I also shared your experience of being welcomed by the calm of Jafar Panahi’s new picture after the all-out assault of Gaspar Noé’s nightmarish party film. 3 Faces, as you imply, uses a scintillating premise—the investigation of a possible suicide by an aspiring young actress, carried out personally by the filmmaker and star actress Behnaz Jafari who are morally blackmailed into being responsible—to make down-to-earth observations about the interaction between these famed city artists and the provincial village in which they search. Leaving cosmopolitan Tehran behind, the two find themselves facing the prejudices of the countryside against art-making: the young actress being heckled by her family and community for her aspirations, and, pointedly, a retired star from “before the Revolution” lives in seclusion on the outskirts. Most villagers (at least the male ones) are more focused on practical improvements of life for those who live there. (Upon their arrival, no one recognized Panahi, and Jafari is initially mobbed for autographs by a crowd that immediately disperses when they realize she has not come to bring new services to the village.) After solving the mystery of the missing girl, the two spend the night there, she in the house of the retired star, Panahi alone in his car. As you mention, the car story, which rarely wanders more than a few paces from this mobile prison (Panahi is still banned from filmmaking and cannot leave Iran) and countryside focus of the film (as well as many other details) suggest an homage to the late Abbas Kiarostami. The ultimate mystery that Panahi and Jafari may be looking for in this mildly allegorical film is just what meaning their work has to the world outside themselves, what inspiration it brings, what purpose it serves, and what its legacy is. These are some of the same questions that Godard asked, in his own way, in The Image Book earlier at the festival.
Another car film and one of even greater minimalism, Ognjen Glavonic’s The Load, the Serbian director’s fictional debut after two documentaries, also uses a road trip and a mostly silent and introspective driver, Vlada (Leon Lučev), to explore questions of his nation. The setting is 1999 during the Yugoslavian war and Vlada makes ends meet by driving an unmarked cargo by truck wherever his bosses tell him. What’s in the truck he isn’t told and doesn’t ask—he’s only only instructed, ominously, not to stop on his route from Kosovo to Belgrade. This reticence continues in Vlada’s demeanor, just doing his job with as few words as possible, and also continues in Glavonic’s film, with its austere focus on the uneventful journey, minor anecdotes between those who cross Vlada’s path (a hitchhiking youth, a wedding at a roadside restaurant, his commander’s late night female escort), a few vestiges and reminders of the Yugoslavian role in the Second World War, and the drab beige landscape passing by.
My first thought was, of course, of Henri-George Clouzot’s Wages of Fear and William Friedkin’s remake, Sorcerer, but it seems unlikely that Vlada is carrying the precarious explosives that make the the journeys in those films so tense. This trip instead has the foreboding quality of a sunless morning and grimy banality of sinister acts cloaked by war’s chaos. It isn’t hard to speculate that evidence of horrors rather than tools of terror are what is being secretly moved across the land. (For those familiar with Glavonic’s previous film, Depth Two, the cargo should be more obvious, as that film is about the transporting of murdered bodies during the war.) When the job is done, Vlada returns to his family for a break and we finally find out more about him, and are able to put his mercenary job in perspective with his father’s fight against the Nazis and his son’s generational distance from what Vlada is doing to keep his family fed. A film of modest means but grim force, The Load has that rare quality of dramatizing not the obvious evils of a conflict, but the torturous grey zone of how survival can implicate participation.
Despite the buzz about cultural or institutional changes in cinema this year, the competition of the Cannes Film Festival, where 3 Faces premiered, is still featuring the work of only three female directors. It is difficult to precisely blame the programmers for this paucity: of course, it’s impossible to know what movies were finished and therefore what was possible to select. It is certain that the issue of greater equality lays above all in what films are being produced rather than what films are being programmed, as the latter is only able to follow the advances of the former. Blame can lay more directly in what was selected rather than what was not: For example, that one of those three films was Eva Husson’s amateurish, manipulative, and maudlin Girls of the Sun feels like the worst kind of pandering to the audience.
A proper competition selection could be found in Alice Rohrwacher’s easy-going fable Happy as Lazzaro. Told in the same beguiling mixture of bumpy, casual realism and off-hand magic as this Italian director’s previous feature, The Wonders, it also continues that film’s theme on the difficulty of maintaining pastoral work and life in a modern Italy. Something feels mysteriously off in the film from the start: Taking place in a ramshackle farm and estate, the automobiles seem to be from the 1950s and the clothing appears a dateless mix of the modern and of the 19th century, if not older. A sprawling enclave of laborers struggle to live there, and when the estate manager arrives we realize why: The whole group is being bamboozled into thinking that sharecropping still exists, and they live in veritable slavery to a “Marchesa.” This dilemma is shown in what now feels, after three films, like Rohrwacher’s signature style of deceptively haphazard creation of her world, dosed loosely and with subtly surreal touches. Shot on film with a great eye towards texture—aqua blue skies, sage green brush, the feeling of sun, stone, leaves, hay, clothing—and no goal towards evenness, at the onset the film feels pleasurably gawky, a rural oddball and charming in its strange occurrences. Most strange of all is Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a wide-eyed naïf on the estate whose sweet nature, unfailing generosity and tireless work ethic sees him casually exploited by owners and slaves alike. Lazzaro is both the film’s hero and its emblematic example of Rohrwacher’s approach, a flourish of the fantastic amid, in this case, tactile feudal exploitation.
But Happy as Lazzaro has even more up its sleeves. Lazzaro improbably makes friends with the Marchesa’s haughty son, who runs away from their villa into the surrounding hills causing the police to arrive, discover his mother’s crimes, and release the people into the city. Lazzaro misses all this upheaval because he accidentally falls down a cliff face, is saved by a fairy tale wolf, and wakes up something like 20 years later, unchanged. He finds the estate abandoned and his old comrades now living in squalor in the nearby city, absorbed into a capitalist modernity that has little use of such people: the scandal of the sharecropping ruins the aristocrats and their slaves alike. Lazzaro is recognized by them all, provoking bizarrely nonplussed reactions at his agelessness, except for one of the estate’s young girls, now grown up into Alba Rohrwacher. In a further gesture of the film’s off-hand peculiarity, we see such children from the estate now aged into adulthood, but some of the adults seem the same age as before. Lazzaro is easily absorbed into the group, who make money hustling and stealing; he stumbles across the Marchesa's platinum-blonde son, now a middle-aged charlatan, and resumes his earlier life of carefree assistance and incorruptibility in this new world at this new time.
Fellini might take such a situation and turn it into a giddy cavalcade of debasement, irony and idealism, and a lesser director would make this all very whimsical and quirky, but Rohrwacher resolutely turns this surprisingly high concept tale into something calmer, less pretentious, and organically unkempt. (With the death of Ermanno Olmi last week, it's hard not to think of Happy as Lazzaro as closer to his cinema.) We feel a bit lost in this world, the old one of the countryside and the current one of the city, pleasurably off-kilter and unsure exactly when or where we are and, most crucially, what determine the rules of the world everyone is living in beyond brutal economics. This is where Happy as Lazzaro achieves its blurry but moving critique of human values, and values of community, degraded by exploitation. Lazzaro wanders through these landscapes as the eras seemingly pass (or maybe don’t at all), an innocent with open eyes and without judgment, and the tragic thing about this softly comic film is that few recognize his eminence.
So far the competition of the Cannes Film Festival has been somewhat shapeless, but these films by Panahi and Rohrwacher are welcome inspiration, films of modest stories achieving gentle, mysterious grandeur.
And what has been inspiring you, Lawrence?