A film festival is animated by an ethos ostensibly controlled by its programmers, but inevitably influenced by the city the festival calls home. So what drives the Los Angeles Film Festival, now in its 17th year? If there’s any place in the world that’s instantly associated with the movies, it’s Los Angeles, and yet the city lacks an agenda-setting festival like Sundance, Cannes, or Toronto. Perhaps it’s a testament to how thoroughly the Hollywood juggernaut dominates the agenda in every other sense. Nevertheless, Film Independent continues to foster a local festival culture with the LA Film Fest, showcasing a variety of emerging talents both domestic and international.
There are a number of intriguing threads running through the festival, and one of them is its strong focus on Latin American cinema. It’s undoubtedly influenced by the position of Los Angeles as an international hub, home to a diverse host of immigrant populations and so neighborly close to Mexico. A slate of films from Latin America runs the gamut from intensive political-structural critique to heartfelt personal drama.
As nine-year-old Cayetana de los Heros (Fatima Buntinx) is being driven home by her father, she sees something out in the darkness: a fiery hammer and sickle burning on a hillside. She asks her father what it is; he tells her it’s nothing, just burning trash. But we’re in Peru and it’s 1982, so we know that it’s another act of terror by the Shining Path, one of the belligerents in the country’s bloody decades-long internal conflict. Las Malas Intenciones, the feature debut of writer-director Rosario Garcia-Montero, uses the terrible violence as the backdrop for a darkly comic portrait of Cayetana’s morbid childhood.
Here, the invisible yet ever-present threat of death transmutes strangely in the mind of an upper-class child. Cayetana is bombarded with Joycean levels of Catholic guilt from a firebrand priest, she yearns for affection from her absentee womanizer of a father, and ironically enough, she’s obsessed with the centuries-old historic revolutionary heroes of South America’s past, as befitting her name. She even envisions entire imaginary adventures with them. When Cayetana finds out that her mother is pregnant, her neuroses all converge into the belief that she will die when her mother gives birth to the child.
Buntinx carries the film on her diminutive shoulders, and her performance treads a fine line: She captures the naïveté of a young girl’s flights of fancy while giving a window into her overweening, privileged narcissism, one that’s just a shade away from sociopathy. A recurring comic motif of Cayetana trying to care for small animals and failing miserably takes a disturbing turn as the film progresses.
In many ways, Las Malas Intenciones is a twisted counterpoint to the 2006 Julie Gavras film Blame It on Fidel; both track young girls growing up in unstable political circumstances. But while Gavras spins a humanist tale of how resilience and an open mind can help a person connect to the world, Garcia-Montero shows how a fortress mentality and stultifying privilege can warp a child. Cayetana is a lost, lonely girl watching the walls of her mansion compound rising higher and higher; she’s oblivious to the fact that she and her family are perhaps a bit reminiscent of the colonialists that her revolutionary heroes fought against.
But political acuity isn’t the film’s only strength. Throughout, Garcia-Montero maintains a firm control over the tone, keeping an ironic distance with pointed gallows humor yet managing to find sympathy for its troubled protagonist. Cayetana may be preoccupied with death and abandonment, and she hardly ever smiles; meanwhile, the hazy, washed-out color palette evokes the paranoid decay of 1980s Peru. But even with all that, the film never feels dour or lifeless. It’s a nuanced portrait of childhood, clear-eyed yet sympathetic.
He rolls up to the cemetery every night in his beat-up blue Chevy truck, greeted by his pair of black dogs. He has a salt-and-pepper beard and a weary expression—a quiet man, as befitting his solitary occupation. His name is Martin, the titular character in Natalia Almada’s documentary El Velador. Martin tends to a cemetery in the city of Culiacán in Sinaloa, a major hub for Mexican drug trafficking. As such, the small city of mausoleums that Martin looks over—in a wide variety of clashing styles unified only by the fact they’re all extravagant—is home to a legion of people who were most likely involved one way or another in drug trafficking and the drug war.
A young widow seems to come to the cemetery every day with her daughter to tend to her husband’s mausoleum. She goes through the same ritual: cleaning the glass doors, tending to the flowers, washing the staircase that leads up to the second story. We see her husband in photos wearing a police uniform, leaving the lingering question of how one affords such a grandiose structure on a policeman’s salary.
Almada’s style is quiet and observational and reserved, Direct Cinema in the purest sense. She sits back and watches the machinery of life that unfolds around her and the miniature community that builds up around death. There are the small gangs of construction workers building the mausoleums and the flower sellers with their elaborate and expensive displays. There are fruit vendors and funeral bands—an entire economy that springs from the residue of drug trafficking.
But we always come back to Martin the watchman, rolling in like clockwork. The film captures the quiet rhythm of day journeying past nightfall; even in the day there are long stretches of wordless action, but night is defined by its distinct solitude. There are no interviews, and the brief moments in which Martin speaks feel less directed to us and more the voicing of internal reflections. The chattiest of voices comes from Martin’s television, often tuned to the news that’s reporting on some distant moment of violence that might very well find its endpoint under Martin’s watch. It’s through these outlets that we sense Almada’s authorial hand working on the film, noting that her country is undergoing an agonizing paroxysm of drug violence. But the cemetery under Martin’s charge, so intimately connected to that violence, is nevertheless a bubble of isolation. Perhaps we hear gunshots in the distance, but here there is only quiet.
The story told in the opening moments of the documentary 108 is structured like a whodunit: In Paraguay’s capital of Asunción, Rodolfo Costa was found dead and naked on the floor, his closets empty. He had an alias, Hector Torres, and his bank account contained a small, unexplained fortune. But what interests Renate Costa, niece of Rodolfo and director of the film, is not so much the circumstances of the man’s death, but of his life. Costa uses her uncle as a way into exploring the weight of oppression and silence that lingers not only in her family, but in Paraguayan society, which through Costa’s lens still labors under the mentality of a police state.
Costa was a gay man under the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda, which brutally persecuted gays; the 108 refers to the number of names on the first of many infamous “homosexuals lists,” a number which has become a slur and effacement. Costa shows us that the number has become so charged that many rooms in Asunción hotels go from 107 to 109. Even after the transition to democracy and end of official persecution, the homophobic legacy remains, personified in Renate’s father Pedro. The man is utterly sincere in his Catholic condescension, telling us he truly believes he was protecting and saving his brother when they were younger by beating up his gay friends.
Costa’s conversations with her father form one strand of the story, as they embark on father-daughter fishing trips and kite flights that seem quite sad in the muddy pixelated twilight captured by her camera. They’re interspersed with debates that always end up with a father citing dogma and a daughter reluctant to engage, a wall of silence rising up between the two.
The other strand of the film comes as Costa finds the list of names that her uncle was on and she tries to speak to the people who were part of his shadow life, the ones who knew him as Hector Torres. They tell their own stories of marginalization and persecution, and even in the present, some of them want to remain in the shadows. They know that Costa’s father speaks the truth in saying there is a difference between politics and mentality. One may have changed, but the other hasn’t. Yet when presented with the list of names, these compatriots of Rodolfo’s ask for copies; to them it’s a badge of courage, of having made it through the worst.
Even though Costa’s film delves deep into the political psychology of a police state (the homosexual roundups often came as a response to and distraction from brutal crimes, for they served as convenient scapegoats), her story is ultimately a personal one. She knows that she’s a character, however peripheral, in a family drama, and she structures and shoots the piece to accentuate that. She examines old photographs and films of her uncle, trying to deconstruct the front the man put up to survive. She tries to connect to her father, to unpack the enigma through the bonds of family. But they always hit an impasse. One moment is emblematic of the father-daughter relationship: They sit across from each other, without making eye contact, and their silence stretches for what seems like an eternity until Renate breaks it with a simple observation (“It’s so hard to talk to you”).
Anayansi Prado’s documentary Paraiso for Sale is a study in ecology, where a seemingly pristine environment is altered by one wave of migration after another. The islands of Bocas del Toro off the coast of Panama have become a haven for American retirees: a tropical paradise where they can leverage the power of the U.S. dollar. It’s telling when one of the retirees says they can’t afford to get sick in America anymore. The film is a master class in structure that takes Bocas del Toro and lenses it through different strata: the native resident Feliciano fighting for indigenous rights to the land, the political hopeful Dario running for mayor on a platform of resisting transnational exploitation, and the American expatriates Karan and Willy, who’ve made their retirement home in the province.
Karan’s part of the early wave of residential tourists, people who’ve come to build homes and want to integrate with and contribute to the local community. But all their lives are affected by the influx of massive foreign developers, who have been lured in by tales of tropical paradise and have wrought economic and political disruption in a formerly unassuming community.
It’s a complex issue, but Prado makes it accessible by finding and clinging to relatable characters that tell the story through their actions. Town hall meetings not only provide flashpoints for conflict but help the audience digest the issue at hand. Its structural and systematic approach recalls the best elements of investigative journalism in showing how the pieces all fit together and how they all matter.
The ecological lens used on Bocas del Toro makes for a compelling narrative, showing the islands in the middle of a process that has happened elsewhere: Developers pump millions of dollars into construction, causing an initial boost in the economy, but eventually traditional agriculture, fishing, and small-scale tourism become impossible, leaving only menial service jobs for locals mostly driven out by skyrocketing land prices. Prado takes us through each link in the chain; the contrast between the pristine beaches captured by her camera and the ungainly behemoth of a marina in a developer’s trade-show advertisement might be funny, except as one of the activists in the film points out, it’s against Panamanian law to advertise developments not yet approved by the local community.
And yet we’re left with the doubt that the laws can be enforced, as Prado sketches a portrait of a government overwhelmed by forces that can win by merely spending enough money. Feliciano is stonewalled in his attempts to safeguard the rights to his land, and yet when his protests block the roads, he seems to be met with immediate police response. Dario finds that voter registration is arduous when local offices are understaffed, and even Karan is exhausted by legal battles in trying to defend her own land claims from developers.
The structural conflict is compelling because Prado never loses sight of the human level of action. She finds humor in the midst of urgent situations, as when Dario finds out that one of his supporters hasn’t voted because he’s busy watching The Simpsons—the most delicious example of a foreign juggernaut eroding the foundations of civic stability if there ever was one.
After Fidel Castro’s ascendancy in 1959, the entire island of Cuba was swept up in a wave of revolutionary ardor: For those Cubans who didn’t see the revolution as the end of the world, it was a new beginning where anything seemed possible and sheer idealism could will a new nation into existence. This idea was given form in the five ambitious Schools of Art commissioned by Castro and Che Guevara in 1961. Unfinished Spaces, a documentary by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray, traces that idealism as literally embodied in the design of the schools: grand and sprawling structures designed by renowned architects Roberto Gottardi, Ricardo Porro, and Vittorio Garratti. However, the ardor quickly cooled and the Castro regime became plagued with paranoia and dogmatism. Some schools were never finished and all were left to the mercy of nature and the elements.
Using a mix of archival footage and images along with interviews with the architects and present-day exploration, the film traces a line from the schools’ inception to their current status. Even as construction was underway and eventually abandoned, classes were being held and students were living onsite. Present-day scenes of student musicians playing in the middle of overgrown brick skeletons that recall ancient ruins are some of the most haunting moments of the film.
The most successful tactic Nahmias and Murray undertake is the subtle, syntactical way they form parallels from the physical structures of the school to the way the schools as institutions are run, all the way to the health of Cuban civil society at large. In the film’s sweeping vision, the Cuban Schools of Art are a grand metaphor for the whole country. Built on top of nationalized land that used to be an exclusive golf course, the schools were, in architecture and ideals, the vanguard navigating new frontiers. (Much is made of Porro designing the School of Plastic Arts to resemble the body of a fertility goddess, provoking minor scandal.) But pressure for the schools to hew closer to their Soviet benefactors’ ethos stifles their ambition; we see images of military-style discipline imposed upon freewheeling arts students. The buildings themselves certainly did not conform to the new dogma, and the trio of architects were driven to exile or marginalized in their field before their work could even be completed.
The film doesn’t try to hide its advocacy, but it makes a convincing argument with its exquisitely photographed exploration of the schools in shambles being absorbed by the encroaching wilderness. Nahmias and Murray tell the story of an attempt to establish an artistic Eden, and the eventual expulsion from that paradise hits with the weight of biblical inevitability. It’s such a shocking jump from the beautiful abstraction of the architects’ designs to the reality of the present, with the detritus of squatters and roaming wild dogs. It’s difficult not to get caught up in the tragedy of loss and hope for rebirth when everyone involved speaks with such great passion—even Castro himself, who is called to task in a press conference. He displays such conflicted emotion while delivering a speech that’s either the resurgence of forgotten idealism or its gurgling death throes.
Written and directed by Argentine filmmaker Gustavo Taretto, Medianeras is less burdened by the questions of politics and history than the other Latin American offerings. But it can’t fully escape that context, as when Mariana (Pilar López de Ayala) tells us the story of how the Kavanagh Building in Buenos Aires came to be: The impressive skyscraper was a spite-fueled project by Corina Kavanagh to obstruct the sight line of an aristocratic family who had spurned her daughter.
That’s just one of the architectural observations made by Mariana and Martin (Javier Drolas), who would both agree with Unfinished Spaces that the architecture of a city reveals something about the soul of its people; so what does it say that both of these denizens of contemporary Buenos Aires are hyper-intellectual and hopelessly neurotic? They’re also both young and attractive, making for a perfect romantic comedy couple—but Taretto replaces the typical romantic comedy dilemma of “What ridiculous obstacle can we throw in the way of two people who should obviously get together?” with the very real obstacle of the two people never actually meeting.
Mariana studied architecture but works as a shop window dresser; Martin works as a Web designer. She has a phobia of elevators and obsesses over a Where’s Waldo? puzzle; he has a meticulously prepared backpack, which includes a collection of Tati films, in case of panic attacks. They both live in cramped shoebox apartments on the same street, and the film is a chronicle of their near misses (enough for a whole page of Missed Connections) as they deal with their own separate romantic misfortunes.
In lesser hands this material would be a deathtrap: Again, it’s a romantic comedy where the leads are kept apart by cinematic fiat, and the conceit that two people are soul mates because they both cry when they watch Manhattan and sing along to Daniel Johnston songs could edge toward twee. But the final result is incredibly strong: López de Ayala and Drolas are so charismatic—and Taretto is so skilled with interpolation and juxtaposition—that they somehow mange to conjure chemistry in the space between Mariana and Martin in a process resembling quantum entanglement.
Each is having a cosmic conversation with the other without even knowing it, and there’s an absence in each of their lives that crackles with electricity whenever Taretto makes a judicious cut for comedic or thematic punctuation. In an egregious display of cinematic virtuosity, there’s a scene involving a mannequin that manages to be erotic, hilarious, and poignant all at once. The scene perfectly encapsulates Medianeras: It’s a reflection on urban loneliness, with two people trying to break through the architecture of their city and of their lives in order to find someone they didn’t know they were looking for.
The Los Angeles Film Festival runs from June 16 – 26. For more information, click here. Expanded coverage of the festival can be found at Oscar Moralde’s at The Hypermodern.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress
Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.
Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.
In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.
Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.
This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.
Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife
Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva
Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.
The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.
Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.
Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.
There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”
Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.
An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.
Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.
To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.
Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.
Berlinale runs from February 7—17.
Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology
These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.
The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.
Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.
Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.
What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.
These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.
Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.
Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.
The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.
The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.
A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.
It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.
Berlinale runs from February 7—17.