The labyrinthine security apparatus surrounding the Marrakech International Film Festival’s red carpet, the high-wattage of its celebrity and auteur attendees, and the live-broadcast-TV slickness of its nightly award ceremonies made for a persistently surreal backdrop. I had to remind myself that the tributes to Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Adjani also entailed mini-retrospectives across the festival’s smaller venues, and the “Tribute to Russian Cinematography” included public screenings of over two dozen movies ranging from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan. Again, all screenings were free to the registered public. Culture: commodity or charity?
Even if some roll their eyes at the notion of airlifting elements of a Cannes or Deauville to one of the poorest countries in North Africa, these sidebars seemed invaluable. As it happened, Marlen Khutsiev’s recently re-heralded I Am Twenty (shot in 1961, released in 1965) was one of the only Russian films screening with English subtitles, which is to say I ended up traveling over 3,000 miles to plug a gap in my own New York movie-going calendar (the film having screened as part of MoMA’s Khutsiev retrospective in October).
Khutsiev’s film, which also exists as the longer Ilych’s Gate, coasts on a kind of fluid energy, following a soldier named Sergei (Valentin Popov) as he returns home from military duty to wheel around Moscow with a pair of old friends, all three boys having been shorn of their fathers during WWII. As a document of Moscow circa the time of de-Stalinization, I Am Twenty has a buoyant, even kaleidoscopic allure: a May Day parade sequence sees the camera hauled through impossible, endless streams of non-actors, and the intimacy of handheld provides Sergei a world at once expansive and—when the story calls for it—claustrophobic. This looseness of frame meets a novelistic script, pausing at times to detail inner monologues for the leading trio; certain principles of comradeship are found easier uttered than embodied, and disenchantment begins to creep up on the narrative. While I Am Twenty was suppressed for years (and censored upon release), Nikita Khrushchev’s declaration that Sergei and his friends weren’t “fighters and remakers of society” felt very much the point, if from a historically abstracted vantage.
I Am Twenty wasn’t included in that night’s “Homage to Russian Cinematography,” a clip show wherein disparate bodies of work were consolidated under a national-aesthetic (as opposed to historical-political) rubric: Even if Tarkovsky, Kalatozov, or Khutsiev spent decades under Politburo censorship, it’s all “Russian cinema” in 2016. If the ceremony went heavy on pageantry, with traditional Cossack and Berber dancers squaring off in sync to claps from the audience, Alexey Mizgirev’s The Duelist, the crowning feature, brought the pomp. The film is like a steroidal crossbreed of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Revenant: domineering in its leather-bound humorlessness, looking and feeling every bit the streamlined example of the Russian need to compete, at least in terms of production design, with Hollywood. Pyotr Fyodorov stars as a 19th-century nobleman-duelist who was once recipient of an Aleut curse granting him effective indestructibility (and thus, the narrative spur of several Mel Gibson-worthy torture sequences, complete with blood spatters lodged squarely on the camera’s lens).
A far spunkier and, in its own way, more confrontational contemporary Russian work availed itself in Ivan I. Tverdovsky’s Zoology, about a lonely spinster, Natasha (Natalia Pavlenkova), who finds a new lease on life—specifically, a relationship with her doctor (Dmitry Groshev)—following the inexplicable growth of a long tail. Tverdovsky’s film isn’t the densest subtextual work imaginable: The tail is one unending McGuffin, and Natasha’s coworkers are so comically unkind that the film approaches pastiche despite loose, whip-panning camerawork. Still, Zoology is aided immensely by Pavlenkova and strikes a balance of bonhomie and nihilism; in a simultaneously funny and nerve-wracking moment, the tail comes loose and terrifies a small nightclub’s worth of people, who run screaming as Natasha and her new lover laughingly chug more wine. The film ends in a great big fake-out, but it manages at least to point back (as these things often do) to the unfulfillable promise that had driven its best moments: Zoology makes mirth not just from the worst of human nature—in a fairly equal-offending register, at that—but also from our own unfaceable desires and anxieties.
The next day I caught Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s Mister Universo, concerning a handful of scrappy circus employees in Italy. The film is designed, shot, and edited like a feature but, in fact, made from the stuff of nonfiction, centering on Tairo Caroli, a 20-year-old lion tamer who guides the audience through a circus’s decrepit, underpopulated milieu. The unease of poverty on this circuit is made palpable, but Mister Universo isn’t a work of miserablism. Tairo loses an iron amulet hand-bent by Arthur Robin—the Guadeloupan-French bodybuilder who gives the film its namesake—and takes it upon himself to go on a road trip to find Robin, stopping to see many members of his extended family along the way.
Representing a melancholy salute to not just one bygone era but several, Mister Universo was easily the most soothing film I saw at FIFM, the kind of work that’s too minor-key to gain major traction within art-house circles, yet too niche to attract attention outside them. Even though nothing conventionally “dramatic” takes place throughout its running time, the filmmakers’ shading of this world and leavening of small stakes had the whole auditorium sitting up in their seats when Tairo finally did, in fact, arrive upon the trailer home of Mr. Universo.
FIFM’s tribute to Isabelle Adjani was presented by Christopher Honoré, Christian Mungiu, and Abderrahmane Sissako. Among the films screened: Subway, Camille Claudel, and François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H., starring Adjani as Victor Hugo’s youngest daughter. Adele Hugo moved to Halifax in 1863 to be with her onetime lover, a certain Private Vinson (portrayed in the film by Bruce Robinson), under the nom de voyager of Ms. Lewly. Many of Truffaut’s scenes fade in and out on Adele’s written correspondences (via voiceover); increasingly, the letters are between her and her famous father, kept ingeniously off-screen. Exiled to the island of Guernsey, Hugo is nevertheless in a position to keep sending money to his daughter in British Columbia so long as she successfully weds Vinson; meanwhile, the Private is revealed as a rake with little interest in consummating Adele’s love.