This article appeared in the June 1, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here. Catch up on all of our coverage of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival here.

Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese, 2023)

At the premiere of a documentary about Jean-Luc Godard at this year’s Cannes, there was a moment that could have been scripted by Competition jury head (and two-time Palme d’Or–winner) Ruben Östlund. Florence Platarets’s Godard by Godard, a fairly rote chronicle of the late auteur’s life and career told through archival footage, showed a glimpse of the filmmaker’s oft-quoted protest at the 1968 edition of Cannes, calling for screenings to be canceled in solidarity with worker and student struggles. As the scene played out on screen, the audience at the Théâtre Claude Debussy erupted in supportive applause and cheers. The response, I imagine, was in awareness of the irony that this year, amid a fervent wave of protests across France against the raising of the retirement age, the city of Cannes had banned demonstrations by labor unions in an effort to preserve “public order.” A couple of small protests organized by the trade union CGT (a founding organizer of the festival) did take place in private areas outside hotels—as did, reportedly, some minor disruptions of power supplies by union members—but they barely seemed to register among the throngs jostling for tickets to new films by Wes Anderson or Martin Scorsese. The applause during Platarets’s film struck me as not unlike the land acknowledgements that now customarily precede cultural events held on stolen territory, funded by companies ravaging Indigenous resources. By nodding to history—to bygone repressions and rebellions that require little more of us than remembrance—we seem to seek a bloodless, guiltless escape from intervening in the present.

The moment threw into relief questions that haunted my experience of the 2023 lineup, where the resurrection of (or recourse to?) the past was a major theme. Steve McQueen’s Occupied City, an epic documentary that clocks in at nearly four and a half hours, combines scenes of COVID-19-era Amsterdam with excerpts, read in a clinical voiceover, from a book by Bianca Stigter that details the atrocities that took place in the Dutch capital during the Nazi occupation. Sound and image represent, respectively, the past and the present, layered together in the hopes of provoking juxtapositions and reckonings. Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest adapts the same-named novel by Martin Amis into a rarefied portrait of the family of Rudolf Höss, the longest-serving commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and his wife, Hedwig, as they live out a suburban dream mere meters from an ongoing genocide. The Holocaust’s horrors are little more than ambient noise and color to these protagonists, whose insularity the film reconstructs with visual elision and sonic suggestion. Finding new ways to relate the legacy of fascism is an undoubtedly urgent task in our current age of denialism and state-sanctioned amnesia, yet the (very different) formalist conceits of both McQueen’s and Glazer’s movies gave me pause. Expounding coolly at length on a single idea—the cycles of history in Occupied City; the banality of evil in The Zone of Interest—each film, in its own way, vests spectatorship with a moral imperative. But in a world where viewership is virtually indistinguishable from consumption, I remain unconvinced that bearing witness is akin to taking a stance.

A couple of the festival’s major films explicitly thematized viewership-as-consumption, paying close attention to the telling and selling of the past. The best of these efforts, discussed elsewhere in our Cannes coverage, was Todd Haynes’s glorious May December. Operating on a grander historical scale, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon adapts a nonfiction book by David Grann into an epic account of the murders, in the 1920s, of oil-rich members of the Osage Nation by rapacious white interlopers. The tale unfolds in Fairfax, Oklahoma, where the Osage Tribe, once located in Kansas, had been forcibly resettled by an expansionist American state. When huge oil deposits were discovered in the region, the Native residents raked in profits by leasing the land. Like a flame drawing moths, the money attracted resentful white men who sought to expropriate the Osages’ wealth through restrictive laws, strategic marriages, and, most brutally, clandestine murders. Killers of the Flower Moon weaves its tale around one linchpin case: that of Mollie Burkhart (played here by Lily Gladstone), several of whose relatives were killed, one by one, in a plan masterminded by local cattleman William Hale (Robert De Niro) and executed by his feckless nephew—and Mollie’s husband—Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio). 

In some ways, Killers of the Flower Moon plays out like just another one of Scorsese’s gangster dramas: De Niro oozes the sleazy charms of a mafia boss; DiCaprio grovels and schemes as a spineless sidekick to the big man; and Jesse Plemons plays a deceptively milquetoast agent from the Bureau of Investigation, dispatched by J. Edgar Hoover to look into Mollie’s case and save the agency’s face after a series of bungled investigations. By drawing on archetypes, the film traces the roots of not just modern-day capitalism and policing but also popular cinematic forms back to America’s original sin of settler colonialism. Right from the opening scenes, Scorsese foregrounds the narrativization of history, with silent movie–style intertitles, archival portraits of the Osage, and tabloid-like snapshots of the many Native victims of unsolved murders. Two moments in particular stunned me. In one, the residents of Fairfax watch newsreel footage of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, and within weeks, the incident becomes a kind of shorthand for the growing specter of white supremacy, invoked in panic by locals when Ernest and William blow up the home of one of Mollie’s sisters. At a later point, the film breaks the fourth of its many prismatic walls to stage a 1960s true-crime radio play—sponsored, as it were, by Lucky Strike—in which a cast of white performers in suits and ties recount the aftermath of the Osage case, replete with cheesy sound effects. No reflection on this film can be complete without referencing what happens next, so pardon the spoiler: Scorsese himself joins the play to read Mollie Burkhart’s real-life obituary onstage, noting that it made no mention of the murders of her family. The film’s layers of stylized, meta-narrative artifice all peel away to reveal something raw: a master storyteller’s reminder, perhaps to himself more than to viewers, that history is not just written by victors; it’s the writing of history that anoints victors.

Early drafts of the Killers of the Flower Moon script reportedly placed a greater emphasis on the government investigation, but consultations with Osage Nation members led to a rewrite that brought the Native characters closer to the story’s center. The result is not perfectly balanced (Gladstone is rather wasted in the film, her commanding presence ill-fitting the role of a silently suffering wife), but the movie evinces a real grappling with one of the pressing questions of historiography: how can we tell stories of victimization without robbing victims of their agency? Lisandro Alonso’s Eureka, another epic take on Indigenous history, is also concerned with this dilemma. The tripartite film opens with a black-and-white prologue that stars Viggo Mortensen and Chiara Mastroianni in a parody of a classic Hollywood western. That vignette is revealed, via a canny zoom-out, as a film within the film, playing on a TV in a house on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Oglala Sioux people. Here, the film switches to a contemporary narrative about a police officer (Alaina Clifford) dispatched to a series of incidents on the reservation—knife fights, missing children, drunk drivers, shoot-outs—while her niece (Sadie Lapointe), a basketball coach, seeks a way out of an increasingly tragic, closed-off life.

Alonso has said that his desire was to offer a new perspective on the reservation, which is often portrayed reductively as a site of destitution, addiction, and violence. His intention is explicitly stated in the film, in a meta moment in the second section, when Mastroianni shows up on Pine Ridge as an actress researching a part in a western, hoping to get past tired clichés. Yet unlike Killers, where history is actively re-narrativized, Eureka attempts something more subtle, and ultimately dubious: to turn stereotypes against themselves. The section set on Pine Ridge hews dangerously close to the poverty porn–style depictions Alonso purportedly wanted to challenge, but a strange flavor of archness in the dialogue and the performances pulls the film away from realism, as if the characters were defamiliarizing our expectations through knowing absurdity. It’s a remarkable feat of Brechtian acting and directing, but whether that sliver of irony is enough to constitute a subversion, or grant fullness to the film’s Native characters, is a different question. Where Killers pulsates with a filmmaker’s outrage and grief, Eureka takes a more intellectual approach that succumbs—particularly in the film’s navel-gazing third act, set in the Amazon in the 1970s—to tropes about Indigenous people’s existence outside of time.

Historical time is the career-long preoccupation of Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher, who returned to Cannes with the wondrous La chimera, described in her press notes as “the last part in a triptych about a local area whose attention is focused on one central question: what should it do with its past?” As in Happy as Lazzaro (2018), Rohrwacher views the passing of time as both an inevitability freighted with loss and a capitalist fiction that imparts the fruits of modernity inequitably to different parts of society. Unlike Lazzaro, which was bifurcated by a miraculous temporal jump, here the nature of anachronism is the very subject of the film. La chimera revolves around a crew of tombaroli, vagabonds who dig up Etruscan graves to pry out the antiques and jewels buried within. British actor Josh O’Connor plays a preternaturally gifted tombarolo, an emigré from England named Arthur, who runs around with a band of local grave-robbers. They seek a quick buck; he seeks a long-gone love who appears, occasionally, in visions. 

La chimera is quite literally about the sale of history. For the tombaroli, violators of the sacred, the thieving of tombs is an act of protest: why should the dead enjoy more comfort than the living, and why should taboos protect the wealthy? But for the buyers of these unearthed goods—art curators and traders, represented here by Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sister, in a deliciously campy turn—tomb-raiding is a source of wealth consolidation. Acquired illegally, the objects are embellished with origin stories and sold for obscene sums to museums and collectors. Using three different stocks (35mm, 16mm, and Super 16) and varying speeds and aspect ratios, and evoking everything from Chaplin to Italian neorealists to Fellini, Rohrwacher implicates film history itself in her critique. Her incongruously romantic fable about sordid, mercenary transactions forces us to think about the commodification of narrative—and of beauty, which the film possesses in abundance.

The same cannot be said for Ken Loach’s The Old Oak, which is neither particularly easy on the eyes nor inventive in form. In keeping with the director’s output in recent years, it’s a straightforward, plainly shot, and erring-on-maudlin film about the brunt of austerity policies on Britain’s working class. Yet, screened at the very end of this year’s Cannes, it pierced through me like a spear with its sincere, unadorned discontent. The Old Oak explores the conflicts—lifted straight from culture-wars reportage—that erupt in the former mining village of Murton following the arrival of a group of Syrian refugees. Predictably, the newcomers become scapegoats for a local population worn down by poverty, inflation, and a housing crisis. But unlike the miserabilist Sorry We Missed You (2019) and I, Daniel Blake (2016), Loach’s new (and supposedly last) film gleams with hope: solidarity gradually emerges, at times in realistic and at other times in contrived ways, culminating in a workers’ march that echoes the mining strikes of the 1980s. Perhaps the tears that rolled down my face when I saw this concluding vision were not that different from the applause that greeted Godard by Godard. For all its good intentions, The Old Oak, like most movies, is not going to change the world, least so by making me cry. But the film neither simply tokenizes nor mourns the past; it yearns for a better future with the desperation of an 86-year-old filmmaker who wants to see his ideals come to life—on screen, at least. What better vocation for cinema than to manifest a world not yet within our reach?

Devika Girish is the Co-Deputy Editor of Film Comment.