An integral part of Rotterdam’s mission has always been to bring attention to films that might have otherwise gone unnoticed, but the sheer size of the past few years’ programs makes such a task increasingly difficult. In tune with the dominant modes of consumption, in and outside cinema, quantity seems to be preferred over quality. Of course, the festival is very much worth attending if only for its informal, celebrity-free atmosphere where a genuine passion for the moving image is the reason why people make the effort. And through its adventuresome offerings, the emotional geography of cinema—its maps of desire and mutinous journeys into the untapped—can still illuminate the darkness of our times.
Very dark indeed is the featureless existence that the protagonist of R100 by Hitoshi Matsumoto leads in quiet desperation, so much so that he decides to give his life a masochistic twist by enrolling in a peculiar S&M club. As part of his membership, Takafumi Katayama (Nao Ohmori) gets a year of unannounced visits by dominatrices who will satisfy his sexual urges. A subservient salesman in the interior-design department of a big store, Takafumi spends his days advising customers on how to keep up appearances and make their isolation cozier. Deprived of love and human affection, despite having a small son, he harbors debasement within; warmth and care are just not part of the equation. Thankfully, the tone of Matsumoto’s film verges more on the comical than the dramatic, relieving the audience from what would otherwise be an unbearably cheerless story. A thoughtful balance between wacky provocations and sociological precision, between outrageous invention and rational observation, is maintained. But R100 is a color film that initially looks as if it’s in black and white: a morbid pallor has swallowed up the different tonalities of life.
While the Foreign-Language Academy Award nomination for The Great Beauty has been getting headlines in Italy, Rotterdam offered the chance to view its economic decline from the perspective of those who don’t lounge around on luxurious Roman terraces. Alessandro Rossetto’s Piccola Patria (“Small Homeland”) is an imperfect but highly promising first feature set in the Italy’s northeast region, a once-prosperous area known for small entrepreneurs and big xenophobia. The film follows two young women who are both desperate to abandon the provincial squalor they come from but who are unable to truly escape. Money and sex—and money for sex—are the only way the two girls can escape their surroundings, but they head towards an uncertain future that’s probably worse than the one their parents had planned. Scarred by small-scale industrialization and poisoned by greed, the land is explored through soaring bird’s-eye views set to the mournful music of a regional choir singing “the water is dead.” Sustained by incisive and controlled performances, Piccola Patria renders in unflattering details the moral corruption of a nation netted in its own failures and terrified by foreigners.
EU 013, The Last Frontier
The cruel treatment of immigrants by Italian authorities (with the complacent collaboration of the vast majority of the population) is the subject of Alessio Genovese’s EU 013, The Last Frontier. Genovese is the first filmmaker to be granted permission to film inside the country’s Identification & Deportation Centers, which are more akin to detention centers for those whose only crime is emigrating from war-torn countries. Victims of a cruel bureaucracy whereby you cannot find a job without a visa and you cannot get a visa without having a job, these foreigners are welcomed at the gates of “civilized” Europe by the same intolerance that forced many of them to leave their countries in the first place. Genovese’s documentary succeeds in showing an inhuman reality without ever succumbing to cheap sentimentalism, treating its subjects with dignity. It’s a concise and morally upright work that deserves the audiences of prime-time television rather than the select few that make it to film festivals, given how the issue is often distorted by jingoistic politicians and the media.
On Music or the Dance of Joy
Finally, it’s difficult to put into words the thoughts and carnal feelings the music and images of On Music or the Dance of Joy, directed by Jean-Charles Fitoussi, evoke. A potentially lethal prospect on paper—two philosophers discuss the mysterious pleasures that music affords the body and the mind—Fitoussi’s film is an immediate, lively work that uses images to elucidate thought and sound to animate words. While the majority of films that elect philosophy as their muse are usually unbearable bricks of verbosity, On Music is very much in tune with its poetic intent, and it excites the senses. Fitoussi works to harmonize the thoughts of its featured philosopher, the loquacious Clément Rossett, with images that are never simply illustrative but integral parts of the philosopher’s elaborations. According to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their book What is Philosophy?, philosophy is the thinking outcome of experience and never an abstracted conceptual exercise. And so it is in this film which avails itself of the multidisciplinary and poly-sensorial possibilities only cinema can offer.