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Mar del Plata International Film Festival Honoring Masao Adachi, Anti-Porno, We Are the Flesh, & More

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Mar del Plata International Film Festival 2016: Honoring Masao Adachi, Anti-Porno, We Are the Flesh, & More

Arrow Films

With its beaches and maritime climate, Mar del Plata has been hailed as the Cannes of Latin America. The Argentine city merits the title in some ways, as Mar del Plata hosts the only A-list film festival in the region, the Mar del Plata International Film Festival, which pools a considerable number of films from top European festivals. This year’s slate was a fair representation of the festival’s ambition to mirror Western trends, featuring Cristi Piu’s Sieranevada, Oliver Assayas’s Personal Shopper, Hong sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts, and Lav Diaz’s The Woman Who Left.

Still, the festival’s status as a cinephile’s delight is mostly due to its ambitious retrospectives and risqué sidebars. This year saw a tribute to Masao Adachi, a leading figure in Japan’s experimental cinema of the 1960s. Adachi himself couldn’t attend, as he’s been banned from leaving Japan due to his past involvement with the Japanese Red Army, a communist militant group. Adachi, who lived in exile in Lebanon for 20 years, reemerged as a filmmaker only recently, with Prisoner/Terrorist in 2007, followed by Artist of Fasting last year. Retrospectives dedicated to him followed, at the Festival Internacional de Cine UNAM in Mexico City in 2012, and now at Mar del Plata.

Adachi’s early films are a fluid, high-minded mix of sexploitation, formal experimentation, and passionate political activism. My favorite is the somewhat uneven but always surprising Galaxy, from 1967. Often labeled science fiction, the film is a metaphysical ghost story whose protagonist is haunted by a man he believes to have killed. It’s unclear, however, whether he literally committed murder or if the victim represents his tormented, splintered psyche. The black-and-white Galaxy is replete with drastic low angles, which echo the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein, including a long sequence on vertiginous steps, as well as nods to such disparate influences as surrealism and even Buddhism. The narrative of guilt, the unrelenting mystery, and doublings also pay homage to Franz Kafka.

Another gem is Adachi’s Female Student Guerilla, from 1969. The film, which switches from black-and-white to color throughout, features students rebelling against their university and taking hostage a national army soldier, whom they violate and murder. Adachi is at times nearly casual about the violence in his films. In 1968’s Sex Zone, an accountant leads a normal, boring existence after brutally murdering a geisha, until his past comes to haunt him. The one exception, when Adachi does show violence’s baneful effects, is in Prisoner/Terrorist (loosely based on the Lod Airport massacre of 1972, two years before Adachi himself joined the Red Army), about a torture of a terrorist involved in an airport massacre. While the film’s aesthetics are simpler than those of the earlier films, and the mise-en-scène borders on drab, Adachi’s investment in the story, feverish imagination (various hallucinatory scenes), and desire to show all the stages of a prisoner’s mental and physical disintegration compensate for the glaring shortcomings.

Adachi wasn’t the only Asian filmmaker whose work shocked and provoked at Mar del Plata. With vibrant colors, scathing humor, and brisk, irreverent dialogue, Sion Sono’s Anti-Porno was a major discovery. The film takes place in a young female painter and writer’s studio, where she’s about to give an important interview and bosses her older assistant around, fussing over her impossibly busy agenda. Just as we’re ready to accept this general premise, the roles suddenly reverse, as the studio turns out to be a film set. The two women are really actresses and briskly swap power, with the older submissive secretary becoming the domineering film star in what turns out to be a porn film. Now the older woman orders the young one to lick her legs in a gesture of humiliation and domination. Cruelty, masochism, parental abuse (in the painter’s flashbacks) and schadenfreude of all kinds fuel this feverish op-art dream that turns on us at every corner.

We Are the Flesh evokes human desire, unfettered by social mores, as the supreme expression of all the world’s evil.

This year’s festival was certainly sex-fueled. One of the first films I saw was in the VHS Generation section: Cesare Canevari 1977 film The Gestapo’s Last Orgy, a Nazi sexploitation drama in which a gorgeous blond inmate at a concentration camp, Lise (Daniela Poggi), endures hellish sexual and physical abuse, and witnesses other inmates being used for experiments. The camp’s commander, Conrad von Starker (Adriano Micantoni), falls for Lise, after failing to break her mentally. After the war’s end, just when von Starker believes himself to be safe, his power over Lise’s confirmed, she takes her revenge. The film vacillates between unrepentant kitsch and visual reverie to a queasy effect, rivaling that of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

A different kind of carnage was on display in Jim Hosking’s raunchy, irreverent and gleefully gross The Greasy Strangler. The film is abundant in sexual puns and images of gooey substances and red, swollen sex organs. Father and son, Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels) and Big Brayden (Sky Elobar), compete for the love of a robust, voluptuous redhead, Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo). Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger goes around town killing people. Big Brayden soon suspects that his father, who insists on slobbering his food with uncanny amounts of grease, is behind the murders. Indeed, Big Ronnie can be seen dipping his body in a tub of goo, and suffocating his victims, before he pops into a local carwash for a routine cleanup. If this sounds preposterous, it is. The Greasy Strangler’s appetite for kitsch is endless, yet its scatological humor manages to mix goofiness and fear with genuine affection.

An even more warped vision of a family unit was on display in Emiliano Rocha Minter’s We Are the Flesh. At first, it’s difficult to understand why Minter has been compared to Andrzej Zulawski or Carlos Reygadas. In the film’s early scenes, two siblings find themselves captives of a maniacal recluse, Mariano (Noé Hernández). He feeds them but also keeps them locked inside an abandoned factory. A mix of raving madman and Dr. Jekyll-like demented genius, Mariano concocts gas from bread and water, and forces his captives to help him build a plywood-and-cardboard structure. It turns out to be an artificial womb. As the construction draws to a completion, Mariano gains control over the sister’s mind. In a trance, but possibly responding to her own hidden desires, she seduces her brother. Incest, murder, necrophilia, an improbable rebirth of Mariano, and a cannibalistic orgy follow.

It’s hard to find a sliver of logic in all this satanic excess. Yet the lovely, stylized scenes of bodies writhing in sexual paroxysms do bring to mind Possession, particularly the famous scene with Isabelle Adjani gyrating inside a dark tunnel. Minter evokes human desire, unfettered by social mores, as the supreme expression of all the world’s evil. The erotic darkness and the opaqueness of human psyche, mixed with a vision of a female body as the seat of repugnant power, are an apt match for Zulawski’s hysterical terror. And while the film doesn’t quite cohere, it’s perhaps useful to recall that Zulawski’s art has endured, while it also continues to repulse, and to mystify.

The Mar de La Plat International Film Festival ran from November 18—27.