The most rapturous applause at the 37th Manaki Brothers International Cinematographers’ Film Festival in Bitola, Macedonia was for Pepi & Muto, a 15-minute short film by Macedonian director Georgi M. Unkovski. Forced into an early retirement, veteran Skopje-based detective Pepi (Pepi Mircevski) is burdened with showing his younger replacement, Muto (Sasko Kocev), the ropes. Muto, however, is exasperatingly clumsy. If he isn’t stapling paperwork to his own finger, he’s throwing up at the routine sight of a dead body. Pushed to the brim of patience by both his bumbling replacement and callous boss, Pepi throws in the towel, aggrieved by his predicament. When Muto persuades his mentor back into action, however, the two are brought together by a comically violent accident: Muto, apprehending a suspect, falls flat onto a somehow upward-pointing knife. The older cop allows his dormant sympathy to kick in, and after Muto’s brief convalescence in hospital, the duo starts up its own two-man detective agency.
Though not particularly inspired, Pepi & Muto elicited infectious laughter from the local audience, which was largely composed of students and undergraduates, for whom admission to festival screenings is free. The near-capacity crowd made proceedings seem especially lively, given that until this point they had barely bothered to show up for screenings at all. Named after pioneering brothers Yanaki and Milton Manaki, recognized as the Balkans’ first cameramen in the 1900s, the festival emphasizes cinematography as its overriding programming criterion. The festival catalogue, as well as each pre-film introduction, notes a film’s DP alongside its director. This is a welcome and novel curatorial approach, and so it’s a pity that for the first half of its 10-day run, the festival struggled to fill the sizeable main hall of Bitola’s cultural center. This is a serious festival, in a fine city. The importance of a year-round outreach initiative, as well as an effective local marketing strategy, is tantamount to the festival’s continued regional development (those who made it all the way through each screening were mostly professional delegates).
The healthy turnout for Pepi & Muto—and the feature that followed it, Denis Villeneuve’s pulsating thriller Sicario—built on the previous evening’s footfall, which saw locals filing into the previously vacant theater for Macbeth, the second feature by Australian director Justin Kurzel. That a second-time director should be entrusted with adapting such an epic rendering of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy is curious but for the fact that his debut, The Snowtown Murders, placed him in good stead to engineer compelling storytelling from persistently grim material. The earlier film was an intensely cheerless work based on the real-life Australian serial killer John Bunting, who murdered 12 people in the 1990s. Macbeth is also a mostly dour affair, opening with a battle sequence punctuated with slow-motion images of swords piercing flesh, and of daggers slicing necks. The film’s dramatic pivot, in which the title character (Michael Fassbender) stabs a sleeping King of Scotland (David Thewlis) to death, is a spectacle of free-flowing crimson.
Kurzel’s Macbeth is most compelling when advancing its familiar plot through associative editing, mixing tenses so that we see deaths occurring while the orders for them to be carried out are first being uttered. The film barely has time to settle, employing editorial techniques that Terrence Malick popularized with The Thin Red Line and The New World, and employed so enthrallingly in big-budget blockbusters by Christopher Nolan. It lends proceedings a real oomph, assisting the sense of inevitability that befouls our doomed protagonist. Fassbender, arguably never better, steers the role into a gladiatorial exhibition, finding himself at the center of a nightmarishly menacing pomp, and emerging from a pool of freshwater the morning after he commits his first murder like some topless heartthrob too convinced of the camera’s ability to render him immortal.
Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is most compelling when advancing its familiar plot through associative editing.
If Fassbender is the film’s star, however, Paddy Considine is its thespian. As Macbeth’s loyal servant Banquo, Britain’s most underappreciated actor provides a much more subdued performance, effortlessly out-acting Fassbender in the few scenes he appears, bearded and brooding like a best pal who knows, deep down, that something in the world is desperately amiss. Adding to the poisoned atmosphere, Kurzel pummels his cast with another wall-to-wall score by brother Jed Kurzel, who again provides a richly pulsating soundtrack that helps to entrap and punish the characters in the ongoing, mud-sodden horror. Adam Arkapaw’s accomplished cinematography (chilly blues one minute, fiery browns the next), meanwhile, highlights the wintry, ironically becalming beauty of northeast England’s Northumberland coastline.
In contrast, The Postman’s White Nights, by 78-year-old Russian veteran Andrei Konchalovsky, is a much quieter affair. This modest work, which took the Silver Lion in Venice last year, is a documentary-like portrait of a village community by Lake Kenozero, south of Archangelsk in northern Russia, at the center of which is Aleksey (Aleksey Tryaptsyn), a humble postman who must travel to and from the mainland by boat. Though most of the villagers await their pension payouts to throw immediately away on vodka (all the better for losing themselves to the swirling comforts of misremembrance), Aleksey has been teetotal for two years, owing to having lost too many pals in drunken boating accidents. He also has new teeth, which glow anomalously white against his sun-dried facial crags.
Shot by Aleksandr Simonov, cinematographer of several masterpieces by Konchalovsky’s deceased compatriot Aleksey Balabanov, the film is a low-key comedy of quotidian detail, of ordinary folk surviving long past the point at which they’ve been forgotten. A nearby space station is a reminder of an abandoned soviet history. But this is no dreary affair: Konchalovsky, having evidently spent enough time with his non-professional cast to acquire their unfailing commitment to the work, gleans refreshing warmth from his characters’ collective ennui. Though blessed by its charismatic, avuncular, blue-eyed protagonist, this is also an ensemble effort, a wholly welcome sketch of (sometimes reluctant) togetherness prevailing—if only just—in a world governed by ruthless neoliberalism.
Similar themes emerge—eventually—in Land and Shade, the feature debut by Colombian writer-director César Augusto Acevedo, and the Camera d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes. After a 17-year absence, Alfonso (Haimer Leal) returns to his family home in rural Colombia to find the perimeter almost entirely surrounded by sugarcane fields. Gerardo (Edison Raigosa), Alfonso’s adult son, is chronically sick from having worked on the neighboring plantation, and spends his days in bed. Gerardo’s wife (Marleyda Soto) and mother (Hilda Ruiz), who stayed at home for the years Alfonso was away, have been left to work the fields.
Here, the domestic and the social interact, are ineluctably entwined, as big business encroaches upon a family unit—the very thing it has traditionally promoted as its chief bastion. Though on first glance the film is just another uneventful addition to the oversaturated arthouse-festival circuit, its attention to wider currents, even if outlined in shorthand rather than an all-encompassing panorama, is key. Non-unionized, the two women work the sugarcane fields for a pittance. Cash-strapped, the family takes measures to minimize the effects that air pollution, emanating from local sugarcane burn-offs, has on Gerardo—for whom proper healthcare is apparently unavailable.
When Alfonso opens a window one afternoon to enjoy lunch with his grandson, Manuel (José Felipe Cardenas), the latter forces him to close it. No pollution, at any cost, must enter the house. And the first cost is daylight: Mateo Guzmán, also working on his first feature here, shoots the interior scenes with low but precise lighting, the would-be warm palette resulting from perilous rather than cheerful flames—an impending hazard beyond the family threshold. Through its images alone, Acevedo’s fine first effort is a cumulatively impressive, if overall muted, take on one murky dwelling crippled by the raging, top-down hostilities of capitalism.
The Manaki Brothers International Cinematographers’ Film Festival runs from September 18—27.