A repetitive journey through the streets and tunnels of Naples, Il Segreto follows a gang of seemingly rootless, pre-teen children scavenging for discarded or abandoned Christmas trees. For an hour, directors Cyop & Kaf shape the film as a process documentary with no discernible endgame. On foot and moped, the filmmakers track the group of entrepreneurial preteens as they maraud the city. They knock on the doors of luxury apartment buildings, rummage through dumpsters, negotiate with business owners and building administrators, but mostly just drag pines and firs of all shapes, sizes, and states of health through the amber-hued nightlight of the city’s Spanish Quarter.
Just as they withhold information about where these trees are headed, and what the kids hope to gain from them, the directors are intent on emphasizing the headstrong, driven nature of their subjects, parading unsupervised through the night. Through a ruthless focus on process, Cyop & Kaf capture both the unbridled energy and fundamental weakness of the children, who struggle to drag a tree with an intact root structure as they inflate their productivity to one another. They espouse prowess and power, but struggle to demonstrate it. Slowly, innumerable minor details about the demographic strata of the city pile up: working-class business owners call the children “wild beasts,” the younger and well-heeled rich gingerly try to assist or ignore them, and the adults in their neighborhood are both tolerant of and enervated by all of this late-night activity.
Cyop & Kaf are, at times, similarly ambivalent: They’re up for matching the children’s unbridled energy, but one remarkable long shot quietly traces the detritus of their path of destruction. When the fate of these trees is unveiled, Il Segreto becomes both a potent allegory about the anarchy of mob rule and a poignant depiction of a neighborhood traumatized by a cycle of poverty, and now under the imminent threat of gentrification. An occasionally grueling portrait of rudderless youth evolves into a carefully structured socio-economic cri de coeur.
Where Il Segreto is productively sly about its project, Abner Benaim’s Invasion is perhaps unnecessarily transparent. A sort of naïve cousin to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, the film seeks to elucidate the shady historical record of the United States’s 1989 invasion of Panama and subsequent deposition of Manuel Noriega. Benaim engages in two parallel modes of reenactment, asking random citizens about their experience of the invasion, and then occasionally having them to pose as dead bodies strewn about city streets or wrapped up in plastic bags. “I’m portraying truth,” Benaim tells both viewer and interlocutors. “Everyone has a truth, even if it is a lie.”
This is an entry-level sentiment at a festival devoted to the persistent blur between fact and fiction, and it’s one of a few instances where Benaim sees fit to belabor his thesis. After establishing some of the open questions of the U.S. invasion (how many Panamanians were killed in the onslaught, and what was the precise nature of the relationship between Noriega, a known associate of the C.I.A., and the United States government?), much of Benaim’s film devotes itself to lengthy, single-shot soliloquies by citizens alternately devastated by, supportive of, and willfully forgetful of the episode. These speeches don’t yield baldly conflicting facts, but they do reveal a few fascinating societal splits: a hotelier injured in a bombing is confronted by a passerby with a different perspective on the value of dredging up old wounds; an upper-class family, harboring no ill-will about the damage being wrought on their city, invites an invading soldier up to their apartment for dinner.
Invasion is best when it’s letting these unlikely, occasionally devastating stories to unfurl, even though none of them stink of the questionable veracity Benaim suggests will be a given. He does, however, structure the retellings with a lovely symmetry, beginning and ending with subjects who were hanging out at the same bar on the night of the invasion. A simple, unfettered depiction of these recollections may have been more fruitful than Benaim’s cluttered and frustratingly self-inflating vision, which culminates in a cinematic montage of the dramatic reenactments he’s been stage-managing throughout the film.
True/False runs from March 5—8.