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Archive for the 'National cinemas: Iran' Category

Wisconsin Film Festival 2021 visits the Middle East

Sun Children (2020)

Kristin here:

The Wisconsin Film Festival, online this year, continues through this coming Thursday. Films for which audience members buy tickets are all available to watch until 11:59 that night. So far our experiences have been that the streaming system works quite smoothly, with easy access to your chosen titles. Despite geo-blocking (dictated by distributors) in some cases, many films can be watched from outside Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Now, let’s visit the Middle East.

 

Iran: Sun Children and There Is No Evil

Despite the tragic death of Abbas Kiarostami and the exile into relative obscurity of the Makhmalbaf family, the Iranian cinema continues to produce important films by a small number of auteurs, most prominently Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi (whose A Hero was recently acquired by Amazon for release later this year), Majid Majidi, the irrepressible Jafar Panahi, and his equally irrepressible colleague Mohammad Rasoulof.

The latter’s There Is No Evil (2020), which won last year’s Golden Bear as best film at the Berlin Film Festival, is on the current WFF program. I wrote about it last year from the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Also on the program is Majidi’s latest, Sun Children, which we saw for the first time. Those who think of Iranian festival-oriented films as developing slowly and subtly will be surprised by this one. It is jam-packed with a multi-strand dramatic plot, suspense, fast cutting, and many characters, all handled very skillfully by Majidi.

The film begins with a dedication to the “the 152 million children forced into child labor and those who fight for their rights.” That child labor, as the exciting opening scene emphasizes, often involves small crimes. Four boys set out to steal a tire from a car in the parking garage of a luxurious, multi-storied shopping mall. The suspense begins right away as a guard confronts them. Two of them flee in a classic chase scene, going up through the levels of the mall, past high-end shops that they could never dream of entering. They escape, and it is revealed that the four friends work at a large repair shop, full of stacks of tires, presumably acquired in the same fashion.

Soon Ali emerges as our point-of-view character, desperate to rescue his mother from a mental-health facility. There she lies strapped to a bed after a presumed suicide attempt. Eventually it emerges that the family home recently burned, killing Ali’s sister, whose death drove his mother mad. His father is an addict, and Ali has become the breadwinner. A small-time crime boss sets him a task: enroll in a local school and explore the basement and tunnels under it (above), where a treasure is hidden.

Much of the rest of the film generates more suspense, as Ali diligently makes his way around various obstacles and crawls through branching tunnels day after day, always risking expulsion from the school if he is discovered. His three friends help him at first, but eventually he is left to traverse the seemingly endless tunnels (which are in fact the city’s storm drains).

This part of the film introduces another major plotline, since the school, dependent on private donations, is located in the slums of Tehran. Its aim is to teach young, desperate, potentially criminal boys skills that they can use to get honest jobs. The school is far behind on its rent and in danger of being closed. This adds further suspense as the school officials, particularly a sympathetic vice principal, struggle to find donors. The schools debts lead to one of the film’s big action scenes, as, finding the gates locked one morning, the principal urges the boys to scale the fence. They do this with a determination that reveals their realization that their only hope for a decent life lies in the education they have been receiving.

They eagerly participate in a festival and pageant put on for potential donors (top).

In an interview, Majidi said that the “Sun School” that gives the film its name is based on an actual school in the Tehran slums, the “Sobhe Rooyesh” (“Morning of Growth”). The non-professional child actors, whose performances are all completely natural and affecting, were recruited from the school and surrounding slums. Roolholloh Zammi, who plays Ali, won the Marcello Mastrioanni Award at Venice last year. (I wish we could have been there to see him win!) Only the adults are played by [professional actors.

 

Israel: Here We Are (2020)

Given the current situation in Israel, it is just as well that Nir Bergman’s gentle psychological study Here We Are (a sadly unmemorable title) has no reference at all to politics, the military, or ethnic tensions. It’s a simple story of a man who has given up his career to care for his severely autistic son and is having difficulties facing the fact that the boy is nearly a man.

The early scenes set up Uri’s disabilities, as well as his obsessions (including pet goldfish–above–and dogs) and phobias (snails). They also establish Aharon’s utter devotion and patience as he cooks yet again Uri’s favorite pasta stars and uses an obviously well-established imitation game to coax his son past imagined snails on a biking route.

The plot action kicks in when Ahron’s estranged wife Tamara shows up, determined to arrange Uri’s transfer to a group home for young people with disabilities. Ahron angrily resists, claiming that Uri is happy at home and that he can care for his son himself.

We seem to be set up to view Ahron as the noble, self-sacrificing father and his wife as the shrewish woman who wants to dictate her son’s life. Eventually, however, Tamara obtains the legal papers requiring Ahron to bring Uri to his new home. Ahron sets out, but along the way he decides to go on the run with Uri, despite having little money.

Along the way there are growing hints that Ahron is stifling both Uri and himself. Twice he simply ignores Uri’s budding sexuality during encounters with young women.

The two seek shelter with an old friend of Ahron’s, Effi, an art teacher who reveals that Ahron had had a prominent and lucrative career as an artist and designer, which he had given up to care for Uri. Her attitude toward Ahron suggests her openness to a romantic relationship with him. Eventually we begin to doubt that he is acting in the best interests of himself and Uri, especially during a scene in which they are forced to dine on ice-cream sandwiches in a bus-station waiting-room.

Here We Are is a film that unfolds gradually and overturns your expectations slowly but thoroughly.

 

France-Lebanon: Skies of Lebanon (2020)

Chloe Mazlo is a French animator and artist who has previously made shorts (including The Little Stones, which won the 2015 César for Best Animated Short). Inspired by her grandparents’ life in Lebanon (he was Lebanese, she Swedish) during the lengthy civil war, she has made a feature that combines occasional animation with live action.

The film starts out in a stylized, fantastical world that inevitably has led critics to compare Skies of Lebanon to Amélie (2001). Alice, the heroine, is alienated from her parents and her home country, Switzerland, and take a job as a nanny in Beirut. The city as it was in the 1950s is represented by matte shots of actors presumably filmed against a green-screen, with backgrounds filled in by blow-ups of tinted postcards of the period. Such shots have a charming effect.

Alice meets cute with a handsome physicist whose goal is to invent a rocket to put the first Lebanese astronaut into space. Their romance develops in a fantasy landscape of patently artificial rocks and stars (bottom). They settle down together, raise children, and pursue their careers, with Alice becoming a watercolorist.

The fantasy strain in the film is most obvious in the brief animated scenes, as when a split-screen telephone conversation juxtaposes the real Alice with puppets representing her angry parents, who demand that she return home (top of section).

About a third of the way into the film, the tone switches abruptly as the Lebanese civil war breaks out. The animations and postcard background disappear. As characters flee and disappear mysteriously, a shot of a wall with “have you seen” photos pasted up emphasizes the danger that Alice is trying to ignore.

Even during the lengthy wartime portion of the film, there remains a faint underlying humor. Yet the abrupt shift of tone when the war starts is unsettling, given that we had settled down for a whimsical romance and end up with a war story. Presumably the idea is to emphasize how war breaks into the calm of ordinary life and banishes it. Whether audiences will take it that way is another matter. On the whole, however, the film is an imaginative and promising first feature.


The Festival’s Film Guide page links you to free trailers, podcasts, and Q &A sessions for each film.

Thanks as ever to the untiring efforts of Kelley Conway, Ben Reiser, Jim Healy, Mike King, Pauline Lampert, and all their many colleagues, plus the University and the donors and sponsors that make this event possible.

Skies of Lebanon (2020)

Rotterdam surprises

Mitra (2021)

Kristin here:

On Saturday morning (8:30 am our time), the International Film Festival Rotterdam will be screening its annual Surprise Film. We’re naturally curious to learn what it is. But Rotterdam comes so early in the year that often we go into its other offerings knowing almost nothing about them. Here are two of the very pleasant surprises from recent days.

 

Iranian cinema from the Netherlands

Kaweh Modiri, the director of Mitra, was born in Iran but has lived in the Netherlands since he was six years old. Still, he remains concerned with Iranian issues and clearly has been influenced by the flourishing Iranian art cinema of recent decades.

Asghar Farhadi’s success in international festivals and territories has been the most influential instance recently, at least outside of Iran. His plots are often built around conflicts, not between good and bad people, but behind people who clash because of cross-purposes. Late revelations and tortured discussions lead to reconciliations that are not the happy endings of Hollywood films but instead are resigned agreements to admit mistakes and make compromises.

Mitra is such a film, but it is based around more politically based conflicts than Farhadi has used–ones that have life and death consequences for those involved.

The film moves between two settings and eras: Tehran in 1981-82, the years shortly after the ouster of the Shah, and the Netherlands in 2019, the fortieth anniversary of that revolution. The opening is set in 1982, when the heroine, Haleh, receives an abrupt, unexpected telephone calls announcing that her daughter Mitra has been executed. We move then to 2019, when Haleh, now an academic in the Netherlands, addresses a conference on “The Islamic Revolution at Forty.” Soon she is visited by members of “The Organization,” a group aimed at bringing down the current government of Iran. They tell Haleh that Leyla, whose betrayal of Mitra caused her death, has arrived with her daughter in the Netherlands. She goes under the name Sale, having appealed for refuge status. The Organization wants Haleh’s confirmation that Sale is indeed Leyla.

The rest of the plot centers around a shifting relationship, as Haleh vows revenge on Leyla. Her goal is complicated by the fact that she has never actually seen Leyla, having only heard her voice. Nevertheless, she calls Sale and is convinced that she recognizes the woman’s voice, even after nearly forty years. Once they meet, however, Haleh seemingly bonds with Sale and her endearing daughter Nilu. Indeed, Haleh’s attraction to Nilu hints at her possible acceptance of Sale as a substitute daughter and Nilu as a granddaughter.

Interspersed with this story are flashbacks to the younger Haleh’s 1981 experiences, when Mitra, who has joined the resistance in Iran, is still alive. Scenes like a clandestine meeting with Mitra at a crowded market emphasize Haleh’s love for her daughter (top of section).

Modiri expertly lures us into sympathizing with all the characters involved. To the end we remain uncertain as to whether Sale, who after some doubts accepts Haleh as a friend and even as a substitute mother in a new land, is actually the treacherous Leyla. Even if she is, is it worth ruining young Nilu’s life to turn Sale in to the ruthless Organization?

Supporting all this is Haleh’s relationship with her brother Mohsen, who at first seems a somewhat comic, eccentric sidekick but is later revealed to be suffering the effects of torture and lengthy imprisonment in Iran. His exchanges with Haleh initially seem like sibling bickering, but he becomes the moral compass that holds her together as she pursues revenge (see top).

Mitra starts out seeming to be a conventional revenge story, but its moral and personal shifts and surprises lead to a moving and not-quite-resolved ending.

The film has had its world premiere at the IFFR and is due for a May 20 release in the Netherlands. I hope it plays other festivals and travels further, because it is a definite contribution to the continuation of world interest in Iranian cinema. Like other such Iranian films, it had to be made elsewhere (the scenes set in Iran were shot in Jordan), but it carries forward what we have loved about Iranian films.

 

An Australian surveillance-cam thriller

Jonathan Ogilvie’s Lone Wolf (2021) adopts the new convention of creating a story based largely on surveillance and cell-phone footage. In a frame story Kylie, a Special Crimes Sergeant, bursts into the office of an unnamed Police Commissioner and demands that he watch a video she has secretly compiled from a mass of such footage.

The inner story is seemingly set more-or-less in the present day, but it’s a slightly alternative world in which surveillance has become even more pervasive than it already is. The read-outs in the images reveal that cameras are spying on the characters from such household devices as TVs and smoke detectors. One of these is, ironically, in a bathroom where Winnie sneaks the occasional cigarette by an open window (above). How Kylie gets access to all of these is never explained, and the premise is implausible–especially in scenes built around extensive, undamaged footage which she has somehow managed to extract from a phone that has been through a bomb explosion.

If one stifles such doubts, however, the tale Kylie’s film tells is an absorbing one, full of twists and turns. It centers on Conrad and Winnie, a couple who run a book/video-rental/sex shop and do occasional jobs for underground political groups. They are not the most appealing characters, but they gain our sympathy through their devotion to Winnie’s charming little brother Stevie, who has Down’s Syndrome and an insatiable curiosity about the world.

Australia is soon to host a G20 meeting, and a man from a radical group asks Conrad to set up a “victimless atrocity” in the form of a bomb explosion in a deserted area. At first Conrad refuses, but when offered a large sum, he gives in. Despite the grimness of this plot thread, there is quite a bit of humor in the film, provided by Stevie and by a group of Conrad’s misfit friends who gather to play cards above the shop. The combination of found footage also creates occasionally amusing moments, as when the film-within-a-film includes an instructional YouTube-style video that Stevie has posted or poor-quality footage from an old security camera in the shop that Winnie and Conrad think has been turned off (bottom).

The consequences of the bomb plot introduce a grim twist, but the return to the frame story creates a more gratifying one as Kylie reveals why she has pressed her video upon the Commissioner.

While Rotterdam provided Lone Wolf‘s world premiere, it has a distributor in Australia, though its August, 2020 release was postponed by the pandemic. Ogilvie hopes it will have wide theatrical play after a possible in-person premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival  this coming August.


Again, thanks to Gerwin Tamsma, Monika Hyatt, Frédérique Nijman, and their colleagues at the International Film Festival Rotterdam for allowing us to discover these surprises!

Lone Wolf (2021)

Vancouver: Three gems from Iran and India

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (2020).

Kristin here:

Among the always bounteous offerings of the Vancouver International Film Festival, my favorite section is “Panorama,” since I enjoy seeing new films from countries all around the globe. Often some of these are from Iran, and the two Iranian films featured this year did not disappoint. The sole Indian film turned out to be an engaging, imaginative tale from an area of the world seldom represented on the screen.

 

There Is No Evil (2020)

Vancouver is in part a festival of festivals, drawing upon international films already premiered in Berlin, Cannes, Rotterdam, and other earlier festivals. Of necessity, this year’s items come from the pre-Coronavirus festivals, with films from Berlin especially prominent in the schedule. Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil, Golden Bear winner as best film, continued the director’s regular contributions to past Vancouver festivals. (For entries on other Rasoulof films we have seen at Vancouver, see here and here.) Christian Petzold’s Undine, discussed by David in the previous entry, won the Silver Bear as best actress for Paula Beer.

There Is No Evil is a deeply ironic title, since its four self-contained episodes deal with one of Iran’s notorious evils, its record for executing its citizens. As Peter DeBruge pointed out in his Variety review, “According to Amnesty Int’l statistics, Iran was responsible for more than half the world’s recorded executions in 2017. The number has since dropped, but the country continues to kill its citizens at alarming rates.”

Often the process of carrying through executions is assigned to hired civilians or is forced to be performed by soldiers. Rasoulof explores various ways in which such executions affect the willing or unwilling people who carry out the orders, as well as the effects on people they know and love. I don’t want to spoil the slow development of these consequences for the characters by describing the plots of each of the four episodes in too much detail. Suffice it to say that the revelation of those consequences are worked up to very slowly and occur dramatically.

The four episodes are shot in quite different styles. Those styles are to a considerable extent determined by the fact that the episodes move to increasingly remote locales.

The first begins in a bustling city and is shot in a bright, ordinary style befitting the depiction of a bourgeois lifestyle, with appointments to pick up spouses and children, shopping trips, and alternately bickering and affectionate conversation.

The second episode abruptly switches to a gloomy, desaturated color scheme of grays and muted browns and greens suited to a film noir (above). This segment begins with a military man assigned to perform an execution panicking because he cannot face killing anyone. During this episode, the tone and even the genre switch abruptly twice, from film noir to thriller to … something else.

The third story has a soldier on leave visiting a family of old friends, including the daughter whom he loves and hopes to become engaged to. Here the film is done in a lyrical, bright style, emphasizing scenes in the lush woods and in the happy rural home of a couple who foster a group opposing the government. Here the soldier talks with the mother of the family.

The fourth episode centers on a couple who have retired to a bee-keeping farm in a remote, mountainous area. They must contend with the visit of a niece, but neither is willing to answer her questions about the past.

I think the style in this part pays homage to Abbas Kiarostami, with numerous shots of the couple’s pickup on winding country roads (see bottom). There’s a specific echo of The Wind Will Carry Us in the motif of the girl’s repeated attempts to find cell-phone coverage to call her parents abroad.

Given the relatively large cast and considerable number of interior and exterior locales, one might wonder how Rasoulof, under an order to stop filmmaking, could make a two-and-a-half hour film critical of government policy. DeBruge’s review, linked above, also comments: “By subdividing the project like this, Rasoulof was able to direct the segments without being shut down by authorities — who are more carefully focused on features — and, in the process, he also builds a stronger argument.” In an earlier Vancouver report, we noted that Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s Tales (2014) used a network-narrative structure because she could only get permission to make a series of shorts–which she then wove together into a feature.

As DeBruge writes, the reliance on episodic structure does not handicap Rasoulof. The slow accumulation of indifference, regret, and guilt demonstrates that executions have unnoticed, unforeseen, and undeserved effects. The stylistic shifts emphasize the differences in those effects and maintain interest across a long film.

The effectiveness of Rasoulof’s film has not gone unnoticed, however, and a Golden Bear is clearly not enough to protect him. On March 4, he was summoned to begin serving his long-delayed prison term, despite the widespread incidence of COVID-19 in Iranian prisons. (On March 1, three days before the summons, Indiewire published a history of government strictures on Rasoulof.) Many official protests have been launched, and one can only hope that once again the result will be yet another suspension of the enforcement of the sentences against him.

 

Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness (2019)

Yalda is the second feature by Iranian director Massoud Bakhshi, whose first, A Respectable Family, we recommended as “an unexpected gem” when it played in Vancouver in 2012. Yalda is another film that comes to Vancouver via this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, where it was nominated for a Crystal Bear. It also played at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury prize in the “World Cinema – Dramatic” category.

The film centers around one episode of a television series, “Joy of Forgiveness,” based on the premise that each week someone convicted of a crime seeks to be forgiven by the victim or a relative of the victim. Although not an actual law, such forgiveness is encouraged in Iran under Islamic law. If forgiveness can be obtained, the criminal is typically absolved of the crime. There are now charities, celebrities (including film director Asghar Farhadi), and other forces working informally to foster forgiveness and free guilty people, though this may include a payment of “blood money” given to the person doing the forgiving. (A real TV show based on this premise, “Honey Moon,” was the inspiration for Yalda.)

In this case, a young, shy working-class woman, Maryam, who had been married to a wealthy older man, has been convicted of killing her husband. She insists, however, that it was an accident. As the film begins, Maryam’s mother brings her to the television station. The young woman is terrified and declares she does not want to participate. But since this would mean a death sentence being carried out, her mother and the production team of the show ignore her protestations and hurry her through the preparations.

Representing the victim is Mona, his daughter, who, as the title of the TV series suggests, is expected to provide the standard happy ending to the show by forgiving Maryam. Mona seems to have  reasons to do so, since she would receive the blood money proffered by “Joy of Forgiving” and is planning to emigrate from Iran in the near future.

So far we seem to have a situation familiar from the films of Asghar Farhadi, with two or more people at odds who are gradually revealed to be flawed and to some degree at fault. The situation then typically ends in reluctant understanding between or among the opponents.

As the host interviews the two women, however, he shows a distinct bias toward Mona’s viewpoint. Rather than pleading her case humbly, as the television crew expects, Maryam becomes desperate and accusatory. Her exchanges with Mona grow more heated.

The producers begin to panic. As one points out, this show is occurring on Yalda, a festival held on the day of the winter solstice. The longest night of the year is believed to be unlucky, and traditionally Iranian families gather to eat, tell stories, read poetry, and generally cheer each other up through the night. Seeing a sad ending to the program would badly disappoint the audience.

Telling his story in what is essentially continuous time and at a brisk pace, Bakhshi starts out by sticking closely to Maryam, building up considerable sympathy for her as everyone ignores her pleas and bosses her around. Once the program begins, the increasing hostility of Mona generates a suspense that is well maintained up to the final twists of the ending–twists showing that Bakhshi is not going for a Farhadi-style resolution.

The script is tightly constructed and engrossing, so much so that one could imagine a Hollywood remake–if a plausible legal situation could be devised as the premise.

 

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (2020)

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (director Pushpendra Singh) also was shown at the Berlin festival, in its Encounters section. It also won best director in the “Young Cinema Competition (World)” at the online competition for this year’s cancelled Hong Kong International Film Festival.

The film begins with a young man, Tanvir, struggling to lift and shoulder a heavy stone, a traditional test for a prospective husband among a tribe to which whom the beautiful shepherdess of the title, Laila, belongs. Soon a title is superimposed: “Song of Marriage,” the first of the seven songs. These songs are sung over the action–unsubtitled, unfortunately–and give a sense of the story taking place in some old folk tale. (Indeed, a title in the credits declares that the film is “Based on a Rajasthani folk-tale by Vijaydan Detha,” a well-known twentieth-century author of numerous such short stories.)

The fact that the tribes cook over open fires and follow what seem to be old traditions reinforces this impression, until a night scene where some of the men wield LED flashlights. Another title, “Song of Migration,” leads to a the journey of the nomadic tribe into which Laila has married herding their large flock toward the village that is their home base. They pass along modern highways, moving aside for traffic to pass, through landscapes that provide beautiful shots (see the top of this entry). This stretch of the film is lyrical and captivating, thoroughly drawing the spectator into the film.

Abruptly another modern touch, a radio carried by one of the men, thrusts the action into the troubled politics of the present. A newscaster declares, “In the Kashmir Valley protests against Article 5A have escalated.” Two protestors, he says, have been killed. The reference is to Pakistan and India’s dispute over control of Kashmir, and the Kashmiri struggle for independence from both. Laila, it later is revealed, is Kashmiri, while Tanvir’s tribe lives in an area controlled by India.

Laila’s beauty soon attracts the attention of the local Station-master and his subordinate, Mushtaq. They hint that as a Kashmiri she might possibly be a terrorist. This accusation comes to nothing, and Mushtaq’s clumsy attempts to seduce Laila lead to a switch in tone. A series of episodes, each a separate “song,” follow Laila promising trysts with him and then bringing her husband along on a pretext. Mushtaq’s continued gullibility in trusting that each new assignation is made in earnest lends a farcical comic touch to this lengthy passage of the film. At the same time, however, Laila is testing whether her husband, strong enough to lift the stone and win her as his bride, has the moral power to defend her rather than currying favor with Mushtaq by turning a blind eye to his designs on Laila.

I felt that the last portion of the film ran out of the energy it had sustained so well, since Laila is strong enough to turn her back on two unacceptable men but has no apparent sense of where to turn once she has done so. Still, overall The Shepherdess is beautifully filmed, as the frames at the top of this section and of the entry demonstrate. It also tells a thoroughly absorbing story.

 

So far David and I have reported on six films from this year’s Vancouver festival. Already it has become clear that our accumulated experiences from past years have allowed us to trace the development of promising young filmmakers into great ones and to discover promising new ones whom we hope to encounter at future festivals.


Thanks to Alan Franey, PoChu AuYeung, Jane Harrison, and their colleagues for their help during the festival.

There Is No Evil (2020).

Venice, virtually

Careless Crime (2020)

Every September over the last three years, we’ve immensely enjoyed visiting the Venice International Film Festival. There David has participated in the Biennale College Cinema discussions with stimulating colleagues.

This year, alas, the coronavirus kept us home. But the festival did make available a selection of fourteen films online. Each could be viewed for five days at the very fair price of $6 per film. (Here is the array of choices. A few are still available, so hurry.)

We took advantage of this opportunity and watched several titles. Here are our thoughts about three of them. (The first section is by David, the second by Kristin.) We hope that if you get a chance to see them on the big screen or at home you’ll investigate.

 

GOFAC is back! Actually, it never went away

The Art of Return (2020).

Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s,  I tried to analyze the conventions governing a certain approach to moviemaking, the one that’s come to be called “art cinema.” My examples were films by Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, the French New Wave, and many of their contemporaries.

In the years afterward, I revisited the ideas and asked: Are these conventions still in force? My conclusion in an updated version of the essay in Poetics of Cinema (2008) was: yes. From Fassbinder to Wong Kar-wai, from Distant Voice, Still Lives  (1988) to Maborosi (1995) and beyond, we can find art-cinema principles of storytelling and style. In that book, the extended example was Varda’s Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, 1985), while other chapters traced how this tradition mobilized new options like forking-path narratives (e.g., Run Lola Run, 1998) and network narratives (e.g., Les Passagers, 1999). There’s a pirated pdf of the updated essay here.

Since then, it’s been fascinating to watch a younger generation of filmmakers take up this tradition. Every festival I visit furnishes examples, as you can see from our entries on this site. I had the same sense when watching Pedro Collantes’ The Art of Return (El Arte de Volver) and Christos Nikous’ Apples (Mila). Good Old-Fashioned Art Cinema is still with us.

The Art of Return is centered on Noemi, who returns to Madrid after six years in New York. She has come home to audition for a role in a telenovela, and in the course of twenty-four hours she encounters several people from her past. The film consists of a series of duologues, as Noemi visits her dying grandfather, quarrels mildly with her sister, reconnects with her actor friend Carlos, and learns through another friend what became of Alberto, her ex.

What makes The Art of Return a prototypical art film is the way sheer chronology replaces a strongly causal plot.  Apart from attending her audition, Noemi doesn’t have a strong goal; she drifts from one encounter to another.  Most of these long scenes are devoted to discussions of her past, with hints about why she left Spain, as well as reactions of others to her personality. The task for a filmmaker using this episodic structure is to create patterns of revelation for us and for the character.

We need backstory about Noemi, and Collantes shrewdly avoids supplying flashbacks that would supply that. Instead, her past is refracted through the reactions of characters who are reconnecting with her, after much that has happened in their own lives. Gradually we assemble a fragmentary sense of what impelled her to go to New York. This revelation of the past is in effect the “under-plot” of the action.

Along with this pattern of revelation for us there are revelations for Noemi herself. She learns about her friend Ana’s floundering artistic ambitions, about her ex Alberto, about Carlos’ judgments of her. In an art film, the keenest revelation for the protagonist comes through an epiphany, a moment in which the character–sometimes mysteriously–gains self-awareness.

The crucial epiphany in The Art of Return, I think, occurs in a quiet scene in the park, among the trees that Noemi feels have been sculpted by a mystical force. By chance–again–she sees something that gives her the strength to make a decision. Yet in a typical art-cinema move, the outcome of that decision is withheld from us, suspended in a shot reminiscent of The 400 Blows (1959).

Collantes skillfully creates a firm pattern, with the opening scene symmetrically balanced by the final audition. In between, as in La Dolce Vita (1960) and Angela Schanelec’s Passing Summer (2000), the protagonist’s encounters provide a sampling and survey of life in the city, from the bohemian artists to the Romanian migrant community. A College selection, The Art of Return has already been acquired for theatrical distribution in Spain and other territories.

Apples (2020).

Because the art-cinema tradition minimizes a goal-directed plot, it often creates patterning through routine actions that are modified across the film. The changes in the routines reveal changes in a character or a situation. A vivid example is given in the Greek film Apples. After we’ve seen our protagonist regularly buy and eat apples (lots of ’em), he learns from a grocer that apples sharpen memory. He immediately switches to oranges. What psychology can justify this strange piece of behavior?

We understand it completely, because what has gone before has created a compelling context. The era is vaguely pre-digital, though there are some anachronisms. In the midst of an epidemic of amnesia, the poker-faced Aris is taken to a clinic for memory recovery. His doctors have created an experimental technique to give him a new life by reenacting routines of childhood, adolescence, and young manhood. As he rides a bike, fishes in a stream, visits a costume party, and goes to a dance club, he records his actions on Polaroids. These will fill an album and serve as replacement memories.

So Aris has a goal, albeit a diffuse one. We haven’t been told his overall program, so we are left to slowly figure out the rationale behind his dressing up as an astronaut or getting a lap dance. The film’s narration is almost as laconic as its protagonist, although a couple of scenes with his doctors show some sardonic humor. They eat his cooking and ignore the pathos of his situation while also, probably, misdiagnosing him.

Crucially, his retraining regimen intersects with that of another amnesiac, a woman further along in the program. Their relationship gives the film a romantic subplot, as well as its two most exuberant scenes: a dance to “Let’s Twist Again,” in which Siri seems to suddenly recover muscle memory, and a drive that spurs him to sing along with “Sealed with a Kiss.” (Hints about the under-plot give these scenes a dose of mystery and ambiguity–two more appeals of art-cinema storytelling.) All of this takes place before the apples-to-oranges shift, which in this context becomes as dramatic a twist as one would find in a thriller.

Shot and paced with extraordinary rigor in the 4:3 format, Apples is a perfect example of how GOFAC can create a distinct blend of curiosity, surprise, humor, and suspense. The film’s revelations in the final stretch are carried out as unemphatically as everything else, lending the character’s secrets an austere dignity. Apples has been eagerly acquired for many territories, and the director, who worked with Yorgos Lanthimos on Dogtooth, is preparing an English-language project. It will be, he hopes, “more accessible/mainstream.” Not entirely, I hope.

 

A carefully artful Iranian film

Careless Crime (2020).

Back in 2014, we were introduced to the strange world of Iranian director Shahram Mokri with his second feature, Fish and Cat. It’s a 139-minute single-take movie with a twisty plot in which the camera runs into separate groups of people in a rural lake area, with events starting to repeat from different points of view as the camera circles back on its route. We saw it in Vancouver, but it had premiered in the Orrizonti program at the Venice International Film Festival in 2013; it won a special prize “For Innovative Content.”

This year Mokri was back in the Horizonti thread with his third feature, Careless Crime. This time Mokri didn’t win a Festival prize, but the film received a FIPRESCI award for Best Screenplay.

Careless Crime is even trickier than Fish and Cat. It’s one of those puzzling films that requires the spectator to figure out the time frames of the different plot threads–and indeed how many times frames there are–and keep track of many characters. It’s a bit like Lazlo Nemes’ Sunset in the way it demands that the viewer constantly keep on the alert for the most fleeting or oblique clues as to what’s going on. (It’s interesting that Nemes and Mokri both have a penchant for lengthy tracking shots following a character closely from behind, as in the frame above.) Apples is another film that provides only a few subtle clues abut a major plot premise that eventually provides a twist at the end

There are two major plotlines. A group of four scruffy men plan to set fire to a crowded cinema as a political protest. Their actions recall an actual event that was the inspiration for the story. In 1978 a group of four arsonists set fire to the Cinema Rex in Abadan, causing the deaths of over 400 people because the exits were blocked.The event is credited with having launched the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

We follow the four men as they carry out inept preparations for their attack on the cinema. The group includes Faraj, a sad-sack who spends much of the early part of the film trying to get the nerve pills to which he is addicted. He tracks down a dealer who happens to be an employee at the local cinema museum and who is dressed in a large puppet costume, from the depths of which he digs out the precious bottle for Faraj.

The second plot involves a small, equally inept group of soldiers who have been sent to deal with an apparently unexploded missile deep in the countryside (see top). Contradictory information suggests that the missile landed some time ago and has been defused or that it landed the day before and needs urgent attention. Instead the men wander up into a local tourist area where two college girls are setting up an outdoor screening of the classic 1974 Iranian film, The Deer. This happens to be the film that had been screening at the Cinema Rex when the 1978 arson attack occurred. But the soldiers neglect their duty to solve the missile problem and spend their time waiting to see the young women’s film to find out if they are up to something nefarious. Thus two “careless crimes” may be involved. The the relationship between the two plotlines only becomes apparent late in the film.

An obsession with cinema runs through both plots. The cinema targeted by the terrorists is apparently attached to the nearby museum and shows mostly art films, as is suggested by the posters for classic films that decorate the lobby. Young patrons and supporters of the cinema who hang around waiting for the show to start mention repeatedly that a friend has written an essay on The Deer, and we glimpse a poster for Kiarostami’s Close-Up. At one point Faraj, seeking the drug-dealer at the museum, sees a vintage film playing on an editing table.

It’s a 1912 Edison film, The Crime of Carelessness, in which poor safety conditions and a carelessly dropped cigarette led to a disastrous mill fire. At the end, a title in Farsi comes up, describing not the action of the silent film just shown but the 1978 Cinema Rex fire.

As all this suggests, there’s a good deal of magical realism in Careless Crime. At one point a single long take meanders around the open-air setting for the girls’ screening, picking up the same actions and dialogue repeated from different angles. During Faraj’s search for the drug-dealer, a museum employee guides him through the museum and its basement, again all in a single moving take. The seemingly endless basement is shot entirely against a black background, though at one point images of the two seemingly accompany them in the background.

Despite the grim subject matter, as in Fish and Cat, there is a good deal of self-conscious humor in Careless Crime. Little jokes are made about movies, and especially arty ones, as when a minor couple in the targeted cinema waits for the film to start. The woman looks at the screen (perhaps at a trailer?) and remarks, “I hate any film that has this laurel sign on it.” The reference is to one of the primary institutions of the international art cinema:

Is Mokri twitting the festival for not having chosen to show his films? As is now clear, his film’s repeat presence at Venice turned out to be an advantage in the long run. Although Careless Crime did not win a prize in the Horizonti competition, outside the official festival it received the FIPRESCI award for the best screenplay. Perhaps, when it finally becomes possible to return to the VIFF in person, we will see the next Mokri film and struggle not to be puzzled.


Thanks, as ever, to Alberto Barbera, Paolo Lughi, Savina Neirotti, Peter Cowie, and Michela Lazzarin for their assistance this year and in the past.

You can watch an extract of the Biennale press conference for Apples. The director discusses it in this Variety interview.

Our earlier entries on the Venice festival are here.

Apples (2020).

David Bordwell
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