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Marrakech Film Festival 2016: I Am Twenty, Zoology, Abderrahmane Sissako, & More

Mister Universo is designed, shot, and edited like a feature but, in fact, made from the stuff of nonfiction.

Marrakech International Film Festival: I Am Twenty, Zoology, Orphan, A Talk with Abderrahmane Sissako, & More
Photo: Lago Film

The labyrinthine security apparatus surrounding the Marrakech International Film Festival’s red carpet, the high-wattage of its celebrity and auteur attendees, and the live-broadcast-TV slickness of its nightly award ceremonies made for a persistently surreal backdrop. I had to remind myself that the tributes to Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Adjani also entailed mini-retrospectives across the festival’s smaller venues, and the “Tribute to Russian Cinematography” included public screenings of over two dozen movies ranging from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan. Again, all screenings were free to the registered public. Culture: commodity or charity?

Even if some roll their eyes at the notion of airlifting elements of a Cannes or Deauville to one of the poorest countries in North Africa, these sidebars seemed invaluable. As it happened, Marlen Khutsiev’s recently re-heralded I Am Twenty (shot in 1961, released in 1965) was one of the only Russian films screening with English subtitles, which is to say I ended up traveling over 3,000 miles to plug a gap in my own New York movie-going calendar (the film having screened as part of MoMA’s Khutsiev retrospective in October).

Khutsiev’s film, which also exists as the longer Ilych’s Gate, coasts on a kind of fluid energy, following a soldier named Sergei (Valentin Popov) as he returns home from military duty to wheel around Moscow with a pair of old friends, all three boys having been shorn of their fathers during WWII. As a document of Moscow circa the time of de-Stalinization, I Am Twenty has a buoyant, even kaleidoscopic allure: a May Day parade sequence sees the camera hauled through impossible, endless streams of non-actors, and the intimacy of handheld provides Sergei a world at once expansive and—when the story calls for it—claustrophobic. This looseness of frame meets a novelistic script, pausing at times to detail inner monologues for the leading trio; certain principles of comradeship are found easier uttered than embodied, and disenchantment begins to creep up on the narrative. While I Am Twenty was suppressed for years (and censored upon release), Nikita Khrushchev’s declaration that Sergei and his friends weren’t “fighters and remakers of society” felt very much the point, if from a historically abstracted vantage.

I Am Twenty wasn’t included in that night’s “Homage to Russian Cinematography,” a clip show wherein disparate bodies of work were consolidated under a national-aesthetic (as opposed to historical-political) rubric: Even if Tarkovsky, Kalatozov, or Khutsiev spent decades under Politburo censorship, it’s all “Russian cinema” in 2016. If the ceremony went heavy on pageantry, with traditional Cossack and Berber dancers squaring off in sync to claps from the audience, Alexey Mizgirev’s The Duelist, the crowning feature, brought the pomp. The film is like a steroidal crossbreed of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Revenant: domineering in its leather-bound humorlessness, looking and feeling every bit the streamlined example of the Russian need to compete, at least in terms of production design, with Hollywood. Pyotr Fyodorov stars as a 19th-century nobleman-duelist who was once recipient of an Aleut curse granting him effective indestructibility (and thus, the narrative spur of several Mel Gibson-worthy torture sequences, complete with blood spatters lodged squarely on the camera’s lens).

A far spunkier and, in its own way, more confrontational contemporary Russian work availed itself in Ivan I. Tverdovsky’s Zoology, about a lonely spinster, Natasha (Natalia Pavlenkova), who finds a new lease on life—specifically, a relationship with her doctor (Dmitry Groshev)—following the inexplicable growth of a long tail. Tverdovsky’s film isn’t the densest subtextual work imaginable: The tail is one unending McGuffin, and Natasha’s coworkers are so comically unkind that the film approaches pastiche despite loose, whip-panning camerawork. Still, Zoology is aided immensely by Pavlenkova and strikes a balance of bonhomie and nihilism; in a simultaneously funny and nerve-wracking moment, the tail comes loose and terrifies a small nightclub’s worth of people, who run screaming as Natasha and her new lover laughingly chug more wine. The film ends in a great big fake-out, but it manages at least to point back (as these things often do) to the unfulfillable promise that had driven its best moments: Zoology makes mirth not just from the worst of human nature—in a fairly equal-offending register, at that—but also from our own unfaceable desires and anxieties.

The next day I caught Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s Mister Universo, concerning a handful of scrappy circus employees in Italy. The film is designed, shot, and edited like a feature but, in fact, made from the stuff of nonfiction, centering on Tairo Caroli, a 20-year-old lion tamer who guides the audience through a circus’s decrepit, underpopulated milieu. The unease of poverty on this circuit is made palpable, but Mister Universo isn’t a work of miserablism. Tairo loses an iron amulet hand-bent by Arthur Robin—the Guadeloupan-French bodybuilder who gives the film its namesake—and takes it upon himself to go on a road trip to find Robin, stopping to see many members of his extended family along the way.

Representing a melancholy salute to not just one bygone era but several, Mister Universo was easily the most soothing film I saw at FIFM, the kind of work that’s too minor-key to gain major traction within art-house circles, yet too niche to attract attention outside them. Even though nothing conventionally “dramatic” takes place throughout its running time, the filmmakers’ shading of this world and leavening of small stakes had the whole auditorium sitting up in their seats when Tairo finally did, in fact, arrive upon the trailer home of Mr. Universo.

FIFM’s tribute to Isabelle Adjani was presented by Christopher Honoré, Christian Mungiu, and Abderrahmane Sissako. Among the films screened: Subway, Camille Claudel, and François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H., starring Adjani as Victor Hugo’s youngest daughter. Adele Hugo moved to Halifax in 1863 to be with her onetime lover, a certain Private Vinson (portrayed in the film by Bruce Robinson), under the nom de voyager of Ms. Lewly. Many of Truffaut’s scenes fade in and out on Adele’s written correspondences (via voiceover); increasingly, the letters are between her and her famous father, kept ingeniously off-screen. Exiled to the island of Guernsey, Hugo is nevertheless in a position to keep sending money to his daughter in British Columbia so long as she successfully weds Vinson; meanwhile, the Private is revealed as a rake with little interest in consummating Adele’s love.

Truffaut shoots and edits the story with a methodical slow burn that feels enamored of Hollywood’s golden era. The stress on written words keeps Adele’s world smaller than the dictates of a period biopic circa 1975 would typically suggest: In the absence of more conventional animating passions, the camera recurs time and again to Adjani’s dazed, crystalline beauty, routinizing the lonely image of Adele sitting by candlelight in her room. Made up of words and promises found equally disingenuous, Adele’s infatuation turns inward, becoming manic—typified by superimpositions over her face of crashing ocean waves, reminiscent both of the ocean she crossed to be with her lover, and the waves that drowned her sister as a child. Truffaut and DP Néstor Almendros make these entrancing and terrifying in monumentalist style (shades of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir).

Beyond their attendant lack of tuxedos and security guards, public screenings differed from homages and tributes in another key sense, as people in the audience weren’t afraid to make noise. Colleagues and I went to a late-night public screening of Arnaud des Pallières’s out-of-competition title Orphan, starring Adele Exarchopoulos, Solène Rigot, and Adele Haenel. The film is a we-are-all-connected hyperlink drama that touches on underage sex, parental abuse, human trafficking, and murder, starring its three leading ladies—and, in the end, one infant—as different iterations of the same character.

Even if the screenplay leaves this Paul Haggis-worthy web of cosmic connections unclear until the last act, there were myriad opportunities nonetheless to point at the screen and whisper to the person next to me, “I think that’s the orphan.” Immediately, young men in the Colisee audience were jeering, whistling and bellowing at the screen (or rather, from the remove of the balcony, bellowing at the movie), and it got to the point that a few were expelled by flashlight-wielding security personnel. One scene of Haenel in labor lasted all of three minutes—plenty long for a conventional narrative, yet miraculous by reality standards—and when she screamed in pain, the balcony screamed back. If the liveliness of this experience spoke to my own exoticizing lens, it also, at the very least, proved the real cultural divide served (or at least straddled) by a festival like this. Which is to say, in New York I would have considered these hoots an affront to le cinema; here, they served an essential vetting process as Orphan, by way of self-seriousness, made itself impossible to take seriously.

The next day, I had the chance to ask Sissako his thoughts on the state’s role in promoting culture, both in the abstract and at FIFM specifically. He said: “This festival embeds its own answer to your question, because we can see that the support of Morocco has actually brought a lot to it as a cultural event; it has also created some dynamics for Moroccan cinema. Without it, I don’t think this country would be able to maintain an overall production of at least 15 to 20 movies each year, made in Morocco by Moroccans. We can think whatever we want about the movies themselves, but the importance of that actually shows the state’s involvement in promoting culture.” Following Timbuktu’s victory lap at last year’s Césars, Sissako described his next project as “starting from an idea I had developed about 10 years ago.” He went on: “It’s about the Africans in Guanghzou, and the Chinatowns in Africa. It’s a love story. For the time being I’m in the writing phase, with several producers expecting the scenario to be finished. Fortunately, I write while traveling.”

Like all others not immediately pertinent to the next screening, meal, or after-party, this conversation worked its way back around to the results of the U.S. election. Sissako had this to say about Donald J. Trump: “I love the United States, and I will be returning to the United States anyhow, but not with the same enthusiasm as I used to. This feels like a world that has turned its back on me, so I’m ready to turn my back on it as well.”

The next night, FIFM’s 45-minute award ceremony ran with the efficiency of a Swiss watch. Jury president Bela Tarr managed to take a moment to thank all the translators, cab drivers, cooks and employees who had helped bring FIFM to fruition—to be sure, a magnanimous gesture in the face of such ritziness. Mister Universo would be awarded the jury prize, alongside first-time director Wang Xuebo’s Knife in the Clear Water for best directing. The grand prize went to Zhang Xichuan’s The Donor—another film I failed to watch on my first day here—and the festival officially concluded, leaving us to the closing-night film, Fatih Akin’s Goodbye Berlin. This choice was surprising: Akin has here doubled away from the epic-scale disappointment of The Cut, opting instead for a surprisingly straightforward, if crude, teen-runaway comedy adapted from a popular German young-adult novel. Anchored by two dynamic leads (Tristan Gobel and Ananand Batbileg) and saturated in postproduction color, pop cues, and gross-out gags, Goodbye Berlin led colleagues and I to comment that we felt like we were back in the late Bush years. If only.

The Marrakech International Film Festival runs from December 2—10.

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