Monday, October 21, 2013

"The Verdict" and "I Will Be Murdered" - Chicago International Film Festival

Koen De Bouw in "The Verdict" (Belgium)

Two films about justice - or lack of - are among the highlights of the 49th Chicago International Film Festival. The Verdict from Belgium asks some tough questions about the legal system in that country, while I Will Be Murdered, a Spanish production, details a famous recent murder in Guatemala, bringing up numerous questions about the violence there; both films are highly recommended.

The Verdict, directed by Jan Verheyen, gets right to the point, as its opening titles are a quote from Albert Camus; "There is no justice, only limits." Our faith in the justice system will be sorely tested during this riveting film, a story of a successful businessman, Luc Segers (Koen de Bouw), who sees his wife brutally beaten and is in turn assaulted by the same criminal. He wakens from a coma a few weeks later to learn that his wife died in this attack. 

He identifies the suspect soon afterwards and the police arrest him. But a procedural error in the paperwork before the court means that the alleged criminal must be released. This is an outrage to Segers and the public in Belgium as well, as this story is reported on the evening news.

Segers has a difficult time dealing with the loss of his wife, as he focuses on seeing that justice is served. If the legal system has let him down, he will do whatever it takes to realize the criminal's guilt. The way he goes about this is the crux of this fascinating story and I won't give away any more plot details. 

On this level alone, The Verdict is an excellent film. But this movie tells two stories; the second being a look at the justice system in Belgium (and in reality, the justice system in many countries). How is it that a murderer can go free simply because of a procedural error? Yes, the film argues, there are regulations in place to protect suspects, but should someone who commits a brutal murder be allowed back into society because a lawyer forgot to sign a piece of paper?

Verheyen, who also wrote the excellent script, turns in a wonderful job of direction. He was undoubtedly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock; this will be apparent from the overhead camera shots that isolate Segers and make him seem insignificant. Yet, this is not an instance of a director borrowing heavily on Hitchcock's visuals, as Verheyen has his own style. This is a beautifully directed film, especially in the courtroom scene that concludes the film. Each side's argument is carefully presented with great zeal as well as common sense; if you were on this jury, you really wonder what you would do. Incidentally, I love the way Verheyen presents the reading of the verdict, as the words of the chief judge are slowly drowned out as the sound is muted; we only hear cheers and boos in the courtroom after the decision is announced. We don't know for a few moments what that decision is - it's a marvelous scene.

Credit also to Johan Leysen as one of the lawyers in this film - his performance is mesmerizing. High marks also to the subdued score of Steve Willaert, the marvelous job of cinematography by Frank Van Den Eeden and the exqusite production design of Johan Van Essche; this is an outstanding technical production. 

While The Verdict is based on a fictional story, I Will Be Murdered is a documentary about a famous murder, in this case, about the death of Rodrigo Marzano in Guatemala in May, 2009. Marzano, a respcted attorney, recorded a video a few days before he was assassinated; that video, transferred to a CD, was passed out to mourners at his funeral. 

Marzano's message is political dynamite, as he claims that he was killed by the president of Guatemala, as he was researching a double murder that was carried out by hitmen; Marzano believe that the government may have had something to do with these deaths, so he recorded his video in which he states that anyone watching it would know that he blamed the government for his death.

This is a riveting film, directed by Justin Webster, that takes the form of a police investigation, but in this instance the whos and whys of the crime are looked into by an official of an organization set up by the United Nations to look into mysterious political situations such as this. Slowly this prosecutor, Carlos Castresana, pieces together the elaborate details of this bizarre case, talking to Marazno's son, chauffeur, best friend and several other individuals. As he discovers more and more details, the case becomes more mysterious and his final opinion on the events of this case are controversial, to say the least.

As with The Verdict, the system of justice and government come into question in I Will Be Murdered. The filmmaker supports Marzano's belief that violence is intertwined into the culture of Guatemala, so perhaps the government did kill Marzano, if only to shut him up. Then again, there really is no proof, so the final decision will probably catch the viewer off guard. There is a point made early on in the film that half of the Guatemalan people immediately believe the government was behind Marzano's murder, while the other half think it is a coup to try and overthrow the government. The answers are not so easy.

Both films deal with justice - one with a fictional story, the other with a true one. Both leave us wondering about the people that are sworn to protect us on an everyday basis. As one lawyer remarks in The Verdict, the main character was "let down by the legal system." Tough words to think about.

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