Today began with yet another strong Romanian film – and by now I am fully aware that I must be starting to sound like a broken record – in the widely acclaimed portmanteau Tales from the Golden Age (Hanno Hofer, Razvan Marculescu, Cristian Mungiu, Constantin Popescu, Ioana Uricaru, 2009), a light, comical look at many of the myths relating to the old communist regime under the dictatorship of Ceausescu, the title being an ironic reference to the apparent ‘Golden Age’ in which he ruled.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, I am informed, had a ‘Tales from the Golden Age’ sub-title, because it originated from this particular portmanteau project before director Cristian Mungiu took it away and developed it into a full feature. What resulted was a harsh view of life under the oppressive regime, and while his masterpiece serves as a great companion piece to these five shorts, the tone is noticeably different.
Tales from the Golden Age observes this period of time with a wry, deadpan sense of humour, a peek into the lives of individuals and groups affected by the regime. While life under Ceausescu certainly can’t have been plain sailing, sometimes the best way to revisit and try to grasp some understanding of the past is to look back in a comical, ironic fashion, and this is what is achieved so efficiently in these shorts.
Troubles with pigs, gas leaks, merry-go-rounds and doctored photographs are all given a gentle jabbing, and yet the unavoidable seriousness surrounding the way of life under the regime is still felt in every frame, buried beneath the dry humour. With this cohesive collection of retrospectives, the bright young voices of Romanian cinema make another definitive, finely crafted statement regarding the storied past of their nation.
The writeup for El Arbol (Carlos Serrano Azcona, Spain, 2009) in the festival brochure describes the film as ‘produced by Carlos Reygadas’ (Yay!), ‘influenced by the Dardenne brothers’ (Yay!!) and ‘brilliant’ (Yay!!!); quite the ringing endorsement!
Santiago is a lost soul, roaming the streets of Madrid looking for some purpose in life. The Dardenne influence is immediately apparent, as the camera remains behind Santiago’s shoulder for most of his wanderings, as we follow him in his attempts to navigate through the concrete jungle. There’s some heavy-handed symbolism here with allusions to the freedom of nature, including one awkward moment involving some tree-hugging, and the imagery is noticeably ugly, but then again, when you want the city to appear as quite the opposite of alluring, that’s surely the best option. One standout flaw lies in the acting – there are some truly awful turns here, especially that of a small boy near the end who looks at the camera, shrugging, probably at the film itself. Azcona explained that this boy was a friend – as were all the actors – and he found him ‘undirectable’. This is all well and good, but his place in the story doesn’t appear to be necessary, so omitting him altogether would have been the best option, surely saving the end of the film from certain ruin.
Still, Santiago is most importantly the authentic character, and we learnt from Azcona that this was Bosco Sodi’s first acting role; the Mexico-born actor normally paints for a living. Not bad for a first timer. His aimless wandering through the city, aided by the floating, stalking camera, was oddly transfixing for me. This theme of urban alienation has been effectively explored by other directors – notably Tsai Ming-Liang, one of the great modern auteurs, with his trademark long takes and static framing – and yet the flustering, shaking camera technique utilised here, quite different to Tsai’s aesthetic, does well to reflect the hustle and bustle of the city rush hour.
When Azcona came to give us a Q&A session immediately following the screening, he explained that the idea for the film came from his past experience in London, feeling lost and isolated in such a huge, sprawling city. Being a country boy myself, and being used to the vast expanse of green grass in the north of England, I could identify with where he was coming from. For all my love of Leeds, it does tend to weigh heavy on me at times and I feel the need to escape to the country and just relax in the back garden. I couldn’t think of anything to ask the director at this point, aside from whether he would cite Tsai as an influence, but as I listened to him explain his ideas I began to appreciate more what I had just seen. For all its flaws and missteps that prevent it from being anything major, El Arbol is a deeply personal film, and with that in mind, if Aczona can dispense with the Dardenne influence and begin crafting his own personal aesthetic, he may just produce a ‘great’ film in the near future. Hell, with Reygadas on his side, he’s got a bright future.
With all these tales of modern alienation and oppressive regimes, the traditional fairytale of Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat, France, 2009) provided a nice change of scenery, taking the audience back to the days of castles and corsets. The framing device sees two young girls read from the book, narrating events as they occur. Inside the fairytale, we follow Marie-Catherine as she begins to fall for the much feared Bluebeard, or indeed his vast kingdom of wealth. Bluebeard comes across as a fairly sensitive figure despite his hulking physique and the ever-present rumour that he kills every woman he weds. Truth be told, I had never even read or heard of the plot to Bluebeard before this screening, so this entire story came to me totally fresh. Maybe I enjoyed it so much because I saw it as a new story and not necessarily an interpretation, who knows.
Appearing deceptively innocent, the tale is for all intents and purposes quintessential Breillat, with a subtle sexual awakening taking place once Marie-Catherine moves in with Bluebeard, her new husband. Demanding her own room to maintain her virginity, she sneaks down the hallway at night to catch sight of her lover undressing in bed. There’s tension, alright. When the time comes for Bluebeard to hand over those dreaded keys, the framing device takes an unusual turn and Breillat’s vision starts to take flight before its sudden, brief climax. One of the finest contemporary French filmmakers delivers another solid piece of work, a cautious view of married life, opposing the conventional viewpoint of marriage that most Disney-esque fairytales would have you believe is one of idyllic partnership.
Time for something heavy. Encirclement (Richard Brouillette, Canada, 2008) is a near 3-hour documentary critiquing the dominant ideology of neoliberalism, featuring interviews with Noam Chomsky, the amusingly named Oncle Bernard and others. It’s not so much a documentary as it is a filmic essay, being comprised of 98% black-and-white footage of these talking heads, interspersed with text to break up the chapters and sum up the key points.
The film essentially argues that neoliberalism is a thinly veiled form of neocolonialism, and the arguments given from each contributor are presented in a well-spoken, persuasive manner, so as to highlight the dangers of a world where profit takes precedence over basic human need. 3 hours spent with this film leaves one reeling at what little hope there is left for this world when the banking elite is bleeding the weaker economies dry, and most of those unaware are too politically apathetic to even question the system, even indoctrinated enough to defend it.
Watching a 3 hour film comprised mostly of subtitles and white text on a black screen effectively equates the entire experience to reading a book – eliminating the need for a camera other than to see Chomsky’s saggy neck – yet I can’t help but feel that even at its length, this is a succinct, well-structured argument on a burning issue that will reach more people in film form than it would do existing as a crusty book sitting in between two other crusty books on a library shelf. Either way, the faith I lost in humanity during the Millenium screening has not returned. If you see it, make sure to let me know.