by Florian Weigl
One way to test the cinephile mettle of a country is to go to its most prominent festival of festivals. Canada and Toronto have TIFF, the U.S and New York have NYFF, Austria and Vienna have the Viennale and Germany and Berlin, well, we have Around The World in 14 Films. Founded by Bernhard Karl, Kathrin Bessert and Nikola Mirza in 2005 and since 2018 co-curated and managed by Bernhard Karl and Susanne Bieger, the title already signals that the focus here is heavier on curation and a well-formed philosophy which balances up-and-coming talent with lifers and festival mainstays. The programming features the usual frustrations – that India with all of its wealth of cultural and cinematic expressions is so absent from the main competition is pure negligence – and compromises, which can be found in the DNA of all modern festivals, but the core idea remains: 14 films selected from the past year’s festival season.
Time prohibits me to cover the main slate in its entirety, which, among others, includes the new films of Helena Wittmann (Human Flowers of Flesh), Cristian Mungiu (R.M.N), Albert Serra (Pacifiction) and Mati Diop (Saint Omer), but I was able to see new work by Lav Diaz (When The Waves Are Gone), Jerzy Skolimowski (EO) and Laura Citarella (Trenque Lauquen).
When The Waves Are Gone is Diaz’s third time at the festival, following The Woman Who Left in 2016 and From What Is Before in 2014. Karl introduced him with the usual sentimentality granted to an old master. Indeed, some filmmakers curate their own audience. Writing about Diaz is circular by nature. The language adapts to time (“shoot first, ask later” is here repurposed as activism) and there are new plots and new names, but the main concerns, the stock characters – priests and pimps and prostitutes and policeman and artists and dictators and healers – and the re-telling of national history, remain the same. When The Waves Are Gone, a (very) loose adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count Of Monte Cristo, is befallen by the same clipped, stop and go production history that hit most films made during the COVID lockdown. The original cut of the film runs for nine hours. The entire middle section, which plays out in Lisbon and focuses on another investigator, has been cut out and re-cut into its own film being released this year to tie the story together.
The film opens mid-didactics. Lieutenant Hermes Papauran (John Lloyd Cruz) is indoctrinating a new class of cadets, while he feels increasing guilt over having participated in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. We see its devastating and deadly effects through the work of the photojournalist Raffy Lemma who is introduced on the job and afterwards consoles a colleague who breaks down crying as he denounces the campaign as a holocaust. (Lemma is a real photojournalist / activist who is played here by DMs Boongaling. Diaz himself used to work as a journalist and covered the police beat.)
Ramy and Hermes are friends, and in classic Diaz fashion, the latter finds his conscience and moral center through the art of the former. The classroom is decorated with a quote by Hermes himself. ”One must seek the truth from within, not without!” Diaz is one of our most eminent working genre-theorists and like many before him (Carpenter and Verhoeven, especially) he loves to double down on the symbolism of an idea if it warrants an arresting image. Thus, Hermes soon begins to suffer from psoriasis, his skin no longer able to contain his sins.
Hermes is a violent man. When he catches his wife cheating on him, he humiliates the lovers and threatens them with a gun. After he is subsequently denounced for his domestic violence, he resigns, finds the cop who turned him in and beats him to a pulp. About to leave, he sees the son of the cop rushing to his father, and stops, reports the crime scene and tends to his victim. In a filmography full of martyrs and men who are tortured by their past, Hermes fits right in.
While Hermes leaves to visit his sister, another man creeps into the story. Primo Macabanta (Ronnie Lazaro) was Hermes’ superior before Hermes aided the government to turn him in for corruption charges. Primo, whom prison has turned into a religious fanatic, is out to get his revenge and the film will draw them closer together to confront both the nation itself as well as the people who served under it, and the extent to which both can be forgiven for their crimes.
Diaz has once again collaborated with DP Larry Manda. Gone is the digital slickness of Genus Pan or History of Ha, which Diaz shot himself, and in comes the grain and gray. This is the first film since Evolution of a Filipino Family that Diaz shot on Super 16, which had to be shipped to Japan for development as the labs in the Philippines no longer work with motion picture film. (The last film he shot on film was also his last studio film: Burger Boys shot on 35mm. Evolution of a Filipino Family started out on 16mm and ended up being shot on digital video.) The world here is textured and desolate. There’s life – a dog that wanders in the background of a tense shot, lingers for a second and then walks out again; a curtain that is blown in front of the lens and works like a thin veil – but the light is hard and direct, which can reduce a body to a mere silhouette.
The performances are all stellar and have the usual expressiveness that Diaz tends to bring out better than most others. Lazaro’s performance recalls Joe Lamangan’s role as a mentally ill dictator in The Halt. Both feel the desolation of their characters, finding comedy and cruelty in their condition and conditioning. The standout scenes of the film see Primo, and later Hermes, break out in dance sessions—bodies that once belonged to the state deprogramming themselves, finding a new rhythm. The choreography is often as manic and desolate as the hotel rooms and streets they are performed on. It’s never enough, but it’s the only way out.
Another one of the old masters, Jerzy Skolimovski, gives this past year his belated festival debut. Much has been written about EO, a film which at this point markets itself, so it’s best to just get to the donkey of it all. (EO is indeed played by six donkeys, but for the sake of this review I will fold their performance into one.) The donkey has gray weather-beaten but cozy fur and deep, black eyes. Its legs are very slender and I was astonished by its endurance every time it started running, given the weight they have to carry.
A late film in that its focus is evenly and exclusively between the self and the world. Not about nature, but how to be in nature. Close-ups of EO’s brittle fur brushing up against the wind. Of his face, while a black tear rolls down his cheek as he considers his death. The central movement of the film is outward, or at least the more EO remembers, the more the camera pushes away from him. Drone shots that are syncopated with the speed of water or anticipate the movement of a wind turbine. A time-lapsed (!) reverse zoom (?) out of an enbankment dam. Wherever you look, there’s a battle for balance.
We often get glimpses from EO’s perspective, rushed and blurred and softened like vaseline smeared over the lens, but are never limited to him and him alone. In every scene EO enters we find a world and its consequences: the forest with its owls and wolves and foxes and the laser rifles of the hunters; the amateur derby with its local mythmaking and violent conclusion; the intra-European meat trade through the life of a benign but selfish metalhead truck driver. Some episodes, like the one involving Isabelle Huppert as a countess, and Vito (Lorenzo Zurzolo), an Italian priest, remain beautifully vague. A film I’ll avoid writing too much about, both because it is best experienced but also because unlike the trite suffering of something like Andrea Arnold’s Cow (2021), it thankfully refrains from explaining itself too much.
Since I have been attending the festival in 2018, Around The World in 14 Films has started working closely with the World Cinema Fund of the Berlinale. It’s a good fit given the profile of the festival, which also guarantees some of these films greater and much-needed exposure. One such film was the latest mammoth project by El Pampero Cine, the Argentinian collective / production house which was founded in 2002 by Mariano Llinás, Laura Citarella, Agustín Mendilaharzu and Alejo Moguilansky. Tranque Lauquen is not only Laura Citarella’s biggest project to date, but it keeps with the Borgesian nature of La Flor (2018) in being as much a film about stories as storytelling.
Tranque Lauquen is the story of Laura (Laura Paredes) who has gone missing. It is told in two interconnected parts. The first part is about Laura, as seen through the people who love her; the second is about Laura and the people she loved in return. It also becomes the story of Rafael (Rafael Spregelburd) and Ezequiel (Ezequiel Pierri) who start searching for her. Rafael is Laura’s boyfriend and the head of the university’s botany department, in which Laura worked as a researcher. He is a people person who throws himself into the investigation with unbridled enthusiasm. Ezequiel is more quiet, the Watson to Rafael’s Holmes, there to study the man and his methods, while guarding his own secrets.
Ezequiel, a single dad of three with an off-screen girlfriend, is also in love with Laura. A love based on their shared obsession with the secret correspondence between Carmen Zuna and Paolo Bertino, teacher and student, but also devoted lovers who built their own private archive in the most public of all places by hiding notes and letters within books which were later donated to the local library and there rediscovered by Laura. Carmen leaves Bertino one last note – “Adios! Adios! My vamos! My vamos!” – before she, in Laura’s interpretation of the events, leaves and wanders the pampa with her unborn child, Juliana. Laura will leave the same note to Ezequiel after she ditches his car.
There is something intoxicating about sharing secrets and re-defining the world for each other. But once their relationship is weighed, the scales moving in ever so slightly divergent directions, the chasm between Laura and Ezequielcan feel absolute. Her liberation becomes his heartbreak. Pierri, a big, burly ginger with small but deep-seated eyes, makes you feel the pain and longing for balance in every frame.
The second part follows Laura and her investigations. She researches important historical women (Lady Godiva, Alexandra Kollontai) for a local radio show hosted by Juliana (Juliana Muras), who may be the secret love child of Zuna and Bertino. Soon another mystery emerges: there is a being in the lake and Laura is visited by the apparition of a woman who is looking for a specific flower. As Laura follows these clues, she falls in love with a lesbian couple who function as the guardian of the being – a little boy, or an alligator, or both, but definitely a mutant who has shifted shapes before and will do so again.
Trenque Lauquen is a film about being haunted and haunting in return. Mysteries which cannot rest and are being rediscovered and repurposed. The cinematic frustrations, then, come with the territory. If everything is simply a tangent for another story, the images tend to become more economical, plain, flattened by the narrative weight they have to carry. What depth there is, rests in subjectivity. At two times in the film the same drive through the town and its history leaves two distinct, subjective expressions – mourning and closure – and they can both exist on equal, evocative terms in the narrative. The film closes with Laura taking a long walk through the pampa, going backwards through the stories she knows until she runs out of stories and subsequently vanishes again. The image as pure paratext, existing only in relation to the story – through the story, for the story – and disappearing once the story ends. A relation which is felt in every frame and allows for a sensuality and eroticism but is also qua its conception counterproductive to the possibilities and liberation that cinema can offer.
Florian Weigl is a writer and critic based in Berlin. He can be paid in cat pictures. [Twitter]
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