Having forged a solid reputation with the road movie, My Joy (2010), and the gritty Second World War saga, In the Fog (2012), Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa turned his attention to documentaries with Maidan (2014), The Event (2015) and Austerlitz (2016). He returns to fiction with A Gentle Creature, which has been adapted from the same Fedor Dostoevsky story that inspired Robert Bresson in 1969. However, there are also echoes of Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, the Brothers Grimm and Franz Kafka in a mix of adult fairytale and pilgrim's progress that says as much about the Russian soul as it does the state of the nation under Vladimir Putin.

Descending from a bus on a quiet country road in an unnamed part of Russia, Vasilina Makovtseva returns to her isolated cottage to feed her dog and fret about a letter from the post office. Clerk Larisa Simonova is too busy to tell her why the parcel she sent to her husband in a Siberian prison has been returned and the box takes up so much room on the bus ride home that snooty passenger Wanda Labinska complains it might damage her new stockings. However, others break off from discussing a gruesome murder to support Makovtseva, who decides to take time off from the petrol station where she works to travel across country to see what has happened to her spouse.

Having been subjected to a humiliating search at the railway station and the leering of Sergei Vasilij - a legless prisoner in a wheelchair who derides cops Pavel Vorozhtsov and Pavel Chukreev for confiscating items from her food parcel - Makovtseva boards a train and listens to the mournful singing of baritone Vadim Dubovsky. The aged Roza Khairullina reveals that she is mourning her son, but has no idea why or where he was killed. Her companions toast him as a hero, as Boris Kamorzin (who is nursing a broken arm) joins Dubovsky in a patriotic air from the Stalinist era and Viktor Nemets notes that missiles are being installed in his hometown for the first time since the Cold War. They ask Makovtseva where she is heading, but she decides not to mention that her husband is in prison on a specious murder charge.

A bust of Lenin remains outside the Siberian station, where taxi driver Sergei Fyodorov informs Makovtseva that the town's economy is entirely dependent upon the prison. As she fills in a form to request a visit, officers slice into loaves of bread, insert needles into tubes of toothpaste and tear open slippers to ensure that no contraband is smuggled into the cells. But no one is willing to explain why Makovtseva has been denied permission to see her husband and she accepts the offer of a room from the seemingly solicitous Marina Kleshcheva. However, she keeps a house of ill-repute and Makovtseva is embarrassed by the debauched behaviour and reluctantly removes her scarf under duress during a drunken game of strip spin the bottle led by pimp Valeriu Andriuta.

Kleshcheva puts Makovtseva in touch with Sergei Kolesov, a minion who works for the local mob boss, Sergei Koshonin. He promises to look into her case and reminds her that nothing comes free in a prison town. But she doesn't trust him and leaves early the next morning to make another application. The same clerk turns her away, however, and she is threatened with arrest by policemen Alexander Zamuraev and Anton Makushin when she insists on standing outside the main door. Yet she ignores their recommendation to go home and is picked up by Koleshov, who is cross with her for giving him the run around. He drops prostitute Alisa Kravtsova at a large house on the outskirts of the town before taking Makovtseva to a bar to meet with Koshonin.

He is a burly man with a large gold chain around his neck and he tells Makovtseva a story about one of his loyal oppos whose life fell apart when his girlfriend was brutally murdered after he volunteered for military service. But, before he can offer Makovtseva any advice, the mobster bumps into an old mucker and sweeps him off to the bar. As a fight breaks out behind her and a group of young people discuss the murder of a female drug mule, Makovtseva realises she is wasting her time and leaves. She seeks out the headquarters of the human rights committee and is accused of consorting with American-backed fascists by the neighbours in an abutting tenement.

Inside the graffiti-strewn hut with boarded-up windows, Makovtseva fills in another form while activist Lia Akhedzhakova dictates a report about the savage treatment meted out to a female suspect. Akhedzhakova sympathises with Makovtseva's plight, but admits that her case is not a priority and that it will take at least three weeks for her to process it. When Makovtseva protests, Akhedzhakova becomes emotional and says she works under constant duress and often wonder what sort of people Russians have become. She walks Makovtseva outside and urges her to forget about taking on the system, as they make up the rules as they go along, and suggests that she takes the first train home.

At the station, Makovtseva is warned against dozing off by an elderly woman (who is Khairullina's identical twin sister), who promptly falls asleep on her shoulder, despite her concerns about abduction. She has gone by the time Makovtseva is woken by Kleshcheva, who leads her outside, where the cops who arrested Makovtseva outside the prison are waiting in a troika. They drive her into the woods, while `Those Were the Days' plays on the soundtrack. Escorted through the trees by two soldiers carrying lanterns, Makovtseva enters a torchlit log dacha and is instructed to change into a clean dress by a bearded factotum. A group of soldiers watch her undress before she is admitted into a chandeliered dining-room.

Wearing a white uniform, General Sergei Russkin sits at the head of the table, while Dubovsky the baritone tells an anecdote before singing a song about Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Russkin thanks him and goes around his guests asking them to explain how they encountered Makovtseva on her travels and what impressions they have derived. Following one of the bus passengers and the cop from the railway station, Kleshcheva and Kravtsova testify to Makovtseva's fortitude in declaring how difficult it is being a woman in modern Russia. The gangster and the pimp go next before Akhedzhakova delivers an impassioned speech about her pride in her work upholding the laws of her great country. Finally, Russkin (who is the prison governor) speaks about the country's strength lying in the unity of the people before granting Makovtseva's request to see her husband and deliver his care package.

Closing the mirrored doors, Makovtseva wanders outside and turns on a red carpet to see the diners waving to her from the dacha steps. She walks towards a waiting prison van and climbs inside. A flashing blue light illuminates the gloomy interior and Makovtseva loses her balance as the vehicle lurches away. Suddenly, she is seized by soldiers in the shadows and mercilessly gang raped.

Waking with a jolt, Makovtseva finds herself on the bench at the railway station, with Kleshcheva leaning over her. She whispers that she has arranged everything and beckons Makovtseva to follow. Having learnt nothing from her dream (or her ordeal), she follows obediently, leaving the static camera to linger on the slumbering people whose moral bankruptcy and blinkered patriotism allows such things to happen under their dehumanised noses.

Gripping for every one of its 143 minutes, this is a film of haunting beauty and troubling power, in which Loznitsa seeks to show how Russians have become so used to being ruled by autocrats and dictators that they no longer feel inclined to fight against the arbitrary laws, surveillance, corruption, decadence and oppression that keep them down at heel. No attempt is made to justify Vasilina Makovtseva's decision to leave her cosily humdrum existence and challenge the powers that be. Indeed, her mask of impassivity remains unchanged until she is assaulted in the shocking denouement of the dream sequence. But she seems to be the only character who is not au fait with the rules of a game she stands no chance of winning.

Filming in the Latvian town of Daugavpils to bring a degree of timelessness to proceedings, Loznitsa clearly takes a tilt at the Kremlin. But this is primarily a study of the crushed spirit of a population that has ceased to think for itself. Yet the nihilism is viewed from a surreal perspective that gives the action a satirical edge that is often as amusing as it is disarming, as in the case of the wilful destruction of the goods coming into the prison by apparatchiks with more of an eye on degradation than security and the raucous party at the boarding house. This willingness to temper the surface realism with flights of fancy allows Loznitsa to get away with the abrupt change of tone in the final reel. However, it's easy to see why some critics have branded this audacious shift as a ruinous misstep, even though it reflects the folkloric aura that has prevaded Makovtseva's calvaryesque odyssey to this point.

Making her screen debut, stage actress Makovtseva is mesmerising as the `gentle creature' being swept along by events over which she has no control. She is superbly supported by the estimable ensemble creating the rogues' gallery she encounters. Production designer Kirill Shuvalov reinforces the nightmarish sense with his forbidding interiors, while the imagery of Romanian maestro Oleg Mutu slips between the majestic and the malevolent, the expansive and the stifling with an unsettling grace that similarly characterises soundscapes fashioned by Vladimir Golovnitski. But the visionary here is Loznitsa, who delves into murky depths of Russia's historical attitude to crime and punishment in order to point an accusatory finger at a people so enmired that it has opted to wallow rather than drag itself free.

Very few Indonesian features secure a general release in the UK and it's exciting to see that Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is based on a story by the country's most significant film-maker, Garin Nugroho. However, this Satay Western has been directed by 36 year-old Mouly Surya, who builds on the reputation forged with Fiksi (2008) and What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love (2013) to establish herself alongside Nia Dinata, Nan Achnas and Kamila Andini in the front rank of Indonesian women directors.

Following a burst of pseudo-Spaghetti Western music, Act 1: The Robbery opens on the island of Sumba with Egy Fedly riding his motorcycle towards a remote shack. He rests his hand on the child's grave in the yard before informing widow Marsha Timothy that he has not only come to steal her money and animals, but also to make her the luckiest woman in the world by subjecting her to the lusts of his six henchmen. While she cooks chicken soup in the curtained-off kitchen, Fedly ignores the mummified corpse propped up in the corner of the rum and strums his jungga while chewing on betel leaves. When his oppos arrive, he supervises the loading of the livestock on to the back of a truck before taking a nap in the bedroom.

He fails to notice, therefore, when Timothy fetches some poisoned berries from a drawer in her dressing table and stirs them into the soup. Rookie Yoga Pratama asks for a taste and is admonished by one of his older colleagues, who instructs him to take the stolen animals to Fedly's base with Haydar Salishz. As they sit down for their supper, the men agree that Timothy is a fine cook. But they soon collapse in a heap, as she stares ahead with a steely gaze.

She enters the bedroom, with Fedly's dish on a tray. However, he knocks it out of her hand and orders her to remove her blouse. Timothy tries to resist, but he forces her hand inside his trousers before pinning her down on the bed. As he rapes her, Timothy manages to flip Fedly on his back and, grabbing his machete, decapitates him with a single strike. She burns his jungga on the stove and props herself on her late husband's shoulder, as she ponders her next move beneath a huge moon.

The next morning, under an equally large sun, Act II: The Journey begins with Timothy arriving at a bus stop on a winding mountain road with Fedly's head in a sling. She intends presenting it to the police in Kodi as proof of rape and is cross that she is joined on the verge by the heavily pregnant Dea Panendra, who is going in search of Indra Birowo, the husband who believes she has slept with another man because she is now in her tenth month. Timothy has no time for Panendra's prattle, especially when she makes a careless remark about her dead son. But she proves to be her only travelling companion, as the other passengers refuse to share the bus with a severed head. Yet, despite driver Ayez Kassar advises her not to get the next service, the elderly Rita Matu Mona insists on climbing aboard with nephew Anggun Priambodo and the two brown horses he needs for his marriage dowry.

Curious as to why Timothy is holding a blade to Kassar's throat, Mona urges her to sit in the back with the rest of them, as he is never going to abandon his vehicle. She also tells Panendra to coerce Birowo into having sex, as this is a surefire way to induce labour. However, the conversation is interrupted by Pratama and Salishz passing by in the cattle truck and they are soon hurtling after the bus when they find the corpses at Timothy's homestead. She has stopped for a comfort break on the side of the road and is enduring Panendra's chatter about her passion for Birowo when the minions ride around the bend.

Having heard the details of Timothy's ordeal, Panendra warns her that the police will never take a woman's side when a man has been killed. But, when Timothy refuses to accompany her to the nearest church to confess her sins, Panendra tells her to hide behind a tree, while she informs the pursuers that their quarry has disappeared into the hills. They zoom off, leaving Timothy to ride through the heat haze on one of the dowry horses. However, she keeps seeing Fedly's headless corpse playing the jungga and is relieved when nobody on the bus that overtakes her on the parched landscape notices the head dangling at the side of her mount.

Stopping in an isolated village the start of Act III: The Confession, Timothy orders some food from Safira Ahmad, who agrees to keep an eye on a wooden box while Timothy reports to the police station. The cops are more interested in playing table tennis than in taking notes and Ozzol Ramdan informs her that they can't do a medical check-up to substantiate her rape claim, as they don't have the right equipment and won't have it for at least a month. Frustrated by his incompetence and indifference and afraid that they will find the poisoned henchmen in her living room, Timothy returns to the café and cries on Ahmad's shoulder.

Feeling better after taking a shower, Timothy transfers Fedly's head into a sack and rides into Act IV: The Birth. However, the focus shifts back to the bus, as Pratama has killed the driver and sings while cleaning his blade, as Salishz buries the body. Suddenly, Panendra's phone rings and Pratama tells Birowo that he is her secret lover and Priambodo gets so angry when he strikes her that he knocks him down and steals the bus. Furuous with Pratama for letting them get away, Salishz abandons him in the wilderness. But Pratama jumps on his bike to follow the bus and watches from a slope, as Birowo slaps Panendra around for cuckolding him. He sidles down to sympathise with Pendendra, as she lies in the dust. However, he also snatches her phone and orders Timothy to hand over Fedly's head.

No sooner have Pendendra and Pratama reached Timothy's house than her waters break. However, she still doesn't go into labour and sits close to the mummified corpse, while Pratama brings Fedly's headless torso into the room. When Timothy arrives, he takes the head and places it on Fedly's shoulders. He then orders Penendra to make chicken soup while he rapes Timothy. But the cries of distress prove too much for the younger woman and she breaks down the bedroom door and decapitates Pratama with two blows. Almost immediately, her birth pangs begin and Timothy rushes out for hot water and returns in time to assist with the delivery. Both women shed tears of relieved joy and, as the sun rises the next morning, they ride off on Pratama's motorbike.

The spirit of Sergio Leone courses through this fine feminist debunking of the macho myth. Scripting with Rama Adi, Surya exposes the callous chauvinism of the Sumba males as they reap the rewards for their rapacious arrogance. Yet all four female characters demonstrate great resilience, as Timothy survives all manner of trials, Pendendra bears both her burden and her husband's suspicions, Mona finds ways to provide for her nephew and Ahmad endures the loss of her mother. Indeed, one is left hoping that the baby is a girl, as the male seems to be an endangered species on this particular Indonesian island.

Leading an impressive cast with impassive grace, Timothy (who is of Batak-German descent) channels her inner Clint Eastwood to quietly devastating effect. However, before they lose their heads, Fedly and Pratama make splendidly hissable villains in the Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef mould, while Timothy's faithful dog steals the odd scene by sitting with its head to one side. Despite the effectiveness of such close-ups and the dinginess of Franz Paat's cluttered interiors, cinematographer Yunus Pasolang excels at long shots, with the widescreen vistas showing the bus as a dot on a meandering dust road being matched by both the magical dawn and dusk imagery and the evocative image of the watchful moon. But the real glory of this relishable picture is the score by Zeke Khaseli and Yudhi Arfani, which not only wittily pastiches the works of Ennio Morricone, but also captures the deceptively playful mood of Surya's furious treatise.

After a decade away, Valeska Grisebach makes a welcome return to film-making with Western, which shows that her powers have scarcely been diminished since she emerged as a talent to watch with Be My Star (2001) and Longing (2006). Numbering Maren Ade among the producers, this study of clashing cultures echoes the acclaimed Toni Erdmann (2016) in its analysis of German's stance towards its eastern neighbours. But, with its shrewd insights into human nature, this is very much a parable for the age of Brexit and the migration crisis, as it exposes our endlessly ruinous inability to live and let live.

Arriving in Bulgaria to build a water supply plant close to the Greek border, a German construction gang led by foreman Reinhardt Wetrek quickly falls foul of the locals when they erect a flag over their camp, scrump for fruit and harass Vyara Borisova when she loses her hat in the river. Watching from the bank as Wetrek ducks Borisova under the water, Waldemar Zang, Detlef Schaich, Robert Gawellek, Jens Klein and Sascha Diener find the incident amusing. But taciturn newcomer Meinhard Neumann is less impressed, as he watches his boorish compatriots wind up locals whose attitude towards Germans is still coloured by the country's experiences during the Second World War.

As an ex-legionnaire who has fought in Afghanistan and Africa, Neumann is more aware of the need to tread softly and ventures into the village when he finds a white horse grazing on the riverbank. A couple of old-timers come over to chat to him, but communication proves difficult. However, Neumann shoos away some youths hanging around the horse and takes it back to the camp, where Wetrek views it with suspicion.

The following night, the German realise they are being spied on from a nearby hill and Neumann joins a recce party to see what the Bulgarians are up to. However, his pals abandon him in the middle of nowhere and he is forced to thumb a lift from a passing car. The occupants mention something about smuggling people over the Greek frontier and Neumann explains about his military past and they nod in respect before dropping him back at the site.

While his colleagues are affronted by the theft of their flag, Neumann keeps his head down during his next shift and wanders back into the village that night. He is recognised from the car and introduced to bigwig Syuleyman Alilov Letifov, who seems to own the white horse. Indeed, his nephew Kevin Bashev was the kid that Neumann had earlier told to stop riding it and they joke around before the German helps his hosts shift a pile of stones. On returning to the camp, he suggests he has been checking on the equipment and nobody suspects that he has been fraternising.

While mooching outside the camp, Neumann overhears Wetrek on the phone to his partner and pleading with her to give him another chance. He also calls his boss to complain that things are not going well because there is no drinking water and a delivery from the quarry has been delayed. After hours, Neumann returns to the village for a riding lesson with Bashev. He also helps Letifov build a dry stone wall and learns from Zang that Letifov owns the quarry. When the men go off to collect more stones, Neumann helps Veneta Frangova light a barbecue fire and Letifov rewards him by showing him the valve he uses to divert the water away from the site to his tobacco fields. He also takes him to a rock that resembles a face in profile and tells Neumann that it gives off an energy that enables his people to survive.

Returning to camp with a bottle of raki, Neumann gets a glare from Wetrek, who warns him that he will be sent home unless he starts showing some loyalty to his workmates. His mood is hardly improved when Aliosman Deliev (whom Neumann had met at the quarry) comes to the camp to negotiate the gravel delivery and Wetrek refuses to pay twice for the same load. Amidst much muttering about mafia involvement, Kerenchev drives off and the Germans express their frustration at being prevented from working on a project that is designed to improve the lot of those scheming against them.

That night, Neumann heads back to the village and keeps his distance when his workmates show up. One joins in a wrestling competition, while Wetrek attempts to apologise to Borisova for ducking her in the river. Neumann wins handsomely at cards and is wandering along a quiet street when he knocks out Bashev after he tries to pounce on him for a prank. He carries him home and Frangova and Letifov accept his explanation that it was an accident and he is introduced to their elderly mother. She is touched that Neumann thinks Bulgaria is a beautiful country and even Deliev drinks his health. Left alone with Letifov, Neumann confides that he misses his dead sibling and Letifov offers his hand and suggests that they are brothers now.

Waking on a couch the next morning, Neumann returns to work with a slight hangover. In his absence, however, Wetrek has borrowed his horse and ridden to the well fitted with the valve to distribute water between three different villages. He switches the lever to send the supply to the site. But, as he rides away, he forces the horse up a steep incline and leaves it dying in the dust after they fall. Neumann is puzzled by the animal's sudden disappearance, but is too busy to go looking for it. However, Letifov is angry that Wetrek has tinkered with the pipeline and asks Borisova to translate as they try to reach an understanding. Wetrek explains that he could improve the water supply if he was allowed to insert longer pipes. But Letifov insists that he can't afford to go six weeks without water while the work is done.

Neumann helps Frangova dry some tobacco leaves and wishes that she could understand him, as he is attracted to her and wants her to know that he has nothing and no one in Germany to prevent him from settling down with her. On his way home, however, he finds the horse in the scrub and returns to camp with a heavy heart. Wetrek watches him warily and snaps when a couple of underlings speak out of turn. Unwilling to spend the evening in such a tense atmosphere, Neumann wanders off and meets Letifov, who has found his beloved Tornado and is about to put the creature out of its misery. But Neumann does the deed for him and follows him to the quarry to help dig some rocks under floodlights. They are interrupted by a burly man in a camouflage jacket who threatens Letifov for trespassing on his property. But Neumann confronts him with the rifle and forces the stranger to back down and the Bulgarians are surprised to see him lose his temper.

While out walking in the hills, Neumann sees Wetrek examining the bloodstain left by Tornado and, ignoring his protestations that it was an accident, warns him that he will be lying there next if he does anything so stupid again. Following his shift, he goes to the village for a beer and finds Borisova sitting at one of the tables. She is waiting for Wetrek to translate for him, but he fails to show up and they go for a stroll. Borisova tells Neumann that she loves her home and missed it while working abroad. They have sex and Neumann feels slightly sheepish as he joins Letifov and his pals for a drink. He shrugs when they ask about his military service and he claims that killing somebody is more difficult than it seems.

As he walks home, he is confronted by Kostadin Kerenchev, who asks him to repay the money he lost at cards because his wife is giving him hell. Neumann hands over a couple of notes, but tells Kerenchev to get lost because he was beaten fairly and squarely. Once out of the village, however, Neumann senses he is being followed and he has to pull a knife when three men jump him and try to dunk him in the river.

Shortly afterwards, the Germans are invited to a village festival and Wetrek gets into a fight in the river with Zang over the flag. He watches Neumann chatting to Borisova and takes satisfaction from one of the younger men knocking him to the floor for messing with the local women. Sidling over to Bashev, Neumann gives him his knife as a souvenir. But Letifov returns it saying that he doesn't need such a weapon and asks Neumann what he is searching for. He goes to leave, but returns to join his hosts on the dance floor, where he moves awkwardly to the rhythm with his usual solemnity. But he tries to blend in.

There's more than a faint echo in this climactic sequence of Denis Lavant's frenzied gyrations at the end of Claire Denis's Beau Travail (1999). But, while Grisebach also focuses on the crisis in modern masculinity, she is more concerned with the mood on Europe's wild frontier, as she finds new uses for the tropes of the Hollywood Western. Cinematographer Bernhard Keller clearly takes his vista cues from the films of John Ford, while Grisebach latches on to Howard Hawks's obsession with the working stiff. Moreover, the splendidly stoic Meinhard Neumann invokes the spirits of Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott in finding his outsider at odds with friend and foe alike. Yet, despite the key significance of the white horse, Grisebach resists the temptation to overdo the generic allusions, as she roots the action in recent Bulgarian history and Germany's part in it.

The interaction between Neumann and Syuleyman Alilov Letifov is superbly judged, as they find ways to understand each other and offer mutual support. But the rivalry with Reinhardt Wetrek seems a bit strained and there's something resistible about the intimation that Neumann seduces Borisova in revenge for Wetrek killing Tornado. The tensions between the villagers and the quarry owners also feel contrived and occasionally become a source of confusion because the secondary characters are so sketchily limned. But Grisebach deftly demonstrates how quickly feuds can arise and how testosterone-fuelled infighting is almost a way of life in such insular communities. She also passes some astute comments on language and culture and coaxes excellent performances out of the non-professional leads (Neumann, for example, works in a car factory, while Wetrek is a scaffolder). Thus, while this meanders in places and drifts somewhat towards its enigmatic conclusion, this remains a clear-eyed and compelling study of a forgotten corner of a continent that has been conquered by economic stealth rather than military might.

Former child actor Xavier Legrand makes a confident feature debut with Custody, which continues the story he started in his Oscar-nominated short, Just Before Losing Everything (2013). Rooting the drama in the realist tradition inherited by the Dardenne brothers from Maurice Pialat, Legrand also draws inspiration from contrasting Hollywood films like Robert Benton's Kramer vs Kramer (1979) and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). However, in seeking to replicate the tension of the latter's denouement, he abandons the restraint that had crucial to establishing the scenario.

Having filed for divorce from firefighter Denis Ménochet, Léa Drucker appears before judge Saadia Bentaïeb to deny her short-fused husband access to their 11 year-old son, Thomas Gioria, who had provided written testimony of his father's menacing attitude towards his mother and grandparents, Martine Schambacher and Jean-Claude Leguay. Lawyer Sophie Pincemaille explains that Gioria's sister, Mathilde Auneveux, is approaching her 18th birthday and will be able to make her own arrangements regarding Ménochet. But she sticks to the facts and allows Emilie Incerti-Formentini to launch into an emotive defence of her client's readiness to abandon a good job to be close to his children after Drucker swept them away without warning. She depicts Ménochet as a caring parent (and responsible hunting club member) who only wants the best for a son whose mind has been turned by a manipulative mother, who has deprived in-laws Martine Vandeville and Jean-Marie Winling of the chance to see their grandchildren.

Drucker has asked sister Florence Janas to help her find a flat so she can give the kids some space. However, as they are looking round, she gets a call informing her that Ménochet has been granted visitation rights and he refuses to believe that Gioria is unwell when he comes to collect him for their first weekend. The blonde tweenager is clearly afraid of his bearded, bear-like father and flinches when he receives a hug in the front seat of Ménochet's white van. He remains silent on the journey to his grandparents' house and only speaks when he asks his father if they can swap weekends so that he can go to Auneveux's birthday party.

On the way home, Ménochet tells Gioria that Drucker is using him to hurt him and order him to hand over the notebook he knows contains the mobile phone number she has withheld from him. Ménochet calls her and suggests that they discuss the arrangements for Auneveux's party. But Drucker wants nothing to do with him and he retaliates by denying Gioria permission to switch weekends. However, he seems to have calmed down by the next time they meet and is even open to the idea of dropping Gioria off at the venue after they spend the day together. During lunch, however, Vandeville mentions that a family friend had spotted Gioria and Auneveux at a bus stop in the projects and Ménochet is so furious with Drucker for trying to dupe him that he explodes at his son and bundles him into the van, with Winling accusing him of jeopardising everything by allowing his temper to get the better of him.

As the terrified Gioria sits in the front seat, he tries to think of a way to protect his mother and sister. He directed Ménochet to the wrong block and runs away across the grass when he tries to threaten him. But Ménochet coaxes the boy back into the vehicle before driving him to the bus stop where he was seen. He says he will go door-to-door to find Drucker and Gioria is too scared to resist any longer and allows himself to be led to the apartment with a firm hand of his shoulder. She opens the door in a towel, but manages to retain her composure as a quietly seething Ménochet wanders between rooms. In the kitchen, however, he bursts into tears and assures Drucker he has changed. He envelops her in a hug, as Gioria looks on with trepidation. When she hints that she needs to get to the hall to lay out the party, Ménochet nods meekly and returns home to find Winling piling his possessions on the kerb.

Having agreed to let her husband pick up Gioria next morning, Drucker goes to the party and reminds Auneveux's boyfriend, Mathieu Saikaly, that she has to finish her education before she makes any plans for the future. She has no idea that her daughter has recently sobbed in a stall in the school toilets after taking a pregnancy test. But when Ménochet texts her to say he is waiting outside with a present, Drucker goes out to meet with him while Auneveux and Saikaly perform `Proud Mary' with their band. She tries to remain civil as Ménochet asks why she derives such pleasure from hurting him. But her patience snaps when he accuses her of sleeping with Janas's friend, Julien Lucas, and pins her to the side of the van before Janas comes out to rescue her.

In fact, Drucker and Lucas are lovers. But she decides to send him home after the party and returns to the apartment with Gioria, who is already fretting about having to spend Sunday with his father. When Ménochet begins ringing the doorbell in the middle of the night, the boy cowers in bed beside his mother. She hopes Ménochet will get bored and leave. But somebody lets him in and Drucker hears the lift coming up to her floor and calls the police. Fortunately, neighbour Jenny Bellay has heard the commotion and reported the incident and the duty cop advises Drucker to lock the bathroom door and remain in the tub with Gioria because Ménochet has a hunting rifle. He fires at the lock before kicking down the door. But, before he can barge into the bathroom, armed officers pin him down and the film ends with Bellay closing the door as Drucker and Gioria get ready to leave with an escort.

For all his suppressed fury and hulking menace, Ménochet is too down-to-earth to replicate Jack Nicholson's terrifying rampage in The Shining. Thus, the conclusion to this otherwise compelling picture singularly fails to convince. Ménochet does excel, however, in the scenes in which he uses insinuation and intimidation to wheedle information out of the resentful, plucky, but petrified Gioria. He also turns on the waterworks to unsettling effect when he finally comes face-to-face with Drucker, who is no angel herself, as she connives to keep Ménochet away from her family.

Those familiar with Just Before Losing Everything will have a better understanding of her motives, as she had to flee from one of her husband's brutish rages. But Legrand avoids making Ménochet a bogeyman and suggests that his problems may be rooted in the troubled relationship with his own father. Similarly, he keeps Drucker's focus so firmly on Gioria that she fails to appreciate what her daughter is feeling after being dragged away from her social circle and the boyfriend she clearly adores. However, Legrand allows this subplot to drift, even though it says a good deal about Drucker and Ménochet's bonds with their offspring and how they each use them to perpetuate their private feud.

Nevertheless, Legrand won the Best Director prize at the Venice Film Festival and there's no doubt that he does a remarkable  job in coaxing such an outstanding performance out of first-time actor Thomas Gioria. He also does well to keep Nathalie Durand's camera close to the action, while never seeming to intrude upon it. Similarly, he and editor Yorgis Lamprinos exert a tight control over the pace of key set-pieces like the opening hearing, Ménochet's first trip to the projects and the party. He also wisely opts against punctuating the action with a button-pushing score. Which makes it even more of a shame that, having steered clear of generic horror tropes, he lapses into soap opera in the final reel.

As Jeffrey D. Brown revealed in Sold (2014), thousands of women and children are trafficked between Nepal and India each year. Many of them winding up performing in circuses and Sky Neal and Kate McLarnon focus on two such victims in Even When I Fall, which is this week's presentation from Dochouse. Filmed over six years, this considered actuality might have a happy ending, as both Saraswoti and Seetal survived their ordeals and returned home to establish the pioneering Circus Kathmandu. But the feel-good moments are few and far between.

Born in Hetauda, Saraswoti Adhikari was eight years old when she was taken to India. At 14, she was married to the circus owner's son and, within three years, she had given birth to twins and a third son. During her 14-year absence, her parents had been working with an organisation that searches for trafficked girls and we see footage of her rescue from the Diamond Circus in Assam, shortly after she was widowed in 2010. Several other children are freed with her and she is pleased to see her brother, who travels by train with her to the hostel for trafficked children in the Kathmandu Valley.

Having only been around five years old when she was smuggled across the border, Sunita `Sheetal' Sunar has no idea about her origins or even her real age. She does know, however, that she had spent eight years with a circus before she was liberated. Now she helps out in the hostel kitchen, while Saraswoti has been made a den-mother. However, she finds being responsible for so many youngsters in addition to her own brood onerous and admits that she was happier in the circus, when she had glamorous clothes to wear and people used to applaud when she performed stunts or threw knives.

Sheetal used to be a tightrope walker and, when she hears that the hostel is planning a circus event to let them show off their skills, she jumps at the opportunity to perform. Saraswoti is also keen and a couple of volunteers speak about the need to let the residents take pride in their talent and reclaim it for themselves. Four of the girls are chosen to join up with the troupe for a one-off gala and Sarasworti rehearses with hula hoops and Sheetal hones her silk routine in time for the big day. Enjoying the camaraderie and the fuss being made of them backstage, the pair throw themselves into their acts and beam with delight at the enthusiastic applause. They may have performed under duress in the past, but they have been bitten by the showbiz bug and derive huge satisfaction from their efforts being appreciated.

Eager to replicate the experience, Sarasworti and Sheetal helped form Nepal's first circus. However, the art form has such a low reputation in the country that neither has told their family the truth and we see awkward encounters between Sarasworti and her widowed mother and Sheetal with the family with whom she was reunited by the hostel in order to acquire her identity papers. Having been named after the goddess of knowledge, Sarasworti laments the fact that she is illiterate and wishes that Karan, Arjun and Rohit would pay more attention to their schooling. She takes them to a funfair and dotes on them with pride that belies their traumatic past.

Similarly, she relishes the response of the audience to a small outdoor performance and is clearly moved when one onlooker enthuses that it was like watching India's Got Talent. Sarasworti and Sheetal chat to some of the womenfolk and buoyed by their attitude towards circus people, as so many Nepalese believe that female performers are also prostitutes. They agree that girls should be educated and that the country will change when role models inspire the young to change their fates. Moreover, they hope that people will start to realise that real life is not like the Hindi soaps they see on television and that marriage isn't a bed of sweet-smelling roses.

As time passes, Sheetal gets married to the boy next door, even though their families disapproved of the match. She jokes that he nags her to stay at home and be a wife, but she is having too much fun and earning too good a wage to quit Circus Kathmandu. Both she and Sarasworti also feel they have a duty to warn parents about trafficking and, whenever they perform near the Indian border, they hand out leaflets, give talks and conduct workshops with the local kids to ensure they are aware of the dangers and false promises. This comes home to Sheetal when she pays her parents a visit and her mother recalls how she was tricked by a smuggler into sending two of her daughters to India and then being told she would never see them again, Sheetal's older sister is still missing and the pair fight back the tears, as the mother tries to apologies for her folly.

Sheetal returns to the capital to share her experience with Sarasworti. She feels glad that she is no longer an orphan, but is struggling to make a connection and Sarasworti sympathises because she often wonders how different her life might have been if she hadn't been a child bride. Sitting on a rooftop, they reminisce about the places they had been prevented from seeing, as the circus had travelled around India and how they had always envied the paying customers who could enjoy being entertained and then go home with a clear conscience.

In 2014, after several attempts to get visas, the troupe is granted permission to tour abroad. The cameras follow them from Dubai to Glastonbury, where they discover a community of artistes and feel respected for the first time. Their show has become more ambitious and several of the routines reference their past experiences. The reception is tumultuous and the troupe members look genuinely overwhelmed as they take their bows. The following April, they land in Australia's Northern Territory. But, within hours of them touching down, an earthquake measuring 7.8 hit Nepal and claimed the lives of nearly 9000 people.

They returned to wander through the rubble and Sarasworti and Sheetal express their relief that their families survived unscathed. However, they felt that everything they had achieved had been crushed by the falling masonry and it was only when they started going to the displaced persons camps and started performing and teaching the children a few tricks that they realised that circus could have an advocatory and educational purpose. Thus, they threw themselves into bringing hope and joy to their beleaguered neighbours and attend seminars to learn how to dramatise situations that will speak to uneducated villagers in need of solace and advice.

Audience members are invited to participate in the shows and challenge the actions of the characters. Such interaction makes the message more immediate and Sheetal suggests that her suffering will have been worthwhile if she can teach parents and young girls to stand up for themselves in the face of the traffickers. They meet a woman who had also escaped from an Indian circus and she wishes she was still fit enough to join the cause. Saraswoti takes her phone number and urges her to do the best she can for her daughter.

As the film ends with Saraswoti enjoying her role as a mother and an activist for change and Sheetal hoping to find her missing sister, the credits finally reveal the names of the other members of Circus Kathmandu. It feels odd not to have identified them during the documentary itself and it only seems right to namecheck Bijay Limbu, Bijay Chaudhary, Renu Ghalan, Lalita Rai, Anjali Chhetri Khadka, Rajan Sarki, Shital Syangtan, Soben Ghisheng, Pramila and Sarmila Lama, and Jamuni, Aman and Doli Tamang here, as their commitment and artistry is evident for all to see.

However, Neal and McLarnon deserve great credit for unearthing this story and for finding two such stalwart survivors as Saraswoti and Sheetal, whose respective poise and elegance in the ring makes them all the more admirable. In many ways, their approach recalls that of Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra in A Suitable Girl, which examined the pressures placed on young Indian women to find husbands. It's never quite clear how long it takes for the pair to reach the various milestones along their road to recovery and a few timeline captions might not have gone amiss. But their transformation from being the frightened girls who were recovered from India into becoming the impassioned, eloquent and fulfilled women who are now seeking to spare others the pain that they have endured is utterly remarkable. The closing scenes of the artists connecting with young people and their parents are particularly inspirational and one can only hope that others follow the Circus Kathmandu model to combat the traffickers who ruin lives with a pitiless impunity in committing a crime that must rank among the most repugnant of our troubled century. 

Finally, this week, there's just time to mention the 8th Spring Weekend sponsored by the London Spanish Film Festival. Playing at the Ciné Lumière and the Regent Street Cinema between 13-15 April, the programme is led off by a pair of pictures starring veteran actor Antonio de la Torre. In Rodrigo Sorogoyen's Que dios nos perdone/May God Save Us (2016), he teams with Roberto Álamo to play temperamentally contrasting cops investigating the rape and murder of a number of elderly women in the run-up to Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Spain during the roasting summer of 2011.

By contrast, De la Torre hooks up with Maribel Verdú for a more quixotic quest in Pablo Berger's Abracadabra. Tired of the football-mad De la Torre's indifference to her and daughter Priscilla Delgado, Verdú hopes to have some fun at her cousin's wedding. However, groom José Mota botches a demonstration of hypnotism, with the result that De la Torre is possessed by the ghost of a waiter who stabbed seven victims at the wedding venue in 1983. So, in an effort to restore De la Torre to normal, Mota's mentor, Josep Maria Pou, suggests that Verdú joins him in a search for an item that once belonged to the killer.

Eccentricity is also to the fore in Gustavo Salmerón's documentary, Muchos hijos, un mono y un castillo. This Goya-winning first-time feature from a respected actor has been edited down from 400 hours of home movies centring on Salmerón's septuagenarian mother, Julita, and her reluctant departure from the castle where she had raised her six children, fulfilled her own juvenile ambition of owning a monkey and kept such bizarre family heirlooms as her grandfather's backbone and the ashes and teeth belonging to her parents.

Dealing with the past is also the theme of the debuting Lino Escalera's No sé decir adiós/Can't Say Goodbye, as business executive Nathalie Poza seeks to make amends on discovering that her seventysomething father, Juan Diego, is gravely ill. However, coming home to her small southern town also pits Poza against her scatty sister Lola Dueñas, who still harbours ambitions to become an actress even though she has to take care of unemployed husband Pau Dura and whip-smart daughter Noa Fontanals, who doesn't trust her mother or aunt to make the right decisions regarding her grandfather.

The scene couldn't be more different, as Isabel Coixet sweeps us off to the fictional Suffolk town of Hardborough in the late 1950s for her three-time Goya-winning adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald's Booker Prize-nominated novel, The Bookshop. Julie Christie narrates the story of a clash between war widow Emily Mortimer and local bigwig Patricia Clarkson over the supposedly haunted building in which the former has opened an emporium that has brought the reclusive Bill Nighy down from his house on the hill. However, such is Clarkson's determination to open an art centre that she uses her not inconsiderable influence to ruin her rival.

Rounding off the slate is Ramón Salazar's La Enfermedad del Domingo/Sunday's Illness, a woman's picture par excellence which feels as though an old-style Hollywood chestnut like Edmund Goulding's The Old Maid (1939) has been made over by a committee comprising Douglas Sirk, Ingmar Bergman, Pedro Almodóvar and Luca Guadagnino. Markedly different in tone from previous Salazar outings like Piedras/Stones (2002) and 20 centimetros/20 Centimetres (2005).

Arriving at a charity event she is hosting in her palatial home with husband Miguel Ángel Solá, the immaculately chic Bárbara Lennie gets a heel caught in the hem of her dress and slightly misses her step as she comes to greet her guests. She hopes that no one has noticed the slip. But she can't help but see the note dropped in front of her at the end of the evening by waitress Susi Sánchez, whom she recognises as the eight year-old daughter she had abandoned 35 years before.

Following her instructions, Lennie reports to a lawyer's office, where she learns that Sánchez wishes to spend 10 days with her in return for disappearing from her life altogether. Deciding she has no option but to comply, Lennie travels to the rustic Pyranean chalet where she had lived part of her previous life. Initially, she finds her daughter's reticence unsettling, as she awaits reprisals for her years of neglect. But, while she has to endure being muddied and washed down with a hose pipe and is forced to witness Sánchez finishing off an injured seagull with a rock, Lennie begins to feel closer to her daughter, especially after they take a toboggan ride down the mountainside.

The final embrace between the pair is as beautifully judged as Ricardo de Gracia's photography, Sylvia Steinbrecht's production design and Clara Bilbao's costumes. Indeed, the latter are particularly striking, as Lennie's glamour is slowly stripped away. But it's Salazar's direction of his leads that leaves the deepest impression, with Lennie and Sánchez's respective dances to The Mamas and the Papas hit `Dream a Little Dream' and Nena's `99 Red Balloons' providing pertinent insights into their personalities.