Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun is a politically righteous and timely film, with a strong lead performance by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani as Bahar, the leader of an all-female peshmerga fighter battalion bravely fighting ISIS in Kurdistan. But the film also has the dramatic finesse of a sledgehammer: Its most emotionally charged moments buckle under the weight of a ceaseless and manipulative score, and its disorganized and distracting flashback structure tries to contextualize the horrors and humiliations endured by Bahar but does so at the expense of narrative momentum.
Look past the film’s baggy structure and clumsy dialogue and there’s a good deal of tough, spatially coherent action direction on display. As Husson is adept at crafting artfully abstracted images in isolated moments, it’s easy to imagine the more sturdy, brisk, and visually compelling film Girls of the Sun might have been had at least 40 minutes been shaved from its running time.
The worst film in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival may be Dogman. Italian director Matteo Garrone’s film offers up art-house-by-numbers neorealism with an angle of political-power allegory that quickly turns deterministic and tedious. It centers on Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a timid but affable business owner who makes his living grooming dogs, and uses his modest savings to plan for vacations with his preteen daughter.
Marcello’s vice is that he’s unyieldingly tolerant of the violent, brutish local pariah Simone (Edoardo Pesce), which eventually gets him in trouble with the law and loses him all his friends in the community. The simple trick to understanding Garrone’s latest is that the many cutaways to dogs are meant to signify that Dogman is a film about obedience. Once you get that, you’re left with none of the genre elements of Gomorrah, the visual inventiveness of the satirical Reality, or the macabre spectacle of Tale of Tales. The film is self-satisfied in its impersonation of a Vittorio De Sica film, so single-mindedly obsessed with its lame central metaphor, that it doesn’t bother to develop Marcello as more than a put-upon earnest schmuck.
Neither character development nor ambition are in short supply in Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree, a three-hour-plus epic that seemed cruel to program at 8 p.m. on the 14-day festival’s closing night. But as it turns out, Ceylan’s latest feels like the director’s most fleet and accessible film since at least 2002’s Distant, and maybe ever.
Ceylan’s film follows aspiring young author Sinan (Dogu Demirkol), who returns to his rural home after completing college in the city and finds himself engaged in lengthy conversations over foundational concerns in his life: his father’s gambling addiction, his mother’s complicity, his former lover’s lingering feelings, a local author’s means of aesthetic and literary representation, and the integrity of local religious officials. Ceylan shoots these encounters extravagantly, with long tracking shots through sprawling outdoor spaces and peppy editing rhythms in one-on-one conversations. It’s as if Ceylan took the complaints that his 2014 film Winter Sleep was “boring” to heart and is trying to do everything he can to keep our attention here.
And the tact works for a while, partly because The Wild Pear Tree sees its maker in a kind of self-aware dialogue with himself about the methodologies of his work—especially in the scene between Sinan and Suleyman (Serkan Keskin), a locally renowned author who Sinan clearly considers a bit of a sellout, and who in return thinks Sinan can be a bit young and arrogant. Not unlike a similar dynamic at play in another film at this year’s Cannes, Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, both the young and old authors in this sparring match seem to represent sides of Ceylan’s thinking, and The Wild Pear Tree is at its most compelling when engaging that dialectic.
The film is at its least compelling in its latter half, when Ceylan forgoes his more rhetorical strategies of communication in favor of a focus on the strained relationship between Sinan and his self-sabotaging father, Idris (Murat Cemcir). Ceylan seems to grapple with some very personal feelings about family here, but the emotional engagement never transcends its premised sentimentality, nor does it rise to a level that compensates for the receding intellectualism of The Wild Pear Tree’s first half.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 8—19.