This year’s edition of the Locarno Film Festival left me facing an uncomfortable truth. My cinephile core is no longer as hard as it used to be. The telltale sign? Walking out after two and a half years—sorry, hours—of the latest Lav Diaz, which runs a full 338 minutes. Not only that, but the films in the main competition that have stayed with me this time are narrative works, with characters, action, well-shaped screenplays, and the desperate desire to tell stories about desperate times. Fittingly, the best came from countries themselves facing desperate situations—Russia and Greece, in particular.
And then there was the latest from Pedro Costa, who won the Best Director prize. Horse Money leads us into a labyrinth of endless thresholds dominated by the haunted figure of Ventura, the Cape Verdean immigrant with whom Costa previously collaborated to memorable effect in Colossal Youth in 2006. Here he’s joined on screen by the equally charismatic female presence of Vitalina Varela, and we follow the pair through hushed corridors echoing with whispers into the subterranean world of a film that defiantly creates its own sense of space and time. Though the historical time-frame alternates between 2013 and 1975—in the aftermath of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution—the characters seem to occupy a kind of ghost- or zombie-time; they are the undead of Portugal’s colonial past haunting its present. One could invoke Costa’s framing (almost constantly static), lighting (minimal but dramatic), and sound (heavily layered and powerfully atmospheric), but standard critical vocabulary doesn’t begin to convey the unique, otherworldly feel of his films. It’d take a song or a poem to do that.
I’ve enjoyed some of Eugène Green’s previous films, but La Sapienza left me cold. Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione), a disillusioned architect, and his psychotherapist wife Aliénor (Christelle Prot Landman) take a voyage to Italy where they meet a younger brother-sister pair (Ludovico Succio and Arianna Nastro) and cross-generational self-discoveries ensue. Was it the characters’ sleek, depthless privilege that made me fail to connect? Or, with their Bresson-indebted, uniformly expressionless to-camera gazes, the fact that they look like they’re all permanently posing for passport photographs? The melodramatic family backstories—an ailing marriage, a dead child, and a pair of over-fond siblings—certainly made La Sapienza feel like a soap opera written by a screenwriting team schooled in minimalist modernism. In theory, a potentially fascinating mismatch, but sadly not in this case.
From What is Before
As for Diaz’s From What Is Before, which is set in the remote Philippine countryside in 1972 as the Marcos regime imposes martial law: because I didn’t watch the entire film, I reserve judgment on its Golden Leopard prize and offer only the following observation. Slow cinema’s fine—if you’ve got the time. There’s an equation at work here whose dialectic of luxury and misery is worth dismantling. Those who attend film festivals tend to be of a class rich in appreciation for cultural capital but otherwise time-poor. But the time it takes to settle down to five-plus hours of black-and-white Filipino art cinema is, to be frank, if you’re not a jobbing daily critic, time that just isn’t available in everyday life. And when one gets to luxuriate in that lavish festival screen-time, what are you watching? The spectacle of other people’s misery, usually. I’d like to think it’s this exchange that a filmmaker like Diaz works with knowingly, making it felt as part of his film’s formal deal with the viewer—your luxury for our misery. Or could it simply be that the festival circuit plays the slow cinema card because it remains fashionable? Cinephiles may not be interested in this dialectic, but the dialectic is surely interested in them.
Fidelio, the Odyssey of Alice
One might say, glibly, that Lucie Borleteau’s Fidelio, the Odyssey of Alice transplants the standard concerns of French art movies—books and sex—to the unusual setting of a merchant ship. Alice (Ariane Labed), a ship’s mechanic with a complicated love life, including a past relationship with the Fidelio’s captain (Melvil Poupaud), is given the cabin of a recently deceased shipmate, whose diary she discovers. The literary allusions to Homer and Lewis Carroll evident in the title, plus the film’s stylistic and thematic debt to the cinema of Arnaud Desplechin and Claire Denis—Borleteau worked on the script for Denis’s White Material—are lightly worn, though. In her debut feature, Borleteau is both ambitious in her handling of an ensemble cast and adept at getting the viewer to fully inhabit the Fidelio’s clanking, haunted old hulk. Overall, Alice is an engrossing combination of ghost story, workplace drama, and young woman’s amorous journey, with a pleasingly self-contained performance at its heart, for which Labed deservedly won the Best Actress prize.</p>
That said, Labed faced stiff competition from Angeliki Papoulia in Syllas Tzoumerkas’s A Blast. In an astonishingly intense performance, Papoulia plays Maria, a young mother in a state of emotional meltdown that mirrors the current rage-filled state of Greek society. Her sailor husband is mostly absent (the container ship being the cinematic symbol of choice for 21st-century globalized capitalism), and her parents are mired in debts brought about by tax evasion and the financial crisis. A Blast is emotionally harrowing, sexually explicit, and terrifyingly tense. But the hyper-melodramatic family atmosphere is contained by flashbacks to Maria’s student days and a circular narrative looping back to the opening image of a forest fire. And while the film throws some shadows reminiscent of recent Greek “Weird Wave” cinema (Papoulia also starred in Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth and Alps), such as its unhinged, barking mad, and eyeball-rolling style of acting, this is a bigger, bolder, and angrier work. The title can be read as referring not only to the opening image of all-consuming flames but also to a desire to explode the hermetic emotional landscapes of the Weird Wave—which it does with a bang.
The standout for me this year was Yury Bykov’s The Fool. The titular protagonist, Dima (Artem Bystrov), is a plumber whose single-minded dedication to his job forces him to confront a world of all-consuming corruption—and not to triumph over it. It all begins when he discovers a crack in the wall of a housing block occupied by the drugged-up rejects of a nearby unnamed Russian town. The crack threatens the whole edifice with imminent collapse. Essentially, The Fool takes the standard We’ve Got 24 Hours to Save This Sucker narrative gambit and turns its underpinning consoling idea of cooperative effort for the greater good inside out. The local bureaucrats are too tied up in mutual blackmail and favor-seeking for the fortunes of the block dwellers to concern them, and Dima’s doggedness leads only to his nearly being killed and then run out of town. Best Actor prizewinner Bystrov excels in the role of Dima: naïve, stolid, and increasingly uncomprehending of the venality he encounters. Even in its bleakness, The Fool is extremely satisfying. Bykov, who also wrote the screenplay, orchestrates a superb cast to deliver a devastating portrait of a society hypnotized by the spectacle of its own paralyzing corruption. And guess what? It was co-produced by the Russian Ministry of Culture.