The Same, Only More So
By Gavin Smith
Choking in the death grip of art-house orthodoxy in Rotterdam
Forever destined to be viewed as the poor man’s Berlin—albeit a kinder, gentler one—the IFFR trudges onward, undaunted. Much like those who attend it. Serious-minded, the festival does its level best to deliver the goods in the certain knowledge that most right-thinking A- and B-list filmmakers are aiming past them at the Berlinale or Cannes.
Rotterdam tries to do “fun,” but it’s a lost cause. As usual, a sprinkling of Asian genre entries, a couple of tough-as-nails “Scandi-crime” thrillers, and the occasional more or less mainstream-commercial art film are about as close as the festival gets to catering to those looking for the satisfactions of straightforward classical filmmaking. Ironically, in an attempt to spice things up, the programmers even fell back on television with a “Changing Channels” sidebar, showcasing work for the small screen by Hirokazu Kore-eda, Agnieszka Holland, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Pablo Larraín, and others. The most promising item here was the four episodes of France’s acclaimed hit miniseries Les Revenants, in which four inhabitants of a small town in Haute-Savoie return from the dead as if nothing has happened, to mixed reactions from their respective loved ones. (The originality of the idea is undercut by lame execution and some truly dreadful acting—wait for the impending English and American remakes.)
Despite its best efforts, Rotterdam tends to be a quite joyless affair. In its heart it believes that the films it shows are good for you. This makes it sheer bliss for those in search of the next profound revelation, convincing themselves that punishing doses of barely-there sensory deprivation or wispy ineffability are the stuff of true cinematic pleasure. But if you’re like me (as you surely are), Rotterdam is there to be dutifully slogged through, in the hope of occasionally stumbling upon some emotional, intellectual, or psychic nourishment. This year I came away not feeling too lucky on that score, but, well, here’s to next year.
I managed to see 11 of the 16 tiger Competition entries and made it all the way through 10 of them (to my eternal shame, I bailed after a deadly 15 of 36’s 68 minutes). I missed a couple that certainly sounded promising—though I doubt I’ll get another shot at them, as few films seem to escape the black hole of Rotterdam’s Competition slate, for reasons unknown. There were two standouts that certainly deserve a wider audience: Giovanni Columbu’s Su Re, a stark, pictorially bracing film, and young turk Mohammad Shirvani’s singular Fat Shaker, a cryptic item that breaks with the presumed orthodoxies of Iranian art cinema.
Su Re is a verité-ish, non-chronological version of the last days of Christ that begins with the pietà, followed by the crucifixion, and then moves back and forth in time. Shot on location in Sardinian dialect with stolidly convincing nonprofessional actors (including the homeliest screen Christ ever), it differs from Pasolini’s 1964 film by synthesizing Matthew’s gospel with those of Mark, Luke, and John, aiming for an unobtrusively prismatic Rashomon effect. The Tiger Award–winning Fat Shaker is a more difficult and ambiguous object. The action centers on an obese con man who uses his cute deaf-mute adult son as bait to extort money from predatory young women looking for a boy toy—until the pair’s sketchy life on the social margins is (inexplicably) upended by the arrival of a mysterious woman who makes herself at home, with unexpected consequences. While the film would seem to be an allegorical attack on patriarchy, its hallucinatory interludes, its emphasis on the grotesque and the absurd, its off-kilter, unstable style (the camerawork is virtually motion-sickness-inducing), and its enigmatic refusal to completely define itself in narrative terms signal the emergence of a talent looking to break fresh ground.
Best of the rest in Competition? The Turkish Watchtower (widowed, solitary forest-fire lookout takes in an unwed mother and her newborn infant) by Pelin Esmer, and the Brazilian They’ll Come Back (12-year-old girl gains a new awareness of her country’s social inequities when her parents abandon her and her older brother in a rural backwater) by Marcelo Lordello— solid, modest efforts by first-time directors crossing over from documentary. Taking their time and quietly understated, both are planted squarely in the mode of rustic naturalism, now virtually ubiquitous in world cinema, handily reinforcing filmgoing sophisticates’ preconceptions about country life along the way.
The same goes double for Mexican filmmaker Eduardo Villanueva’s Penumbra, a take-it-or-leave-it, wafer-thin study of a humble farmer and his hunting forays. Everything is filmed with great “respect” and “attentiveness,” landscape is constantly foregrounded with diminishing returns, “observation” stands in for dramatization, etc. It will doubtless find its champions, as will Leonardo Brzezicki’s entirely unconvincing psychodrama Night, which traces the shifting emotional dynamics among five young Argentinians as they wander through the woods listening to the supposedly haunting sound recordings left behind by a friend who has committed suicide. It’s a kind of ghost story, wouldn’t you know, except there are no ghosts and it’s not scary—or even vaguely resonant. (It doesn’t help that it was made in the wake of compatriot Jazmín López’s youngsters-wandering- through-the-forest trance film Leones, which is superior in every respect.)
As a matter of fact, the trance film genre has become almost as fashionable of late as the tendentious strain of postglobalization cinema that dwells on the problems of illegal migration, refugees, and the inequities of a Europe of haves and have-nots (and of which Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown was the progenitor). These films have become a staple of the festival circuit. Some of them are authentically engaged, but with their pleasingly bleak palettes, practiced docudrama moves, and all-important “unsentimental” distance, they have become no less formulaic and programmatic than the Hollywood blockbusters to which they imagine they provide an alternative. Dutch filmmaker Ricky Rijneke’s slack, meandering Silent Ones attempts to fuse both genres with yet another story of illegal migrants, in this case a Hungarian woman and her young brother. But when the film begins with its protagonist stumbling from an overturned car wreck in an empty field, you’ll know what Rijneke has been watching (Christian Petzold’s Yella) and where his film is going.
Before My Heart Falls
Thankfully, other sections of the festival yielded work that caused the overall torpor to recede from time to time. French-Canadian director Sébastien Rose’s Before My Heart Falls certainly had a pulse and showcased a number of strong performances with its fast-paced, quietly gripping story of a teenager (Clémence Dufresne-Deslières) who is gradually drawn away from a substitute family of bungling petty thieves and into the orbit of the widow (Sophie Lorain) of a driver whose death the girl has inadvertently caused during a botched highway robbery. Rose, Dufresne-Deslières, and Lorain keep this borderline-implausible narrative in play with the conviction the actresses bring to their roles and to the evolving ambiguities of the relationship between their characters.
Pascal Bonitzer, whose light and un-apologetically mainstream comedy-dramas couldn’t be more removed from his credentials as a Rivette and Ruiz collaborator, delivered his most satisfying film to date with Cherchez Hortense. Jean-Pierre Bacri plays a conflicted and ineffectual sinologist who reluctantly agrees to ask his father, a senior judge with whom he has a complicated relationship, to pull some strings on behalf of a Polish woman facing deportation (bringing us back once again to the terrain of the postglobalization genre). His marriage to a celebrated stage director (Kristin Scott Thomas) is on the skids, his son is going through growing pains, a cranky old friend is suicidal, and amidst all this he’s befriended by a girl half his age. It’s the kind of relationship movie that would now have to be termed an old-fashioned, one that just about gets away with its whopper of a plot contrivance. But Cherchez Hortense is more than carried by Bacri, who remains one of the best actors in French cinema today.
Finally, mention should be made of Roland Hassel, a true whatsit shot on VHS by first-time director Måns Månsson. An unlikely but irresistible hybrid of fact and fiction, it revisits the still-unsolved assassination of Prime Minister Olaf Palme, an event that has left a permanent mark on the Swedish national psyche. Månsson’s conceit is to take an assortment of actual Palme assassination conspiracy theorists and journalists who remain intent on cracking the case and team them up with the eponymous fictional television detective—a household name in Sweden, played here, as on the long-running show, by the gaunt Lars-Erik Berenett—to collaborate on a new investigation. As the Rotterdam catalogue put it, it’s the equivalent of anchoring a documentary exploring the various theories about the assassination of JFK with Peter Falk’s Columbo. The disjunction between the earnest antics of the assassination buffs (who in the climax make an inept attempt to reenact the 1986 shooting) and the impassive, weary detective is frequently hilarious—but almost certainly far funnier and more meaningful to native Swedes.