FANTASTIC FEST 2011: MICHAEL Review
There are precious few members of society more loathsome than the pedophile. Serial killers, rapists, politicians and TV evangelists have all earned their place on the common man's shit list but most will agree there's a special place in Hell reserved for those who prey on weak and innocent minors to quench their depraved perversion. We do all we can to condition our youngsters not to talk to strangers, get into a vehicle with anyone they don't know or wander off on their own, but those damned kiddy fiddlers are a wily breed and hard to defend against when most of the time they look and behave just like everybody else.
And so with this baggage and preconditioning weighing heavy on our socially conscious shoulders we meet Michael (Michael Fuith), the subject of noted Austrian casting director's Markus Schleinzer debut feature of the same name. By day, this unassuming white single man in his mid-thirties is a relatively successful insurance salesman with normal friends and even occasional admirers. However, as Schleinzer takes us through his "normal" if rather mundane suburban existence it is soon revealed that Michael is harbouring a shocking secret - in the form of a young boy he keeps locked in his basement. It is unclear precisely how long Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) has been held captive in his fully-furnished but deadbolted cell, suffice to say Michael uses him not only as a plaything to feed his rank sexual desires, but as a surrogate family with whom he shares mealtimes, visits to the park and even Christmas presents.
MICHAEL is a slow build that may alienate some viewers with its matter of fact, unshowy and almost banal approach to its potentially salacious topic. However, this deliberate pacing and disarming approach reaps huge benefits in the film's second half as events compound in ways that are both unsettling and darkly humourous. Schleinzer is not asking us to sympathise with Michael or to understand what drives his perversion, but highlights just how ordinary and unremarkable he is. What is most interesting about this is that by avoiding the temptation to be sensational, he makes pedophiles even scarier and the rest of us more frightened than ever, because they do look and behave, in public at least, just you or me. And nothing spreads panic like paranoia.
Michael Fuith gives a wonderfully awkward and understated performance as a man who never warrants a second glance, never revels in his evilness, yet never comes across as someone you would want to know or of whom you would ever be afraid. The young David Rauchenberger also impresses as his young victim and does a great job displaying how the days, months, perhaps even years of relentless abuse are taking their toll on him, both physically and mentally.
MICHAEL asks that its audience be patient and attentive, and rewards them handsomely for this commitment. The film is almost entirely free of violence or exploitative content, yet there are moments - such as Michael routinely washing his genitals in the sink after a visit downstairs - that ensure we never forget the horrors that are taking place in this house. The film ends, not with a desperate escape, brutal confrontation or even cathartic retribution, but instead with a discovery that will for some characters hopefully prove to be a happy conclusion, while issuing in an entirely new tragedy for others. What is most remarkable is that for the audience, the film's sign-off evokes a rich belly laugh fueled as much by irony as relief, ensuring MICHAEL leaves its audiences in a surprisingly positive and satisfied mood after witnessing such a traumatic real-world horror show.
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