Despite concessions to commerce, much to admire
Always a bit apart, the New York Film Festival continues to put most of its weight behind cinema the multiplexes ignore, carrying on the tradition (mostly) of movies as art rather than strictly business. Among the offerings of the 48th edition were selections from current avant-garde filmmakers and retrospectives of Masahiro Shinoda and Fernando de Fuentes’ masterworks, the kinds of films rarely found on big screens.
There were also special event screenings, among them Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Ceausescu, an engaging and at times stifling version of the world according to Nicolai. Over its three hours, the film gives the audience a hint of the wonderland Ceausescu made for himself — and how he wore out an entire people as he kept the fantasy going. Composed entirely of archival footage, Autobiography is bookended by Mr. and Mrs. C.’s public interrogation, itself a case study in denial. Ujica and his team culled the unnarrated chronology from the tens of thousands of Ceausescu’s daily broadcasts. Speeches, more speeches, meetings and seemingly endless parades trace the leader’s rise from a party loyalist, political player (seen entertaining an eager Richard Nixon, among other pols), bold supporter of Alexander Dubcek’s socialism with a human face in 1968, to increasing megalomaniac (and very poor swimmer) and eventual demise. With grim humor, Ujica elegantly transforms propaganda into revelation, proposing a more complicated view not only of Romania and the Eastern Bloc, but of the historical import of even the most blatant puffery, a commodity not lacking in any government anywhere.
Another special presentation, Boxing Gym, was Frederick Wiseman’s perceptive take on Lord’s Gym, an Austin, Texas community fixture. Proprietor Richard Lord uses his infectious enthusiasm and inspiring generosity to set the egalitarian tone. Boxing Gym presents a cross-section that mainstream American cinema seems to have forgotten, characters as compelling in their fantasies of boxing glory as their nonplussed reactions to the Virginia Tech shootings, which occurred during filming. Such disasters are a more familiar means for people to connect, but by including these moments, Wiseman shows the limitations of the sensational but abstract versus the realities of routine and training. Set to a backbeat of time-bells, rope-skipping, speed-bag training and constant footwork in the ring, Boxing Gym captures the exhilaration of the members — most purely recreational, a few semi-pro — united, while they’re at Lord’s, in the pursuit of something larger than themselves.
The best American film among the main slate selections was Charles Ferguson’s sobering Inside Job, an investigation into the roots of the 2008 economic disaster. Cogent, helpful graphics go a long way to illustrating the tales of dangerous fantasy told by Ferguson’s big-gun interviewees. Beginning in Iceland, Inside Job whips through the leveling of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and (nearly) AIG (among others) at the pace of a domino line. Along the way, Ferguson notes the collateral damage — environmental, societal and personal — wreaked by money gone bad. Shaping the system to conform to ideology, Wall Street and London’s City (primarily) changed the very economic air we all breathe. Ferguson outlines how bankers transformed themselves from grey and cautious into swinging players who would, in the words of one interviewee “gamble on anything.” Inside Job is a form of public service, a clear-eyed view of events often truncated and garbled. Best of all, though, it’s often quite funny.
In a clear bow to box-office realities, three other American films anchored the festival. From a programming standpoint, there’s no arguing with the opening-night-premiere coup of The Social Network. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t show audiences anything they don’t know already, in particular that Americans prize financial success over absolutely everything else. Writer Andrew Sorkin/director David Fincher’s version of Mark Zuckerberg (embodied by Jesse Eisenberg, who makes the best of the ciphered part) does what it can to downplay the pivotal role of luck and timing (okay, knowing how to write code matters too, but we’re not talking Marie Curie/Jonas Salk discoveries here) in Facebook’s success. Whether on the Harvard campus, Silicon Valley or, most tediously, in law-firm conference rooms, The Social Network subscribes — heavily — to hamfisted, you-can’t-handle-the-truth movie-making whose final effect is a resounding “so what?”
As a centerpiece, the NYFF featured Julie Taymor’s The Tempest. Even the best efforts of Helen Mirren, Chris Cooper and David Strathairn can’t help this teapotted Tempest. Despite its noise, commotion and lavish (though uninvolving) effects, don’t be surprised if every third thought is of your grave. The film does feature a few comely shots of the far-flung Hawaiian island location, where it was easy to imagine the cast and crew had a blast. Unfortunately, Taymor left us with no more than the wreckage.
As for the closing night feature, the less said about Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, the better. To be accurate, Peter Morgan’s script deserves a good portion of the blame. The premise: Matt Damon as a reluctant psychic. Ditching his clairvoyant clientele for a dockyard job, Damon —who, driving a forklift like a golf cart, is even harder to believe as working stiff than as a seer into the great beyond — just wants to be normal (is that even still a category in 2010?). It sounded so like vintage SCTV I thought perhaps Count Floyd would make a cameo. Instead, the film lurched along, name-checking the catastrophes of the millennial decade, making its slow progress to uniting Damon with Cécile De France, who seemed, throughout, to be acting in another film entirely.
In John Lanchester’s Debt to Pleasure, he writes, “Who can deny that murder is the defining act of our century, as other centuries might have been defined by prayer or mendicancy? Who can put hand on heart and say that the characteristic gesture of the 20th century is not that of one person killing another?” Though Olivier Assayas may not have had Lanchester’s book in mind, Carlos, his marathon examination of the 1970s and 1980s terrorist (perhaps more familiar as the Jackal) is a reminder of how violent the late 20th century was. Originally aired as a television mini-series, the film is released in two different formats, the full version more than five hours long, the pace crisp and clipped. Stunningly played by Edgar Ramirez, Carlos is less character than prototype. Before there were meet-ups and hook-ups, there was Carlos. Willing to give lethal assistance to a variety of causes (chiefly in support of Palestine), Carlos moves fluidly from language to language, location to location, and woman to woman. He is only real to himself in action and in motion, and only as an individual. Assayas makes seamless use of archival footage, capturing telling details of the period: the Egon Schiele-like German RAF women; the un-ironic conviction that everything, especially sleeping together, had political meaning; the sense that the world might be on the brink of change with Europe leading the way. That period had verve, too, and Assayas captures the particular energy of the European terrorist network. Surprisingly, given all the history it crams in, Carlos is a film about intimacy or rather its lack. For Carlos, much of life is abstract, his loyalties to ideals over people, his only true connection to his guns. Assayas shows Carlos as a celebrity, enraged when his actions go uncredited (“without newspapers, you don’t exist”), admired and resented, romanticized and reviled. The film stays away from any final judgment, noting at the end that Carlos remains incarcerated in France. To remain stuck must certainly be far worse than the bullet or car bomb he virtually he constantly expected.
Twentieth-century politics figured also in Post Mortem, a second feature by Pablo Larraín, set in Chile in 1973. A tank rumbles through one of Santiago’s neighborhoods, noisy and disruptive as a small earthquake. Peering at it from his window is Mario (Alfredo Castro), a morgue typist smitten with his burlesque dancer neighbor, Nancy (Antonia Zegers). The country suddenly erupts; Augusto Pinochet’s troops are ubiquitous, even commandeering the morgue. Protesters’ bodies overwhelm Mario and his colleagues, including, in a harrowing scene, Salvador Allende’s corpse, whose gunshot to the head could, the workers consider, have been done by himself. Nancy hides out in a shed in Mario’s yard, and is eventually discovered not to be alone. A furious Mario imprisons the lovers with furniture, piling chairs, tables, shelves and anything else he can reach, entombing them in the detritus of the settled life that no longer exists. Larraín achieves a strange mood, both off-hand and serious; the film is as much an examination of fragile peacetime as it is of an individual who may or may not be sane. Fundamentally, Post Mortem is a story of exploitation at the personal and political level, specific to Chile but recognizably universal.
A different form of breakdown takes place in Aurora, which is set in the outskirts of Bucharest, Romania. Director Cristi Puiu cast himself Viorel, a recently divorced man whose frustration takes a lethal toll on his family. Onscreen for virtually the entire three hours, Puiu trains a fixed camera on the characters, using doorways as a frame-within-the-frame, the arm’s-length feeling of the shots a visual translation of Viorel’s distance from life. Puiu shows little of the murders, all but the first offscreen, and even that one partially obscured. In its portrait of someone beyond the reach of convention, Aurora has certain affinities with Laurent Cantet’s Time Out. The protagonists in both feel themselves unfairly ditched by society. As in his earlier Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Puiu ends the film with a gallows humor whimper: confessing to the murders, Viorel expects fireworks but gets little more than a shrug from the police. When your days are filled with murders, another four make little difference. Enigmatic and occasionally darkly funny, Aurora shows a director in full control of his medium.
For some time now, Jean-Luc Godard’s films have shown what being inured to life as we know it feels like. Film Socialisme, to which non-French speakers are granted only limited access with keyword rather than full-sentence subtitles, plays havoc with narrative, chronology and even location. It feels sometimes like the search for a station on a car radio. Money, war and power figure, the main setting a cruise ship and its dolled-up ports of call. Film Socialisme resists summary, though with its frequent images of people clinging to entertainment and to food as if hoping to be saved, it reminded me of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. As children play with a red-white-and-blue beribboned donkey, the adults around them note that these days Europeans “distribute rather than produce” goods. Godard shows a Europe shaped pretty much entirely by tourists, a continent catering to the wishes of current and future spenders who can’t wait to have the canned experiences of Europe’s capitals promised to them — more than anywhere else — at the movies.
Capitalism’s uglier aspects were at the center of Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins, which he described as a look at landscape through the “the displacements of capitalism.” In the film’s epigraph, quoted from The Seeds of Time, Frederic Jameson notes that “it seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.” As well as Jameson, Keiller draws a great deal from W. G. Sebald, in particular Austerlitz, though Keiller’s protagonist seeks to unravel geographic rather than personal identity — and ownership. Playing Robinson’s surviving lover in voice-over, Vanessa Redgrave recites the erudite script in a style both sober and beguiling. Over extended, fixed shots of seemingly benign installations and signage, the narration traces the successive ceding by the UK government of various powers to private and corporate interests. Dense with references, dates and quotations, the prose makes subtle shifts to what is, essentially, a static image, the film intentionally echoing the newsreels once a common feature of movie-going. Topsy-turvying apparently harmless, even bucolic images with spoken explanations of their potentially lethal effects (whether through pollution or actual weapons), Robinson in Ruins answers little but poses many important questions, including how tolerant a people should be of governments willing to trade power for corporate cash.
Of Gods and Men is Xavier Beauvois’s sensitive interpretation of the 1996 kidnapping and massacre of Cistercian monks in Tibhirine, Algeria. Integrated into the Muslim community, the monks produce honey for the local market and offer a medical clinic for the townspeople. When an Islamic fundamentalist group kills a crew of foreign workers, the monks decline the army’s offer of protection or escape. Though they see themselves as politically neutral, the rebels do not. They are not naïve, but they do give each side credence, which does, they realize, eventually seal their fate. Like a lighter version of Into Great Silence, Of Gods and Men shows the austere, devotional, and admirably simple lives of the monks quite realistically, their daily routine bit by bit disrupted by the forces outside they would rather ignore. The first-rate performances, especially by Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale, emphasize that the monks have made a family in the widest sense of the term, with a commitment to communal life. “Leaving would lead nowhere,” in the words of one of the members.
Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte (Four Times) explored faith of a different sort. Set in Calabria, Italy, it’s a delicate observation of various life-cycles — human, animal, vegetable — in a tiny hamlet. Animals and landscape take precedence; people are of secondary importance. The four acts of Le Quattro Volte center, respectively, on the final days of a goatherd; the possible transmigration of his soul into a newborn kid; a further transmigration of the goat’s spirit into an enormous pine; and finally, the hamlet’s felling of the tree, their celebration and its eventual pulping for transformation into charcoal. The film has none of the tweeness this description may suggest. Instead, Frammartino handles the spiritual elements by suggesting rather than showing, creating a mood that reminded me of the simple beauty and succinctness of Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales. Grounding his poetic images in the realities of work and survival, human and otherwise, Frammartino begins and ends the film in the smoke of the charcoal kiln, an unsentimental reminder of where all of us are heading.
A community apart figured in Silent Souls as well, Alexei Fedorchenko’s version of The Buntings, a novel by Aist Sergeyev. Set in West-Central Russia, the film follows two middle-aged men, Aist and Miron (Igor Sergeyev and Yuri Tsurilo) on a road trip as they transport the body of Miron’s suddenly deceased wife, Tanya (Yuliya Aug), to be burned on a pyre in the wilderness. As is the custom, Miron divulges conjugal details he would never have confessed when Yuliya was alive, slowly realizing that Aist adored Yuliya as well. Shot using blue filters, Silent Souls combines the desolation of the pokey settlements with the beautiful bleakness of the Volga River region. Like Frammartino, Fedorchenko trawls the borders between the worlds of spirit and material, the result a film that feels evanescent but whose images are indelible.
Intimates who don’t know each other also feature in Tuesday After Christmas, a debut by Radu Muntean. Apparently happily married to Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), Paul (Mimi Branescu) has been having an affair with Raluca (Maria Popistasu) for several months. Caught between two women he loves equally, not to mention his school-age daughter Mara (Sasa Paul-Szel), Paul tries to stave off a decision. But between holiday pressures and an unexpected encounter between Adriana and Raluca at Mara’s orthodontic consultation, Paul has to make a decision. Throughout, Muntean’s sequence shots emphasize the interconnection of the three characters, the viewer’s sympathy shifting from one to the other — or perhaps none. Like Late Marriage, Tuesday After Christmas shows believable sex scenes, both films having to do with male indecisiveness. But Muntean also does more low-key scenes of domestic affection well, such as Paul massaging Adriana’s feet, the camera resting on his face and her toes, the rest of her offscreen. Oprisor (Branescu’s real-life wife) and Popistasu come through as differently but equally sympathetic, while Branescu seems constantly distracted, never completely present for anyone, even himself. Muntean gets all the domestic details right, culminating in a tense Christmas dinner, where, to protect their daughter and their parents, Paul and Adriana wring out the last drops of their affection. Relying on their familiarity, the couple sneak “Santa’s” gifts under the tree while carolers distract Mara, Adriana and Paul’s wordless cooperation evidence of the tiny, unquantifiable intimacies available only to long-term partners.
Sebastian Silva and Pedro Peirano conceived of Old Cats as “a cross between Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Set in a vintage apartment in downtown Santiago, it plays out over a single day in the life of Isadora (Belgica Castro), teetering on the verge of Alzheimer’s. In her eighties, she lives with her second husband, Enrique (Alejandro Sievking, to whom Castro is married in real life), relishing their independence, their comfortable apartment and especially their two jumbo-sized cats. When the elevator goes out, Isadora finds herself unhappily stuck and at the mercy of her middle-aged-still-wild daughter Rosario (Claudia Celedon) and her girlfriend, Hugo (Catalina Saavedra). Looking for cash to fund her latest fantasy of instant wealth, Rosario tries to bully Isadora into signing over the lease on the apartment. When at each other’s throats, Castro and Celedon show themselves equals to Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Elizabeth Taylor, though every cast member — cats inclusive— performs spectacularly. Peirano and Silva offer a delicately hopeful resolution, neatly avoiding sentimentality and uplift.
The realities of middle and old age are also at the heart of Mike Leigh’s Another Year. Four sections mirror the seasons, as the film examines the circle around Tom (Jim Broadbent), an urban geologist, and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a medical counselor. Sixtyish, happily married and happiest cooking together or on their garden allotment, they have one grown son, Joe (Oliver Maltman). An administrator at Ruth’s clinic, Mary (Lesley Manville) comes around to dinner occasionally. Spouting the self-help gibberish of women’s magazines and, later, when she’s put away more wine, massive regrets, Mary tries to make a life for the person she thinks she should be. At a party, Mary and Tom’s old friend Ken (a heartbreakingly clumsy Peter Wight) blunder in part because they’re still hoping for young-adult thrills, and in Mary’s worst move, she makes a play for Joe, bitchily furious when he introduces his new girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez). The three leads, veterans of several other Leigh films, inhabit not only their characters but their work, each one believably shaped by it in their every action. But all the acting, down to the smallest part, is first-rate, though special mention must be made of Imelda Staunton’s extended cameo at the beginning of the film. As a portrayal of middle-aged female suffering, it’s hard to top, demonstrating, along with Staunton’s skill, the limits of what therapy can do. Asked by Gerri to remember one moment of her life that makes her happy, Staunton’s character simply cannot, and she’s annoyed to be asked for something so impossible. Most movies reflect the medicalized, therapized, bullet-pointed times in which we allegedly live, selling a rewarding life as no more than finding the right formula. But in Another Year, Leigh makes clear how much of Tom and Gerri’s contentedness is down to sheer luck. The beauty of Another Year is its insistent truth that finding the right person remains mysterious, improbable and rare.