This article appeared in the August 18, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

It Is Night in America (Ana Vaz, 2022)

In a conversation at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, the filmmaker Helena Wittmann told me about a fascinating exchange she’d had with a frustrated audience member at the premiere of her new feature, Human Flowers of Flesh. The film returns to the sea-setting of Wittmann’s debut feature, Drift (2017), with the tale of a ship’s captain, Ida (Angeliki Papoulia), and her crew of five men as they sail across the Mediterranean Sea, loosely tracing the path of the French Foreign Legion. Narrative dissolves into the rhythm of the ocean and the pull of a longing gaze, which guide the characters from Marseille to Corsica to Algeria, accumulating myths, histories, and 16mm images of aqueous sensuality. Wittmann told me that one opening-night attendee was puzzled by the film’s indulgence in elemental surfaces at the expense of meaning. “There’s all this blue, she swims, that’s all very nice,” the woman had said. “But where’s the message?” Later, one of Wittmann’s actors told her that his response to most movies is the other way around: “I get the message, I get the story. But where’s the blue?”

“Where’s the blue?” might have been the rallying cry of this year’s Locarno, where the best films were those that—like Human Flowers—invited contemplation rather than mere comprehension. My conversation with Wittmann took place as part of an experimental event, co-organized by the Università della Svizzera italiana and the festival, that devoted itself precisely to this exercise. Titled “The Future of Attention,” the event assembled three moderators—including yours truly—and a rotating cast of more than two dozen guests to hold court for 24 unbroken hours. Attendees were invited to sit, lounge, and even sleep in the audience as and when they pleased; others tuned in and out via Twitch from all over the world. If this setup sounds sacrilegious for a film festival—a concession, perhaps, to the kind of distracted viewing popularized by Netflix—it in fact yielded radical insights for film spectatorship. As the clock ticked on, and we battled exhaustion and tedium, it wasn’t that our attention waned; it shape-shifted, from an active to a more passive form of awareness. When we suspend the urge to understand, in what other ways might our bodies and minds perceive the world around us?

Our collective discomfort with this embodied mode of attention is evident in the confused reactions that Wittmann’s film has generated, even in the press. A review in Screen Daily, for example, accuses the film of having “the superficial contours of a profound and intelligent enterprise” but not the “actual content.” What, however, do we mean by “content”? Too often, we forget that cinema is not an empty vessel for story or meaning; filmic material is content in and of itself, a dance of light, sound, space, and screen that impresses upon us sensorily before it does rationally. Wittmann’s audacious gesture in Human Flowers is not to eschew narrative, but to deploy it for tangible rather than hermeneutic effects: references to books, movies, and legends enter the film like debris, producing material collisions. As a character reads aloud from Marguerite Duras’s novel The Sailor From Gibraltar (1952), his words lap against the roar of the ocean, and the pages of the book flutter in the dim light of the boat. At one point, Denis Lavant appears in the film, dressed as a French Legionnaire, and it’s as if Human Flowers has stumbled into the orbit of Claire Denis’s 1999 exemplar Beau travail: Ida (and the film) bends toward Lavant like a magnet toward iron.

This unique ability of cinema to reify the immaterial—and to make specters out of the material—is also at the heart of João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata’s Where is This Street? or With No Before and After. A tribute to Paulo Rocha’s seminal Portuguese classic The Green Years (1963), parts of which were shot outside the apartment that Rodrigues now lives in, the documentary revisits locations from the older film in a COVID-19-stricken Lisbon. I was warned that Where is This Street? would make little sense to someone who hadn’t seen Rocha’s film, but having resolved to seek something other than sense in the Locarno lineup (sensation, perhaps?), I delved in—and was richly rewarded. As the directors rove hauntingly evacuated streets, fields, and homes in Lisbon—adding touches of play, like a severed hand, a gay kiss, an ad jingle—the draw is not what’s in the frame (the “content,” if you will), but the gaze of the camera. It moves with a frenetic and idiosyncratic curiosity, panning, tracking, and zooming in on banal objects, as if searching for the significance that only cinema can bestow upon our everyday surroundings. At times, the film unfolds like an abstract version of Playtime (1967), with the camera standing in for Monsieur Hulot, stumbling through the world with naïveté and whimsy.

If Where is This Street? foregrounds cinema’s unique capacities for attention, given its malleabilities of scale, focus, and time, Safe Place, a stunning debut feature by Croatian filmmaker Juraj Lerotić, offers a more sobering riff on the same theme. The premise is, at first glance, simple and stark: a man (Lerotić himself) finds that his brother has attempted suicide, and he and his mother spend the next 24 hours shepherding his sibling from hospital to hospital while trying desperately to anticipate and prevent further attempts. But a rupture early in the film—an utterly surprising and seamless change in register—reveals its reflexive depths. The story, as it turns out, is autobiographical for Lerotić, and the film is intended as something between reenactment and retribution. The revelation reframes the unforced precision of Lerotić’s compositions—wide shots that flicker with wayward movements; oblique angles that obscure details—as a confrontation with the impossibility of total attention, even when lapses may have life-or-death consequences.

Two of the strongest films in the Locarno lineup unleashed the political dimensions of a distracted or askance gaze, one that wanders into the margins. Matter Out of Place, the latest opus of systemic nonfiction by Austrian documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter, turns its lens to the economy of detritus—the elaborate, Wonka-like world of industrial waste disposal that operates at the peripheries of most of our lives. Traveling from Switzerland to Nepal to America, among other locations, Geyrhalter assembles tableaux of trash that awe with their sheer scale but avoid the preciousness and ethnographic remoteness that often accompany slow-burn documentaries about eco-collapse. Instead, the director sutures his scenes with a through line of motion that attunes us to the corporeal and mechanized labor of waste. The seemingly autonomous roil of an incinerator in Austria contrasts with the uphill climb of a cheery trash collector in Nepal, provoking questions about our relative proximities to rubbish—who gets their hands dirty, who doesn’t, and how does that inflect our relationship with our palpable, perishable world?

Brazilian artist Ana Vaz’s debut feature, It is Night in America, attempts a similar reordering of the field of the visible. Her slender, 66-minute film embodies Wittmann’s “blue” in both literal and metaphorical terms. Shot predominantly in day-for-night (a technique that simulates nighttime while shooting in daylight), the film is suffused with a crepuscular aura that renders Brasília, Vaz’s hometown, as a netherworld, with the camera zooming in on its faunal denizens. Close-ups of anteaters, owls, foxes, capybaras, and more at the Brasília Zoo and on the city’s streets alternate with light-studded skylines, while on the voiceover, we hear recordings of people’s calls to forest officers and a conversation with a veterinarian who refers to injured animals as “refugees”—thrust out of their habitat by voracious urbanization. Dense with the grain of expired film stock and the hum of crickets and traffic and waterfalls, the film engineered a kind of awakening in me, simultaneously fogging and clarifying my senses with its nocturnal visions. It would be too easy to commend a movie like It is Night in America for its mesmerizing beauty or its subtle critique of settler colonialism, but in submitting to Vaz’s particular mode of perception, one realizes that content and contours, message and material, are not separable. Feeling is a way of knowing in the film, an alternate epistemology sensitive to the frequencies occluded by the tunnel vision of modernity.