Film Comment Selects: Sneak Preview
Belluscone: A Sicilian Story
Some of the most intriguing titles in this year’s edition of Film Comment Selects—which begins this Friday and runs through March 5—resist easy categorization and prefer to flirt with two or three genres at a time. There’s enough song, dance, and glitz in Belluscone: A Sicilian Story, for example, to justify calling it some kind of musical-essay, but director Franco Maresco, who began filming the documentary in 2011, is more interested in a different kind of show business: the sleazy populism of Italian politics. Writing about last year’s Doclisboa, Giovanni Vimercati explains that Maresco’s film arose out of the attempt to complete a documentary about Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his putative connections to the Mafia. Somewhere between Berlusconi and Belluscone, Maresco abandoned traditional journalism. As Vimercati puts it: “Unlike the many and useless documentaries that have been made throughout the years on the ‘colorful’ Italian politician/TV mogul/institutional pimp/self-made man/et cetera, Belluscone finally exposed Berlusconi for what he really is: the result and not the cause of his country's problems . . . That it took a manic-depressive genius to make the first valuable film on the mastermind of Italy's political circus only adds further evidence to the fact that we need new linguistic ways to describe a world spinning out of control—where ‘normalcy’ often amounts to sheer delirium.”
If Belluscone shows Italy rotting from the inside, then Spring, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s audacious follow-up to their 2012 thriller Resolution, depicts the country struggling to resolve a love-hate relationship with foreigners. The protagonist, a young California blonde named Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), decides, for no particular reason, that il bel paese is the perfect place to drift around after his mother’s death. As soon as he’s settled into life on a farm, Benson and Moorhead proceed to infuse their horror hybrid with absurdities and surprises. As Gavin Smith wrote in his Toronto International Film Festival coverage, Spring becomes “genuinely original and semi-unclassifiable,” when Evan falls for Louise, “a charming but strangely elusive woman . . . despite the fact that she suffers from a mysterious affliction that causes her body to mutate and drives her to feed off whoever’s unlucky enough to come her way. Defying run-of-the-mill genre expectations, the supernatural forces here are primordial and mythic in origin, and as unlikely as it sounds, try to imagine Before Sunrise redone as a horror film.”
The World of Kanako
The World of Kanako, Tetsuya Nakashima’s first feature in four years, might qualify as horror, if only for Nana Komatsu’s disturbing turn as the quintessential hell-raising adolescent, but its strongest influences lie in Japanese New Wave cinema. As in Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, Nakashima prioritizes spectacle over logic and subtlety, and his story—about a volatile ex-cop who investigates his daughter’s disappearance, only to discover that she was running a drug and prostitution ring—is pure pulp. In a crime film this dark, the brazen visuals and loud-and-clear themes make for riveting but disturbing viewing—and for Smith, The World of Kanako reestablishes Nakashima as “someone taking cinema to new if morally questionable places.” Even so, it would be wrong to accuse Nakashima, a prolific director of commercials, music videos, and shorts, of stylizing around his work’s misogynist (or even misanthropic) undertones. Rather than provide comfort, the soft lighting and slow motion imply, in their seductiveness and soullessness, a critique of the entire millennial generation—the world of Kanako, as it were.
The Smell of Us
Notorious youth portraitist Larry Clark’s in-your-face cameo as a homeless man named Rockstar seems both wholly consistent and completely at odds with the realist ambitions of his latest feature, The Smell of Us: either he pulls viewers into the realm of grime and three-day stubble, or his reputation keeps them at a distance. Set in a world of sexually active, drug-addled teenagers, the film will inevitably provoke comparisons with Kids, as well as some of the same accusations of exploitation and sensationalism that dogged the 1995 film (and made it an indie hit). The de facto protagonists Math and JP divide their time between skateboards, raves, needles, and anonymous sex, but Clark refrains from passing moral judgments on either of them. His claustrophobic images frequently offer confusion instead of clarity (more often than not, our first glimpse of the teenagers’ world is through a grainy iPhone camera), so when a rare panorama reveals that the action takes place in green, sunny Paris, it’s almost more shocking than the encounters with sex and drugs. Moments like these make Clark’s ninth film feel as fresh and energetic as a debut.
Things aren’t much better for young folk across the Channel in Duane Hopkins’s Bypass, which details the travails of a small-time thief in a former industrial town in England. As Nicolas Rapold wrote in our January/February issue, life is grim: “Barely out of his teens, Tim (George McKay) ekes out an existence stealing and fencing goods . . . His parents are gone, he works for violent thugs, he’s the legal guardian of his truant sister, and debtors come knocking at their door every day.” Yet in spite of his character’s “manifest anxiety,” Rapold finds that “McKay conveys a will to survive and a fundamental decency without ever making Tim seem a martyr, even when he becomes afflicted with a punishing nervous disorder. Hopkins and DP David Procter follow Tim through concrete cityscapes that sometimes overwhelm both the frame and Hopkins’s protagonist, but the digital camera reads these well-cast faces well, the lyricism and lucidity of the sometimes disorientingly edited images endowing them with unexpected warmth.”
Cutting a broad swath across Iranian society, filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-Etemad returns with Tales, a return to the international stage that Olaf Möller declared “the best news of the year” in his Venice coverage (November/December 2015). Bani-Etemad’s first fiction film in nearly a decade “offers a panorama of contemporary life in Tehran focused on those rarely seen in Iranian cinema nowadays: middle-class citizens faced with self-serving bureaucrats, drug addicts, women afflicted with AIDS-related illnesses, striking workers, etc.” The framing device of a documentary filmmaker who strings together the disparate storylines allows the film to tackle a formidable amount of material, and the result “boasts a strong narrative construction and impeccable dialogue—the quality of the acting, the finely tuned rhythms of body language, and each episode’s overall development at least suggest that the actors had something perfectly wrought to work with.” Möller concludes: “Bani-Etemad handles the material with a rare sense of tact rooted in her sense of solidarity with the people she portrays. As such, it’s political filmmaking of the most enlightened kind.” Novel, familiar, farcical, and dramatic, the film’s diversity could describe the series as a whole.
Film Comment Selects runs February 20 through March 5 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Check back for interviews with filmmakers in the series and more coverage.