Shades of Grey: Karlovy Vary 2023
This article appeared in the July 13, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Citizen Saint (Tinatin Kajrishvili, 2023)
During a press lunch at the 57th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the regional governor discussed the Czech spa town’s prospects. Key to Karlovy Vary’s development, he explained, is a movement away from the mining industries that have shaped the local economy since at least the 16th century, and a prioritization of the culture industry. One of the oldest film festivals in the world, this year’s edition drew nearly 11,000 accredited visitors and sustained a vibrant, unrelenting party atmosphere over nine days. It’s no wonder the local government sees potential for more.
KVIFF arrives relatively hot on the heels of Cannes, and as such, many of its selections are borrowed from the French festival’s programming. That’s great if you’re looking to catch up on buzzy titles and award-winners like Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall or Alice Rohrwacher’s La chimera, but it leaves little room for discoveries that haven’t already had major premieres. One less welcome holdover from Cannes was the presence (albeit only in video form here) of the ever-incendiary Johnny Depp. The festival’s public screenings open with a series of short films poking fun at its awards, featuring stars of Czech cinema and beyond. This year, Depp had his own vignette which gently mocked the fact that he has never won a prize at Karlovy Vary despite attending the festival as a much-publicized guest two years ago. This bad joke was a snide way of rebuking those who criticized Depp’s inclusion in the years prior and a frustrating means of centering him at the festival once more.
The festival’s two competitive sections, the Crystal Globe and Proxima programs, do turn away from Cannes and welcome new work. In both, the focus is heavily international—each lineup featured only two films from the Czech Republic. Retrospectives, short films, and experimental work all found a home across the seven noncompetitive sections, where, again, regional offerings were slight. Within this year’s international selection, however, there was a wide assortment of genres and aesthetics that gave the competitive programs a sense of dynamism and surprise. Three of the best films at the festival—Citizen Saint, The Hypnosis, and In Camera—also reflect this invigorating variety.
A standout of the Crystal Globe competition, the central showcase for world and international premieres, was Georgian filmmaker Tinatin Kajrishvili’s engrossing third feature, Citizen Saint, a somber and austere art-house drama that examines the nature of collective belief. The statue of a saint goes missing in the stark, barren landscape of a mining settlement, causing panic among the devout villagers who rely on the idol as an outlet for both their faith and their grievances with life. When a Christ figure arrives in town, he is taken by the villagers to be the saint incarnate. Ultimately, the community recognizes that a living man won’t do: what they need is a crucified—and calcified—icon upon which to project their needs. The film was shot, in stark black and white, both in and around the Georgian city of Chiatura, famous for its extensive network of Soviet-era cable cars that connect the urban center to the remote mining settlements in the hills. But in Citizen Saint, there’s no connection with the world outside of the village. The workers and their families are content to remain holed up in the hills, as close as possible to their saint.
Also in the Crystal Globe, Ernst De Geer’s Swedish-Norwegian cringe comedy The Hypnosis stood out with its sharp satire of gender, class, and entrepreneurial culture. The film revolves around a couple, André (The Worst Person in the World’s Herbert Nordrum) and Vera (Asta Kamma August), whose dedication to their tech start-up threatens their relationship. It’s never quite clear exactly what the app they’re working on, Epione, does: it’s purported to be a global tool for women’s health care, and this vague description becomes a metaphor for the lack of clear communication and understanding between the central couple. To sell the product, they use a traumatic story from Vera’s childhood, but this tale, and many other aspects of their business, come into question at a climactic pitching conference where De Geer levels up the discomfiting, teeth-gritting humor to great effect.
The film’s gender commentary is a tad predictable: André is arrogant and overbearing while Vera is timid and self-doubting. After undergoing hypnotherapy to quit smoking, she becomes unapologetically chaotic, gratingly embodying the Messy Millennial Woman trope du jour. But the genuine provocation of the humor, August’s brilliant deadpan, and the film’s more subtle class commentary (attendees of the conference remark on the needs of the “common people” and are shocked when Vera, in her posthypnotic unruliness, begins working as a waitress) save the film from cloying familiarity. Instead, De Geer offers a dry critique of the neuroses and embarrassments of the millennial condition.
Darker satire was found in the Proxima Competition, a complementary program that the festival describes as “offer[ing] space to the world’s new voices.” Of particular interest was In Camera, the debut feature by British director Naqqash Khalid. Though funded by two buttoned-down organizations, the BFI and the BBC, Khalid’s film is perhaps the most formally daring and narratively bold feature to emerge from these institutional spaces in years, and is a searing indictment of the racism that pervades the U.K.’s film industry.
Aden (an excellent Nabhaan Rizwan), a young actor looking for his first major role, is frustrated by audition after audition where casting directors add him to their pool of Asian performers, all interchangeable in their eyes. Though he intently studies his two housemates (whom the film implies may be figments of Aden’s imagination), carefully incorporating their mannerisms into his performances, he’s constantly asked to “just read what’s on the page.” As Aden spirals through the roster of roles for South Asians in U.K. dramas—victim in a police procedural, hijacker in a terrorism thriller, angry son in a kitchen-sink serial set in the north of England—he becomes increasingly stripped of his sense of self, morphing, both psychologically and physically, into the characters he plays. The choppy abruptness of Ricardo Saraiva’s editing gives the film a feverish, woozy quality that intensifies Aden’s descent into madness. With its tale of double-consciousness run amok, In Camera delivers an acute critique of the commodification of individual identity within the arts, and of the white gaze that compounds this issue for those whose racial identities are both constraints and, at times, currency.
Caitlin Quinlan is a film critic and writer from London.