Slow, deliberate camera movement has been a fashionable trait in international art cinema for decades, but in the case of Nicolás Pereda’s Los Ausentes, the household descriptors won’t do. Here, the camera seems to be manned by a slug spreading its oily emissions along the surfaces of an open-air cabin somewhere in coastal Mexico. In many instances, it’s unclear if space has been reoriented at all, until suddenly something juts into the foreground after five minutes and it becomes apparent that the camera has been steadily backtracking. Such is the deal in the opening shot, when a still life of a chewing donkey recedes into space to reveal the film’s central character silhouetted at a table on the opposite side of a window. For viewers of a certain formalist persuasion, there’s great pleasure to this simple technique, a kind of eerie gravitational slide that at least partially fills a hole left by the departure of Béla Tarr from world cinema, but immaculately sluggish side-to-side and front-to-back movement does only so much for a movie. If there’s a foundational flaw to the vaporous Los Ausentes, it’s that Pereda has put too much stock in the ghostly sensations invoked by his technique at the expense of developing much else.
Clad only in a pair of gym shorts so as to let his leathery, cellophane-thin skin absorb any sun rays that manage to sneak through the coniferous canopy over his home, the old, taciturn figure (Eduard Fernández) at the center of the film seems a man of modest pleasures. He cooks; he organizes his space; he wanders the premises. In the most eventful scene of the film, he sits in at a county meeting of some sort where an authority figure drolly informs the attendees of an encroaching government land seizure due to property violations (the scene recalls a similarly dehumanizing consultation in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan). As wearied by this lifeless procedure as its main subject, the camera saunters over to the window for an alternative field of view. Such shots foster an intuitive spiritual link between the camera and the vaguely wistful psychological space of the character, as though teasing out some unexpressed longing for either escape or return.
Because of this kinship, it’s tempting to assign fantastical qualities to a second figure (Gabino Rodríguez) who, from around the halfway point of the film onward, after materializing from the top of a hill, is seen suddenly carrying out the older man’s duties as if by some seamless psychic swap. Fernández and Rodríguez exist on parallel tracks for the rest of Los Ausentes, always inhabiting the same spaces without ever crossing paths until the final scene. When they do meet, they share a predictably abstract exchange, confirming the sense of the film as a particularly sparse inkblot that could be interpreted in manifold ways—though it’s hard to say if any of these avenues are cushioned for a concentrated impact.
Ben Russell’s Greetings to the Ancestors is scarcely more specific in its aims, but nonetheless builds a peculiar aura less reducible to the cumulative effect of a series of art-house mannerisms. The 29-minute short finds the globetrotting 16mm explorer back in his wheelhouse with another trance-inducing exploration of a far-off culture—or, in this case, two: the Xhosa people of South Africa’s Kruger National Park and the worshippers of the Jericho Church in Swaziland. The vibe in the former territory is ascetic and near silent, a cluster of thatched-roof huts meeting only the barest requirements of shelter within the parched surrounding land, while the latter is seen largely at night, when crowds of colorfully dressed Swazilanders animate the darkness. Russell’s intimate documentary explodes out of the gate with these dancing bodies filling the screen before gradually withdrawing from activity to focus on a series of soft-spoken testimonials from Xhosa healers and poets. Connecting the two groups, besides an obvious desire to sustain livelihoods well outside conventional structures of civilization, is a fondness for grasping at higher planes of experience, whether through dreams, dance, memory or snuff.
Russell, for his part, seeks a more sharable form of transcendence through image and sound. The opening dance sequence, punctuated by howls, claps, and grunts that seem to be performed in a feverish effort to exorcise earthly surpluses, builds to an intoxicating maximalism. Captured from deep in the thick of the nocturnal ceremony, Russell’s shots here aren’t exactly composed, but the messiness (augmented by cuts that flash light-leaked celluloid and fleeting frames of indistinguishable imagery) creates a visceral, firsthand intensity—in this case, an anthropologically engaged approach. One could probably say the same about a series of inelegant handheld tracking shots into and out of the rural shanties in the latter half of the film (perhaps meant to approximate the bodily movements of the somnolent inhabitants), but the effect here is, suffice it to say, considerably less appealing. Still, Greetings to the Ancestors benefits from a feeling of being wholly and not always comfortably experientially submerged in these alien environments that seem at once of their respective nations and somewhere outside space and time.
Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real runs from April 10—26.