Don’t be surprised if the first half hour of Ariel Kleiman’s remarkably atmospheric and diabolical thriller, “Partisan”, leaves you off-balance. That seems to be the point conjuring up as many unanswered questions as possible, creating a mental fog that disrupts the senses. Who is the mysterious, charismatic man in the maternity ward who both seems to belong there and yet, strangely, does not seem to belong there? Why does he have such a control over the woman about to give birth? Years later, why is he the only grown up man in a community of women? And where in the world is this isolated, rocky commune located?
“Partisan”‘s greatest achievement is dropping the audience into a world of peculiar construct and providing little in the way of a lifeline. Kleiman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sarah Cynglar, keeps information at an absolute minimum, which as it turns out is exactly how it should be. Commanding our attention from the very beginning is the great Vincent Cassel as Gregori, the leader of what can only be described as a cult. When we first meet him he’s overseeing the birth of Suzanna’s (Florence Mezzara) son, Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel, a solid match for Cassel), who grows into a strong, inquisitive 11-year-old boy. Unfortunately, being inquisitive isn’t seen as a virtue in Gregori’s realm, in which he’s the only fully grown man surrounded by women who worship the ground he walks on. And yet there are dozens of children of various ages, all being trained in the art of assassination. Gregori sees to it personally, rewarding the kids for their murderous proficiency with treats and parties. But he has no patience for those who question him or his knowledge of the outside world.
While a fascinating sub-set to explore, the film is slow to introduce conflict, but when it does the tension burns hot. Alexander begins to change his outlook on life when a young boy trying to protect a chicken becomes the target of Gregori’s wrath. As Alexander asks more questions, Gregori is forced to assert his authority in harsher ways, but Kleiman never depicts him as outright abusive or even as an evil figure. There’s gentleness to Gregori that one can see as calming. He does seem to genuinely care about his charges, who he believes he is protecting from a cruel society on the outside. Even if his ideology is fractured and completely skewed, Gregori still comes across as somewhat sympathetic, a tremendous feat that can only be accomplished with an actor as skilled as Cassel. There are moments of light-heartedness and normalcy, which only underscores how screwed up everything really is.
Shot in Eastern Europe’s haunting, abandoned block structures in Georgia, one gets the impression these people are living in a kind of ghost town. How all of these people, who appear to have come from different regions, could have possibly come together under Gregori’s command. Another mystery is whether the outside world is really as decayed as he wants his followers to believe, or if it’s a carefully crafted lie.
It’s rare that a filmmaker has the level of confidence shown by Kleiman, who never feels the need to guide us through “Partisan” point by point. This is a tremendous first effort, and if it’s a sign of things to come then we’ve all got something special to look forward to from him.