REVIEW: Silent Nights [2016]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 30 minutes | Release Date: 2016 (Denmark)
Studio: M&M Productions
Director(s): Aske Bang
Writer(s): Ib Kastrup & Aske Bang

“I live a very hard life”

It’s extremely difficult for me to blindly accept a film like Aske Bang‘s Silent Nights on faith. The idea that someone can do bad things—no matter how good he/she is at heart—and continuously be rewarded is a tough sell. But that’s exactly what this look at immigration through a charitable Danish lens attempts. A man may be a saint, but that doesn’t excuse thieving, adultery, or lying with ease. I understand the message comes down to “hard living” and “impossible decisions,” but the film’s result is less a heartfelt expression of this reality than it is showcase of naïveté on the part of his victim. No matter how much the filmmakers hope to portray humanity and compassion, my cynicism only found implausible hokum.

Aske and co-writer Ib Kastrup do whatever they can to let Ghanaian immigrant Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah) appear complex and sympathetic at the start. We watch him steal a bike and think, “I’ll give him that one.” We see his temper flare when the homeless shelter Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen) works at turns him away for being full and think, “It’s heartbreaking, but what can you do?” And when he calls his wife (Hassana Sampah) back home in Africa we find ourselves at a loss to the human tragedy poverty and injustice creates. We hope he’ll get on his feet, knowing Inger is the person to help. So we must ignore the foreshadowing of her yearning for a man, our fears that they’ll fall in love inevitable regardless.

Every time they smile at each other made me cringe for what’s coming. Aske and Kastrup move to throw the kitchen sink to elicit emotion from us, doing so in a way that exposes the machinations of their goal. As soon as things are introduced, we’re made to fear the worst all because Kwame is married and yet willing to be with Inger anyway. This revelation forces us to prepare for heavy fallout early on, our senses put on full alert when a cabinet of money at the shelter is used or when Inger’s mother (Vibeke Hastrup) exposes herself as a racist drunk. You simply cannot successfully integrate the amount of politically and emotionally charged incidents included in these thirty-minutes and ever believe it’ll feel authentic.

The whole becomes preachy and full of martyrs rather than individuals worthy of happy endings. I’m not saying Inger and Kwame don’t deserve happiness; I just don’t buy them achieving it without lying to themselves about what happens. The ramifications of their relationship are much weightier than a cry and intentionally vague advice can fix. Yes incidents like this probably do happen, but condensing it into such a short runtime does a disservice to the characters’ ability to traverse their ups and downs with genuine care. The ending rings false if not also hollow, the places their common trajectory takes them a foregone conclusion rather than natural progression. The film’s heart might be in the right place, but it failed to take my brain along for the ride.

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