2008 NZIFF No.2

October 12, 2008

BALLAST | Lance Hammer, 2008


On the strength of his assured debut feature, BALLAST, American filmmaker Lance Hammer is worth keeping an eye on. Although the influences aren’t overt, there was a distinct European flavour to the film, reminiscent of films by the Dardenne brothers, Bruno Dumont, etc., and he may also have admiration for Soderbergh’s equally fine but more contentious Bubble. While Ballast may not be as uncompromising, the comparison indicates the direction he could be heading, and it's one I'll gladly follow.


The film starts with the most dramatic events then works towards one of the most understated resolutions of any film in the festival. The sense of order and balance conveyed in the seemingly nondescript final scene (in which the three main characters are arranged in telling relationship to each other, travelling together within the enclosed interior of their car) expresses hope in a way that staunch realist cinema rarely manages.


The film’s subtle darkness-to-light structure vaguely recalls Noe’s Irreversible, in as much as its formal strategy similarly denies the kind of cathartic pleasure violent resolution often provides (as well as avoiding the implicit confirmation of racial and social stereotypes). Because the (unseen) violence occurs at the beginning, we have no preconceived (or preconditioned) context for it, so the film becomes the story of a journey towards equilibrium, dignity, and hope. Intelligent, cine-literate and very finely crafted, it was one of the highlights of the festival for me. A blogger from the USA put it perfectly when he wrote, “This film is everything I have argued for in American cinema: its angelic patience, reverence for faces, silences and subjective experience could teach audiences how to look and listen again.” Touché.


As solemn as Ballast may be, for Hammer it’s a testament to the beauty and honour of human survival. Taking his cue from Bresson (as have the Dardenne’s and Dumont), he stayed clear of filmic practices that could easily have turned the film into a run-of-the-mill flick. “If a scene needed music in order to work,” he said, “it had to be cut.” Comparisons (even soft ones) with esteemed directors are no overstatement considering the quiet quasi-spiritual elevation Hammer achieves. That’s not to imply that Ballast has religious themes or is concerned with metaphysics, but that its humanist poetry is reminiscent of films by established masters, among whom I would unquestionably include Mexican enfant-terrible, Carlos Reygadas.



Reygadas is no stranger to the highs and lows of critical attention, and he has no qualms about referencing his cinematic heroes: Tarkovsky, Antonioni, and Buñuel for starters, and in his new film, SILENT LIGHT, none other than Carl Dreyer. In this instance it’s more than a reference – it constitutes the fundamental heart of the film, in which he updates Dreyer’s 1954 masterpiece, Ordet. For those who don’t know Dreyer’s film, it’s ultimately about a faith strong enough to bring someone back from the dead. It’s the sort of subject matter few filmmakers would have the gumption to tackle in these defiantly irreligious times, but Reygadas obviously has no fear of setting the bar as high as possibly, and in my view it does him no harm: his films just keep getting better.


Silent Light is the tale of a simple family man struggling with the conflicting misfortune of finding his soul mate in another woman. Torn between his love for the woman and his sincere though less elemental love for his wife, this committed Mennonite and simple man of the earth is caught in a battle of conscience. The impact on his wife, however, is tragic. Silent Light embraces the contradictions of religious faith, but it also transcends them. Reygadas tacitly accepts the existence of something invisible and profoundly powerful: it could be spiritual; it could be the power of human love; or it could be cinema. With Dreyer as his guiding (silent) light, he fearlessly delves into the realm of miracles, mystery, redemption, and transcendence to create vibrant and deeply affecting cinema with its roots firmly planted in the earth.


If nothing else, Reygadas knows a thing or two about how to express emotional elation, but not everyone buys it. Some people find his work meretricious, while others find it wholly satisfying. For Reygadas, cinema is about “…creating your own world and taking all the liberties you want.” He has an acute eye for landscapes and faces, and a great instinct for dramatic evocation, enabling him to invest an extraordinary depth of feeling and meaning into his remarkably cinematic images. For his detractors, it’s all about sincerity: is Reygadas genuine or merely a clever magician? Personally, I don’t think it matters – all filmmakers are magicians to some degree (suspension of disbelief and all that). For me, Silent Light is (at the very least) a very worthy homage to its inspiration, and along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, one of the most exhilarating films of the year.


One of the biggest revelations of the festival was the discovery of a new auteur, José Luis Torres Leiva. THE SKY THE EARTH AND THE RAIN is cinema at its most rarefied, with a formal rigour that beautifully underpins its poetic and contemplative qualities. Sky, Earth, Rain quietly took my breath away. It’s the kind of film that requires full engagement, so those who sit and wait for answers are likely to be perplexed and disappointed. Judging by the bemused reactions as the lights came up, it might be a common response to this deeply empathetic, quietly angry film. For Torres Leiva, his film was an attempt to “free the audience from the usual rational approach to films, and accept that they should let themselves go, carried along by sounds and images.” It’s an approach that has parallels with the work of filmmakers such as Lisandro Alonso, Albert Serra, Pedro Costa, Sharunas Bartas, and (to a lesser extent) Bela Tarr, Bruno Dumont, Carlos Reygadas, and the like, filmmakers who have variously been influenced by the likes of Bresson, Antonioni, and Tarkovsky. Torres Leiva shares with these filmmakers an ability to fashion a compelling and evocative unity between narrative, theme and form. Sky, Earth, Rain is an impressive example of advanced visual storytelling, less reliant on traditional conventions and expectations (clearly defined narrative arcs; exposition through dialogue; etc), but giving greater emphasis to mise-en-scène, atmosphere, nuance, sub-text, and to the viewer's role as a participant in the process of ‘setting’ or completing the work. One’s appreciation of this approach is dependent on what one brings to the film. If you have a taste for cinematic minimalism, it's a deliciously subtle dish.


There is little overt exposition in the film, and the narrative (what there is of it) loosely concerns the lives of a handful of detached individuals: a young woman looking after her bedridden mother; her girlfriend and her disturbed sister; and an emotionally reserved orchardist. Emotional reserve, solitude, isolation, and silence are key elements in the film. The sound design is equally pivotal (it’s the sound of agitated birds that brings the film to its subtle conclusion), but above all the film is about dislocation and connection. The landscape parallels and reflects the inner states of the characters, emphasising the common experience of subjective isolation, but also the natural power of unforced connections between people – unspoken understanding. The film also speaks to the destructive potential of estrangement, but also our capacity to empathise and share each other’s struggle.


But for you the film may have an entirely different meaning. For all I know the person sitting next to me in the theatre might have thought it was about a young woman loosing her job in a corner store and getting a new one in an orchard – the end. There’s no accounting for subjectivity, and no filmmaker expresses this more than the great Alexandr Sokurov.



Being a fan of the man’s work, I wish I could wax more lyrically about how great Alexandr Sokurov’s new film is, but I should see again ALEXANDRA before commenting on what seemed to be a curiously contradictory work, expressing pacifism on one hand and an acceptance of imperialist expansionism on the other. I recognise that the film is a plea for peace, but the character of Alexandra Nikolaevna (is it a coincidence that the director's full name is Alexandr Nikolaevich Sokurov?) as played by Galina Vishnevskaya (a famous soprano who married famous composer, Mstislav Rostropovich) expressed the kind of ‘noble determination of the common folk’ that harks back to the heroics of overt propagandist periods in Russian cinema. I wasn’t able to reconcile this sassy, feisty-willed (though physically frail) portrait of Mother Russia mixing-it-up with Russian soldiers (“Grandmother and Sons” perhaps?) and Chechen townsfolk alike, moving through the military base and Chechen marketplace with a sagacious air of superiority and studied compassion.


Her meeting with a Chechen woman (slightly younger, but a grandmother too) came perilously close to cliché. Another hard to digest moment was when a Chechen boy says to her, “I know you have nothing to do with it, but please, give us our freedom.” “If only it were that simple,” she says. “An old Japanese woman once said, you must first ask God for intelligence. Strength doesn’t lie in weapons.” The implicit arrogance in this exchange was too uncomfortable for me. Despite the intriguing notion of art (the opera singer Vishnevskaya) being dropped like a cultural bomb into a combat zone (touching on a Sokurovian theme in which physical frailty and strength act as counterweights to one another), the film’s contradictions are a too difficult for this die-hard Sokurovian to come to terms with just yet.


I’m prepared to admit that I’ve probably missed the essential substance of Alexandra, the result of watching an average of four films a day over two weeks, no doubt. So yes, I need to see it again and think about it more, but despite my quibbles I can at least recommend the film on aesthetic terms. Sokurov is one of the most visually and aurally expressive filmmakers. His painterly images are beautiful and beguiling, and his intimate, textural, subtly layered sound designs are miraculously evocative. The rhythms of Sokurov’s films are distinctly musical, expressing a passionate appreciation of the arts in which music features very highly. In the first instalment of his five-part Spiritual Voices (1994, a film set among the soldiers on the Afghan border), Sokurov discusses some of his favourite composers over a 45-minutes shot of a tree-lined ridge that gradually changes in mood and tonality with the near-imperceptible shifting of the light. There is a possible correlation between Alexandra and Spiritual Voices, and maybe Father and Son (2003) too, but until I see them all again I’m reluctant to speculate further. For the moment I am content to say that Alexandra is sumptuous to look at and listen to.


Li Yang’s BLIND MOUNTAIN has more in common with 5th generation Chinese filmmaking than 6th in terms of its more conventional formal choices (particularly narrative and performance styles), but compared to most 5th generation films it is considerably more restrained. While it doesn’t belong in the same aesthetic world as Jia Zhang-ke, the film could have pandered to mainstream sensibilities much more than it does (the director stayed mercifully clear of Zhang Yimou style audience pleasing). Given the potency of the film’s subject matter, I imagine that reaching a broad Chinese (and global?) audience may have been the director's intention. Tightly directed, well paced and plotted, politically and emotionally sincere, this very fine film is sure to make an impression on anyone who sees it. Blind Mountain is an engaging 90-minutes, and I would happily recommend it to anyone, but because of its relatively straightforward storyline and clear-cut formal and aesthetic properties, I’m unlikely to seek it out for a second viewing.


It’s a shame that the digital screening of Hana Makhmalbaf’s impressive BUDDHA COLLAPSED OUT OF SHAME wasn’t better. The hard-edged glare of digibeta cheapened the look and feel of an otherwise attractive and thoughtful film. Cinema obviously runs in the blood of the Makhmalbaf clan. Hana is every bit as talented as her sister Samira and father Mohsen, and just as intelligent and compassionate. Her acute social conscience informs every frame of this very moral and ethical film. The film begins and ends with footage of the destruction of the 2000 year old Buddhas of Bamyan Valley. As a bookend it not only contextualises the film, but opens and closes it with palpable anger. The film is pointedly anti-war, anti-fundamentalist, and anti-imperialist, and the non-professional cast (mostly children) emphasises the vulnerability of the ultimate victims of aggression and oppression. Through children’s games and the typically blunt way children speak to each other, Makhmalbaf exposes the cruelty and hatred of religious and political intransigence. Shot in a naturalistic style with little overt artfulness, the film is made up of unadorned images that offer a formal equivalent to the filmmaker's strongly focused moral and political intentions. An excellent debut from a very fine filmmaker, Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame is well worth seeking out.



The titular enigma (whether Christopher Columbus was Portuguese or Genoan) of CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: THE ENIGMA is only one of many enigmas in Manoel de Oliveira’s playful and charming film. One possible enigma stems from Oliveira’s proclivity for leg pulling: an amusing premise in The Convent (1995, a film full of wry wit, but that was unjustifiably savaged by critics) was that William Shakespeare was a Spanish Jew called Jacques Peres. In Christopher Columbus: the Enigma, Oliveira purports that Columbus may have been Spanish explorer, Cristóbal Colón. If it wasn’t for the fact that this has been a very serious academic pursuit for the real Dr. Manuel de Silva and his wife (who have spent their lives researching Colón/Columbus), one would assume that Oliveira was once again pulling legs.


One can't be sure if Oliveira takes the central proposition of his film seriously, but what is certain is his respect for Dr. Silva and his wife. Casting himself and his wife as the older Silva couple, Oliveira portrays their search for the glory of Portugal’s past as a celebration of marital bliss – extolling the virtues of fidelity, companionship, and mutual reverence. Like his earlier Talking Picture (2003), Columbus expresses Oliveira's passion for history. One can’t escape the thought that for the 99-year old, the past has a lot to tell us about the here and now. His cinema is as much about considering ‘now’ and ‘soon’ as it is about examining ‘then’. But the richest aspect of the film is Oliveira’s cinematic intelligence, elegance, and elegiac wisdom. His films are slowly getting the recognition they deserve, but for years he was barely unknown to most cinephiles. In fact, Oliveira himself is a subtly enigmatic element in this joyful and engaging movie, a film for cine-gourmands who like their cinema rare.

The posthumous debut of the late Christian Nemescu (a young Romanian filmmaker who died in a car crash at only 28), CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’ (ENDLESS) is not one of the best examples of the Romanian New Wave. That’s not to say that it’s bad, in fact by the end of its rather long 155-minutes, the film voices some pertinent criticisms about the USA that almost made the preceding two hours worth the effort. I’m not sure exactly what the ‘Endless’ part of the title refers to, but if it was an editorial joke I could believe it. I’m no stranger to long films (hell, I’ve sat through Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Satantango in rapt attention four times), but this character-driven satire barely had enough meat on its bones to justify its generous running time. As an allegory its intentions were honourable, but they were as heavy-handed as the plot was crowd-pleasing. The amusing set up pits local townsfolk against the might of the US Army (no less), with plenty of colourful shenanigans and mildly sexy bits of business to keep the punters happy. As agreeable as it is, California Dreamin’ simply isn’t in the same league as the best of New Romanian Cinema, but to be fair Nemescu was only 28 and he definitely had talent. We’ll never know what his contribution to world cinema would have have been.


Another impressive film this year was Woo Ming Jin’s THE ELEPHANT AND THE SEA. I knew nothing about the filmmaker prior to seeing this film, or the fact that there is a burgeoning Malaysian cinema of which Woo is one of the major figures. Festival director Bill Gosden subtly hinted at parallels with Apichatpong Weerasethakul in his programme notes when he wrote, “Tropical malaise is dramatised with dry absurdist wit and a wicked eye for the surreal in (this) absorbing, virtually wordless drama”. He was dead on. This beautifully observed film may not be as cryptic as Weerasethakul’s enigmatic puzzle-pieces, but it has very fine formal qualities nevertheless. It reminded me of The Forsaken Land (2005, directed by Sri Lankan born Vimukthi Jayasundara), another very fine work that gradually reveals its mysteries to patient viewers.


The Elephant and the Sea is an understated study of two men: an older fisherman (The Sea?) living with the loss of his wife to a plague that threatens to engulf the entire area, and a younger man (The Elephant?) hoping to find something to improve his hopeless prospects – firstly by faith in a lucky fish, then by trying to sell his girlfriend into prostitution. The two men never meet, yet they both experience the ordinary miracle of self-realisation, the rebirth that each of them unknowingly sought. Woo parallels their stories to emphasise the crushing limitations experience by the rural poor on the west coast of Malaysia. Compassionate, literate, contemplative, The Elephant and the Sea signals the arrival of a strong new voice in Asian cinema.


Can any more be said about Michael Haneke’s Funny Games? Haneke obviously thought so, and he was right. FUNNY GAMES US, the 2007 American ‘cover-version’ of his 1997 Austrian original, has had plenty of critical attention from professionals and punters alike – a lot of it reactive if not reactionary (Haneke will be pleased, no doubt). For those familiar with the original, the shot-for-shot replica is of interest mostly as a game of ‘spot-the-difference’, but also to pick up on the subtle variations of nuance between the European and American casts. It’s also interesting from the point of view that it has an identical look and feel to the original, which testifies to this director's exacting control. Given that Hollywood apologists often pooh-pooh the notion of directors as auteurs, one only need look at the striking similarity between the two versions to see what an authorial artistic vision looks like. This in itself adds weight to the complexity of Haneke’s thematic intentions, particularly in terms of the sub-textual theme of art, authorship, morality, and ethics. Whatever one makes of Haneke’s films, one thing is certain – he takes his artistic responsibilities very seriously. Consequently he's often in the firing-line of critics who are all-too-keen to take a swipe at him, but I reckon this is exactly what Haneke wants. His films are Trojan-horses, in that they lure critics, commentators, and the public alike into exposing themselves by their comments. As such, Haneke’s films function as barometers of social and political guilt, fear, denial, apathy, etc. This alone is enough to get the dander up of those who see this as evidence of Haneke’s "supercilious grandstanding", but they are completely unaware that their reaction betrays them in exactly the way Haneke had hoped. The worst thing a critic could do to Haneke is ignore him, but this would be akin to sticking one’s head in the sand. Like them or loathe them, Haneke’s films demand consideration. Frankly I enjoy the guilty pleasure of reading the rants and ravings of the anti-Haneke brigade, and the anti-Dumonts too, but that’s another story.



Following his 2003 debut, The Return, Andrei Zvyagintsev returns with THE BANISHMENT. The influence of Tarkovsky is still present, particularly in one glorious tracking shot that recalls (and is almost as impressive as) the slow tracking shot up a shallow stream strewn with pre-apocalyptic debris (money, religious iconography, abandoned technology, etc) in Stalker (1979). Apart from Tarkovsky and Chekhov, Strindberg and Bergman pay a visit, especially in the somewhat clunky late flashback where all is revealed (kind of), and some viewers will be reminded of early Terrence Malick in the sumptuous cinematography. But where Tarkovsky was concerned with spirituality and metaphysics, Zvyagintsev’s intent appears to be political, albeit liberally furnished with religious embellishments.


The banishment of the title could be read in various ways, although the notion of The Fall of Man and subsequent expulsion from The Garden under punishment of death (the consequence of sin) is the obvious starting point for what is presumably a broader political allegory. A friend of mine pointed out that the central protagonist’s wife wore dresses that were either white, blue, or red: denoting the colours of the Russian flag. Indeed, her character represents something that the male protagonist ought to honour and cherish, but that he ultimately squanders. The sense of allegory that surrounds everything and everyone may cause some to feel that there isn’t enough flesh-and-blood substance to The Banishment, an impression supported by the precision of the production as a whole, and the fact that the actors were all a little too photogenic – although to be fair to Zvyagintsev, this is a film about paradise lost.


As much as I enjoyed it, the more I reflect on the film the more my instincts tell me that Zvyagintsev has yet to find his stride as a filmmaker. As impressive as it is, it's only his second film, so in time I expect he will exorcise his more overt influences and, with any luck, settle into his own unique voice. In the meantime I’m quite happy to spend a couple hours enjoying the carefully composed cinematic qualities of this very fine filmmaker.


Originally published in The Lumiere Reader


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