By: Amy Stupavsky

That's a look of pure moral contemplation.

That’s a look of pure moral contemplation.

Courtesy of Mongrel Media

Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, The White Ribbon unquestionably deserves the high accolade. Directed by Michael Haneke, the film chronicles sinister happenings in a northern German village in the months leading up to World War I.

The doctor lands in hospital after his horse trips on a wire trap. The farmer’s wife falls through a barn’s rotten floorboards and dies. The baron’s son is found beaten in the woods. A cold draft through an open nursery window sickens the steward’s new baby. A crop of cabbages is destroyed, and the manor’s barn is set on fire. Someone kills the pastor’s pet bird. The midwife’s mentally disabled son is viciously mutilated.

Starkly shot in black and white, its cinematography mirrors the sketchy morality of the village’s denizens. The white ribbon leitmotif weaves through the film as a constant reminder of purity and innocence.

Narrated by the local schoolteacher’s older, wiser self, we follow the action from his perspective as he looks to the past events for understanding and explanation. As the teacher delves deeper into the occurrences and the mystery unravels, what he discovers seems unbelievable: The events centre around a group of children whose ringleader is the pastor’s daughter. Their actions serve as a harbinger of the next wave of war, when they would come of age. As the children tread the line between sweetness and guile, their innocence is stripped away. The teacher is left to ponder what exactly fuels their malice: Is it a case of nature or nurture? Sometimes painfully difficult to watch, but deliciously ambiguous, the film deftly depicts the banality of cruelty.

The White Ribbon opens in Toronto on Jan. 15, 2010. The film is in German with English subtitles.

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