Though this year’s Seville European Film Festival was, at nine days, the same length as recent editions, it expanded its regular program by more than 30 features. Now 12 editions old, SEFF continues to grow in scope and repute under the leadership of José Luis Cienfuegos and his closely trusted team—many of whom came in tow when Cienfuegos assumed his current position in 2012, following 17 years in charge of the Gijón Film Festival in northern Spain. Seville, in the country’s south, is host to a finely curated annual film program, which this year included retrospectives of German experimentalist Birgit Hein, Austrian avant-garde king Peter Tscherkassky, French veteran Paul Vecchiali, Seville native Juan Sebastián Bollaín, forgotten gems from the Weimar Republic, and Timothy Spall, this year’s recipient of the City of Seville Award.
Unlike some other European film festivals, SEFF has no qualms with including international co-productions in its regular lineup. Hence, a film like The Other Side, a nonfiction work partially funded with American money (as well as French and Italian), directed by U.S.-based Italian director Roberto Minervini, who took the Best Director prize from the festival. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice in the opening image of this observational chronicle of life on the bottom rungs of the Louisiana bayou that, among some dense, otherwise motionless foliage there lurks a well-camouflaged soldier. It’s not for a good while that we return to the more militarist implications of this image, though, for the primary focus of Minervini’s first film since Stop the Pounding Heart is Mark (Mark Kelly) and Lisa (Lisa Allen), two dope-taking, beer-swigging, ordinary-enough lovers who spend their days surviving on what they can.
Evidently fond of folk willing to play versions of themselves for camera, Minervini has attained an impressive trust from his performers here, though he’s perhaps a little too keen on fetishizing the squalid aspects of their lives with a kind of false neutrality—as evinced chiefly by his persistent, enervating use of extremely shallow depths of field when following Mark, a Lou Reed doppelganger, in intense close-up. At certain moments in The Other Side, however, the authenticity is pure indeed, as when Uncle Jim (James Lee Miller), a toothless alcoholic, reads to Mark a trite poem that’s stuck to his fridge. It’s the kind of anonymous, spirit-lifting schmaltz inscribed over stock images and shared on Facebook, but the way Jim breaks into tears before swigging direct from his bottle of liquor shows how meaningful a cliché can be to someone who has little else to live for.
In an extended coda, Minervini widens his scope to contextualize the kind of psychosocial milieu that informs Mark and Lisa’s dead-end-ness of their day-to-day activities. It’s here where the ambiguity and ambivalence are deepened, for we follow in the latter stages of the film a group of young and middle-aged men bonding at local wet T-shirt competitions and expressing their palpable disillusionment with capitalism—my word, not theirs—by firing their rifles at a smiling effigy of Barack Obama, who they deem responsible for their community’s drastic levels of impoverishment and unemployment. What’s so effectively unpleasant is that the men’s collective sentiment is as understandable as their time-killing solution is disagreeable: It’s frankly disheartening to see these otherwise articulate, energetic, even thoughtful men waste their time on pro-Second Amendment brouhaha and woolly platitudes about self-defense and family protection.
The Academy of Muses, by Spanish filmmaker José Luis Guerín, also plays with reality. The film, which won the Golden Giraldillo at the festival, is ostensibly a documentary—subtitled “an educational experience with Professor Rafaelle Pinto”—about a classics lecturer who enjoys both classroom and extracurricular chemistries with several of his younger, doting female students. Taking place primarily in the lecture theater and inside his car, with frequent interludes of him and his wife talking at home, this consistently amusing, frequently stimulating, and occasionally erotic work manages to weave sincere gestures of romantic longing, as well as questions of love as an intellectual concept, into what appears to be a nonfiction fabric.
It’s when we first cut to the professor conversing with his wife, however, that we get our first clue that this talky film might not be a strict documentary after all, firstly because Guerín is filming the whole thing from outside the couple’s kitchen window looking in (though they’re audibly miked up), and secondly because the increasingly open nature of their conversation suggests, at the very least, that some knowing reconstruction of past events has taken place. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the fact that the professor—and by extension, the film—barely stops for a moment to discuss something other than amorous follies.
Indeed, it isn’t so much a case of our academic taking his work home with him as it is him not being able to switch off anywhere from cerebral chitchat. “Why rationalize everything?” one character asks. With its singular thematic focus, where just about every word—save, perhaps, for one sublime episode in Sardinia featuring a trio of singing shepherds—relates back to the defining features of a muse, or to love, or to romance, The Academy of Muses recalls Eric Rohmer at his vintage best.
No Cow on the Ice is more conventional in its inward focus. Last year, Eloy Domínguez Serén had two films at the festival: Jet Lag, a documentary about life at a 24-hour gas station whose production was interrupted by (and ended up incorporating) a real armed robbery, and In the New Sky, one of the finest conceptual landscape films in recent years. The latter, a five-minute short about a spherical arena space in Stockholm, is also stitched into No Cow on the Ice, an hour-long cine-essay about the few years the Spanish filmmaker spent living in Sweden. As his film reveals through self-shot footage, Domínguez Serén originally moved there to live with his girlfriend. When the relationship ended, however, he decided to stay, feeling an affinity to this strange land and sensing that his adventure there was somehow incomplete so long as he hadn’t conquered the local language satisfactorily enough.
Language and landscape are deeply connected: As this endlessly curious filmmaker’s Swedish improves, the film’s images also become more sophisticated. A years-in-the-making project, No Cow on the Ice self-reflexively documents this evolution, beginning with footage first seen in Pettring, an earlier short about Domínguez Serén’s initial experiences as a laboring immigrant, and finishing with new footage of him experimenting with film form against a wintry Scandinavian landscape. Though it takes its name from a local idiom, No Cow on the Ice also recalls, in title and structuring device, the first line of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, which opens with picturebook-like prose (referring to a moocow, no less) and ends with its protagonist as a confident man of the world.
The Seville European Film Festival runs from November 4—14.