ND/NF: Communal Living
A local dandy, riding home from afternoon tea, finds himself suddenly and uneasily sharing his prize mare with an amorous black stallion. A teenager is ordered to help restrain a man who has inexplicably dropped to all fours in a fast food line. An academic, held in career limbo by his government, trades empty bottles for coins and dreams of having his work published abroad. These moments—drawn from three films in this year’s New Directors / New Films—present vastly different societal panoramas, yet what they have in common are their settings in varyingly insular communities. Whether from neighborly vigilance or the apparatus of a totalitarian state, these characters know their movements are subject to constant review. That knowledge affects every facet of their conduct—they navigate social orders in which private lives are lived and judged publicly.
Of Horses and Men
The Icelandic countryside of Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men seems at first too expansive for such concentrated scrutiny. Set against sprawling and sometimes forbidding backdrops of rocky plains, the villagers live close to the land and in harmony with the horses that seem to outnumber them. No one appears eager to embrace the 21st (or even the 20th) century; steeds and tractors comprise the only evident modes of transportation, and fences supply most of the conflict. But as is the case in tight-knit societies, individual failings do not escape the notice of the locals, human or otherwise.
Indeed the proximity of man and beast, and the blurring of those categories, has seldom been expressed with such earthy authenticity. The film’s aim is not to romanticize in the manner of Black Beauty, or make symbols of its equine characters as in War Horse, but to affirm traits in animals that we, out of perceived supremacy, tend to deny. Above all is a sense of self-possession; Erlingsson’s horses are misused but never misled. Each vignette begins and ends with a close-up of a horse’s eye, its human’s intent literally reflected in the orb—a tomboyish rider applies lipstick to meet her crush, a barb wire fence glints menacingly at a free ranger. The horses’ innate wisdom casts light on the folly of humans, their sighs and snorts foretelling the fate of the best-laid plans nimbly referenced in the title.
The people of the village behave rashly and absurdly, often at their horses’ expense, as when a native with a taste for vodka rides into the frigid sea to procure a bottle from a Russian trawler. Other times they sacrifice their horses for their own safety and vanity (the white mare pays a dear price for beguiling the stallion). But even the most oblivious among them would have to admit they’d be lost without their all-seeing companions.
Frequently Of Horses and Men plays like an interspecies love story. A filly with a lavish blond mane whinnies from afar like an impatient wife; “Coming, girl,” her owner tenderly replies. But Erlingsson never pushes the point to anthropomorphic extremes. The horses impart no wisdom, nor do they fall into quaint pageantry. They function more to animate the setting—to serve as living landscapes, beautiful but wild, wordless but alert. Attempts at mastery are laughable, a message Werner Herzog might embrace. Humans are the same beasts everywhere—prideful, hapless, periodically cruel—and horses suffer them with weary dignity.
History of Fear
Benjamin Naishtat’s History of Fear by contrast takes place among the guarded buildings and patrolled streets of Buenos Aires, where even the open spaces feel confined. Like Erlingsson’s film, it evolves episodically, less a fluid narrative than an escalation of mood. From the introductory helicopter shot, with townspeople informed via loudspeaker that they’ve been evicted from their plot of land, the prevailing sense is of unchecked, top-down dominion, making no allowance for frailty or contingency.
Most residents accept their hardships without protest. During an infernal heat wave, power blackouts are common and fearmongering fuels all entertainment. (“Show your ID!” perpetually issues forth from a TV set, where even the dance shows seem fascistic; this tenor of programming blends with the multiple glimpses of closed-circuit footage to suggest that anyone on camera is up to no good.) Scenes play out as brushes with authority—state, social, or familial—ending either in submission or the foreshadowing of vague but inexorable violence.
Naishtat’s preferred tool is intimation, favoring the potential over the kinetic. Early on, a police car is stopped by two teenagers who claim to have triggered the security alarm in their house. The point of view lingers excruciatingly in the street until the officer’s return; the sketch provides no immediate payoff but fans the palpable unease. The subjective camerawork, too, invokes a sinister vibe, especially when trailing volatile figures down corridors (calling to mind Gus Van Sant’s Elephant).
The character least willing to accept the oppressive norm is Camilo (Francisco Lumerman), a young man who treats the neighborhood as the focus of an ongoing exposé. He commandeers a dinner party with a game he calls “What do you want to be and own?” daring his companions to articulate what they want from life beyond their present lots. Though most abstain or equivocate, mouthing hollow words of contentment, his tactic fleetingly subverts their complacency—perhaps the most he can hope to accomplish.
Like last year’s Neighboring Sounds, another mixed-class account of a South American apartment complex responding to a security rise, History of Fear dramatizes the point at which desire for safety sublimates into paranoid acquiescence. Its discomfiting sound design (which eschews a music score) and mounting claustrophobia yield a counterpoint to Erlingsson’s thesis, embodied here by the animalistic fast-food patron: that open ranges draw out our affinity to beasts, but closed quarters make us indifferentiable from them.
Quod Erat Demonstrandum
Another study of subjugation, but one more willing to locate the menace, is Andrei Gruzsniczki’s Romanian drama Quod Erat Demonstrandum. Set in 1984, near the end of Ceausescu’s Communist regime, the film depicts a punitive order in which political dissent (and even apathy) is tantamount to professional suicide. Mathematician Sorin Parvu (Sorin Leoveanu), in his mid-thirties and sharing a flat with his mother, has long been denied access to needed texts and blocked from publication because of his refusal to pledge party support.
Elena (Ofelia Popii), the wife of Sorin’s best friend who has emigrated to France, waits month after month for clearance to join her husband. Scrounging forbidden foodstuffs, struggling to keep her declining father and spirited son out of trouble—the latter’s teacher is a one-woman iron curtain who claims she’s raised “hundreds of generations”—Elena recognizes the hopelessness of remaining in Bucharest. She even considers ferrying Sorin’s work to the free world, as Securitate agents wait to pounce on the man with the codename “Wanderer.”
Reportedly the first black-and-white Romanian feature in 25 years (therefore the first of the New Wave), Quod Erat Demonstrandum looks downright sumptuous next to its contemporaries from that nation. It unfolds as a historically rooted nail-biter with romantic undertones—Bucharest’s answer to The Lives of Others—with a graceful piano score and acts of true if understated heroism. Gruzsniczki opts not to demonize anyone on screen, not even the bureaucrats who incite treachery because they too felt the crushing weight of Ceausescu’s administration. He renders a climate of dread, but one (as informed by hindsight) where altruism and loyalty can triumph over coercion. You might not expect an uplifting aftertaste to come out of a Romanian meditation on its Communist past, but through Gruzsniczki’s elegant proof, quod erat demonstrandum.