Thursday, September 18, 2014

TIFF 2014: Wavelengths Features


With TIFFs Wavelengths section broadening a few years back to encompass feature as well as medium-length work in addition to their celebrated annual shorts program, so to has the definition of a Wavelengths film expanded. What was once home to mainly non-narrative, experimental non-fiction and avant-garde cinema has grown to include everything from feature documentaries to future art house releases—the only overriding characteristic being films that, per the program’s own decree, “expand our notion of cinema.” And appropriately, this year’s selection proved perhaps the most wide-ranging yet. A few of the program’s best films, including Tsai Ming-liang’s Journey to the West, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, and Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, have been widely acclaimed at prior festivals. Thus, in an effort to avoid redundancy, I’ll be focusing this coverage instead on a handful of fall premieres.

Of the remaining titles, two recent winners of the Locarno Film Festival’s top prizes immediately stand out. And quite literally at that, as Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before (Golden Leopard) and Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (Best Director) were programmed back-to-back on the festival’s first day. From What Is Before, the newest film from world cinema’s most intimidating auteur—whose recent, comparatively accessible Norte, the End of History garnered great acclaim—represents for the Philippine-born Diaz a conscious return to the sprawling, black-and-white historical parables that made his name on the festival circuit over the past decade. Trading the allegorical, literary conceit of its predecessor for historically-rooted drama, the film, set in a remote island village in the early 1970s on the eve of the Marcos regime, is both patient and powerfully immediate in its depiction of mounting social and familial discord. When a number of mysterious circumstances, including slaughtered cattle, ghostly offscreen noises, and the arrival of a suspicious outsider, begin to haunt the village, a young woman caring for her autistic sister finds herself at a moral and spiritual crossroads, her actions reflecting an era of intolerance and an ever-encroaching military presence. Unfolding over five-and-a-half hours and filmed in his typical long take, carefully modulated style, From What Is Before continues to confirm and refine both Diaz’s classical and transformative sensibilities. 

Time is likewise an essential facet of Costa’s Horse Money, though its effects are tied up as much in its contextual development as its narrative temporality. The Portuguese filmmaker’s first feature-length narrative in eight years, Horse Money is both spiritual successor to his Fontainhas trilogy and a continuation of its final entry Colossal Youth’s (2006) fictionally-integrated chronicle of displacement. That prior film’s central character/actor, Ventura, returns here noticeably aged and fragile, wandering the halls of a ghostly sanatorium to which one must assume he’s been committed. And indeed, for the majority of the film we watch Ventura slowly travel between the hospital’s stark examination rooms and spartan corridors, encountering in many instances acquaintances from his past or present whom he spends time engaging in personal, political, or philosophical conversation. Faces are blank yet worldweary, voices are flat yet ominous, the dialogue heavy with historical weight and tragedy. The narrative doesn’t proceed linearly so much as intuitively, and it soon becomes clear that we’re exploring the recesses of Ventura’s memory as often as we’re witnessing concrete events. And Costa films these encounters in some of the deepest shades of chiaroscuro ever captured on digital video, a void of black engulfing rich primaries. The director’s visual language remains hyper-modern yet classical, Jean-Marie Straub by way of John Ford, and by film’s end, as Ventura presumably reaches the next stage of his existence, there’s the unmistakable sense that we in turn are embarking on a new cinematic path.   

From influences to formal ingenuity, much the same can be said about Episode of the Sea. Directed by Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Hann, it may be the film that finally brings the Dutch filmmaking duo to wider international prominence. Shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, Episode of the Sea recreates the day-to-day vocational duties of the Dutch fishing community known as Urk. Set mostly aboard and around the ships and docks, with real life members of Urk portraying stylized versions of themselves, the film accumulates a kind of mytho-poetic atmosphere as it simultaneously indexes the tasks of the crew while contextualizing the histories and mythologies of the town and its people via on-screen scrolling texts. The result is a highly austere formulation reminiscent everyone from Straub to Robert Bresson in its aesthetic presentation, to, in its more humorously stilted dialogue exchanges, Finnish master Aki Kuarismaki. But the influence of these predecessors is assimilated rather than simply nodded at, bringing multiple strains of cultural and cinematic history together in one self-contained work.

Two Wavelengths documentaries, meanwhile, attempt to collapse a similar divide as their fiction counterparts by interrogating the past from within the contours of the written word. Both Eric Baudelaire’s Letters to Max and René Frölke’s Le beau danger examine bygone figures via their subjects’ own internal voice—the former, as its title suggest, through correspondences with Maxim Gvinjia, once minister of the unrecognized Georgian state of Abkhazia; the latter by presenting one of Jewish Romanian author Norman Manea’s autobiographical short stories on screen as textual counterpoint to footage of the writer himself traveling the promotional circuit. Baudelaire’s approach, which disseminates Gvinjia’s words through a variety of narrative means as the director visually documents the country’s stateless environment, constructs a diaristic audio/visual tour of personal and political histories without betraying the mysteries at the heart of the paradoxical existence of either individual or national identity. Frölke’s is a far more disjunctive assemblage, with contextual elements continually being questioned by Manea’s own prose and the often diverging components of verbal and imagistic representation.

Elsewhere, one of the most popular of all writers acts as inspiration for young Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro’s The Princess of France, the third entry in the director’s ongoing series of Shakespeare interpretations. As he did in his breakout film Viola (2012), Piñeiro again integrates his chosen text—in this case, Love’s Labour’s Lost—as both fictional mechanism and structural framework. Returning home to Buenos Aires after the death of his father, Victor (Julián Larquier) gathers a number of past and present love interests for a radio adaptation of the play. Along the way Victor attempts romance and reconciliation with all these women, and as each encounter succeeds or stumbles, stimulating further artistic inspiration along the way, Shakespeare’s story begins to fuse with the everyday reality of the characters, a conflation of textual, thematic, and theatrical materials which by this point reflects Piñeiro’s own idiosyncratic authorial voice as much as any artistic muse. With his lithe, seductive camerawork and the improvisatory sense of discovery between his actors and the material, Piñeiro continues to reanimate the tenets of the contemporary auteur, lacing the image with language (and vice versa) until the two are inextricably entwined.

If Piñeiro’s film represents for Wavelengths a uniquely sensual stylistic byproduct of its diversity, then Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What exemplifies the boundaries the program can push in terms of subject matter. Following a pair of self-destructive young junkies through their everyday nonexistences as they shoot up, panhandle, and quarrel amongst themselves against the unforgiving backdrop of New York City, the film fuses its lead actress Arielle Holmes’s own experiences as a heroin addict to a raw, unsettling visual and aural sensibility. As a barely fictionalized version of herself, Holmes is a kinetic presence careening between fixes and money-making scams, at emotional and physical war with her boyfriend (Caleb Landry Jones) whose own drug-addled indifference threatens to send them both to an early grave. To their credit, the Safdie’s commit fully to their often repellent subject, never glorifying or demeaning or depicting these characters as any more or less than they are. It’s such an undeniable feat of artistic dedication that the film’s claustrophobic, manic intensity threatens to overwhelm even as it occasionally touches on moments of grisly beauty. As a piece of linear narrative filmmaking, Heaven Knows What is perhaps the most conventional film ever programmed in Wavelengths. Yet it speaks to the capacity still nascent in feature storytelling to provoke and challenge through means inherent to its prescribed mode of delivery rather than outré techniques. After all, as in life, sometimes the most unassuming encounters can produce the most lasting effects. [Fandor]  

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