Post Tenebras Lux

By Rob Dennis.

The New Horizons Film Festival, taking place for the 12th year in the city of Wroclaw, Poland, displayed a distinctly Latin character this year. With a strand devoted to new Mexican cinema and a retrospective of the films of Carlos Reygadas (showcasing the Polish premiere of his latest, Cannes prize-winner Post Tenebras Lux), it seemed inevitable that South American films would take away some of the major spoils. In the end two of the principle awards went this way: the Grand Jury going to Chile’s Thursday Till Sunday and the critics plumping for Brazil’s Neighbouring Sounds.

Thursday Till Sunday, Dominga Sotomayor’s debut feature was a previous winner at both Rotterdam and Idie Lisboa, and it was easy to spot the Jury pleasing components that mark this young director as a significant name to watch. A road movie of sorts, the film details the painful break up of a marriage seen through the eyes of their children, as the family take one, presumably final, weekend drive to the country. Stuck in the back seat, the kids struggle to keep themselves amused as their parents falteringly attempt to stifle their rows. The focus settles on Lucia, the pre-teen daughter who seems most aware of her parents splintering relationship. Beautifully shot on Super 16 by Barbara Alvarez and featuring remarkable performances (especially from the young leads) the film may be slightly too meandering for its own good, with some audience members shifting as uncomfortably as the bored passengers onscreen. But, despite still being in her 20s, Sotomayer handles the delicate fragments of her story with a confidence that helps conceal the slightness of her project.

The other competition entry from Chile was José Luis Torres Leiv’s follow up to 2008’s festival hit The Sky, the Earth and the Rain and whilst this film has so far failed excite audiences and juries in the same way as his previous effort, it was to my mind the more impressive and daring work. Summertime has a similar setting and tone to Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga (2001); set in a sleepy summer resort, the film traces the various minor adventures of staff and guests, from maids learning the art of napkin folding, to lonely patrons silently eating breakfast and exploring the grounds. And whilst a broken vacuum cleaner might be the closest the film comes to an inciting event, Torres Leiv slowly builds up a compelling picture of love, work and leisure in the bucolic sun. Shot on Hi8 video, mostly in tight handheld close ups, and including moments of night vision and still frame action, the film can at times be a dizzying experience. Front row viewing is not advised.

Winner of the FIPRESCI award, Neighbouring Sounds by Kleber Mendonça Filho, was an altogether more bracing and overtly politicised work. Set in the town of Reclife in the Northeast of Brazil, and shot exclusively on a middle class estate where residents live in a fragile peace with the outside world, the film, similarly to Summertime, charts the inter-class relations that verge between a strained amicability and downright hostility. The strikingly composed wide angle images make the film a much more architectural project than other recent Brazilian crime dramas, and the intricate and intermittently uncanny sound design (from the director and Pablo Larmar) underscores the sense of unease.

As a marked contrast to the generally contemplative ambiance of the main programme, two films stood out like cans of Red Bull in an organic co-op; one for the better, one for the worse. Mondomanilla by Khavn De La Cruz (written about elsewhere in Yun-hua Chen’s Edinburgh report) was an impassioned frenzy of New Filipino cinema, pitched somewhere between John Waters and Derek Jarman. Based on a celebrated novel by Norma Wilwayco, the film is a picaresque tale of daily life in Manila’s slums. Comic, bizarre, and at times genuinely shocking, Khavn’s film is sure to have a long festival life. An altogether less successful trip was to be had watching James Franco’s collaboration with Ian Olds in Francophrenia (Or Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is). Given an access-all-areas pass to document Franco’s ill-fated appearance on US Soap General Hospital and carte blanche with Final Cut Pro, Olds’ (with Franco’s consent) has created an ugly and largely unfunny mess.

The only other US contender was Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky’s brutally simple film, Francine. Starring recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo as a newly released prisoner attempting that fabled ‘fresh start’ in an East Coast small town, Francine unfolds as a study of a character damaged to the point of near muteness. Comfortable only when surrounded by animals, Francine’s first real signs of human emotion come whilst listening to death metal, but the slow process of rehabilitation eventually leads her to tentatively open up to those around her. Cassidy and Shatzky’s documentary background pays off, giving Francine the kind of relaxed naturalism we have come to expect from the Dardenne brothers and Kelly Reichardt (with whom they share a cinematographer, Katie Stern). Expect this to travel further.

Outside of the main competition, the festival’s Panorama strand gave eager audiences an early opportunity to see many of the year’s Cannes offerings. Alongside the Palme D’Or winner Amour and the aforementioned Reygadas, there were Polish premieres of Kiarostami’s effortlessly vivid and deceptively slight Like Someone in Love, a film that continued some of the preoccupations of his previous, Certified Copy (2010), but situated itself in a very Ozuish contemporary Japan. Leos Carax was in town to deflect questions about his joyously bizarre meta-film mash up, Holy Motors, and Cristian Mungiu’s multiple Palme winner Beyond the Hills had no trouble packing out its four screenings, with the local crowd keen to put themselves through the Romanian’s bracing depiction of love, death and devotion in a remote convent.

Mapping the other various strands was a task in itself, with selections ranging from a competition strand on Film on Art (where the Jury, including New Horizons favourite James Benning, gave the main prize to a Finnish music doc, Punk Syndrome), an avant-gardeish section titled The Happy End: Images for the End of the world (complete with two accompanying exhibitions), a look at Mocumentaries, the Karol Irzykowski Film Studio and New Horizons of Film Language: Sound all pitching for their own audience share. The Midnight Madness strand (with films commencing and an altogether more reasonable 10pm) focused on musicians taking to the big screen, with predictable favourites Yellow Submarine (1968), Performance (1970) and Quadrophenia (1979) sitting alongside more esoteric choices such as Carmen: A Hip Hopera (2001) (Bizet meets Beyonce) and Vondie Curtis-Hall’s unfairly neglected 1997 Tupac Shakur vehicle Gridlock’d.

Beyond the Hills

The focus on Mexico threw up some striking examples of a cinematic culture that continues to thrive, with María Novaro’s Alzheimer’s drama The Good Herbs (2010) and Michel Lipkes’ dystopian vision of Mexico City in the year of the centenary celebrations, Misadventure (2011) being two noteworthy cases; and Nicolás Pereda returned to screen one of last year’s competition highlights, Summer of Goliath (2010) alongside his previous effort Perpetuum Mobile (2009). Alongside Reygadas, retrospective treatments were given to Ulrich Seidl (including a premiere of his latest Paradise: Love), the Austrian/US experimental couple Peter Tscherkassky and Eve Heller, Polish animator Witold Giersz and Dušan Makavejev, who was the bane of hard working Polish translators with his captivating mile-a-minute monologues at the post screening Q and As. As well as the established classics of WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Sweet Movie (1974), the festival gave a welcome opportunity to revisit the Slavic director’s early works, and take a rare look at some of the later, less lucrative English language films that led to his very unfortunate wilderness years.

And yet perhaps the most spectacular sight of the 10 day event was the open air screening of the newly rediscovered German silent Mania: The History of a Cigarette Factory Worker (1918) in the town’s beautiful Market Square. Directed by Hungarian Eugen Illés and starring Poland’s own Pola Negri as the quintessential doomed romantic, torn between two men, Mania was grandiose melodrama of the highest order, backed superbly by Wroclaw’s ‘Leopoldinum’ Chamber Orchestra.

Rob Dennis is a freelance writer and teacher of film and media based in London, UK.

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