Gero, a filmmaker who’s short work had all been fictional, felt the immediate need to document the stories of these men some twenty years later.

Gero selects three of the original six. Though this was fortune as much as selection, the three that return are a perfect contrast. The first, a man with a large family, seems so gentle that it would be plausible to think they convicted the wrong man. The second, a troubled vagrant, reveals his fragile nature between bouts of volatility._ “You will never understand, no one ever will.” _The last is the most openly psychopathic. He is fascinating because behind his Hannibal Lector persona, almost everything he proposes about humanity and society, even at its most vehemently nihilistic, seems terrifyingly rational.

Through a distanced approach to questioning, Gero manages to really earn the trust of his subjects, cleverly leaving the more provocative lines of questioning to the other characters in the film, family members deliberately introduced as a source of conflict. It’s particular interesting to compare the testimony of the adult men with their young counterparts. Gero places the original footage against new recordings, repeating questions to see how memory and attitude alters with time.Though often rambling, the men are all finally willing to surrender some kind of perspective upon what it means to take a life and the effect of the prison system and culture on people so impressionable.

Gero is impartial in essence, but in his selection of materials and the use of a leading piano soundtrack that kicks in at key emotional moments he reveals his position. Besides this aural manipulation, formally the documentary is strong. Gero, with D.P. Rudolf Kiss, frames the interviews stunningly. A key confessional occurs over firelight, bathing the cracks in the subject’s worn hands and faces in a stark, red glow as he talks of his errors. Another occurs beautifully in a field at the twilight hour as the same man talks warmly of family. The material could have been more tightly edited, and its hard to gauge the exact purpose of a number of non-verbal sequences where Gero observes the subject’s families at work or play, but a better eye for selection and sequencing will come in time to a director new to the documentary format.

Without pushing any strong editorial line, Gero’s stance reveals itself in the end in the testimony of his psychotic third man. “If you expect someone to be bad, that person will prove you right in the end.” Every criminal is different, but the reform system is the same.

★★★

Cain's Children played in the New Directors section at the 62nd San Sebastian International Film Festival. This review was original posted in NISI MASA’s San Sebastian Nisimazine.

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