A policeman reads a taciturn woman her statement back to her, a confession of killing her friend’s child. She reacts minimally, either disconnected or disassociated, and when the policeman informs her that her confession will lead to judgement, she foggily explains she has already been judged—by something, something "like time." This strange transition from a criminal drama to intangible abstraction is the suggestive opening to Natsuka Kusano’s second feature Domains, where this terrible crime and the genre story attached to it—how did this murder come about, why did the woman kill the child, what will happen to her?—are a misdirection. The truly important part of this prelude was the fact that the policeman read out loud the woman’s story for her, because what follows over the next two and a half hours in this bold venture is just that: reading. After some credits, Kusano suddenly takes us to an anonymous, sparsely furnished room, in which the woman, Aki (Shibuya Asami), and another, Nodoka (Kasajima Tomo), sit behind a table and read lines from paper, lines that, it quickly becomes clear, are meant for the woman character and that of her friend, the mother of the child. Soon a man (Adachi Tomomitsu) is introduced into the readings, the husband and father in the story. We never hear any direction or see any audience to these readings, though we occasionally see a clapper and hear “cut,” and although several scenes are read through again and again, usually beginning flatly and growing with increasing characterization over the course of the movie, we are not privy to moments between the performances or a distinct evolution of the drama. Repeated readings are each set up slightly differently, but with few props and little staging. We are behind the scenes of one story, yet not truly behind the scenes of what we seem to be seeing, the rehearsal, nearly ritualized, of the production of something—perhaps this movie, perhaps another, perhaps nothing at all, a rehearsal for the sake of incantation, repetition, and burrowing into a text.
That text, on the surface, seems unremarkable, with hardly enough detail or melodrama to truly explain or explore the crime that introduces the picture. (This extended, mysterious performative quality is shared with Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour, which was co-written by Domains’ screenwriter, Tomoyuki Takahashi.) Yet repetition deepens the impact: the suggestion of old friends reuniting but the solitary one finding the married one a different person, in a different place; an overbearing husband; suggestions about one woman’s mental health and the other’s fidelity; the claustrophobia of home life; a refrain of a childhood password, sung to give access to an imaginary castle; and perhaps the largest void in a film that purposefully leaves so much unseen: we never hear or see the child. Over its considerable runtime, Kusano does leave this purgatorial space occasionally, but only for depopulated shots of streets, a train station, a few homes. Their import can only be guessed at and inevitably we search back through our memories to project onto them the bare events we’ve listened to. They are reminiscent, in this fictional context, of Japanese radical and filmmaker Masao Adachi’s landscape theory, and specifically his axiomatic documentary A.K.A. Serial Killer (1969), which tells the story of a real serial killer by filming the seemingly quotidian locations that were once important in his life.
We are thus confronted in a frustration that spawns imagination: spaces without events, dialog without drama, a fiction film without what one normally would assume would be in it. Yet the film contains a enigmatic power for all its obstinate denial of convention—just because these are rehearsals (or readings and re-readings) shouldn’t suggest sloppy form, for Kusano’s lighting and framing is as precise as in a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, whose distinctive uncanniness is occasionally suggested throughout Domains. It is this precision that deflects the suggestion that what we’re watching is a record of a true rehearsal process, and it isn't a far reach to think of Jacques Rivette’s theatrical conspiracies. The directorial firmness suggests another mission, one whose few clues include a concluding letter read (of course) that refers to personal kingdoms (thus the title) of behavior, friendship, society—and, implicitly, memory and imagination. And the ultimate clue, the inconclusive but nearly habitual repetition of dialog, of scenes, of actors—or at least, of people, for who these three readers are or supposed to be is also elided—saying but only partly embodying roles in a larger story. For a film conceptualized around the idea of thwarting the pleasures of normal movies, Domains not only sustains its bizarre idea of suspense, but in fact creates a suspended state of intrigue, a delicate line between negation and possibility.
The debut film by Ico Costa also takes upon itself a discretion with story information that once would have been considered provocative. Now, this taciturn quality is such an expectation for the minimalist side of art films that one hopes for a clever overthrowing of that convention rather than the usual stripping away of dialogue and expository context so common to the last two decades of festival films. Yet Costa, whose previous short film Nyo Vweta Nafta (2017) grabbed my attention and that of many others, does indeed bring something special to Alva. The story is simple to the point of inconsequential. Henrique (Henrique Bonacho) is a woebegone middle-aged man tending a tiny amount of sheep on the outskirts of a small Portuguese town, living in poverty in a ramshackle, pre-industrial hovel eking out an existence of depressing solitude. A social worker’s visit drops a single narrative clue, asking him how his daughters are, which prompts him to dig up an old gun in the ruins of a nearby house, visit town to catch a glimpse of the girls, follow an unidentified woman from their school to her home, and then shoot into this home with his long rifle. The second part of the film follows Henrique fleeing into the woods around his house, assuming that he is being chased for a crime whose victim we’re initially unsure of and whose status neither he nor we know.
With a raw observational intimacy and, violent act aside, not a drop of drama in sight, Alva resembles more a documentary than a fiction. This is underscored by Costa and his cinematographer Hugo Azevedo’s great eye for the tactile texture of the world: where Henrique’s psychology is a mystery and his history vague, neither of these things could be said about the camera’s description of his dark, cluttered home, the cutting board askew on the single table, a portable gas burner used for cooking, the smart color of the milk collector’s jacket, and the burnt out and hollowed ruins of the house on the hill above his shack. All these details, from the first part of the film, build a haptic world for the audience, one where temperature can be sensed, the texture of things felt, the smell of the mud, the taste of old stew. These dominating sensations get even more immersive and brought to the fore upon Henrique’s flight into the woods, a long sequence of very little plot action but an almost overwhelming amount of earthy sensations: dirt, twigs, dampness, tumbles and bruising, canopies of shadow, endless minor variations of green and brown, clothing torn and dirty. These are animal sensations that eclipse our concerns over who the shot person was or why they were shot, and instead the film doubles down on a materialist expressionism, where the domineering presence of the material world sublimates the individual personage of Henrique, showing how little he is, just how much frantic meat, a primal sense of isolation and disconnection, fear and guilt. Okay, yes, this story isn’t much, and those hoping, as I was, that at the end of the chase—if a man alone fleeing from his own conscience can be called a chase—there would be a denouement of some kind, will be left wanting. The ending is very ordinary. This man is very ordinary. His existence, though on the primitive end of the spectrum of civilization, is also ordinary. His crime is heinous but sadly, that too, is not so rare, especially for those who feel themselves outsiders and powerless. But what Alva does is bring within eye’s reach the sublimity of a world that cares not if one is ordinary; rather, it is for us to care how to live in it.