This article appeared in the July 13, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

The Rays of a Storm (Julio Hernández Cordón, 2023)

The same message flashed up before every screening at this year’s FIDMarseille festival, spelled out in letters of shifting colors: “Le FIDMarseille est l’espace de tous les cinémas,” which roughly translates as “FIDMarseille is the home for cinema of all kinds.” Taking place just a few weeks after that other key French festival on the Mediterranean coast, FID has always been a place open to a multitude of forms, not least since it dropped the word “documentary” from its name in 2011. While this year’s public paean for cinematic pluralism and diversity represents another step in the same direction, it can also be read as a way for the festival’s new/old team to assert their curatorial vision, after long-term festival director Jean-Pierre Rehm stepped down before last year’s edition and his existing programming committee decided to take over under a collective leadership model.

Yet what exactly does it mean to be home to cinema of “all kinds”? A broad church is one thing, but a jack of all trades is also a master of none. Based on the retrospectives at both this year’s edition and the previous one, this idea of diversity doesn’t necessarily extend to geography or gender, as the roll call of Mathieu Amalric, Albert Serra, Laure Prouvost, Paul Vecchiali, and this year’s star guest, Whit Stillman, would appear to understand cinematic quality as Western, white, and predominantly male. For all his films’ undeniable virtues, dedicating a retrospective to Stillman in the absence of a new work by the director seemed like an odd choice, although highlighting his wry, WASP-inhabited comedies of privilege was an unambiguous way of propelling the festival yet further away from its documentary origins.

The broad-church principle was certainly in evidence in terms of genre and mode, with the festival’s premieres mapping out a vast territory comprising fiction, documentary, essay, contemporary art, and experimental cinema. The resulting congregation didn’t necessarily sing as one, either in quality or theme. In a generally uneven lineup, the most interesting works were those that tapped into cinemas of all kinds within one and the same film: watching someone try their hand at many things at once never gets boring, even if some skills are more easily brought to bear than others.

The three most striking works in the Flash Competition for short films were all grouped in the same program, each a distinct, pleasingly head-scratching combination of different cinematic modes, temporalities, and tensions. The U.S.-born, Chile-based director Niles Atallah’s Vitanuova draws on elements of fairy tales and science fiction, stop-motion animation, and celluloid textures to give a lo-fi futuristic account of life on the other side of the apocalypse, while British artist Miranda Pennell’s Trouble turns a research project about an archaeological archive into an auto-fictional, essayistic ghost story in which the solitude of the pandemic seems to summon forth the specters of colonialism. Julio Hernández Cordón’s The Rays of a Storm is even harder to pin down: the film reconstructs a 16th-century battle between the Spanish and the Aztecs with motorcycles and B-movie splatter, while also neatly tapping into the present-day divisions of Mexico City.

Eclectic combinations of traditions and modes were also found in the International Competition, though the feature-length format requires a discipline that many of the entries could not muster. Riar Rizaldi’s Monisme is a case in point—a promising, fiercely ambitious hybrid of fiction and documentary that isn’t always able to locate the best means of conveying its ever-proliferating ideas. The Indonesian director’s first solo feature sounds out the various interrelated forces acting on and almost pulling apart Mount Merapi, the country’s most active volcano, whereby incompatible scientific, geological, cultural, and economic interests jostle to such an extent that a cleansing eruption might be the only way to unify this contested space. One plotline follows the efforts of two volcanologists to work out when the next eruption will hit, while another follows a filmmaker attempting to uncover the links between local mining interests and the state. Both parties eventually cross paths with the paramilitaries who control the area, a setting that is fleshed out via archival research photos and footage, homemade reconstructions of a volcanic eruption, and lengthy sequences showing traditional rituals bathed in artificial red light. While this dizzyingly multifaceted approach is maybe the only way to do true justice to the complexity of this region, some tones invariably work better than others and the transitions can be bumpy, not least in the scenes with the paramilitaries: their violent interventions might have provoked genuine disquiet rather than simple revulsion with a little more softness of touch.

Understatement is likewise scarce in Martha Mechow’s Losing Faith. The young German director’s debut simply throws as many ideas at the wall as it can without worrying too much about which of them will stick: “that one summer that changes everything” coming-of-age tropes, topical discourses of motherhood and feminism explored with liberal dollops of sarcasm, shrilly over-the-top improvisation, and declaimed dialogue reminiscent of Berlin’s Volksbühne theater scene are all part of the mix. Flippa, a young woman barely out of her teens, has returned home to Berlin after a fateful trip to Sardinia aimed at tracking down her sister Furia, who has been living with a motley crew of female comrades in a bizarre coven-like commune for soon-to-be mothers. Provocations, partying, and an unlikely love story ensue. Shot on Hi8 with obtuse, loquacious voiceover commenting on the action, Mechow’s film is humorous, chaotic, unafraid to go its own way, and entirely unwilling to stay still, which luckily means that even its more awkward or unfocused passages don’t outstay their welcome. In a film shot when the director was in her early twenties, such cinematic flightiness can be easily forgiven.

In Twittering Soul, another of the more striking titles in the International Competition, Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevičius fuses together two cinematic staples that are not common bedfellows: the costume drama and the 3-D film, the former usually the domain of prim restraint, the latter often a vehicle for grandstanding gestures. Set in rural Lithuania at the end of the 19th century, Twittering Soul uses stereoscopic 3D to immerse the viewer in a remote, seldom seen corner of Europe—with many ravishing images of running water bulging out of the screen, as if to swallow the viewer—at a time when modernity and its upheavals are waiting in the wings. There is talk of witches flying over Kiev and looming disaster, a woman suffers an incurable affliction, a man’s soul leaves his mouth as a bird in the moment of his death, and a number of songs invoking the natural world are sung, although these plot points and scenes are more about capturing a mood than establishing a coherent narrative. Ultimately, how much you enjoy Twittering Soul depends on the extent to which you’re willing to go with its sometimes soporific flow. The film certainly offers ample time and space to consider the parallels with today: the first few tremors of cataclysmic change are already reverberating through our world.

James Lattimer is a critic and programmer based in Berlin.