Cannes by Koehler: The Owners & Ate ver a luz
The 66th edition of Cannes isn’t going to be remembered for a bevy of discoveries—which makes bona fide finds all the more precious. Agustín Toscano and Ezequiel Radusky’s The Owners and Basil da Cunha’s Ate ver a luz (roughly, “Until the Light Is Seen”) were among the few debuts in which the filmmakers have thought through their material in terms of point of view. In each case, POV proves to be crucial to the ways in which their films are read, and how their meanings can be gleaned.
POV is tricky. Filmmakers have to develop a complete perspective on their subject, understand what their camera can and can’t do, and remain both rigorous about these limitations and true to the possibilities. The Owners and Ate ver a luz offer useful examples in the potential of POV in what are fairly straightforward dramatic narrative situations.
Take the approach of Toscano and Radusky who worked extensively in theater before making their first features (as did Yann Gonzalez, director of another Critics’ Week selection, You and the Night). Directing for the stage involves creating stage pictures, but it rarely addresses POV, which is typically the purview of playwright. As the filmmakers have suggested in interviews, the inability to define an optical perspective in stage direction made them all the more intent on exploring the challenge in their film (which ironically sets up a premise that could nicely work on stage).
Sisters Pia (Rosario Blefari) and Lourdes (Cynthia Avellaneda) co-own an estate in the northern Argentine province of Tucuman. Pia, based in Buenos Aires, is the absentee partner, and so Lourdes has invited her to visit, after going several years without seeing the place. Lourdes, too, is often away, leaving the estate’s caretaking staff—Ruben (German De Silva), Alicia (Liliana Juarez) and Sergio (Sergio Prina)—a great deal of time to do as they please around the grounds, which they more or less treat as their own home. When Pia and Lourdes settle in for a longer stay at the property, landowners and workers tussle over who really has “ownership” over the place.
The inevitable tensions often play out with a dryly comic touch, even as Toscano and Radusky tend to de-dramatize their naturally dramatic premise. But what’s more interesting in The Owners is how the filmmakers observe these parties playing opposite each other: each side receives more or less equal time, so POV is steadily switching, underlying the notion that both sets of people have legitimate claims to the estate. More cleverly, the directors create echoing perspectives: the workers only half-accidentally spy on the women as they lounge at estate’s pool, while Pia doesn’t hesitate from playing Peeping Tom with the caretakers. In each case, the camera is precisely placed to allow the viewer to join in the eavesdropping.
At the same time, the camera—and this may be the best byproduct of the filmmakers’ theater experience—remains at a moderate distance, defusing close emotional connection while showing where characters stand in relationship to each other in any given shot. When Pia arrives, and Ruben, Alicia, and Sergio frantically clean up the master bedroom they’ve been using, the filmmakers don’t amp up the comedy with rapid-fire close-ups but instead let the scene play out in a steady medium shot that gives the situation the air of classical farce.
This is mature filmmaking. It also makes a sharp political point, recording the seemingly unbridgeable gap between upper and lower classes, a kind of Rules of the Game in rural Argentina. Another South American film at Cannes, Marcela Said’s fiction-feature debut The Summer of Flying Fish addresses class divisions, but with a terminally flawed difference: the camera adopts a POV that forces the viewer to become complicit with her landowner characters. The move reduces the workers, as well as a group of protesting laborers, to the level of an abstraction, relegated to the periphery of the action, when they’re not off screen altogether. Yet the workers are central to the narrative. Said thus copies Lucrecia Martel’s POV approach in La cienaga—which also deliberately rendered the lower-class characters as background players—but denies them the power and impact that Martel’s more generous camera permits. The Owners is a useful contrast: the viewer becomes complicit in both sides of the class divide, complicating the notions of where authority resides. If home is where the heart is, then both sides have equal claim, and no easy answers emerge.
Ate ver la luz
For his Directors’ Fortnight competition entry Ate ver la luz, Da Cunha takes a more direct approach to POV than Toscano and Radusky’s complicated strategy. Da Cunha’s film follows an ex-con named Sombra (expressively played by Pedro Ferreira) trying to survive in a Lisbon slum (though not the Fontainhas quarter made famous by Pedro Costa). His mobile digital camera sticks close to Sombra throughout his adventures, run-ins, and attempts to extract himself from a virtually intractable situation. Somewhat in the spirit of the Dardenne Brothers but never aping them, Da Cunha’s perspective is sympathetic but not insistent, intimately observant, doggedly attached to his main character through thick and thin. Mired in debts and a legacy of relationships with fellow ex-cons who hang onto him like an albatross, Sombra could be part of the Colossal Youth dream expressed by Costa’s hero, Ventura. Da Cunha suggests as much through Ferreira’s penetrating eyes, which exude intelligence and humanity, and seem tragically at odds with the degrading conditions around him.
Remarkably, no greater white Portuguese world is to be seen in this film’s POV: the urban African enclave is all there is, reversing the usual notion of “The Other” in the white-dominated universe of European filmmaking. By sticking close to Sombra’s side, and by making the most of Ferreira’s face as a rich landscape of emotions, Ate ver la luz explicitly makes the hidden visible—revealing the poor migrant class in one of the continent’s most economically stressed societies—and pushes aside the powerful. Even when tragedy looms, there’s something triumphant in such filmmaking, striking a blow, if not starting a revolution.