With Dolores del Río serving as the face of the 2015 AFI Film Fest, it’s fitting that this year’s lineup strikes an almost equal balance between American and international films, both independent and big-budget, with a healthy dose of Latin American filmmakers in the mix. Del Río was Hollywood’s first Latina crossover star, appearing in American films at the end of the silent era and in early talkies before becoming the leading actress of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. Her 1933 RKO musical Flying Down to Rio, famous for being the first on-screen pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, headlines the festival’s Cinema’s Legacy section.
This spirit of fusion between American and international cinema is on display in many of the festival’s films, like The 33, a Chilean-American production that dramatizes Chile’s 2010 Copiapó mining accident. Directed by Patricia Riggen, like del Río a Mexican woman working in Hollywood, the film’s cast is a mix of American, Latin American, and international actors. Though The 33 opened to great fanfare as one of the festival’s five gala films, it’s another Chilean work, The Club, that will be generating buzz as Oscar season approaches.
Director Pablo Larraín’s latest, a dissection of the legacy of the Chilean military dictatorship of the 1970s and ’80s on the national psyche, concerns a group of defrocked priests living under the equivalent of Catholic house arrest in a remote village, imposed on them by the church hierarchy for their former transgressions. These are slowly revealed after one of their victims suddenly appears at their door, but Larraín isn’t content to present a simple litany of crimes connecting the Catholic Church with the Pinochet dictatorship. Rather, he mines the ultimate denial of guilt underlying the priests’ ostensible penitence and their refusal to acknowledge the consequences of their actions on their victims to depict a society that continues to be haunted by the secrets and lies of its former military government and its various collaborators.
The film’s visual palette rarely strays from the sodden grays and fog-ridden light that characterizes the dingy, rundown coastal town where the action is set. This serves to highlight the murky politics that continue to define the church’s relationship with the Chilean government, personified in the film by a young Vatican bureaucrat who represents “the new church,” as the elder, disgraced priests disdainfully refer to it. Sent by the church hierarchy to help it wash its hands of these discredited holy men, his zeal to bring them to justice eventually dissolves into yet another cover-up, one that at first glance seems to point to a final reconciliation between victim and victimizer, yet nevertheless continues to prevent the guilty from being brought to justice.
As the ostensible holiness and goodwill of every character is revealed to be the vilest hypocrisy, and the priests draw the surrounding villagers into a culminating act of violence that mirrors the crucifixion of Christ, Larraín shows himself yet again to be an unwavering and unabashed critic of his nation and its people, where collaboration with authority and effortless brutality continue to exist at every social level.
Another festival film dealing with corruption and venality in the Catholic Church is Blood of My Blood. But unlike The Club, Marco Bellocchio’s latest offers little in the way of coherent criticism or passionate polemics, settling instead for eccentric obfuscation in an ostensible tragicomedy that fails to be either tragic or truly comical.
The plot jumps back and forth between two discrete stories separated by several centuries whose only connection is their common setting: a building that serves as a convent in a provincial Italian town in the first story, which is set in the 17th century, and functions as an abandoned insane asylum in the second, set in modern times. The first tale concerns a nun put on trial by the church for allegedly conspiring with Satan in order to seduce a priest. The second concerns an old count hiding in the building and his efforts to prevent its sale to a conman, while avoiding his wife and spending his time in a vampire-like existence on the border of life and death.
While Blood of My Blood’s crisp cinematography and aura of mystery initially sustain interest, the film quickly resolves itself into an oblique exercise in humorless whimsicality, broad satire, and tepid erotica. The whole thing might have worked better if Bellocchio had focused on just one of the stories, mining the depths of his characters’ psyches and sharpening his sociopolitical critique. As it is, the film comes off as unfocused in plot and shallow in cultural analysis. Moments of obvious satire, like the decrepit count’s lust for a young waitress, or a children’s choir singing Metallica on the soundtrack during the nun’s inquisition, are juxtaposed with scenes that strain toward the miraculous and the sublime, like the nun’s seeming resurrection from the dead in a halo of glory.
AFI Fest runs from November 5—12.