Berlin Critics’ Week 2023: Sur-realism
This article appeared in the March 9, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Café Flesh (Stephen Sayadian, 1982)
On the third evening of this year’s Berlin Critics’ Week, an autonomous event that runs parallel to the Berlinale, four short films were screened as part of the program “Artistic Differences—Ghosts of a Damned Earth”: Ana Carolina and Paulo Rufino’s Lavra dor (“Plowman,” Brazil, 1968); Aloysio Raulino’s O tigre e a gazela (“The Tiger and the Gazelle,” Brazil, 1977); Rodrigo Ribeiro-Andrade’s The White Death of a Black Wizard (Brazil, 2020); and Rubén Gámez’s The Secret Formula (Mexico, 1965). In the discussion that followed the screening, Brazilian curator Victor Guimarães (who co-organized the program with Portuguese curator Cíntia Gil, and Jenny Miller and Christopher Allen of the New York–based UnionDocs) invoked the idea of “sur-realist” cinema. As Guimarães explained, the term—proposed by Brazilian film critic José Carlos Avellar with reference to the writings and films of Glauber Rocha—describes a cinema that doesn’t imagine an escape from reality but instead is fully, vividly, nightmarishly of it. Avellar and Rocha used “sur-realism” to denote the specificity of the surrealism of Latin America and the Global South, where notions of reality don’t abide by Western rationality. With its felicitous polysemy—“Sur” meaning “over” or “more” in English and “south” in Spanish—the term is a brilliant evocation of a non-Western cinema that both conjures new social realities and feverishly expresses the injustice and brutality of present ones.
Gámez’s The Secret Formula embodies this vision with a collage of piercing documentary images of weary manual laborers framed against desolate, desert-like landscapes. In an early sequence, a day worker loads flour sacks onto a truck, then travels on it with a corpse, eventually making love to the lifeless body. In another scene, set in a slaughterhouse, shots of a cow being butchered and skinned are cross-cut with images of an upper-class man and woman kissing passionately. As a worker prepares to carry the flayed carcass through the streets, we see, instead of the beef, the slumped bodies of the man and woman flung over his back. Human/animal, male/female, dead/alive, worker/boss—these are just some of the wildly oscillating binaries in this feverishly paced, syncretic poem, whose key tactic is a constant concatenation of shocking improbabilities and nightmares. In its glut of baroque imagery, the film proclaims the audacity of Latin American cinema to rewrite its own conditions—to conjure up excess from poverty and hunger. The film’s coda offers an agenda for its hallucinatory images, presenting a long list of multinational companies—including Monsanto, Siemens, Walt Disney, and General Electric—that have profited from the suppression of workers’ rights and, in some instances, from collusion with Latin American dictatorial regimes. Yet The Secret Formula resists the audience’s appetite for easily digestible spectacle or classical narrative, instead embodying Rocha’s idea that Latin American surrealism is “about the relationship between hunger and mysticism.” The film’s sur-realist form refutes the notion that only straightforward polemics can draw the audience’s attention to pertinent sociopolitical questions, instead unleashing the ideological force of sensory frenzy.
Hunger, for Rocha, was an organizing principle of Latin American cinema; in his famous 1965 manifesto The Aesthetics of Hunger, he wrote: “Our originality is our hunger, and our greatest misery is that this hunger is felt but not intellectually understood . . . The most noble cultural manifestation of hunger is violence.” Violence as a cultural manifestation was also evident in another Critics’ Week selection, Revolution+1 (2022), by Masao Adachi. (Full disclosure: I was a panelist for the discussion following the “Reaction Shot” program in which Adachi’s film was screened.) The Japanese filmmaker, now 83, is perhaps better known for being a former member of the Japanese Red Army than for his sexually disturbing films from the 1960s. In Adachi’s typically controversial fashion—“scandalous” is how he described his method in an interview with one of the artistic directors of Critics’ Week, Dennis Vetter—the filmmaker builds a part-speculative, part-analytical narrative around an event lifted from the headlines: the assassination of Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, in July 2022. Drawing on details from the biography of the assassin, the 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, Adachi crafts an imagined backstory from Yamagami’s point of view that denounces Abe’s right-wing politics, and in particular his support for the Unification Church, which has been accused of siphoning money from worshippers.
Made quickly with rudimentary performances and mise en scène, Revolution+1 is nevertheless far from what we usually associate with political cinema. The film makes little claim for Yamagami’s broader political consciousness, instead plunging us into a fever dream of his increasingly obsessive resentment toward the church that caused his family’s destitution. Relayed through soapy dialogue and acting, it is a story as much about a young man’s descent into mental illness as about his avenging of a social ill. At times Adachi adopts a more lyrical and even opaque tone, deploying jazzy music, expressionistic choreography, and semi-Brechtian staging to convey an air of deliberate artifice. Though the final result isn’t consistently satisfying, Adachi’s yo-yoing between psychologizing narrative and inscrutable reverie achieves a sharp sense of surrealism as a kind of “surfeit” reality—a sense of the absurd brought on by economic deprivation, suffering, and profound helplessness, rather than as a reaction to oppressive rationality.
A number of films in the Critics’ Week program employed surrealism more whimsically, such as Raúl Ruiz’s arcane, masterful short The Film To Come (1997), a down-the-rabbit-hole comedic horror about a man whose daughter disappears in the midst of an intrigue surrounding a mysterious cult. In a similarly playful vein, Lucía Seles’s meandering fiction feature Smog In Your Heart (2022) follows the hapless employees of a tennis center as they navigate situational oddities and social tensions. Screened in the “Midnight Metabolism” program, Stephen Sayadian’s 1982 art-house porn–cum–postapocalyptic sci-fi feature Café Flesh stood out for its lewd and ludic boldness. In the film, the café is a gathering spot for “negatives,” customers incapable of having sex, who watch the few enslaved “positives” perform on stage, hoping futilely to achieve arousal. Sayadian subverts the positive-negative terminology introduced during the AIDS epidemic to provocative, exhilarating ends.
Café Flesh shared resonances with The Secret Formula, underlining how the various sections of Critics’ Week complemented each other. Both films are visually hungry, even ravenous. Sayadian’s camera enacts an ocular fixation, often focusing on orifices: gaping mouths with flickering tongues; the soft folds and openings of overexcited flesh. It’s sex as the embodiment of a consumptive craze, tauntingly euphoric yet moribund, since the film constantly reminds us that this excess—this cornucopia of performative, orgasmic pleasure—belongs to the very few. The film powerfully distilled the broader takeaway of this year’s Berlin Critics’ Week: that the sur-realist imagination mounts its revolt through the ecstatic, the insolent, and the phantasmagoric, yet finds them not in impossible dreams but in the physical and social conditions that haunt our everyday.
Ela Bittencourt is a writer and critic. She‘s written about the moving image, art, and literature for Artforum, Film Comment, Harper’s, The Nation, and The New York Review of Books, among others.