A boy raised from birth to be a hit man begins to recalibrate his moral compass in “Partisan,” a confidently told and in some ways quite original debut feature from Australian director Ariel Kleiman. The movie resembles “Dogtooth” and another recent festival favorite, “The Tribe,” in the way it plunges viewers into a circumscribed world that has its own warped moral code. Although there’s clearly a genre hook (pint-size assassins), “Partisan” unfolds patiently and may have too little signposting for the mainstream. But discerning fests and viewers will take note of a film that marks the arrival of a filmmaker to watch.
Kleiman says he and his girlfriend/screenwriting partner, Sarah Cyngler (who also worked on production design and costumes), took inspiration from an article on child assassins in Colombia. The film is set in an unnamed, decaying urban environment, where Gregori (Vincent Cassel) heads what amounts to a cult in an isolated compound. He lives with several women and their children, training the kids for killing missions.
The early scenes, overlaid with a portentous, Vangelis-like score and choral music, have an almost unbearable pomposity. Fortunately, the hand-holding quickly subsides. At the start, Gregori and a mother, Susanna (Florence Mezzara), celebrate the birth of a baby boy. He grows into Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel), who turns 11 as the main action starts. The exposition is confidently lean and visual; very little of the action is explained outright. What we’re witnessing might seem strange, but it’s de rigueur for these characters.
Gregori fosters a culture of dependence and shuns curiosity about the outside world, and as in “Dogtooth,” there’s a pitch-black humor in how the kids are conditioned. The children rehearse for real murders with paintballs. Gregori takes charge of their education, rewarding them with a gold-star system and karaoke nights. The result is a group of nice-seeming, alarmingly young children who just happen to lack a sense of right and wrong when it comes to violence. At one point, Alexander draws a picture on his pregnant mother’s belly, depicting himself protecting the family with a gun.
Trouble rears its head when fellow 11-year-old Leo (Alex Balaganskiy), recently taken in with his own mom (Katalin Hegedus) and her baby, is horrified at the slaughter of a chicken in the courtyard. He rushes to protect another fowl, guarding it with his life. The action prompts Alexander to reconsider his own taste for poultry, and it’s a substantial enough exercise of independent thought that Gregori acknowledges it at a group meeting. “I know that some of you have never seen that kind of anger and aggression,” he says. “These are the acts of a boy with a troubled brain.”
But the incident helps to awaken a moral conscience in Alexander, who begins to draw a line from chickens to human — not a fast process. Late in the film, not knowing that Alexander has just killed a man, a boy asks him how he got his hands on such a real-looking gun.
Casting Cassel as a ruthless villain might seem like a cliche, but Kleiman uses him counterintuitively, locating an avuncular, calming quality in the actor. Newcomer Chabriel ably shoulders the movie’s central role, showing an impressive range of expression even when his sheltered character isn’t speaking.
The cinematography makes evocative use of constant grays, while the grimy locations — interiors were shot in Australia while the exteriors were filmed in Georgia in Eastern Europe — help to conjure an atmosphere of isolation and desperation.