The bodies corporeal and politic are one and the same in Morphia, Aleksei Balabanov’s loose adaptation of writer Mikhail Bulgakov’s autobiographical Notes of a Young Doctor, about a young medic who relocates to the 1917 Russian countryside and quickly finds his health crumbling as fast as the country’s tsarist political foundation. Scripted by the late Sergei Bodrov Jr. (star of Balabanov’s Brother), the film, like the director’s prior Cargo 200, is a grim vision of deterioration, as Dr. Polyakov (Leonid Bichevin) is initially met with open arms by the village’s desperate locals but soon finds himself succumbing to a soul-corrupting addiction to morphine that Balabanov parallels to the little-seen but intermittently referenced revolution sweeping the nation.
Sculpted into episodic chapters marked by bleakly funny intertitle cards (“The First Amputation,” “Wolves”) that accurately forebode the nightmares to come, Polyakov’s tale is one in which disease takes root, then spreads—in this case, to his assistant nurse and lover Anna (Ingeborga Dapkunaite)—and then consumes, with the black night that engulfs much of the action becoming nothing short of a constricting funereal shroud. Religion and politics are torn asunder by the corrosive communist movement just as Polyakov (representative of the medical pillar) is destroyed by morphine and his patients suffer horrific and often fatal injuries while attempting to give birth, work, or get married. Society is besieged from all sides in Balabanov’s forlorn portrait, whose despair proves so potent as to carry with it a pungent whiff of contemporary critique.
More overpowering is the impression of individuals, and a country, mired in a netherworld crossroads where either direction offers no hope, be it toward a primitive past where midwives use sugar on vaginas to coax stubborn fetuses out of wombs, or toward a modern future still typified by a rudimentary scientific field in which doctors hastily consult manuals before operating. Morphia’s descent into physical and emotional hell is an ugly one, marked by raw, graphic surgeries, wailing peasants, and fat-cat aristocrats who foolishly scoff at the shifting political winds. And were it not for Balabanov’s periodically spied grim humor, felt not only in his narrative’s chapter headings but the back-and-forth futility of his characters’ movements (from house to house, locale to locale, death to death), his lack of sympathy for this bygone world might overwhelm the shrewd temperamental balance of his sociological inquiry.
As it is, however, the director, aided by Bichevin’s unshowy lead turn and Dapkunaite’s quietly heartbreaking complementary performance, wields his green-black aesthetic and matching worldview with blunt, forceful acuteness. Balabanov cuts deep into the wound with no remorse, yet his scalpel-sharp incision is made with an aim to heal rather than further injure. Consequently, when his story arrives at its final tragedy, one drenched equally in the cinema’s warm light and a mixture of joyous and maniacal laughter, there exists a sense of authorial deathbed comforting, of a filmmaker—after depicting so much blunt and (in a wolf chase sequence) storybook horror—exhibiting compassion for a man, and people, despoiled by their own personal and collective failings.
Morphia will play on March 1st and March 3rd as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.
Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020: Mon Amour, Film About a Father Who, & The Kiosk
There’s colossal might to a cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means.
In the opening narration to his documentary Mon Amour, David Teboul recalls a message that his former lover, Frédéric, sent him in the middle of the night before taking his life: “It’s crazy how many things we must invent to keep us from just eating, shitting, and sleeping.” The great organizer of these “many things” we invent to convince ourselves to be something more than mere organisms is the belief in love. That, anyway, is the idea that organizes Mon Amour as Teboul travels from his native France to Siberia in order to interview locals about their experiences with love, as a way to mourn the end of his own love story.
What Teboul finds in Siberia is quite disheartening: that love, when it materializes in the figure of the lover, burns fast, and what seemed like a panacea to make our miserable world a livable place turns into the poison we call domesticity. Lovers become enemies we can’t get rid of. But the little bit of love that’s saved in the ashes of the deflated mirage that once promised to save us is once in a while rekindled through Teboul’s prodding as he interviews elderly couples who seem to articulate their feelings for the first time in ages.
The very dispositions of these individuals mimic the abyss between what was once a prospect of a pleasurable life and the crude reality of vodka and violence that replaced it. In the rare moments when someone sings the praises of togetherness, they do so by looking down or away, as if addressing their own partners when speaking about love would mean losing the little bit of honor they have left after putting up with so much betrayal.
Although Teboul interviews young people, too, the strongest portraits are those of the elderly, who, on some level, take advantage of their cinematic moment to air their grievances and, once in a while, admit gratitude. A very old-looking woman in her mid-60s who lost her sight from reading too much Pushkin late at night tells us that any other man would surely have left her long ago, but not her husband, who senses when she’s awake in the middle of the night, makes her tea, and tells her that if she dies he will follow her to the grave. Teboul’s questions can be refreshingly unexpected. As when he asks the woman what her husband’s favorite body part is. When she whispers the answer into his cute little mushroom ears, you sense that it’s the closest thing to an “I love you” that he will ever hear. We don’t know if his eyes water as she praises his ears, for he looks down and away, before then heart-breakingly saying, “The main thing is not to suffer, and not to make others suffer.”
Teboul juxtaposes these portraits with digressions about his simultaneously wonderful and dismal times with Frédéric. These reflections borrow from Hiroshima Mon Amour, which Teboul watched as a child and has haunted him ever since. Frédéric, like Emmanuelle Riva’s character in that film, was also from Nevers. In these poetic detours, we see barely lit naked bodies meant to represent Teboul and his ghostly lover, recalling the opening of Alain Resnais’s film. It often feels like these autobiographical avowals, plagued by unnecessary classical music, belong to a different film. But they’re symbolically important, if not indispensable, as if Teboul was offering a self-implicating gift in exchange for awakening the long dormant intimacies of strangers.
The absence of love, and our insistence on spending our entire lives looking for it anyway, is also at the core of Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who. Sheffield Doc/Fest is screening several of Sachs’s documentaries on its streaming platform. For Film About a Father Who, Sachs spent over three decades amassing footage (from Super 8 to digital) of her father, an eccentric salesman from Utah who lived a Hugh Hefner kind of life, neglecting his children and hosting a different girlfriend almost every night at his official family home. Lots and lots of them got pregnant, which resulted in Sachs having what feels like hundreds of siblings, whose testimonials she collects here. Some didn’t know who their father was until they were adults. Others, in order to protect themselves from so much hurt, still think of him as a kind of godfather.
The title of the film is an obvious play on Film About a Woman Who…, Yvonne Rainer’s experimental masterpiece about heteronormativity and monogamy. Rainer’s approach is acerbic, perhaps even folkloric, in the sense that her film portrays one specific woman wallowing in the sinking boat of heterosexual coupledom at the same time that it tells the archetypal tale of heterosexual domesticity writ large. Sachs’s approach feels a lot less multi-layered. Film About a Father Who is so fast-paced and Sachs’s narration so detached, or literal, that it can seem more like an underdeveloped absurdist comedy as random siblings keep turning up out of nowhere to give a brief account of their contradicting feelings toward their father. One of Sachs’s many sisters recounts how their father was arrested for possession of weed when they were kids and how she didn’t know whether to weep or jump with joy at the time. But the family constellation in Sachs’s film is so vast we never spend enough time with any one single relative to see them as something other than an element.
There’s a sort of North American pragmatic froideur in the film, also present in self-ethnographic films like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, that Rainer queers through stylistic experimentation, and that Teboul completely avoids by surrendering to melancholia with gusto. There isn’t much of a point in self-ethnographies where filmmakers protect their vulnerability through intellectualization, or prod their family wounds with a 10-foot pole. At one point in her narration, Sachs tells her audience that Film About a Father Who isn’t a portrait but, rather, her attempt to understand “the asymmetry of my conundrum.” The film is also shot in such a matter-of-fact manner that you may forget that the father is actually the filmmaker’s. It doesn’t help that the father himself pleads the fifth on every question and Sachs often directs her camera elsewhere, toward her siblings, instead of letting it linger on the silent and sad remnants of an aging womanizer.
Alexandra Pianelli also captures aging bodies in The Kiosk, but in a very different fashion. Her film was entirely shot on her phone, which was mostly stuck to her head, and without her ever leaving the tiny area behind the cash register of her family’s press kiosk in a posh area of Paris. We never see the world outside of Pianelli’s field of vision from her counter, and yet it feels like she shows us the entire mechanics of the contemporary world.
The film’s subjects are mostly the elderly regulars who seem to show up at the kiosk everyday, for magazines and for Pianelli’s company. Pianelli crafts a tale of hopeful pessimism about humans’ relationship to otherness by explaining the ecosystem of her trade—namely, the slow decline of the printing industry in France and how the physical circulation of ideas can be the only connection to the world for an aging population that doesn’t master digital technology and for whom kiosks play the role of cafés, pubs, or even the analyst’s couch.
When filmmaker Pedro Costa said, at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, that all one needs to make a great film is “three flowers and a glass of water,” not “money, cars, and chicks,” this is what he means: the colossal might of the cinematic image achieved through the scrappiest of means. The Kiosk is a master class in filmmaking resourcefulness. Pianelli paints a portrait of our times through simple drawings that she makes of her clients, makeshift props and miniature sets made out of cardboard, and the anachronic gadgets around her workstation: a cassette tape player, an early-19th-century clock, coin holders that bear her great-grandparents’ fingerprints, and the very publications that she sells. Pianelli’s no-nonsense voiceover glues these elements together with the stunning honesty of the unflappable young Parisian for whom difference is an existential aphrodisiac. There’s no affectedness here. It’s as if a refined cinematic object accidently emerged on the road to her making an artisanal project for the sheer pleasure of making something out of dead time.
Pianelli humanizes the figure of the press kiosk clerk who, in turn, humanizes the strangers she comes across, from seniors who spend more time with her than with their own children to the Bangladeshi asylum seeker who goes to her for legal help. In one sequence, Pianelli witnesses a homeless man insistently offering his metro-ticket money to a bourgeois lady upset that the machine won’t take her credit card. We also learn that the demographics of the clientele per day of the week is contingent on what kinds of publications come out on which day, as well as which niche newspapers are the most anti-Semitic, anti-Arab, or pro-monarchy.
Pianelli lets the serious emerge but doesn’t dwell on it. Seriousness often comes wrapped up in quirkiness and play, as when she plays a guessing game with the audience, telling us what a random customer will buy before they open their months, solely based on what they wear, and always she gets it right. Men in suits and ties go for either the newspaper Le Figaro or Les Echos, while the well-coiffed ladies who don fur coats gravitate toward Voici, unless Kate Moss’s ass is on the cover of a nearby fashion magazine.
At one point, Pianelli says that she considers herself a seller of dreams. By this she means that each magazine at the kiosk stokes a different fantasy, from a supermodel body to a nation without Arabs. But The Kiosk makes Pianelli a saleswoman of a very different sort. Instead of working as the intermediary between vulnerable denizens and the idealized images that tease and haunt them, she cobbles a much more original fantasy through the bodies they actually have. The kiosk becomes the prototype for the most utopian vision of the public library, or any old space inhabited by a curious mind—an ebullient infinity of poetry and care.
Sheffield Doc/Fest’s online platform will be available to all public audiences from June 10—July 10.
Visions du Réel 2020: State Funeral and Purple Sea
These notable documentaries utilize found footage to document the aftermath of dying in dramatically different fashions.
In State Funeral, Sergei Loznitsa cobbles together archival footage from the various grandiose celebrations that followed the death of Joseph Stalin in order to paint a portrait not of the Soviet politician himself, but of the theatrics that prop up totalitarianism. Crowds gather in Poland, Chekoslovakia, Azerbaijan, East Germany, and beyond, all the various places collapsing into a single mourning square. Statesmen disembark from their planes. Uncountable wreaths are laid. Everyday folk carry larger-than-life photographs of their leader. Some stand still in front of shops, as if unmoored by the news, waiting for guidance on how to go on without “the greatest genius in the history of mankind.”
No one’s mouth seems to move even just a little, to speak or to cry. Throughout, people appear stunned, and they may faint were they not buttressed by the certainty of what they had to do next, according to the voices telling them what to feel and where to go. The voices seem to come from reports on the radio or from megaphones. They announce the end of a life but the continuation of the ideas and deeds that unite all of the bereaved into one big family.
Surely the forlorn lady who reads the death announcement on the front page of a newspaper in Minsk is listening to the same speech as the gentlemen in ushanka hats gathered at a square in Tallin. Loznitsa’s ingenious sound design produces an uncanny sense of simultaneity, linking far-away faces and places under the same paternalistic fantasy. Through an inconspicuous editing strategy that makes irony emerge little by little, State Funeral exposes the pathetic absurdity of collective adoration. It does so with a subtlety similar to that of the facial expressions of those who grieve, and the dutiful slowness of their dragging feet.
There’s enough certainty in this communal trance to transcend physical distance and the finality of matter itself. Even if, or precisely because, it’s that irreversibility that Stalin’s unresponsive body announces. And there’s indeed a body, which the crowds flock to see. But not without the most elaborate of preparations—from austere rituals to extravagant attires to lethargic paces—so that by the time these orphans are confronted with the father’s pitifully inert flesh they have been blinded by the myths that birthed him.
How to believe the immortality of the thing that lies dead before one’s very eyes? The voices—disembodied for a reason, and presumably wafting from speakers—have a plan for that: to disavow the inarguable reality of what has just happened. Because Stalin was supposed to be an immortal hero, a father and God, “(…) there is no death here! There is only eternal life!”
The images that Loznitsa deftly assembles feature astonishingly consistent angles, mise-en-scène, and gestures: gentle camera pans, stern visual compositions, and people marching along in freakish unison. The shots have also been restored to such uncanny crispness it seems impossible to believe them to have been “found” as fragments devoid of an original vision captured by the same light, with the same film stock, and signed by the same cameraperson.
Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed utilize found footage and document the aftermath of dying in a dramatically different fashion in Purple Sea. The film is essentially an ode to migrants who board rafts bound to capsize—bodies for which there will be no collective mourning, no news stories, not even burial. Like Alzakout, who manages to survive but not before finding out why the Mediterranean is sometimes referred to as a liquid grave.
Unlike State Funeral, there’s nothing clear about the images in Alzakout and Abdulwahed’s film, apart from the gut-wrenching lack of artifice behind the off-camera wailing: children dreading their drowning. From beginning to end, the hazy image suggests we’re submerged underwater, with the occasional orange cameo of the fabric of Alzakout’s life jacket. And apart from the occasional crying, the most prominent voice here is that of a woman reciting a poem, epistolary and diary-like, to a lover on the other side of the ocean. This narration is often as perplexing as the perpetually unclear image, as when the woman talks about a frog that jumps into the pond and a fish that swims away. Or when she confides that she can “smell the snow.”
After fleeing her native Syria and meeting Abdulwahed in Turkey, Alzakout tries to join him in Germany, where he’s managed to escape to. In Purple Sea, all we see is an uninterrupted sequence of images haphazardly captured by a water-proof camera strapped to Alzakout’s body. At the time of their recording, these images were allegedly meant as a home-movie diary, not a film to circulate on the festival circuit. She starts filming long before the raft overturns in the hopes of showing the footage to her lover and leaves the camera on while she, yet another orange dot trying not to drown in the Mediterranean ocean, waits to be saved.
Although the sea here is closer to purple, Purple Sea recalls the monochromatic intimacy of Derek Jarman’s Blue, another film about dying slowly but living desperately, and to the point of blindness—literal or otherwise—until the moment death finally arrives. The pieces eventually come together through deduction, not demonstration, in this experimental documentary, which respects the unhurried speed of metaphors. We hear whistles and men shouting, and it’s here that the voiceover narration becomes a bit more tangible. “What are you doing right now? Are you sleeping?” “How long do you have to stay in the refugee camp?”
The voice, which couldn’t be more distinctive from the guiding voices of State Funeral, promising eternity and peddling strength, eventually reverts back to poetic digressions. The woman says she digs a hole that gets big enough to fit all her bracelets. And that someone will find the bracelets in 100 years and think they belonged to a queen. She then falls in the hole. Poetry emerges in Purple Sea as the strategy of those deprived of the luxury of sugar-coating death with farcical disavowals and collective delusions—those who must confront the horrors of finitude head on because they are always already inside them.
Visions du Réel runs online from April 17—May 5.
Visions du Réel 2020: Love Poem and Babenco: Tell Me When I Die
Many of the films at Visions du Réel expand the notion of “the real” in all of its plasticity.
Many of the films at Visions du Réel, this year running as a digital-only event in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, expand the notion of “the real” in all of its plasticity, exposing the layers of fiction inherent to any form of documentary filmmaking. In Love Poem, for example, director Xiaozhen Wang amplifies the complicated relationship between spontaneity and artifice into a puzzling sleight of hand. The film begins in the confines of a car, where a couple is quarrelling in front of their young child. The camera lingers on the woman (Qing Zhou) in the back seat, who feeds her daughter seaweed snacks and lollipops while her husband drives the vehicle. No one seems to be wearing a seatbelt.
The woman chastises her husband for never changing their child’s diapers—and for being unfaithful. He accuses her of being selfish with her money. She threatens to divorce him and asks their daughter if she’d rather stay with her father or mother (she chooses the latter). By the end of this asphyxiating car ride, she’s kicked, slapped, pinched and spat on him.
It all feels heartbreakingly realistic until the woman brings up the fact that her husband makes films. Which may make you wonder if the husband is played by the filmmaker himself (he is) and start speculating about how much of Love Poem’s drama is candid and how much of it is staged. The question of manipulation seeps into the surface of the film along with the perversity inherent to filmmakers, and husbands, who might reduce human beings into tools for personal enjoyment or for the sake of building up their oeuvres.
That’s precisely the complaint of the woman in the film’s second half, which takes the audience on another stifling car ride. Here, heterosexual coupledom is spoiled by a woman’s endless complaints and her male lover’s very reliable ability to screw everything up. The scene appears to be a flashback to a time when the man from Love Poem’s first half was seeing the woman who his wife was so angry about. The husband wants to see the other woman one last time before bringing a pregnancy test kit home to his wife.
In this setup, Wang is less worried about exploiting the cusp between reality and fiction. Instead, he allows the seams of the filmmaking process to show, as the couple sometimes stop speaking to check if the camera battery is low, but also for the woman to complain about the fact that all the man wants to do is film. “You don’t even see me as human,” she tells him.
We are, then, never quite sure what’s real and what’s not—a disorienting but also immersive feeling. Wang insists on re-living the situation in the second half of the film multiple times as the man and woman repeat dialogue that a few moments prior seemed so convincingly off the cuff, as if flaunting the fact that any representation turns behavior into acting, or at the very least outs behavior as acting, and that once filmed, any drama is melodrama.
The seams of the cinematic process are also visible in Babenco: Tell Me When I Die, Barbara Paz’s exquisite portrait of her husband, Hector Babenco, in his final days. While Love Poem documents the violent asymmetry between a filmmaker and his subjects, in Babenco cinema appears as a kind of lovemaking that puts lovers in dignified dialogue with each other.
Though there’s unquestionable dissonance between the dying veteran filmmaker and his much younger pupil, their roles aren’t so fixed. Not only because they take turns filming each other, but because to be filmed in Babenco doesn’t mean becoming a director’s puppet. Babenco, for instance, teaches Paz about depth of field and camera lenses as she films him, discovering different apertures. Preparation and doubt about the crafting of an image is refreshingly front and center, which complicates and destabilizes the relationship between filmed subject and filmmaker, as the makers are here either dying or still learning how to shoot.
Babenco used to dream of becoming the next Luchino Visconti and could seem arrogant at times. But Paz steers clear of appeasing his ego or turning Babenco into a hagiography. She isn’t cowered by Babenco’s grandeur, nor does she try to channel it into her filmmaking. She’s simply a good pupil, taking Babenco’s filmmaking tips to heart in order to make her own film. That includes not romanticizing every moment they share, or “otherwise you’ll have a movie lasting four hours and 15 minutes,” as Babenco tells Paz.
There are things bigger than cinema in Babenco. Things like the joie de vivre borne out of intimacy of the kind no cinematic proficiency can fake, and for which the camera is a useful witness but not an almighty cause. Bigger things like death, too, which taunted Babenco repeatedly from his first bout with cancer, when he was nominated for an Academy Award for The Kiss of the Spider Woman at age 37, all the way to his death at 70.
Paz evokes the nodes linking Babenco’s films to his psychic life through exquisitely seamless editing. She steeps all of her images in a consistent black-and-white dreamscape and forges a surreal dialogue between the filmmaker’s own words in interviews and those uttered by the characters in his films. One of them says cancer is the only thing he ever got. Another one says she thinks we die when we can’t stand it anymore. Paz is more interested in reflection than explanation, so we’re never told the titles of the films or when they were made. It’s as though her ingenious hands have returned these fragments of fiction back to their place of origin, imbricating them with the real of Babenco’s body one last time.
Visions du Réel runs online from April 17—May 5.
IFFR 2020: This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, Drag Kids, Young Hunter, & More
It’s difficult to imagine Rotterdam as a place where a film festival isn’t taking place at all times.
It’s difficult to imagine Rotterdam as a place where a film festival isn’t taking place at all times. The city feels tailor-made for such an event, with its panoply of movie theaters teeming with character and charming espresso bars, convenient pitstops between screenings, so close to one another. Even the servers and baristas at various restaurants and cafés can seem like festival ambassadors, quick to express their excitement when spotting a person’s IFFR tote bag, at times offering recommendations on which screenings to attend. “I swear it’s not at all like the musical,” said one server, referring to Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables.
The LantarenVenster is the only venue that seems to require that you catch a festival shuttle from the downtown area. Here, too, the workers play their role with gusto, in a delicious fantasy of a port city so imbricated in cinema that its festival is all but an effortless consequence of its filmmaking spirit. One driver, as we cross the Erasmusbrug bridge at night time, chats about film criticism and turns on Miles Davis on the radio, and somehow it feels as we’re in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows. He points out certain buildings and riffs on their historical significance. When we pass by the Schilderstraat, letters forming the word CULT are inexplicably hanging above the cars on the street, where a garish “Merry Xmas” might appear in a different kind of town. The driver notes that Rotterdam is becoming almost too trendy and sophisticated. Almost.
This may be what filmmaker Pedro Costa had in mind when, in his remarkable Masterclass, he used precisely the figure of the festival chauffeur to paint a picture of how much film festivals have changed in the past couple of decades. He said that even the drivers have master’s degrees in film studies these days. This would perhaps be a plus, but in Costa’s brutal indictment of the film industry, the film festival circuit certainly included, it also means everyone is constantly trying to pitch something. “Don’t pitch anything, please!”
Costa used the figure of the driver with an MA to illustrate the hyper-specialization of everyone involved in the business, but he reserved his venom to attack another figure—that of “sales agents” who, he suggested, act like vultures, depleting every aspect of the filmmaking process from any possible art-for-art’s-sake ethos, transforming everything into an opportunity to sell something. In this context, Costa argued, a filmmaker could make any kind of demand—for Robert De Niro, for Sean Penn, or for a dozen elephants on set—just not for “time,” that most vital tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal (“When you don’t have time, you don’t discover life”).
Costa’s talk was packed with references of artists he looked up to, from Robert Bresson to Kenji Mizoguchi, from Buster Keaton to Wang Bing—directors who knew that to make a good film all one needs is “three flowers and a glass of water,” not “money, cars, and chicks.” Costa kept mistakenly presuming that everyone in the audience was an aspiring filmmaker, and hopefully they weren’t, as his advice was for everyone to just stop making movies because we have too many in the world already. And on the off-chance that someone in the crowd still wanted to go out and make one, Costa established poetry, sociology, and subtlety as pre-conditions for the kind of cinema he’s interested in making and consuming–even if on his iPhone during his daily train commute (Bresson looks great on the iPhone, he claimed). “This is not about revealing anything,” he said. Cinema should be about hiding, like a gift you put inside a box and wrap delicately before offering.
There were certainly a few of those kinds of films at Rotterdam this year. One of them was Lesotho-born, Berlin-based filmmaker Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, which, like Costa’s own Vitalina Varela, explores the impossibility of mourning. In Mosese’s film, Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), an 80-year-old widow living in a rural village in Lesotho, learns that her last surviving son, a migrant worker laboring in a coal mine in neighboring South Africa, has just died. She has thus lost all of her loved ones and decides to plan her own funeral. She wants a simple coffin. No golden angels or other gaudy nonsense.
Mosese’s mise-en-scène and camerawork are breathtaking. The opening of the film, for one, is reminiscent of the Titanik Bar scene from Béla Tarr’s Damnation, where the camera glides through a God-forsaken nowhere, certain of where it needs to go, despite the darkness, all the way until it spots a cabaret performer singing the most melancholy of all songs. In This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, the camera also sneaks gracefully through a dark nowhere until it finds, not a singer, but an old man playing a strange instrument and eager to tell us a sad tale about lands that weep, miners coming home, and “cups that could never be filled.”
Mosese takes us back to this non-space a couple of times, as if the old man, played by Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha, were a non-diegetic master of ceremonies for the story of Mantoa that unfolds. It’s a story told through the gracefulness of the camerawork, the stunningly lit tableaux, and, most remarkably of all, through fabric. Not many films, especially ones with a documentary sensibility, use texture—wool, mud, cement, ashes, and cloth specifically—as a storytelling device the way that This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection does.
Consider the moments where Mantoa, faced with the many obstacles that keep her from being able to dig her own grave, takes refuge in the gown her husband once gave her: an exquisitely lustrous damask dress with a black frill and white-collar trim. It’s a great sartorial departure from the sober blackness of her usual widow’s attire, which clashes with the flashy satin swathed around the bodies of the women around her and the blindingly yellow uniforms of city workers building a dam right where the dead lay, draped in white bedsheets.
In one of the film’s many unforgettable scenes, Mantoa gets up from the chair where she usually sits to listen to the radio and dances with her dead husband, raising her arm as if holding an actual body that isn’t there, a voice in the background telling her to take off her “cloak of mourning.” And she certainly takes it all off in a bewildering final sequence when Mantoa simultaneously surrenders to loss and spurns it.
Several other films at IFFR explored the theme of death and dying, such as Carl Olsson’s Meanwhile on Earth, an observational study of the Swedish funerary industry. The film reminds us of the artificiality of funerals, or rites more generally, exposing them as highly theatrical performances, with their wreathes, pots, and crosses staged just so. It also pays close attention to the mechanics of funerals: their perfectly timed music and the multiplicity of gadgets and machineries required to lift and transport corpses and coffins.
Olsson’s strategy for making the subject matter palatable is to try and extract discrete humor from it. He loiters on the professionals going about their tasks—transporting, cleaning, embalming—for long enough so that overtly banal dialogue emerges. In the film’s most successful moments, the juxtaposition between the morbid ambiance (bodies on stretchers that bleed long after dead) and chats about all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets or the nutritional value of bottled smoothies make for a Tati-esque skit with a disarming punchline at the end.
Kristof Bilsen’s documentary Mother is the portrait of Pomm, a caretaker at an Alzheimer’s care center in Thailand whose poverty keeps her from living with her children, and Maya, her incoming patient, a privileged 57-year-old Swiss woman whose husband and children drop her off at the care center and go back to Switzerland. Unfortunately, Bilsen allocates the same amount of time on both women’s daily lives in their home countries prior to their encounter, insisting on obvious contrasts between poverty-stricken Thailand and the idyllic mountains of Switzerland. Yet only Pomm allows herself to be vulnerable for the camera, as Maya’s family never lets their guard down. It’s difficult to engage meaningfully with some of the subjects (like Maya’s entourage) when the filmmaker is content to accept the fact that they only have their façades to offer.
Rotterdam featured films about the exuberance of youth, too, liberated or stunted. Drag Kids, screened at the very laidback Scopitone Café, a bar named after film jukeboxes of yore inside the Theater Rotterdam Schouwburg. The documentary follows child drag artists, some as young as nine, and their supportive families, as they prepare for their first joint concert at Montreal Pride. Director Megan Wennberg is smart not to bank simply on the inexplicable thrill of watching young children perform like adults. She’s protective of the children, in fact, never lingering on the potentially embarrassing less-than-average performances, singing or voguing, from some of the kids. Instead, she focuses on the differences between the kids, suggesting that drag can take different meanings, and that it can make different promises of deliverance, for children with decidedly different psychic symptoms and family constellations. Their only kinship seems to be, apart for their love of drag, the apparently unconditional support from their parents. Still, problems arise, from Queen Lactatia’s self-obsessed competitiveness to Laddy GaGa’s near-psychotic outbursts.
It’s impossible to look at Drag Kids, which is unabashedly reality TV show-esque at various moments, and not think of TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras, with its barrage of Southern stage moms waxing their pre-pubescent daughters’ eyebrows and teaching them trophy-wife realness. Although some of the Drag Kids parents do seem eager to capitalize on their children as digital influencers or with merchandise featuring their child’s face, the role of hyper-femininity and artifice here seems to play more of a reparative and self-aware playfulness than they did in the gender-conforming theatrics, and orthopaedics, of Toddlers & Tiaras. Wennberg’s documentary refreshingly denies us a lot of the kiddy voyeurism one might expect, ultimately crafting a portrait of kids whose maladies, if they have any, are somewhere else to be found—not on stage nor in the glitter.
In Young Hunter, director Marco Berger offers us a gripping look at the tragedies that surface precisely when desire isn’t allowed to express itself freely and publicly. In Berger’s vision of Argentina, queer feelings are necessarily clandestine feelings. A boy like 15-year-old Ezequiel (Juan Pablo Cestaro), then, is forced to develop a sort of criminal mind, and a criminal gaze, from a very young age. The queer object of desire can only be a prey, or a victim to be duped into reciprocating one’s yearning, as Ezequiel has to go through all sorts of subterfuges and a certainly different kind of theatrics from drag in order to get a good glimpse at other men’s bodies, let alone touch them, including that of his cousin (Juan Barberini).
The whole world seems to be a tease that one can only enjoy along with the terrifying dread of being found out. Instead of dwelling on it, however, Ezequiel takes matters into his own hands and develops a system of tricks for having sex with other boys, inviting them over to his house when his parents are away, feeding them beer and straight porn magazines, and then suggesting that they jack off together. If it all fails, he might head to the nearby skatepark and stare at shirtless boys like Mono (Lautaro Rodriguez), who he ends up falling in love with. At first it seems gratuitously reciprocal, but then Ezequiel realizes that he’s caught in a web of intrigue and lies much more extensive than the one he had to construct for himself.
Young Hunter is playfully shot like a thriller, until you realize that it may actually be one. The film is refreshing in that, while it recognizes the ravages of queer desire in a queerphobic world, it doesn’t focus on the suffering but on psychological solutions and practical strategies for sexual survival that are bound to seem familiar to any queer child who’s dared to evade repression and its many laws through queer creativity and savvy.
International Film Festival Rotterdam runs from January 22—February 2.
Under the Radar 2020: The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, Not I, & More
Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder.
Most of the plays I see in New York City are created by able-bodied, Anglophone playwrights. (More often than not they’re men, and more often than not they’re white.) For most New York theater critics, most of the time, “international” means “imported from London.” If it doesn’t, it probably means “directed by Ivo van Hove.” But at the Under the Radar Festival, the Public Theater’s 16-year-old annual international theatrical extravaganza, the thoughtfully curated program of new works blasts apart the predictable comfort of knowing what you’re getting yourself into.
Despite the relentless pace, marathoning in a festival setting like Under the Radar works against the critical impulse to get in and get out. Lingering in playing spaces beyond the curtain call to soak in the experience and seeking threads of connections between plays before cementing my verdict on any are rarer opportunities than I’d realized.
Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival—especially taking in shows at high quantity in quick succession—replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder. I haven’t adored every offering at this year’s festival, but, in each theater space, I’ve been keenly, refreshingly alert to my presence and my perspective as an audience member, to the ways in which I hear and watch and engage. I’ve looked sideways as well as dead ahead, and over the weekend, I saw two performances that required lengthy, committed conversations with the strangers sitting next to me. (And that’s especially valuable for critics, who sometimes need the reminder that other people’s opinions coexist alongside ours.)
This year’s lineup of plays has been particularly successful in making audiences acutely aware of themselves as a whole, as people who lug assumptions and anxieties and uncertainties into their seats. Take The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the first play I saw this season and the festival’s most rewarding in its complexity. Throughout its hour-long run time, I had occasionally taken note of a long strip of yellow tape at the front of the playing space. During the play, the four actors, all of whom are neurodivergent and play characters who are neurodivergent, frequently step up to that line to speak to the audience. I imagined the line as a necessary, neon beacon for the performers to find their way forward.
Yet, in the final moments of the play, actor Simon Laherty (who also co-wrote the script with his castmates and other members of the Back to Back Theatre, an Australian company), tears the tape off the floor and exits. The gesture reads as a direct rebuke to the very ideas I’d been holding for the play’s duration: It seems to ask, ”Who are you to assume that the world of this play was built for its performers instead of for the characters they play? How can you, sitting there, decide what we, putting on a show for you up here, need in order to perform?” And I wondered, not for the first time: How did they read my mind?
Directed by Back to Back’s artistic director, Bruce Gladwin, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes stars four performers with disabilities playing characters (with their own first names) who host a sort of town hall meeting to educate the people in attendance about what it’s like to have a disability. The shared names between characters and actors are a red herring. These actors have disabilities, yes, but that doesn’t mean the characters with disabilities they play are them, any more than neurotypical roles match the neurotypical actors playing them. Again and again, through moves so subtle I’m not sure I didn’t imagine them, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes sets graceful, invisible traps for the audience’s assumptions about the capabilities of the performers and the distance between performer and character. And while I’m not entirely sure of the title’s meaning, it might have something to do with the play’s constant shadowy evasion of comforting resolutions: Never once is an audience member allowed to feel like they have mastered the art of empathy.
An early sequence seems deliberate in putting an audience on edge, as the long stretches of silence as actor Sarah Mainwaring prepares to speak made me wonder whether it was the actor or the character who had forgotten her lines. Was this discomforting silence performed or real? It’s part of the play, of course, just like most of neurotypical theater’s long pauses. But I feel sure that The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes anticipated my discomfort and my doubt. That dark cocktail of emotions following the clarifying moments—relieved admiration for the performers, guilt for the assumptions I had made, embarrassment that I had been caught feeling uneasy—stayed with me for the rest of the play’s rich hour.
In that regard, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is very much about the audience, and there’s nimble, layered playfulness as the characters obsess around whether the imagined audience at the town hall meeting are understanding their message. And while some of the sections of the text work better than others (I’m not sure about the suggestion that everyone will be deemed disabled when artificial intelligence overtakes human thought), the actors also engage brilliantly with the supertitles, which are supposedly transcribed live at the meeting by Siri. Supertitles seem at first like a tool for us, the audience, to understand the performers’ speech. As Scott Price laments, “I have autism, and, unfortunately for me, I also have a thick Australian accent.” But the projected text also doubles as a symbol for the dehumanization of people on the spectrum. “You can tell we have disabilities as everything we say comes upon a screen,” Sarah notes with disdain. “The subtitling is offensive.”
This point of view leads to a heated argument about language and representation, with Scott claiming the label of disability: “I’m a disabled person here and I’m proud and I don’t want to weave my way around language.” But there’s no unified front in how these four characters perceive themselves and seek to be perceived.
Perhaps the play’s sharpest touch is that Michael and Scott talk down to Simon, describing him as “very childlike” and insinuating that he can’t understand what’s going on or fully participate in the meeting. Sarah calls them out on this (“You’re talking like Simon’s not even in the room”), and it’s not just an indictment of how individuals with disabilities can be dehumanized to their faces but also an illuminating glance into how internalized measures of normalcy have permeated the disability community. This quartet of characters doesn’t include heroes or victims or saints and the play relishes in catching the audience in the act of attaching such labels to the performers. It’s a play I want to see again in order to try again, to use what I’ve learned from my first encounter with Back to Back to do better the next time.
If The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes invites us to project imagined limitations on to the performers and then to watch those assumptions crumble, the creator of Samuel Beckett’s Not I at BRIC (the Brooklyn venue hosting this show) wants us to know exactly what to expect from the beginning. Yes, this is a performance—and an exhilarating one—of Beckett’s 15-minute, stream-of-consciousness monologue, first performed in 1972, but this production positions the piece at the center of a conversation with the performer, Jess Thom.
Thom, who’s best known in the U.K. for Touretteshero, an alter ego aimed at educating and spreading awareness of Tourette’s syndrome, has a number of repeating verbal tics that spark from her speech: Among the most frequent are “biscuit,” “sausage,” and “I love cats,” plus a few words and phrases that aren’t quite so “cute,” as Thom describes them. Unlike The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the sense of unpredictability here is shared by the performers. A few times throughout the day, Thom explains, she will lose control over her body and speech, and this possibility creates a space of “genuine jeopardy.”
Such pre-show disclaimers are neither warnings nor apologies but a crucial aspect of Thom’s central work here: envisioning a truly inclusive performance space and then co-creating that space with her audience. There are no surprises in Not I. Thom explains, in detail, that her wheelchair will be lifted eight feet into the air atop a hydraulic lift; that only her mouth will be lit (as in all productions of Beckett’s monologue); that an ASL interpreter (the warmly expressive Lindsey D. Snyder) will sign every word of Beckett’s explosively high-velocity text, plus each unexpected tic along the way; that the post-performance experiences will include watching a video, discussing the monologue with a stranger, and participating in a Q&A.
The audience sits on padded benches and pillows on the floor, and Thom invites people to move and make noise during the piece as needed. An online guide to the performance even includes a sound map, alerting audience members to patches of loud noise, like applause and a section of the monologue featuring terrifying screams. With its shrieks and terrorizing, relentless intensity, Not I certainly defies expectations for the sorts of theater pieces that tend to offer relaxed, inclusive performances. But by reclaiming the character of Mouth through the lens of disability, Thom has made the jumbled thoughts of the character suddenly specific and, if not quite understandable, accessible through empathy.
Though Beckett meant for Not I to unnerve its auditors with its impenetrableness, Thom uses the text to grant entry into her own experiences of losing control over her own speech and movement. Thom’s tics remain present throughout the monologue, absorbed into the labyrinthine, spontaneous stitches of Mouth’s words. In fact, as Thom explained in the Q&A section, the tics actually multiply to fill the spaces between breakneck sections of monologue; the speed with which she articulates the text temporarily displaces her tics, “like a stone in water,” but they flow back in during Beckett’s indicated silences. “My version of silence,” Thom clarified, often sounds like eight or 10 “biscuits” in a row. If we can embrace and understand the charismatic, wisecracking Thom, we should be able to extend that compassion toward embracing and understanding her version of Mouth too.
After the performance of Beckett’s monologue, Thom sits on the floor as a short video about the making of this piece plays. In the video, Thom attributes her emergence as a performer to the exclusion and isolation she experiences as an audience member: on-stage seemed to be “the only seat in the house I wouldn’t be asked to leave.” And even as we hear her words, their truth immediately confirms itself: It’s only during this section of the performance—a few minutes in which Thom herself is not visible as she sits in the dark—that I reverted to experiencing Thom’s tics as disruption or interruption. At the exact moment I was nodding along with the video’s celebration of inclusive theatrical spaces, I was simultaneously sensing my own flashes of concern or maybe frustration or maybe fear that someone sitting beside me in the darkness was breaking the sacred rules of stillness and silence. With love and warmth and unvarying good humor, Thom manages to shine a glaring, pointed spotlight on our own limitations as compassionate stewards of the spaces we strive to co-inhabit. Then she asks us to look around the room and gives us the chance, right then and there, to change.
The limitations of the human intellect—and the human spirit—are put to the test in Grey Rock, an English-language commission by Palestinian playwright-director Amir Nizar Zuabi which premiered at La MaMa a year ago. Zuabi’s play, besides being performed in English, boasts an instantly recognizable form: It’s a family comedy, actually one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while, with a bittersweetness that calls to mind, in a very different geopolitical context, Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.
Lila (Fidaa Zaidan) is perplexed that her father, the widower Yusuf (Khalifa Natour), has suddenly started working out vigorously. Why the sudden focus on getting in shape? At first she thinks he’s seeing someone new—it’s been three years since her mother died—but that doesn’t explain why he’s also spending hours assembling mechanical parts in his shed with a brilliant young engineer, Fadel (Ivan Kevork Azazian). Yusuf’s plan, it turns out, is to build a rocket to the moon, a feat that will put Palestinian fortitude and ingenuity on the map.
It’s in Yusuf’s very insistence that his rocket-building is about humanity rather than political conflict that Zuabi’s play becomes, in fact, forcefully political. Much like The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes foretells the audience’s expectations of the performers’ failures, Grey Rock anticipates the need for viewers to see conflict and war in every image and line of dialogue with Palestine attached to it.
Israel is a reality in the world of Grey Rock, of course, and one which diminishes what some of these characters think they can become: Fadel describes the Israeli forces as “stop signs for the imagination” and Yusuf later tells Lila’s ill-matched fiancé Jawad (Alaa Shehada), “You have the occupation [as] your excuse for your lack of creativity.” But Zuabi seems less interested in using the play to protest the Israeli presence in Palestine than in advocating for a Palestinian uprising of imagination and creativity in the face of dehumanization. There’s an aspect of 21st-century fairy tale to Grey Rock’s structure and plot twists, but the play remains grounded enough to suggest real-world pathways forward for oppressed peoples to dream big. (The fact that these performers, who all identify as Palestinian, have overcome complex visa hurdles to perform in New York twice in the span of a year, is a dream realized already.) Except for the final scene (a tonal shift that doesn’t entirely pay off), Grey Rock keeps the darkness at bay. The Israeli occupying forces are a constant off-stage presence, an invisible menace that the characters must sometimes ignore in order to live and shape their own stories.
Most of the story careens through amusingly familiar tropes, but it’s a familiarity that seems to be there by design. I think I would have found Grey Rock just as absorbing in supertitled Arabic, but there’s something appealing in the transparency with which it draws us in. The play was written for English speakers, with the intention of exposing the ordinary vibrancy of quotidian Palestinian existence. Knowing some of the well-trodden arcs of the plot in advance narrows the space between Anglophone audiences and the world they encounter.
Zuabi is a far nimbler writer than director; the play’s magnetic energy only diminishes in its awkwardly staged moments of physical comedy and occasionally rudderless transitions between scenes. But his dialogue briskly fleshes out his five characters, who also include the village’s anxious imam (Motaz Malhees). There’s a particularly delightful rapport between Natour’s gruff stargazer and Azazian’s overeager yet tentative assistant.
Beyond the crisp comedy, the relationship between Yusuf and his beloved, aspiring daughter Lila feels almost operatic in its balance of tenderness and tumult: Lila harbors years of resentment that her father allowed himself to be jailed for anti-occupation propaganda, leaving her mother to raise Lila independently for five years. When Yusuf leaps to his feet jubilantly upon hearing that Lila’s broken off her engagement, and then tries to backtrack his demonstrativeness, it’s both hilarious and sweetly moving.
I’m not sure if Zuabi deliberately snuck in one particular idiom for this festival run: “I order things in small quantities so I go under the radar,” Yusuf says, explaining his rocket-in-progress to an ever-expanding community of supporters. But to go Under the Radar, the Public has ordered up a series of shows which are anything but small in their expansive commitment to transforming audiences, preparing them to be more perceptive, empathetic people, perhaps even in time for the next performance.
Under the Radar runs from January 8—19.
The 10 Best Documentaries of 2019
The year’s best documenaries found the monstrous in the mundane, the epic in the everyday.
Lest we forget, 2019 saw the release of Avengers: Endgame, the bloated culmination of a franchise marked by needlessly convoluted storylines and an almost perverse overreliance on computer-generated spectacle. On the extreme opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, some of the best documentaries of the year were small-scale, intimate, articulate snapshots, often adventurous in form, of actual human perspectives and dilemmas—qualities that at least partly explain why the films are so easy to love.
Look no further than Chinese Portrait, which in any one of its brief observational shots of people living their everyday lives raises more thought-provoking ideas about the passage of time than Avengers: Endgame does in three hours. And Xiaoshuai Wang’s film wasn’t the only documentary this year to offer a hugely empathetic account of people’s relationship to their community. Both Khalik Allah’s Black Mother and Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka rejected portraying their subjects solely as victims of marginalization, presenting whirlwind celebrations of multifaceted people and their culture. And Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? powerfully expressed the profound levels of kindness and strength people display when fighting to make a difference in the civic life of their communities.
It wasn’t just the everyman who was the star of 2019’s best documentaries, but also influential cultural icons in singular late-career works. In the captivating and bittersweet career self-evaluation Varda by Agnès, the late, great Agnès Varda did something few filmmakers do: cap off a robust oeuvre on her own terms. And Rolling Thunder Revue, by rockumentarian extraordinaire Martin Scorsese, is notable not only for its playful mash-up of pop history and myth, but also for showing Bob Dylan, in both archival footage and present-day interviews, like we’ve never seen him before: loose, buoyant, and, believe it or not, actually looking like he’s having fun. As a gaudy new box-office king became anointed, 2019’s documentaries proved that the genre is more vital than ever for not just homing in on the monstrous in the mundane, but also the epic in the everyday. Wes Greene
10. The Silence of Others
Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar’s The Silence of Others is monumental for its clamorous sounding of an alarm. It reminds us, and we do need reminding, that the acts of horror committed by nation states are often followed by a convenient amnesia—a whitewashing of man’s brutality—where everyone agrees to be good citizens moving forward. But beyond its pedagogical function, the film helps us posit more philosophical questions of justice versus revenge, along with the endless transmission of trauma. From generation to generation, the ravages of Spain’s dictatorship are passed on like a cursed heirloom. The sadism of yesterday’s jackals becomes palpable through the accounts of their deeds, but their victims’ progeny, now close to death themselves, have rather modest wishes. Namely, getting official confirmation that their loved ones were murdered by the state. Or seeing what’s left of the bodies, even if from a distance. Diego Semerene
9. Rolling Thunder Revue
Throughout Rolling Thunder Revue, Martin Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. The film gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the Rolling Thunder Revue into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylan’s Rubin Carter tribute “Hurricane.” The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds. The true shock of the documentary, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wears—other allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop culture—seem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; he’s connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. Chuck Bowen
8. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?
Violence, poverty, incarceration, and sexual abuse haunt Roberto Minervini’s subjects, and his film is most powerful when it shows how casually people have acclimated themselves to systemic failure. Two half-brothers, 14-year-old Ronaldo King and nine-year-old Titus Turner, are lectured by their mother, Ashlei, about meeting a 7 p.m. curfew that’s clearly been implemented to steer them away from crime, the dangers of which she explains to Titus. In this moment, Minervini dramatizes Titus’s inoculation into a volatile world, capturing how the boy gradually sheds his innocence—an impression that’s affirmed later in What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? when Ronaldo tutors Titus on fighting. Duct-taping towels around Titus’s hands in place of boxing gloves, Ronaldo tells his little brother to hit him with decisiveness, while admitting that, once one gets older, most fights are settled with guns. Ronaldo dispenses such advice with a matter-of-fact-ness that’s bone-chilling, and with a brotherly love that’s deeply poignant. Bowen
7. Varda by Agnès
In Varda by Agnès, cinema is a form of thinking out loud that follows the trajectory of a spiderweb, unimpressed by the benefits of control and linearity. Detours, accidents, asides, footnotes, and marginalia are the core of Agnès Varda’s modus operandi. Hers is the zigzagging ethos of the flâneur, or the glaneur, re-signifying the mundane without calculation, surrendering control to life itself, as she wonders around various worlds—some inhabited by Godard, Birkin, and Deneuve, others by the anonymous folk who were Varda’s real muses. In her pedagogical scene we trace a genealogy of her oeuvre, but the filmography that serves as her PowerPoint slides, as it were, are more like rabbit holes than historical markers. They take us on a dreamlike expedition that reminds us of cinema’s political duty. That is, its ability to extract poetry from everyday life, to affect communities and restitute the value of rejected people and things. Most importantly, cinema for Varda was always a matter of mutual contamination, with the filmed object architecting the camera’s gaze too. Could there be a more urgent panacea for a culture steeped in overproduced imagery, synthetic drama and concept-less drivel? Semerene
Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s Honeyland pulses with vividly observed detail, offering a patient, intimate, and complex portrait of a disappearing way of life. Its subject is Atidze, an old Macedonian woman who lives with her even older mother in a remote village without paved roads, electricity, or running water. When we first see her, in a series of breathtaking landscape shots that open the film, she calmly ambles across a vast field, climbs up a hill, and then carefully edges across a narrow ridge before stopping in front of an unassuming rock face. There, she gingerly pulls away some of the stone to reveal the most vibrant, sumptuous honeycomb you’ve ever seen. Without straining to make a grand environmentalist statement, Honeyland manages to dramatize—simply, directly, and without sentimentalism or condescension—the importance of a holistic approach to agriculture. As the world continues to suffer ever-increasing mass die-offs of honeybee colonies, Stefanov and Kotevska’s film reminds us that there’s indeed a better way to interact with our planet—one rooted in patience, tradition, and a true respect for our surroundings. Keith Watson
Los Cabos Film Festival 2019: Workforce, The Twentieth Century, Waves, & More
There was plenty of merit to the connections being made at Los Cabos between filmmakers and audiences.
Martin Scorsese recently sparked controversy by stating in an interview with Empire magazine that Marvel’s superhero movies, which have become indispensable moneymakers in a Hollywood system increasingly beset by pressures to build or renew popular tentpole franchises, are “not cinema.” The conventional wisdom in film marketing terms is that each new contribution to an already recognizable franchise requires such minimal effort at garnering public awareness compared to the type of cinematic ventures that Scorsese would argue, as he wrote in the New York Times in explanation of his interview comments, “enlarg[e] the sense of what was possible in the art form.” These more original offerings require ground-up campaigns for the attention of moviegoing audiences who are increasingly comfortable ignoring altogether the existence of films not actively targeting mass consumption.
The opening-night film of the eighth annual Los Cabos International Film Festival happened to be Scorsese’s highly anticipated epic crime drama The Irishman. The film is only being granted a minimal theatrical release in the U.S. before its arrival on Netflix on November 27, because, according to Scorsese, “most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.” Robert De Niro, who stars in the film, was on hand in Cabo to walk the red carpet and represent a cinematic community founded on principles of “aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation,” in Scorsese’s own words. This was the kind of audience primed to appreciate his latest effort.
The audience was primed for greatness, even as oblivious vacationers guzzled tequila just outside on the streets and sidewalks of Cabo. When I told my seatmate on the plane about the screening of Scorsese’s film later that evening, she furrowed her brow in confusion. “I’m staying at the Hard Rock,” she said in explanation. And as I later walked from my own hotel toward the theater, I passed by countless tourists wielding Tecate tallboys and squinting behind cheap sunglasses who were no doubt completely unaware of the film festival taking place inside the giant mall at the north end of the downtown harbor. Many of them even wore T-shirts and tank tops that might easily have been emblazoned with the visages of Marvel characters.
As I drifted between the incessant buzz of the party atmosphere outside and the quiet engagement with contemporary filmmaking taking place within the theater throughout the festival, I couldn’t help but notice that several of the films that screened at Los Cabos seemed similarly concerned with liminal spaces between two very different worlds. The characters in these films learn to navigate the borderlands between class differences and racial divides, fleeting flirtations with freedom dashed by constant threats of persecution. These characters know their place, but even the brutal reality of their circumstances isn’t enough to prevent them from trying to get somewhere else. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Mexican filmmaker David Zonana’s mesmerizing Workforce, a tightly shot and richly layered film documenting the rise and fall of a group of construction workers in Mexico City who dare to dream beyond their otherwise meager means.
The film begins with the sudden death of Claudio, a member of a construction team putting the finishing touches on a swanky new house in a posh district of the city who falls from a rooftop in the opening shot. Workforce then quickly pivots and takes on the perspective of Claudio’s brother, Francisco (Luis Alberti), whose search for justice following his brother’s death becomes all-consuming and destructive. Claudio’s death has been deemed by officials to be caused by irresponsible alcohol consumption while on the job, even though Claudio had been a known teetotaler, and the wife (Jessica Galvez) and unborn child he’s left behind are thus denied compensation following the accident. And after the homeowner (Rodrigo Mendoza) waves him away from inside his fancy car when Francisco makes a plea for compassion, he becomes obsessed with the other man, following him through the streets and monitoring his every move. And after the homeowner’s mysterious death, which we learn about after witnessing Francisco surreptitiously enter his apartment building the night before, Francisco begins occupying the now dormant construction site as if it were his own home.
The shift between Francisco’s life in a tiny, rain-drenched apartment to his fresh start in the sprawling home that lays unclaimed in the wake of its owner’s death—complete with furniture still unwrapped, appliances yet to be installed—will ring familiar to those who’ve seen Parasite. Bong Joon-ho’s film operates in a more satirical and less tragic register than Zonana’s but still narrates the kind of violently enacted class mobility that lays bare the stark differences between the kinds of lives that are lived on either side of the poverty line.
Francisco eventually moves several members of his former construction team into the abandoned house, along with their families, in an effort to lay a more legitimate claim to its ownership. The film briefly soars with the ecstasy and sudden privilege that its characters feel as they inhabit a space representative of those from which they have historically been excluded. But problems quickly mount: the small indignities of overcrowding, persistent struggles over limited resources, cringe-inducing abuses of power on the part of those currently in control. And the final high-angle shot of the house, its inhabitants now expelled and powerless against the forces of the state, is notable for how the film has until then been heavily anchored at ground level, a powerful demonstration of the universal struggles of the Mexican working class.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, a Canadian film written and directed by Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, is another story of an invisible divide whose boundaries are nonetheless palpably felt. Two women from differing indigenous backgrounds, and from opposite sides of the class spectrum, are thrown together one late afternoon on the streets of Vancouver. A very pregnant Rosie (Violet Nelson) has fled her abusive lover’s apartment and is barefooted, bruised, and in obvious need of help when the lighter-skinned Aila (Tailfeathers) happens upon her and decides to shelter her. Aila has just had an IUD inserted earlier in the day, and the availability of advanced methods of conception is just one of the many marks of privilege that the film will subtly deploy. And the encounter between the two women is fairly straightforward from the start, but the subtext of their interactions is what gives the film its thematic weight and its staying power.
The differences between the women are played out with racial signifiers as well as those of relative affluence, and Hepburn and Tailfeathers make the bold formal decision to film their story in real time, by and large foregoing traditional scene structures and editing techniques and instead lingering in the quiet, interstitial moments between narrative transitions. The choice of indulging in the long take allows for moments of silence and digression as the audience infiltrates the scene as a third party. This uncomfortable intimacy is felt most acutely in a devastating, mostly silent shot late in the film of the interior of a taxi as Aila accompanies Rosie back to the apartment complex where her abusive lover awaits after Rosie has rejected a place in a women’s shelter, both of their faces in the frame as they quietly contemplate their very different futures.
The impending crisis of motherhood—urgent on Rosie’s part, delayed indefinitely on Aila’s—remains unspoken until that final taxi ride, in which both women tell the other that they believe they will be good mothers. And the city of Vancouver itself—and with it the ghost of Canada’s colonial past, specifically its systematic erasure of First Nations culture—haunts all of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, glimpsed mostly through car windows as it passes by unremarked upon while the film’s characters grapple silently with how the present has been irrevocably troubled by the past. The film demonstrates the power of simply inhabiting a tension and absorbing its complications, rather than demanding a resolution.
Another Canadian film, and the winner of the festival’s competition award, Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century is an alternate history of the rise to power of Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne). Funny and daringly experimental, the film’s overtly oddball aesthetic, redolent of Guy Maddin’s work, often feels borrowed from the silent era in terms of how particular objects take on greater significance because of their necessity to move along a narrative otherwise hindered by constraints, deliberate or not. And the plot unfolds erratically, difficult to synopsize due to its incredulity, as well as its reliance on a more than cursory knowledge of Canadian history for its most sophisticated jokes and cultural observations to be understood, as explained to me by a Canadian film critic on our way to the airport at the close of the festival. I may not have understood the film as cultural commentary, but I’ll never forget the ejaculating cactus.
Following the trend of delightfully strange films populating the festival slate is Greener Grass, written and directed by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, who also star. The film is a color-saturated romp that presents a suburbia recognizable at first but then made bizarre by an accumulation of unexplained oddities that ultimately become understood as an ingenious form of worldbuilding. All of the adults, soccer moms and dads donning bright pastel outfits, wear braces. Everyone inexplicably drives golf carts. Characters make impulsive, culturally inappropriate decisions, such as in the catalyst to the film’s action when Jill (DeBoer) literally gives her baby away to her friend Madison (Luebbe), after Madison acknowledges, while sitting in the bleachers at an outdoor soccer game, how cute the infant happens to be.
Later, Jill’s only remaining child, the nerdy and bespectacled Julian (Julian Hilliard), frequently seen struggling with the traditional expectations of boyhood, falls into a swimming pool and emerges as a golden retriever. Jill’s subsequent psychological decline is mostly tied to her inability to accept her son’s new corporeal form, as well as her insistence that her infant daughter must be returned to her, despite her reluctance to offend Madison with the request. Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose. Greener Grass is a mash-up of genres—satire, mystery, dark comedy, horror—that may not ultimately cohere as deliberately as some viewers might have wished, but the feeling of witnessing something truly new and unique is as addictive as the swimming pool water that Jill’s husband, Nick (Nick Bennet), seemingly can’t stop drinking.
The American slate of films at Los Cabos includes Scorsese’s The Irishman among other likely Oscar contenders such as Noah Baumbach’s impeccably written and performed Marriage Story, Rupert Goold’s Judy, and Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. But Trey Edward Shults’s slick and stylish but ultimately detached Waves is a frustrating contribution. The film tracks the rise and fall of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a black high school athlete pushed toward success by a domineering father (Sterling K. Brown) who, in a scene definitely not written for a black audience, makes plain how the color of his skin predisposes him to a life spent working harder than everybody else for a seat at the same table. But after a series of setbacks, poor choices, and personal failures culminate in a desperate act of terrible violence on Tyler’s part, the second half of Waves investigates the aftermath of his abrupt downfall through the eyes of his family, focusing mostly on his younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), and her own journey toward some kind of peace after the family tragedy.
For all its intensely scored set pieces and dramatic camerawork, Shults’s attempt to stylize an interior life through a deliberate connection between form and content—while Tyler’s section is frenetic and loud, Emily’s is almost jarringly languid and muted—isn’t enough to deliver to the audience the kind of realization about family and responsibility to one another that the filmmaker seems at times so close to achieving. The possibility of transcending its aesthetic and arriving at any kind of epiphany is ultimately drowned out by a cinematic style more distracting than illuminating.
A more revelatory film about fathers, sons, and the lasting effects of our emotional wounds is Honey Boy, directed by Alma Har’el and written by Shia LaBeouf, in what’s clearly an autobiographical account of the actor’s childhood in Hollywood with an overbearing father whose profound influence still haunts him today. LaBeouf plays James, the now-sober father of a child actor, Otis (Noah Jupe), who stars in a popular television show while bearing the brunt of the erratic behaviors and sudden violence of a lifelong addict. The film centers in flashback on a period of time in which father and son lived together in a seedy and downtrodden hotel, the close quarters intensifying the seething undercurrent of resentment, jealousy, and yet still ever-present heartbreakingly rendered familial love that perseveres in spite of everything else.
James ultimately passes down his own struggles to his son, who we see as an adult (Lucas Hedges, who also stars in Waves) in therapy reckoning with his childhood, his addiction, and his predilection toward other self-destructive behaviors. The film also explores the ways in which his traumas might have also served as reference points for his own obvious skill as an actor, artistic success inextricably linked here to emotional wounds that have clearly never properly healed. The relationship between James and Otis is marked by a tenderness undercut by rage, and Har’el’s careful staging of the power struggle between the two characters—a give and take based alternately on the currencies of masculinity and the literal exchange of money, as Otis’s earnings subsidize his father’s existence—is both compassionate and unflinching.
A film festival is always a hopeful affair, a chance to look into the future and see what awaits us as the contemporary film discourse continues to evolve. Unlike the flashy slate of American films that draws non-industry viewers to the theater, many of the entries at Los Cabos have yet to land wider distribution deals, and a festival like this one is a chance for these films to impress audiences enough to secure a position in a cinematic landscape where the “art house” or non-Marvel film will always struggle to keep up, as long as success continues to be measured by per-screen earnings and the numbers of views on popular streaming sites.
LaBeouf’s career—from his early success in the tentpole Transformers franchise to eventually writing and starring in a film as complex, poignant, and quietly ambitious as Honey Boy—is perhaps a worthwhile microcosm through which to demonstrate the shift in priorities that must take place in order for success to be redefined in terms that align with artistic merit rather than profit, personal connection rather than consensus. And there was plenty of merit to the connections being made at Los Cabos between filmmakers and audiences, a festival that continues to deliver quality international cinema to eager viewers who wander out of the theater each evening to join the throngs of partiers who might in daylight be clamoring for the next Marvel movie. Scorsese may mourn the diminishment of character-driven, risk-taking filmmaking in favor of easily digestible products that are “closer to theme parks than they are to movies,” but it’s still there if you know where to look.
The Los Cabos International Film Festival ran from November 13—17.
A Space in Time: Doclisboa 2019 Explores the Politics of Memory, Space, and the Image
The film image opens a space for both a reckoning with the old and the creation of the new.
Just before the start of this year’s Doclisboa film festival in Lisbon, the organizers put out a press release protesting the Brazilian government’s apparent crackdown on independent filmmaking through censorship and abrupt budget cuts to Ancine, the South American country’s state-supported cinema fund. Given the close ties between Portugal and its former colony—which include shared memories of 20th-century dictatorships—it’s not surprising that Doclisboa felt compelled to address Brazil’s ongoing crisis, unambiguously decrying the Bolsonaro government’s “dismantlement of democracy” and installation of a dictatorship, and announcing additional screenings of anti-dictatorship films from Brazil.
Several Brazilian films, of course, were already on Doclisboa’s docket this year. One of the standouts of the festival’s international competition was Jo Serfaty’s Sun Inside, which follows four Rio de Janeiro teens as they struggle to find their identities in the summer after school ends. Featuring compelling, naturalistic performances from each of its young leads and practically radiating hope for the future represented by Generation Z, the film has the makings of an American award-season darling.
But Sun Inside qualifies its own sense of hope: Its fun, woke teens know they live in a time of change, crisis, and inequity, and neither the script nor Serfaty’s camera offers an easy path toward transcending the cramped spaces and precarious circumstances they navigate in Rio. The film, which suggests a very muted version of Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, is as much about a milieu as it is about its characters.
Serfaty’s socially minded film shares its exploration of the politics of narrative form and the cinematic image with much of the 2019 Doclisboa slate. And Brazil isn’t the only former Portuguese colony represented at the festival: The Sound of Masks explores the traumatic history of Mozambique in the decades since it freed itself from Portuguese rule in 1975 by focusing on Atanásio Nyusi, a renowned dancer of the mapiko, in which a solitary male dancer dons a wooden mask. For Nyusi—and for director Sara CF de Gouveia—his tremulous mapiko dance serves as a record of the trauma Mozambique experienced over a century of colonialism and civil war. His jolting movements and often frightful bearing toward his audience implicitly speak of pain and terror, but the fact that he and his company continue to perform suggests perseverance and pride.
Nyusi, appropriately, also manages his community’s archive of mapiko dancers, the existence of which by itself points to the fact that the dance isn’t some timeless tribal practice. A crucial subtext in The Sound of Masks is that precolonial practices aren’t objects frozen in time, but bear the marks of history like any form of transgenerational human activity. Throughout, de Gouveia uses television footage from the days of colonialism and the civil war relatively sparingly, illustrating through montage the events that she and Nyusi understand his dance to be evoking. This expressive use of archival footage is combined with haunting footage of Nyusi’s performances—both contemporary and from when he was young—and slow-motion shots of Nyusi or other members of his company in full makeup against a black backdrop, staring directly into the camera. In this way, the documentary is utterly transfixing, often as strange as it is revelatory.
A confrontation with Portugal’s colonialist legacy is also implicit in Welket Bungué’s I Am Not Pilatus, one of the short films in the festival’s international competition. It’s composed of cellphone footage of two recent racist incidents in Lisbon, one of which took place on the Avenida do Liberdade, down the street from Cinema São Jorge, where many of Doclisboa’s screenings are held. The unseen woman doing the recording stands on one of the broad commercial avenue’s many plazas, filming at a great distance a confrontation between Lisbon police and a group of black youth and, though she admits she cannot see what’s happening, making racist conjectures. Bungué manipulates the footage, mockingly distorting the woman’s voice, flipping the footage upside down, looping her racist or obviously hypocritical lines, and ironically splicing in footage from a police beating that undercuts her assertion that the police are there to keep order.
Aesthetically, I Am Not Pilatus hardly breaks new ground, but it’s an instructive reminder of a certain activist filmmaking credo: Because reality is already structured by unjust systems, it’s incumbent upon artists like Bungué to use film as an instrument of intervention, rather than merely reproduce unjust realities. However slight, I Am Not Pilatus is an admirable and coherent political intervention, simmering with righteous anger at the racism and anti-immigrant sentiments apparently on the rise in Portugal, which recently elected a far-right representative to parliament for the first time since the end of the Salazar dictatorship in 1974.
Other distinctly political shorts—like Josip Lukić’s The Rex Will Sail In and Filipe Oliveira’s Há Margem, which screened together out of competition in the “Green Years” section—explore the manifestation of bigger socio-political structures in the lives of the underclass. The Rex Will Sail In concerns a Croatian family supported by their matriarch Marina’s work on a cruise ship, which sends her away from home for months at a time; the stress of working in the neoliberal tourism industry has taken its toll, and Marina uses the camera as her therapist, monologuing her buried anxieties about her sons’ behavior and upcoming changes at work. By and large consisting of close-ups, and filmed mostly in Marina’s car and small apartment, the short conveys the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in an unforgiving, often unpredictable profession.
Há Margem is also in part about feeling closed in. “It’s tight in here,” says one subject about a narrow alley that bends between buildings, and that remark resonates throughout the film. Capturing slice-of-life footage from Segundo Torrão, a neighborhood on the other side of the Tagus River from Lisbon whose homes are all illegal because the land there isn’t appropriately zoned, Oliveira’s poetic documentary looks at the ways people make what they can out of a life on the margins (“There’s Margin” is the English translation of the film’s title).
Spatial politics also play an important role in Christian Haardt’s A New Environment, an essayistic film with rather esoteric interests and a dry tone. Composed of archival footage edited to the audio of an interview with the architect Heinrich Klotz, it covers, among other topics centered around 20th-century architecture, how national character and memory is revealed or hidden by major building projects like the postwar reconstruction of Frankfurt. Klotz’s thinking can be intriguingly dialectical: Suspicious of modernity’s penchant for reproductions, he nevertheless embraces the design principles of Disney World because even if it represents the pinnacle of fabricated living, it contains the dream of a unique and specific utopia. But Haardt’s sparse, quiet film has a monotonous quality that often makes it easy to lose the stakes of Klotz’s extended discourse.
Thomas Heise’s Heimat Is a Space in Time, which won the Caligari Prize at this year’s Berlinale and screened at Doclisboa in the “From the Earth to the Moon” section, is more effective in grappling with German history. Heise delves into his own archival material—letters, diary entries, photographs, even a resume—to reconstruct the effect that the tragedies of the 20th century had on his family. At one point, he reads an exchange of letters between family members from the ‘30s and ‘40s—some in newly annexed Vienna, some in their adopted home of Berlin—over scrolling images of deportation lists. As the dispersed family reports of the increasing persecution they face and expresses their growing fears of being deported and murdered, we wait in anguish for the inevitable appearance of their names on the lists. In this sequence and others, the film’s deliberate pace demands intellectual engagement, compelling us to look and truly consider the material reality of the past.
Heimat Is a Space in Time’s title uses the German word for “homeland” in an evocative, paradoxical phrase that suggests the historically mutability of the concept, and the problem of a notion of homeland for a German whose family was shattered by the most notorious and inhumane of the 20th century’s nationalist movements. By contrast, Wook Steven Heo’s Under-Ground is a far less personalized confrontation with significant historical spaces affected by the chaos that nationalist aggression set loose in the world. Wook sends his camera contemplatively into the cold landscapes of factories and industrial campuses where the Japanese forced Korean captives to work, through now-empty caverns under Okinawa where Korean prisoners died alongside Japanese soldiers, and around Japanese anti-war memorials, looking to capture spaces of suffering that were forgotten even as the rest of the world memorialized their fallen.
The film’s anonymous feel suits the legacy of dehumanization Wook is concerned with—Under-Ground is in large part a protest against Japanese steel giant Nippon’s refusal to reckon with its historical participation in war crimes—but at times its presentation can feel a bit cold, suggesting a particularly somber travel film. Finding a more metaphorical way of dealing with the spaces of the past is Clayton Vomero’s Zona, a documentary-narrative hybrid that draws parallels between the spread of individualism among young people in the ‘80s, which helped bring an end to Russia’s totalitarian communist state, and today’s Russian subculture.
Zona’s title is surely a reference to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, in which a mysterious event creates an exceptional zone of temptation in which wishes come true. One of the veterans of the so‐called second Russian revolution in 1991 describes post-communist Russia as permanently existing in the state of exception declared during the military’s attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Russia here appears as a metaphysically suspended space, caught between the dream of the West its young people had at the turn of the ‘90s and the reality of a country that managed to successfully adopt neoliberalism but not democracy.
The attitudes of today’s counterculture youth, which the film represents through scripted but veracious interviews, offers a glimpse at the possibility of a more open Russia, but it’s clear now that this open future won’t be achieved by building more McDonalds. The problem with global capitalism, one of the Gen-X rebels interviewed notes in despair, is that “in the end, everyone will just be American.” Finding a Russian identity that doesn’t depend on such a perverse dream may require finally canceling the state of exception that the film proposes the country has found itself in for nearly three decades.
The selections cited here represents a miniscule portion of the 303 films showing at Doclisboa. Many, like Heimat Is a Space in Time, have already received attention after playing other festivals earlier this year. Werner Herzog probably counts as the biggest name with a film at Doclisboa, with his strange new Japan-set drama Family Romance, LLC, about an actor (Ishii Yuichi) who works for a company that hires him out to impersonate the missing father to a 12-year-old girl (Mahiro Tanimoto). It played Cannes earlier this year. Eric Baudelaire’s disarming documentary A Dramatic Film, made over the course of four years in collaboration with a diverse group of pre-teen children at a Paris school, premiered more recently at Locarno.
Gathering such already-premiered films under the Doclisboa umbrella—or, as a recurrent advertisement for the fest suggests, baking them into the same cake—invites us to consider their politics alongside their experimental aesthetics. When a director chooses to allow a black French child to record his walk home for inclusion in his film, when an established German director elects to make a film about the mechanization of family relations in Japan with Japanese principles, they’re not merely aesthetic choices, but political interventions that color the films’ reconstruction of the real. As Doclisboa’s program and emboldened stance against the burgeoning democratic crisis in Brazil attests, film may be a form of action as well as one of thought. Its images open a space for both a reckoning with the old and the creation of the new.
Doclisboa runs from October 17—27.
New York Film Festival 2019
If cinema is, indeed, the domain of freedom, then the festival doesn’t see Netflix as the villain in that struggle.
“Cinema is the domain of freedom, and it’s an ongoing struggle to maintain that freedom,” said New York Film Festival director and selection committee chair Kent Jones in a statement last month accompanying the announcement of the films that will screen as part of the main slate of the 57th edition of the festival. And depending on who you ask, Netflix is either the hero or villain in that struggle.
More than half of the 29 titles in the main slate enjoyed their world premiere earlier this year at Cannes, where Netflix had no film in competition, as its battle with festival director Thierry Frémaux, who requires a theatrical run for any Cannes entrant, continues unabated. (The streaming giant did walk away from the festival with acquisition rights to Jérémy Clapin’s I Lost My Body and Mati Diop’s Grand Prix winner Atlantics.) There’s no right or wrong here per se, though it’s clear that Frémaux’s edict is an extension of his nostalgia for the golden age of cinema, which he sees as sacrosanct as the length of the theatrical window, and just how steadfastly he sticks to his guns may determine the fate of the world’s most important film festival.
The New York Film Festival opens on Friday, September 27 with the world premiere of Martin Scorsese’s hotly anticipated The Irishman, almost one month to the day that it was announced that Netflix could not reach a distribution deal with major theater chains, including AMC, Regal, and Cinemark. The film will drop on Netflix less than a month after opening in some theaters across the country—a non-traditional distribution strategy that will continue to be seen as short-circuiting a Netflix film’s best picture chances at the Academy Awards, at least until one comes along and does what Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma couldn’t last year.
It remains to be seen if The Irishman will be that film. But this much is also clear, and the New York Film Festival is making no bones about it: This streamable movie is very much a movie, and to be able to see a new Scorsese film that might not have run three hours and 30 minutes had it been released by a traditional distributor is very much a win for freedom—or, at least, a certain stripe of cinephile’s idea of freedom.
In addition to The Irishman and Atlantics, Netflix also has Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, at the festival (the centerpiece selection no less). Baumbach’s divorce drama bowed last month at the Venice Film Festival, alongside Martin Eden, Pietro Marcello’s first feature since Lost and Beautiful, and Wasp Network, which marks Olivier Assayas’s 10th appearance at the New York Film Festival. Among the returning auteurs are Kleber Mendonça Filho (Bacurau, co-directed with Juliano Dornelles), Kelly Reichardt (First Cow), Albert Serra (Liberté), Arnaud Desplechin (Oh Mercy!), Pedro Almodóvar (Pain and Glory), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Young Ahmed), and the greatest of the great, Agnès Varda, whose Varda by Agnès premiered earlier this year at Berlinale alongside Nadav Lapid’s Golden Bear winner Synonyms and Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But…
Among the festival’s noteworthy sidebars are Spotlight on Documentary, which includes new works by Tim Robbins (45 Seconds of Laughter, about inmates at the Calipatria State maximum-security facility taking part in acting exercises), Michael Apted (63 Up, the latest entry in the filmmaker’s iconic, one-of-a-kind British film series), and Alla Kovgan (Cunningham, a 3D portrait of the artistic evolution of choreographer Merce Cunningham); the MUBI-sponsored Projections, which features the latest films from Éric Baudelaire (Un Film Dramatique) and Thomas Heise (Heimat Is a Space in Time); and a Special Events section that includes Todd Phillips’s surprise Golden Lion winner Joker and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club Encore, which brings the 1984 period film back to its original length and luster. Ed Gonzalez
For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, visit Film at Lincoln Center.
Atlantics (Mati Diop)
Starved for work after the depletion of Senegal’s local fishing industry, thousands of young men take to the sea every year aboard pirogues, or small boats, fleeing their country for Spain. Those who have emigrated, died, or been incarcerated as part of the “pirogue phenomenon”—referred to colloquially as “Barcelona or death” in Senegalese communities—are the ghosts that haunt Atlantics. The forms those spirits take in the film represent just some of what’s so extraordinary about Mati Diop’s first feature as a director, a work of disparate influences and genres that pulses on its own oblique wavelength. Atlantics transitions into oblique genre fare in a manner reminiscent of Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, with electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri’s multifaceted score adding ghostly strings and pop guitar riffs over spiritual, syncopated Middle Eastern arrangements. Despite its wild narrative leaps, the film is undergirded with a holistic mix of serenity and trauma that recalls Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour. Christopher Gray
Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles)
Kleber Mendoça Filho and Juliano Donnelles’s Bacurau assembles a vibrant and eclectic collage of reference points. It’s a wild neo-western that pulls into its orbit UFO-shaped drones, elaborate folklore, limb-flaying and head-exploding gore, and Udo Kier as a villain who shouts in a mockingly high-pitched voice, “Hell no!” The Bacurau of the film’s title is a fictional town in Brazil’s northeastern interior, depicted here at some point in the not-too-distant future. The citizens live in a relatively undisturbed harmony—until Bacuaru is literally wiped off the map (GPS no longer can locate the backwater), local cell service is jammed, and the people find themselves hunted, A Dangerous Game-style, by gringo infiltrators. Mendoça Filho is one of contemporary Brazilian cinema’s most sharply political filmmakers, and Bacurau solidifies his commitment to rebuking Brazil’s current administration and its willful erasure of the country’s culture and heritage. Sam C. Mac
Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)
Kantemir Balagov has set Beanpole largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lighting—and it’s the red of upholstery, Soviet imagery, and blood that cuts most forcefully through the brightest of those greens. Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s color palette recalls that of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique for the way it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings Beanpole’s grounded sociopolitical commentary into greater focus. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working at a Leningrad hospital after the end of World War II, feels trapped in trauma, suffering from recurring fits of full-body catatonia. Her psychological state is magnified by the more visible scars of the soldiers recuperating all around her, adding to the sense that Balagov’s hermetically sealed vision of Leningrad only compounds and reflects Iya’s PTSD back onto her. The filmmaker may depict the pain of his characters in blunt terms, but he traces the aftershocks of collapse with delicate subtlety. Jake Cole
Fire Will Come (Olivier Laxe)
Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come refreshingly occupies an almost uncategorizable cinematic realm. Were it a piece of writing it would exist at the crossroads of an essay, a reportage, and a series of haikus singing the praises and the plights of a threatened ecosystem. Although we know its images to be composed and assembled, and as such “fiction,” the film’s delicate pace and the contemplative choreography of its camerawork conjure a sense of authenticity so organic that we’re almost convinced that there’s no space between the characters and the actors, between the filmed setting and the actual landscape. This is a film where the characters’ names coincide with those of the actors playing them. It’s at once a portrait of a place and a portrait of a person—namely, of the Galician countryside and of Amador (Amador Arias), an arsonist who returns home to see his elderly mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez). Given the rich simplicity of the scenario, Laxe recognizes that even the smallest amount of traditional plot would feel excessive. Diego Semerene
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
First Cow is one of Kelly Reichardt’s shakier efforts. The film begins with an especially incisive William Blake quote (“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”), and its themes of systemic exploitation, the enduring vagaries of the free market, and the alternately tender and tempestuous bonds of male camaraderie are propped up by characters who come off as half-formed avatars rather than flesh-and-blood human beings. That isn’t to say Reichardt, who’s edited all of her films since Old Joy, has lost the ability to create multilayered, gently provocative imagery. There’s a beauty of a shot in First Cow’s first scene, set in the present day, of a young woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog and uncovering a pair of skeletons beside an Oregon river. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt frames the bones in a steady, un-showy composition (the film is photographed in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio) so that it takes a few seconds to realize what you’re looking at. The slow-dawning revelation of the moment epitomizes Reichardt’s tendency in First Cow, as well as in many of her other films, to let drama emerge steadily and organically. Keith Uhlich
A Girl Missing (Kôji Fukada)
Throughout his 2016 film Harmonium, Kôji Fukada favored ambiguous, emotionally charged tableaux over narrative mechanics, and he continues that emphasis in A Girl Missing to ambitious, evocative, and troubling effect. The film is a story driven by kidnapping that’s almost entirely disinterested in the motivations of the kidnapper and the pain of the victim and her family. Instead, the film is attached, to a consciously insular degree, to a nurse, Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui), whose life is ruined peripherally by the kidnapping due to one peculiarly bad choice on her part. As austere as Harmonium could be, the characters were in their way dynamic and made sense. With A Girl Missing, Fukada may believe that he’s transcended the melodramatic strictures of a regular crime film or of the kind of woman’s martyr vehicle in which Joan Crawford used to specialize. Instead, he’s fashioned an occasionally haunting art object with miserable stick figures. Chuck Bowen
The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)
More so than Goodfellas or Casino, Martin Scorsese’s two other told-in-retrospect gangster films, The Irishman—at least for the first two hours of its riveting three-and-a-half-hour runtime—feels composed of burnished, often blackly funny, fragments of erratic memory. The elderly, wheelchair-bound labor union official and mobster Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro) glosses over the truth even when he’s telling it, recalling the past, even at its most violent, with a propulsive, rosy cheer that plays at a cursory glance like Goodfellas-lite. Scorsese knows what his audience is hoping for: glory days, resurrected. But he also understands the impossibility of anyone being exactly as they once were. So he weaves that longing into both The Irishman’s text and its technique, presenting Sheeran’s youthful recollections—his rise in rank with Russell Bufalino’s (Joe Pesci) crew, his work with a beleaguered Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) during the era when Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Jack Huston) worked hard to bring down organized crime—as augmented hoodlum reveries that will soon catch up with the character’s spiritually impoverished present. Uhlich
I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec)
Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But… take a fairly simple premise and builds a multilayered series of narrative threads around it, one filled with the detours and inconsistencies of life as it’s experienced on a day-to-day basis. In doing so, Schanelec isn’t complicating or overthinking the familiar, but, rather, inviting her audience to rethink how these seemingly universal narratives function. The film is at its in moments when Schanalec’s insight into trauma as a menace that asserts itself at inopportune and confusing moments is powerfully dramatized. It’s less successful when reaching for symbolic associations, as in the strikingly staged but inert passages of Shakespearean recitation that draw out connections between the story of Hamlet and a troubled fortysomething mother’s (Maren Eggert) life, or in the strained, bookending bits of business involving a dog and a donkey. For her part, Schanalec has preached in interviews that an experiential, non-intellectual approach to watching her films is ideal, so it’s telling that, in spite of its occasional academicism, I Was at Home, But… configures itself most potently in hindsight as a punch to the gut. Carson Lund
Liberté (Albert Serra)
As they move inexorably forward in time, Albert Serra’s films don’t crescendo so much as peter out. In Story of My Death, the harbinger on the horizon is the return of irrational, Romantic thinking in the late 18th century, which would effectively smother the enlightened libertinism that the story otherwise wallows in. And in The Death of Louis XIV, it’s the fate promised by the title, to which the film marched with solemn certitude. Serra’s new film, the audaciously perverse and amorphous Liberté, doesn’t give up its game so readily. Nearly without narrative conflict, it homes in on a long night of sexual experimentation among a group of libertines hiding out from the French courts on the Prussian border in the late 17th century, and for much of Liberté’s duration, the only things generating forward momentum are the subtly escalating intensity of the acts themselves and the faint expectation, however ruthlessly exploited, that the sun will eventually rise again. Lund
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story initially occupies a rather nebulous spot between broad-strokes comedy and raw melodrama. But as the initially amicable split between a playwright, Charlie (Adam Driver), and his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), takes a sour turn, the film becomes more acerbic, fixating on how familiarity breeds contempt. At one point, we catch a glimpse of old magazine profile of the couple—written at the height of their artistic collaboration and domestic bliss—titled “Scenes from a Marriage,” a throwaway allusion to Ingmar Bergman that’s also a winking promise of the decline and fall to come. But even at its most blistering, the film contains small moments of grace in which Nicole and Charlie reflexively help or comfort each other. These subtle glimpses of their lingering affection for one another and familiarity complicate the bitterness of their separation. Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” and only two people who were once as deeply in love as Nicole and Charlie were could have spent so long observing every minute detail of their partner to become so obsessed with each other’s flaws in the first place. Cole
Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello)
Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden works better as a story of self-loathing and self-destruction than it does as a social critique or political statement. Marcello and Luca Marinelli, as the handsome, uneducated sailor of the film’s title, don’t make the difference between Martin at the beginning and Martin at the end distinct enough for viewers to really appreciate the character’s transmogrification. But as a piece of filmmaking that’s about the craft of filmmaking, Martin Eden, which was shot on 16mm, is occasionally brilliant. It’s an amalgamation of epochal aesthetics and formal styles, from drifty handheld shots and grainy close-ups of emotional faces that recall the French and Italian films of the late-‘60s, to static compositions and inky-black shadows that threaten to swallow Martin and the bourgeoisie. The color grading lends an ethereal air to the landscape shots (the ocean, blue and writhing, looks especially beautiful). Marcello splices in clips of silent films and footage of workers in Naples, which further emphasizes the timelessness of the film’s themes. Greg Cwik
The Moneychanger (Federico Veiroj)
Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger charts the prosperous, morally rotten career of Humberto Brause (Daniel Handler), a prominent money changer for all manner of ne’er-do-wells. Much is made of gestures like hand-tailoring suits to transport money, but the movement of cash—from client to Humberto to various far-flung locations around the globe—is by and large curtly presented. The film eventually verges on the farcical, with Humberto engaging in a Force Majeure-esque act of cowardice during a shooting while driving with his wife (Dolores Fonzi) in Argentina and a rushed scheme to steal from a dead man before he’s interred, among other indiscretions. While these scenarios are somewhat absurd and funny, they feel calculated in their attempts to stress just how pitiful Humberto has become that he has to turn to such pathetic ploys to stay afloat. It’s apparent that Veiroj disdains no one so much as Humberto, but the film makes little of the man’s undoubtedly twisted psyche. Throughout, The Moneychanger maintains a monolithic meanness, skirting even the smallest gesture of sympathy for Humberto and bulldozing him with further proofs of his depravity. Peter Goldberg
Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton)
Fans of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn will be immediately struck by Edward Norton’s decision to change the novel’s time setting from 1999 to 1957 for his long-gestating film adaptation. Given how effectively the novel transplanted a classic hardboiled noir setup to contemporary New York, Norton’s popping of the novel’s anachronistic bubble is curious for how it makes literal what Lethem made so playfully postmodern. By setting his film in the ‘50s, when the noir style was at its most influential, Norton only makes it easier to spot those moments where the dialogue is trying much too hard to capture the snap, wit, and loquacious cynicism of the genre’s best films. Throughout, Norton’s too-neat visual coverage is indicative of his film’s greatest failing. At its best, noir leaves enough unsaid that, even if a mystery is solved, one is left with the distinct impression that nothing has been fixed. Motherless Brooklyn feels altogether too tidy, a film that revives many of the touchstones of noir, but never that throbbing unease that courses through the classics of the genre. Cole
Oh Mercy! (Arnaud Desplechin)
Based on a 2008 documentary, Oh Mercy! follows a police precinct in Roubaix as it pursues various cases. Throughout, director Arnaud Desplechin is bracingly concerned less with any isolated crime or character than he is in conveying simultaneousness by seizing on stray details. There’s a sense here of the dwarfing mechanics of maintaining process amid chaos, which is rare for films and common of perfunctory crime novels. Before the authorities in Oh Mercy! can comprehend an act of arson, a serial rapist commits another assault in a subway. And before someone can make sense of that action, a girl runs away. Presiding over the madness is a police captain, Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), who’s a quiet and dignified model of patience and sobriety, who must navigate nesting strands of social tensions, on the personal as well as the political level. Oh Mercy! is a striking stylistic departure for Desplechin. By the standards of florid pseudo auto-biopics such as Kings and Queen and Ismael’s Ghosts, this film is an exercise in formal and tonal restraint. Bowen
Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)
A film about an aging artist struggling to recapture his yen for creation, Pain and Glory has the makings of a deeply personal, career-capping work for Pedro Almodóvar. His name may be Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), but the gay filmmaker, with his tussled hair, white beard, and red turtleneck, may as well call himself Pedro. One of the very few differences between them is that Salvador has stopped making films while Almodóvar continues to work at a relatively steady clip. Pain and Glory is a ballsy admission on the Spanish auteur’s part that he hasn’t made a film in more than a decade that can compare with his most outrageous and subversive output, which makes it all the more dispiriting that his latest only occasionally captures the spry, comedic rhythms and impassioned, melodramatic intensity that defined Law of Desire and Bad Education. Still, however much Almodóvar’s formalist bona fides may have cooled, his ability to craft emotionally acute, achingly felt scenes between men in the throes of love is as vigorous as ever. Mac
Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)
Parasite finds Bong Joon-ho scaling back the high-concept ambitions of Snowpiercer and Okja, in favor of examining a close-knit family dynamic that’s reminiscent of the one at the center of The Host. Except this time the monster isn’t some amphibious abomination that results from extreme genetic mutation, but the insidious forces of class and capital that divide a society’s people. Parasite is an excoriating indictment of South Korea’s dehumanizing social culture, mounted by Bong with a dazzling control of genre conventions that he continues to seamlessly bend to his absurd comic rhythms. The film is also reinstates the emotional core that’s been missing from Bong’s recent work, and even feigns a concise narrative structure. It’s the kind of bold and uncompromising work that confirms why Bong is one of our most exciting auteurs, for how his sociocultural criticisms can be so biting, so pungent, when they’re imbued with such great focus and sense of intent. Mac
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a taxonomy of gazes that’s also a discourse on them. This sweeping portrayal of a romance doomed to brevity asks how to memorialize an image, but also how to keep it eternally alive. Sciamma isn’t out to question the gazes exchanged between Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adéle Haenel), but to point out that one gaze is always met by another, and what’s most stirring about her film is the lack of artifice in Héloïse and Marianne’s feelings for one another. The film frustrates when it feels compelled to elucidate those struggles in words, or through a hokey flashback structure (that, it should be said, yields to an ecstatic final shot). Sciamma’s script has more than a handful of dazzling turns of phrase, but it’s also unnecessarily keen to give some present-day relevance to a romance that’s assuredly timeless. Where her prior films have excelled in situating their protagonists in complex, sometimes hostile societies, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is at its most beguiling and probing when the rest of the world feels far away. Gray
Saturday Fiction (Lou Ye)
With Saturday Fiction, divisive Chinese director Lou Ye applies a distinctly modern film vernacular to an anachronistic period setting. As in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, the digital image, disjunctive editing, and a roving handheld camera serve to tether the filmmaking of the present to more remote events of the past, lending immediacy to the action. In Public Enemies, this served to frame what we’re watching as a construct of media—history bleeding into myth and articulated through a modern-day understanding of celebrity. But in this film, the artifice also exists to complement his World War II spy narrative’s preoccupation with different modes of performativity. And at the center of all this is screen legend Gong Li, who, in her first film role in three years, gradually undergoes a transformation from passive observer into gun-wielding firebrand, resulting in the most truly iconic performance that the actress has delivered in decades. Mac
Sibyl (Justine Triet)
Justine Triet uses the relationship between the creative process and the work of psychoanalysis, or its simplified cinematic version, as raw material for her latest dramedy. Sibyl follows the madcap efforts and subterfuges that the eponymous alcoholic therapist (Virginie Efira) deploys in order to finally write a novel. And the first step she takes is to get rid of most of her patients—most, not all, so that there’s always a lifeline connecting the new Sibyl to the old one. That is, so Sibyl never has to truly let go of anything at all. This tactic, beyond mere plot device, is the first crucial clue, or symptom, that Triet discloses about Sibyl as the filmmaker smartly humanizes the figure of the therapist as someone in desperate need of a therapist herself. The initial line in Sibyl’s (non-)emancipatory equation, to start anew by keeping her old life handy, is one of the film’s many instances of mirroring, as some viewers will easily recognize in Sibyl’s pursuits their own tendency to make half-decisions. Which is to say, the way we can fool ourselves into thinking that we’re pursuing something whereas we’re secretly pursuing something else—something less avowable. Semerene
Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)
Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms doesn’t hew to a steadily progressing plot. The attraction Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillotte) feel to Yoav (Tom Mercier), and the tensions that drove Yoav away from Israel, will come full circle, but only after the film takes a circuitous route through Yoav’s brief employment in security at the Israeli embassy; his friendship with a militant Zionist who tries to provoke fights he can claim as anti-Semitic attacks; and a required assimilation class he takes as he attempts to legitimately immigrate. A certain calculated inconsistency in style and pacing also makes the film feel elusive and estranging, but that’s most likely the point. Certainly one concern of Synonyms is the irrational sickness that’s nationalism: At times it appears that Israeli nationalism has driven Yoav mad, given him his detached affect and his habit of obsessively reciting synonyms in the street. Funny, frustrating, and stealthily sad, Synonyms is a bold film about the refusal to assimilate in one country, and the failure to assimilate in another. Pat Brown
To the Ends of the Earth (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest is a radical departure for the auteur, as it isn’t beholden to a taut narrative. Instead, it’s squarely focused on character—a strategy that results in his most intricately rendered portrait of the psychology of fear to date. To the Ends of the Earth is not, by any measure, a horror film, but it uses aesthetic and philosophical foundations that Kurosawa laid in his genre work to insinuate tensions and anxieties lurking beneath the serene surface of everyday life. The film’s setup could almost be interpreted as a kind of self-aware joke: A Japanese camera crew arrives in Uzbekistan with the purpose of shooting footage for a travel show and becomes increasingly frustrated over not having enough usable material. As such, generally little in the way of incident occurs for much of the film. However, To the Ends of the Earth isn’t just a meandering film born of an auteur’s plane ticket to a foreign country: If Kurosawa is less interested in narrative dynamics, it’s because he’s focused on an acute understanding of societally and sociologically conditioned behavior. Mac
The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)
Though Pierfrancesco Favino plays Sicilian mob boss turned informant Tommaso Buscetta with the stern poise of a criminal boss, the gangster easily, almost comically buckles under the slightest pressure from the state. But it’s in director Marco Bellocchio’s depiction of the “Maxi Trial” in a heavily fortified courtroom in Palermo that The Traitor completes its metamorphosis from a grisly, stone-faced drama about mob violence into an almost farcical satire of Italy’s justice system. Unfortunately, as is often the case with contemporary Italian genre pieces, the film is too brutish by half, as well as 40 minutes too long. The comic brio of Bellocchio’s staging of the “Maxi Trial” invigorates The Traitor, but he surprisingly wraps up that arc with close to an hour left in the film’s running time. The extended final act, which follows Tommaso and his family as they enter into American witness protection before ultimately returning to Italy for a series of follow-up trials, drifts along without clear purpose, unevenly oscillating between the comedic and the somber. Cole
Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda)
Agnès Varda’s final film is essentially a lecture, with the iconic filmmaker’s talks from multiple events threading together highlights from her oeuvre. Throughout, she shares the underlying inspiration for films like Cléo from 5 to 7 and details her creative process. While her other documentaries (among them The Gleaners and I, The Beaches of Agnès, and Faces Places) have often explored the intersection between art and life, Varda by Agnès finds the filmmaker far less able to extend her gaze beyond her own work. She allows herself to go off on tangents, and, ironically, her ancillary thoughts feel a bit less navel-gazing than the film’s main thrust. For one, the story about directing Robert De Niro for one day for her final fiction film, One Hundred and One Nights, should seem an extraneous bit of boasting, but Varda’s bashfully excited tone makes it seem generous. And whenever she talks about her beloved husband, director Jacques Demy, who died of AIDS in 1990, the film also approaches a kind of “sharing” not borrowed from her previous work. Brown
Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)
As in Horse Money, shadows blanket Vitalina Varela, with slivers of light only illuminating people and whatever objects writer-director Pedro Costa wishes to call attention to. This yields images that are arresting on their face but also hint at richer meanings, as in a shot of Vitalina (Vitalina Varela) in silhouette folding the safety vest of a construction worker who stands in a doorway in the background, also in shadow, with only the reflective green-yellow of the vest giving off any light. The sight of immigrants obscured from view as a symbol of their menial labor glows in the foreground speaks volumes to a way of life that consumes the characters. Yet the film is no polemic. It raises delicate questions about postcolonial immigration, such as whether breadwinning vanguards should gamble on the allure of the unknown to make way for a possibly better life or settle for the hard but known life they already have. The film’s oblique nature elides any simple interpretations, and the irresoluteness of the social commentary mingles with Vitalina’s personal ruminations over her life. The film, like Colossal Youth and Horse Money, is a ghost story. Cole
Wasp Network (Olivier Assayas)
Both too much and not enough, writer-director Olivier Assayas’s Wasp Network takes a surprisingly little-known chapter in the post-Cold War espionage game and starts to blow it up into an epic-sized story before losing the thread. Based on Fernando Morais’s 2011 book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, the film starts out as a crisply paced, lavishly photographed, and character-based study of what the members of the so-called “Cuban Five” spy ring did and how they did it. Unfortunately, it spreads its attentions so wide and at times without consequence that the import of the events it depicts starts to get lost. While it was exciting to hear that Assayas had shifted away from his literate urban dramas, Wasp Network is ultimately a misstep. Because it never fully embraces the Cold War spy narrative and fails to dig in-depth into the story’s tangle of intrigue and moral murk, the final product feels like more of an interesting and beautifully filmed anecdote than compelling political and human drama. Christopher Gray
The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)
Mercilessly efficient and righteously cynical, writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers is nested with twists that place corrupt Bucharest policeman, corrupt Bucharest policeman, further and further from discovering who’s manipulating the byzantine plot he finds himself enmeshed within on La Gomera, the “pearl” of the Canary Islands. Cristi’s inability to make sense of his place in the very case he’s investigating is just one of the film’s cruel, quite funny jokes. Another is Silbo, a whistled register of the Spanish language that inspires the film’s title. Composed of a half dozen notes that each represent certain letters of the Spanish alphabet, the ancient language has been used by natives of La Gomera for generations. Throughout, Porumboiu largely handles The Whistlers’s persistent strain of artifice masterfully, hurtling his narrative ahead even as he’s jumbling timeframes and lingering in moments of ironic menace. Though the film is sometimes too liberal in its arsenal of references, Porumboiu executes his plot with a persistently low-key swagger, coaxing his actors into memorable but perfectly blank performances. Gray
The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan)
Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake is a crackerjack genre exercise, but it’s up to a fair bit more than it might at first seem. Diao joins other contemporary Chinese filmmakers like Vivian Qu (Trap Street) and Xin Yukun (Wrath of Silence) in recognizing that genre movies offer a kind of smokescreen for a form of sociopolitical engagement that the Chinese censors likely wouldn’t otherwise approve. Which is to say, the heightened violence and ugliness of a crime film seems to allow for a kind of depiction of Chinese social life that wouldn’t be acceptable from a “realistic” drama. Diao takes this all a bit further, however, utilizing the sprawling geography of what’s essentially a chase film to deep-dive into the sordid underbelly of a Chinese society where lawlessness trumps order. The Wild Goose Lake’s masterstroke is that its fugitive antiheroes are framed by an environment that reflects their criminal lives back at them, seemingly no matter where they turn. Mac
Young Ahmed (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
In many of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s films, elliptical structures communicate the scattershot-ness of people’s lives, suggesting an endless string of calamity and confusion. But in Young Ahmed, the ellipses suggest an unwillingness to imagine an aspiring radical’s inner life. Initially, the Dardennes don’t exactly engender pity for Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi), as that response would compromise their fetishizing of his impenetrability as a testament to their own humanist bona fides. They maintain a distance from the Belgian teen as a way of celebrating their refusal to reduce him to any easy psychological bullet points, which ironically reduces him to a signifier of their virtue. Yet Ahmed’s seduction by a manipulative mentor, Imam Youssouf (Othmane Mouman), is still fleetingly “explained” with references to family trauma that unsurprisingly suggest that Ahmed has daddy issues and is looking for a mentor. The Dardennes don’t dramatize these traumas, as such events might destabilize the plaintive quotidian mood they cultivate throughout and require them to stretch and challenge the strict boundaries they’ve applied to this subject matter. Bowen
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)
Restlessly shuttling between 1960s Haiti and present-day France, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child roils with colonialist tensions. But as with the director’s prior Nocturama, this quixotic, slow-burn genre film is political largely in the abstract. While there are moments here where a history of exploitation informs the relationship between the French, lily-white Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Haitian refugee Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat)—classmates at an all-girls school established by Napoleon Bonaparte—Bonello’s interests go much deeper than race relations. The dialectical relationship between past and present has become a central organizing principle of Bonello’s artistry, evident in his anachronistic soundtrack choices and his unmooring of characters from their period settings through decidedly modern behaviors or situations, but here he approaches that dialectic in a crucially different manner. Instead of overlaying modern-day signifiers on a period piece setting, as he did in House of Pleasures, Zombi Child suggests two temporalities that exist parallel to each other. Mac
Locarno Film Festival 2019: Technoboss, Echo, & A Voluntary Year
A striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register.
Locarno often leans into its reputation as Europe’s most unapologetically highbrow summer festival, but a striking number of the titles that appeared in the festival’s competition slate this year operate in a playful, breezy register. Such as João Nicolau’s Technoboss, an unwaveringly deadpan musical comedy about an aging divorcé, Luís (Miguel Lobo Antunes), nearing the end of what seems to have been a tedious career selling and maintaining integrated security systems. His existence is far from enviable, as he’s past his prime as a salesman and baffled by modern technology, while his primary companion is his cat. To compound the overriding sense of ennui, Nicolau presents a decidedly drab vision of Portugal, all cramped offices, cluttered shop floors, and soulless hotels.
Luís, though, remains optimistic, as evinced by his tendency to burst into song as he drives between assignments, and by the quietly determined way in which he attempts to regain the affection of an old flame, Lucinda (Luisa Cruz), despite her apparent disdain for him. Antunes, in his first professional acting role, is compelling, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye that hints at a rich inner life. And while his vocal range is limited, to say the least, he brings an earnestness to the musical numbers that elevates them above mere quirky window dressing.
Ultimately, the film is too narratively slight and tonally monotonous to justify its two-hour running time. One running joke in particular, involving a smarmy executive who’s frequently heard off screen but never seen, runs out of steam in the final act. And yet, when viewed in close proximity to the likes of Park Jung-bum’s dreary crime drama Height of the Wave, which bafflingly won this year’s special jury prize, Technoboss is a breath of fresh air.
Runar Runarsson’s Echo isn’t exactly a laugh a minute: An early scene depicts the preparation for a child’s funeral, while subsequent sequences revolve around police brutality, domestic violence, and the lasting impact of childhood bullying. But it’s delightful to behold Runarsson’s sly execution of a formally bold premise. Clocking in at 79 minutes, the film is composed of 56 standalone vignettes connected by a Christmas setting. The constant narrative shifts are initially jarring, but recurring themes begin to emerge: rising social inequality in the aftermath of the financial crisis; the impact of modern technology on traditional ways of life; the drabness of winter and its impact on the country’s collective mental health.
Yet while the film’s underlying tone is melancholic, there are frequent bursts of pure comedy, from the absurd spectacle of abattoir workers bopping along to a jaunty rendition of “Jingle Bells” amid animal carcasses, to a farmer and her partner earnestly squabbling about the state of their relationship as they document the mating habits of their goats. Humor also arises through the juxtaposition of scenes. The haunting image of a boy in a coffin is followed by a clinical shot of a similarly motionless adult body, and it takes a moment to register that we’re looking at not another corpse, but rather a man lying under a tanning lamp. Later, a heartwarming kids’ nativity scene cuts abruptly to a shot of bikini-clad bodybuilders performing in a harshly lit, half-empty auditorium.
However, it’s Echo’s sincerity that really impresses. One sequence, in which an emergency services operator calmly reassures a child reporting a violent altercation between his parents, is remarkable in the way it hooks the viewer emotionally in mere seconds. The film ultimately coheres into a vivid portrait of contemporary Iceland that’s equal parts bleak and beguiling.
A Voluntary Year, co-directed by Berlin School alumni Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler, is a similarly bittersweet affair, walking a fine line between raw domestic drama and precision-engineered comedy of errors. Sebastian Rudolph stars as Urs, an off-puttingly pushy small-town doctor intent on packing his teenage daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke) off to Costa Rica to volunteer in a hospital. Jette, though, would rather spend her gap year at home with her boyfriend, Mario (Thomas Schubert), who seems harmless enough but has been written off as a poisonous influence by Urs. A sequence of mishaps in the thrillingly unpredictable opening act gives the young couple a brief chance to take charge of their own futures, but the decision Jette hastily makes pushes her strained relationship with her father towards breaking point.
Köhler and Winckler do a fine job of eliciting sympathy for their deeply flawed characters. Jette is maddeningly indecisive and prone to overly dramatic outbursts, but her brash exterior masks deep-seated vulnerability. Meanwhile, it’s easy to share Urs’s disbelief that Jette should be even remotely infatuated with the woefully uncharismatic Mario, but the boy’s earnestness ultimately proves strangely endearing. Urs is much harder to warm to, as he’s the quintessential big fish in a small pond, clearly used to throwing his weight around and getting his own way. To add insult to injury, his handling of sensitive situations is often jaw-droppingly misjudged. And yet, the viewer is given a strong enough sense of his good intentions to at least partially root for him as he attempts to patch things up with Jette.
While it may not do this modest film any favors to make the comparison, there are shades of Maren Ade’s masterly Toni Erdmann in The Voluntary Year’s nuanced depiction of a fraught father-daughter relationship, and also in the way the filmmakers play the long game when it comes to delivering comic payoffs. An enigmatic narrative thread involving a migrant boy has a laugh-out-loud resolution that also neatly paves the way for a moving final scene.
The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7—17.
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