Belgian films, I used to hate them. For years, the only film worth watching was Man Bites Dog. And then, something changed. In four years' time, several exciting directors found their way to the big screen. Out with the social dramas, let's welcome experimental genre films. Films like Calvaire, Any Way The Wind Blows, and Ex-Drummer revived the Belgian movie scene and gave it a fresh start.
The latest addition to this list is Small Gods, a small film made by first-timer Dimitri Karakatsanis. With little to no financial backing, he gathered a crew of generous professionals and amateurs who managed to create a film that can stand its own among the greats of modern alternative cinema. Looking at Small Gods, I couldn't help but be reminded of Van Sant and Gallo, though Karakatsanis makes sure to add his unique style to the film.
While the visuals are awesome, it's the soundtrack that deserves the most attention. While there are plenty of films out there with experimental and/or stylish visuals, the soundtrack is probably the most overlooked element in most films. Not so in Small Gods. Eerie soundscapes, dark brooding buzzes, strange vocal tracks, and even a part that is played completely backward. The effect on the film is enormous, adding to the images to create an atmosphere that's tangible but often hard to place.
Karakatsanis is smart and puts the viewer in the middle of the story without any further context. We know little of what is going on and we are left with what we see and hear. This puts us in the same situation as the main character, who is kidnapped from a hospital bed and suffers from amnesia. This adds a lot of intrigue and tension to the film. Saying anything more about the events in the film would only spoil the experience.
Visually, the film is one big feast of stunning sequences, striking the perfect balance between gritty, dark overtones over a dreamy, poetic foundation. The camera is always moving, often close to the actors, but plays well with the lighting and manages to keep every shot special and different. One trick I especially liked was the blurriness of objects that should have been in focus. It's another point where the film tries to keep the viewer at a distance, only adding to the intrigue and restlessness of the experience.
The acting is all-around solid and, watching the film, you wouldn't know it was shot in two weeks with only a couple of professionals and a shoestring budget. Karakatsanis made a small miracle happen, and for that, the Belgian movie industry should take notice and make better use of the budgets at hand.
Small Gods is a unique film that is stylistically strong enough to impose a feeling on the viewer without much impulses from the story itself, a gritty and uncomfortable mood piece if I ever saw one. This makes the first hour or so rather uneasy to watch without actually realizing why this is. It's an intense film with no flaws, packing a punch long after the end credits have faded from the screen. I just hope it gets all the attention it deserves.