Early this morning I left the cinema from one film on the way to another when a friend said why not this instead of that? Since nothing was driving me in my original direction more than curiosity, and my friend's own sparked more than enough for this other possibility, my path was diverted, as can happen so serendipitously at a film festival. And indeed I owe my friend thanks, as what I saw, Thithi, the debut feature by 25-year-old independent Indian director Raam Reddy, is the best new film I've so far seen in Locarno.
Its beginning already promised greatness: a crumpled down, cranky old man sits in his village thoroughfare hilariously heckling and insulting every man, woman and child passing him by, each of whom pay him no mind. Walking to the nearest alley to relieve himself, this venerable citizen keels over, sending the story after his elderly son, a kind of carefree village fool with a magnificent grey beard and deep-seated preference for wandering walks, whisky drinking and irreverent disappearances, his son, who wants to secure his grandfather's property before his uncles sneak it away under the indifferent nose of his father, and the son's son, a youth bristling under his father's casual scheming and in love with a stern and unresponsive local shepherdess. The scope, you see, is wide and encompassing; using all non-actors, we get an casually large and generous portrait of a Kaanadan village in Southern India, one without the guile to condemn any of the attitudes or actions of its cast, whether money-grubber, moneylender, gambler, foulmouth, or daft family member. A film that is funny, humane, and seemingly effortless, this young director has coaxed from a massive cast and a specific setting a great deal of character, an evocation of a locality and its society, and wrapped it all in a Renoirian understanding of human behavior. The film is a real pleasure.
The international competition here has, so far, not been a bounty of pleasures (Thithi, which deserves to be competing, is in the Cineasti del presente section), though I've also missed some well-buzzed pictures I hope to catch up with soon. In most of what I've seen there has been more promise than fulfillment, and Te prometo anarquía (I Promise You Anarchy), by Mexican-Guatemalan-American director Julio Hernández Cordón, exemplifies this. With his background in blending documentary origins with fictional storytelling (like 2010's Marimbas of Hell), this new feature feels the result of immersion into a real world milieu, namely Mexico City's skater culture.
The urban skating scene there and no doubt around the world is rife with fantastic specificities of clothing, body movement, social interaction, class-crossing, and, surprisingly in this film, of homosexuality and bisexuality. The transformation of what is clearly documentary research into fiction, the dominant trend in the festival world and art cinema these days, here bares beautiful fruit with the quotidian details of language, behavior, drama and banality of these skaters in the film's first section. Focused around two late teens who are lovers, one rich and one poor (in fact, one the son of the other's family maid), we see lovemaking and quarreling, petty conniving, drug use and skating tricks aced and fouled. Audaciously, Cordón then challenges this observational mode by colliding his two slacker lovers with even more "reality," namely how how their small crimes suddenly, briefly and irrevocably engulf them in a cartel plot well beyond their control and their morals. It is a risky and respectable development but unfortunately sends what was a mostly organic story down a path towards schematic, inevitable results, a path which retroactively makes much of the film's world—skaters, high and low classes mixing, conflicted homosexuals, differing scales of criminal activity—feel more self-consciously like a blend of research interests than something that feels true, connected and whole.
I liked the clever interplay of the new Otar Iosseliani movie in the competition, a director considered a master I have only passing familiarity with, but Chant d'hiver, among other minor issues, was beset by a curious problem common of some European art-house films made by major filmmakers in the 2000s and 2010s. I associate it with older filmmakers—I'm thinking off-hand of Chabrol and Ruiz but there are many others examples, including Cosmos in this festival—who like the camera at a bit of a remove and whether shooting film or video sometimes end up making images that look cheaply spare, highly lit and artificial, like some bad television drama or a Jacques Rivette homage gone awry. Whether the blame for this lays in certain film stock or in some instances digital video or digital intermediaries, I don't know. Long take, long shot filmmakers like Iosseliani seem most plagued by this sensation, and where celluloid normally adds a texture or layer to what is being staged in front of the camera that makes the resulting images feel consecrated and fixed, in some of these particular films the resulting texture is strangely documentary-like, as if you are watching something being filmed live on TV. Yet in terms of mise en scène, I love the Iosseliani method: drama and shot selection as a kind of relay hand-off, a main character heading off one side of the frame to appear in the background in the next shot, or an action or prop leading from one scene to the other. It is philosophically the kind of montage of causality Fritz Lang pioneered in the 1920s, where each edit seems to call the next into being, the next then saying yes I am here because of what preceded and led us here.
I hope I don't sound like a broken record—or whatever the proper analogy is for reading the same thing over again—but indeed by the end of the day it was Locarno's retrospectives that came swinging. The festival kept me waiting two days for the next infusion of my major discovery of Marlen Khutsiev, and to my great relief 1966's July Rain confirmed Infinitas and I Am Twenty as no mere bookending career flukes; this film, too, is a powerful testament to living in the Soviet Union, and not as an young or old man but rather a 30-year-old woman (the tremendous Evgeniya Uralova, who in some scenes seems 20 and in others, 40).
What story there is seems hard to describe; the film is more like a series of incidents among a milieu of intellectuals, students, teachers, and writers, during which the woman quietly evaluates her steadfast and seemingly perfect boyfriend, all the while being quietly pressured about marriage by her widowed mother (yet another missing father in Khutsiev), and the somewhat fantastical appearances of a phone calls from a young stranger who lent her a jacket during a rainstorm. The opening scenes, tracking shots of busy Moscow sidewalks, pick this woman out of the crowd—we look at her, she finds and returns our glance—and so her no doubt very normal romantic, family and social life comes under our gaze. The tour she gives us through this brief time in her life, and especially during many elaborate group gatherings—a party, a big cafe hang out, a camping trip—practically feel like an anthropology of such people at such a time. These observations—done in the director's first use of widescreen, brilliantly arranging his frames and decoupage with the adroitness of contemporary Japanese 'scope masters—are anchored by the subtle, moving consideration and self-consideration of the heroine. If the movie lacks the pizazz of I Am Twenty it is because our heroine is not 20 years old, is no longer turning things over in her mind but really and truly asking herself—and occasionally the men around her—hard questions of adulthood, of living with people, of living in society. Suddenly and provocatively the question of living as an adult in Russia is not a question for men, as it is in I Am Twenty and thirty years later in Infinitas, but a question for women. As Hong Sang-soo tells us, woman is the future of man.
Sometimes one should not end one's evening with subtlety, not as a cracking thunderstorm snapped over us during July Rain, and, of course, a torrent followed. We had to crank things up to match the atmosphere, and Michael Cimino was there to assist. The recipient of the festival's Leopard of Honor award, they are showing a handful of films, though sadly not all, by this woe-begotten American legend whose absence from feature filmmaking since 1996's The Sunchaser (not at the festival) has created a resounding emptiness equalled only by the contemporaneous marginalization of Monte Hellman.
Cimino stepped in front of us to present 1985's Year of the Dragon in grand and appropriate form, a slim mandarin shaded behind gigantic black glasses and shaking hands with the front row like a rock star. I wish he would have stayed to discuss this completely unique piece of American filmmaking, a kind of meeting place between the anthropological, poetic and genre worlds of Michael Mann, Abel Ferrara, and Francis Ford Coppola. A troubling, engrossing mix of complete pulp and grandiose grandstanding about gang wars in New York's Chinatown and a Vietnam vet (Mickey Rourke) turned maverick cop's efforts to prove the existence of and then violently smash the Triads, one could hardly point to another film as ridiculously, vividly and offensively cartoonish or one as sublimely dedicated to reality in all its granular, effortful detailing of language, environment, underworlds, and profession.
Year of the Dragon exists as a brother in an improbable spectrum containing Big Trouble in Little China and Bad Lieutenant, and you could hear, again and again, the audience gasp and titter, startle and gape at this...this thing of cinema. "What was that?," my neighbor asked me when the credits rolled. "Most of the people in the film are not professionals, they are Chinese off the street... All of the people that were in the movie I still know, except for those young gangsters that went to jail...died in jail...some are now running banks, some are very successful, but they are all great. I hope you love it as much as we loved making it," was all Cimino would playfully say by way of introduction. Come back, Michael, let's talk about your film!