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Film review: Repulsive moments distract in 'White Ribbon'

Published: Thursday, Feb. 25 2010 3:06 p.m. MST

Christian Friedel as the schoolteacher and Leonie Benesch as Eva in the German film "The White Ribbon."

Films du Losange

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THE WHITE RIBBON — ★★1/2 — Christian Friedel, Ulrich Tukur, Rainer Bock; in black and white; with English subtitles (German dialects); rated R (violence, sex, vulgarity, profanity, brief nudity, slurs, brief drugs); Broadway Centre

For a good hour or so, "The White Ribbon" is completely unlike anything that's been done to date by its director, German-born filmmaker Michael Haneke.

In fact, the first half of this historically based drama is free from the button-pushing, calculated-to-offend-or-infuriate moments that have popped up in such previous Haneke films as "Funny Games" (both the original, 1997 film and his 2007 Americanization of it), as well as the baffling 2005 thriller "Cache."

Mind you, it's not completely free from that. There's still some material in the film's second half that will upset viewers.

Also, the Oscar-nominated film may feature thoughtful material and some strong performances, but it starts so slowly and perplexingly that it may lull others to sleep.

"The White Ribbon" is apparently based on real-life incidents that occurred in a northern German village, just prior to World War I.

The seemingly peaceful hamlet is rocked by a series of mishaps, possibly criminal in nature. First, a horse riding accident results in injuries to the village doctor (Rainer Bock).

Then, a tragic mill accident takes the life of a beloved villager.

All this leads to increasing resentment toward the town leaders, especially the rich Baron (Ulrich Tukur).

Screenwriter/director Haneke presents this material in black and white, and in rough docudrama form. The story is filtered, through the perspective of the village's rather naive schoolteacher (Christian Friedel). He's a likable presence, one who keeps us interested when things lag.

(Actor Ernst Jacobi narrates, as the voice of the older version of the schoolteacher character.)

Again, the film has its repulsive moments, though. The unsavory relationship between the doctor and a midwife (Susanne Lothar) becomes an unfortunate distraction.

"The White Ribbon" is rated R and features strong violent content and imagery (a horse riding accident, corporal punishment violence against children, mostly implied), simulated sex (including the depiction of an incestuous relationship), strong sexual language (vulgar slang, as well as a handful of profanities), brief nudity (full female nudity and nude statues), derogatory language and slurs (some based on disabilities), and brief drug content and references (potions and pharmaceuticals). Running time: 144 minutes.

e-mail: jeff@desnews.com

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