A very different brand of strangeness was on display in The Human Surge, Argentinean director Eduardo Williams's feature debut following a string of well-regarded shorts. As in his previous work, narration takes a back seat to atmosphere and sensation, with almost the entirety of the film unfolding as a series of handheld tracking shots that simply follow a number of aimless teenagers without attempting to marshal their wanderings into a tangible plot. The only overt structuring mechanism is how the film is split into three parts: the opening part follows a group of Argentinean youths; the second part jumps to a similar set of characters in Mozambique; while the third part pursues a girl through a Filipino jungle. Life is strangely similar in these three places, despite the geographical distance between them, as people constantly fiddle with cellphones and either mumble about everyday matters or articulate their surreal dreams and ideas.
There's something admirably brazen about how Williams doesn't ever deviate from his one main formal idea, with each of his meandering tracking shots repeatedly capturing moments of unlikely, unpredictable grace, particularly when combined with the oneiric dialogue he places in his characters' mouths. A saunter down to the Indian Ocean is accompanied by talk of present and future tenses, a group of people splashing around in a forest pool discuss whether genomes are measured in bytes, and a group of teenagers take refuge in the dark hollow beneath a tree. The way in which Williams manages the transitions between the three episodes is also inspired, with a video chat linking a computer screen in Buenos Aires to one in Africa and the camera following a trail of ants that eventually leads from one continent to another.
But even the most inspired of approaches inevitably wears somewhat thin when applied again and again, whether across one single film or an entire oeuvre of shorts. This thinness equally extends to the ultimate meaning of the characters' uninterrupted roaming: In the absence of any overt overarching connection between these far-flung figures, any interpretation on one's part is as good as any other, while the ideas the film throws up about globalization, technological subjugation, and attendant homogenization are by no means as radical as the form they're couched in. These qualms aside, it's ultimately difficult to stop The Human Surge from bouncing around in one's head, a prime example of the sort of productive bemusement Locarno seeks to foster.
After such wall-to-wall weirdness, Radu Jude's competition entry, Scarred Hearts, which is inspired by Romanian author Max Blecher's titular autobiographical novel, perversely felt like a breath of fresh air—a classical, even stately, drama whose final destination is clear from the outset. Jude's follow-up to Aferim! tells the story of Emanuel (Lucian Teodor Rus), a young man sent to a sanatorium on the Black Sea in the mid 1930s in the hope that a lengthy period of rest might cure his tuberculosis of the bones. For all of his youthful cheer, the anguished lines from the novel that Jude repeatedly flashes up as intertitles on a black screen allude to the hopelessness of Emaneul's condition. Soon his body is encased in the same restrictive cast worn by all at the sanatorium, and which doesn't at least prevent him from befriending the other inmates or living out his sexual urges, most prominently with former inmate Solange (Ivana Mladenovic).
The most striking element of Scarred Hearts is Jude's vision of the sanatorium, whose walls are rendered in blue tones ranging from teal to turquoise that chime perfectly with the pallid yellows of the bed frames and wan sunlight, a color scheme taken up by sea, sky, sand, and reeds whenever the action leaves the facility. Jude is equally adept at capturing bodily discomfort: the removal of pus, the itching under a cast, the constant indignity of having to be carried around.
Nonetheless, the filmmaker's skill for the visual and the corporeal can't mask the sense of slight clumsiness that mars the opening half of this nearly two-and-half hour film. Some lengthier shots overstay their welcome while others are cut gracelessly short; Jude's perpetual urge to fill the frame with background activity creates more of a fussy impression than a lived-in one. The insertion of the intertitles also lacks rhythm, with the text often seeming to barge in on the plot rather than properly merging with it, not least because the words of the literary Emanuel are frequently at odds with the demeanor of his on-screen counterpart. It's only in the third act that Scarred Hearts begins to soar, as the frames become emptier, the editing flows easier, and the two Emanuels inexorably converge, the pains of the body finally in quiet, affecting harmony with the despair of the mind.
The Locarno Film Festival runs from August 3—13.