The gods wish to scare me, I think, for clearly in anticipation of this evening when our flat in this small Swiss town gains not one, not two but three new roommates, my entire day turned out to be dedicated to the terrors, doubts, and sadnesses of living in confined homes.
After Michael Cimino, the other Leopard of Honor the festival was bestowing this year is to another maverick of his nation, Italian master Marco Bellocchio. Bellocchio's latest film will premiere later this month in Venice, but Locarno has something just as good if not better: three 35mm prints from the director's last decade of work, plus a new restoration of 1965's I pugni ni tasca. The homage to the director has only just begun here, and is being led by 2003's Good Morning, Night, a rich, sequestered look at the political terror of Italy's Red Brigade in the 1970s in the form of a chamber drama of false domesticity: a small cadre of the terrorist revolutionaries kidnap former Christian Democrat Prime Minister Aldo Moro and hold him for hostage exchange in a generic Roman apartment. We see the mostly male group care for and interrogate the man, but our true protagonist and moral guide is the gang's sole female accomplice (the magnificent Maya Sansa) who has to build a false kind of home in this apartment: choose the flat, move into it, decorate, clean, live with the men, care for this elderly captive, and fake to neighbors and others that she is married, with child, and so on. In other words, pretend she is living a normal domestic life. Except, of course, all that is fake and the interior of that falseness is a burning question of how one actualizes one's politics, how far you take your beliefs, what you are willing to do and why. This false home, shadow shrouded, becomes a chamber not just of interrogation but of self-interrogation, one that brings dreams (seen as old movie footage), longing, and turmoil upon our heroine, and that forces her to re-think living in the world outside her radically refashioned "home."
Meanwhile, in the international competition, Chantal Akerman brazenly calls her new documentary No Home Movie, despite it consisting almost entirely of footage of her elderly mother in her home in Brussels. In this strict confinement, No Home Movie is shot digitally in a far more loose and imprecise technique than Akerman's film-films, but is still composed around the director's characteristic structural motifs of closed and open doors, windows, and other constricting frames within frames. With few external excursions (mysterious intercessions of footage of the Israeli desert, as well as Chantal, while traveling in anonymous hotel rooms, Skyping her mother), No Home Movie is a taut but patient observation of the emptying stillness of a home inhabited by someone getting older and sicker.
"Your camera, every time," her mother cluckingly, affectionately nags, when Akerman calls her only to reveal not her face in the Skype frame but her face covered by a giant digital camera, recording her mother's blurred image, at once distant and close. "I want to show how small the world is," the director replies, her mother not understanding. The mother's flat feels temporary, a large, impersonal space filled with very personal decor, and so Akerman's records of its rooms and doors, of her conversations with her mother about her past, and of her mother's movement around the space, feels transient, temporarily inhabited, a holding place before a transition to somewhere else. Her mother's time in Auschwitz is mentioned, as is Chantal's rejected Orthodox Jewish upbringing and her family's flight from Poland to Belgium, yet after all this lived history so little of it we see on screen in this woman's home. Nevertheless, much of it is felt in the absences in the vacated images, in the tottering mother's isolation, in the sense that Akerman herself is not fully connected to this woman, her history and her home.
A very intimate and raw essay, seeing it projected on the big screen at the sprawling cinema FEVI in front of a thousand-plus public crowd felt almost indiscreet, a far more private communication than the director's great News from Home. This is, in a way, the sequel or epilogue to that film, which was a correspondence between Akerman's images of New York and her mother's letters to her daughter abroad. In No Home Movie, the director returns home to again communicate with her mother, but the images are no longer for her, but rather feel a release, a relinquishment of this home to the audience.
No better double feature could be imagined than following No Home Movie with Marlen Khutsiev's 1983 film, his first in color, Epilogue (also known as Afterword), an adaption of a three page magazine story wherein a man's provincial father-in-law visits his Moscow apartment while his wife, the man's daughter, is away. For a director I've now associated through such films as I Am Twenty, July Rain and Infinitas as having a freely roving vision, it was a bit of surprise to encounter this chamber drama, which has echoes of Bergman's more confined, dreamlike films. Yet Khutsiev is more than up to this challenge, turning what could have been something stagey and theatrical (especially as Epilogue feature a well-known theatre actor as the babbling, comically invasive father-in-law) into something with far more expansive implications, as a series of ellipses blur just how long the old man stays with his son-in-law who receives his wife's father with barely hidden coolness and only increases in impatience and flights of antipathy.
The old World War 2 veteran's incessant, warm oversharing meets its match in the disinterest of this male epitome of his daughter's generation, and as days and nights seem to swim by, Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel is suggested in the inability for this new kind of Soviet yuppie to get rid of the kind of man who came before him. Part of the pleasure, of course, is seeing these actors have at it, Rostislav Plyatt's burly, irrepressible (but also indiscriminate) warmth and his comic intrusions make for an affable character, but such scenes as his remarkable memory of a battle anecdote from the war had us all holding our breath at the sudden, soulful tremors of history. Andrey Myagkov, who plays the son-in-law, has a character that on paper seems impossible to imagine as tolerable on screen, yet somehow with an infinite variety of expressions of polite disengagement, distain, irritation and annoyance, is transformed by Myagkov into a subtle play of variations on the emotional and intellectual attitude his generation have for their elders.
In his wife's absence, this man's home becomes a hollow shell of affluence and cultural, worldly sophistication signaled by its elaborate material decorations (more of Khutsiev's stellar precision in terms of the Soviet intellectual milieu). Invaded by a kind of ghost of his parents, the still-living phantom of an era barely a few decades old yet seemingly visiting from a vast distance of time and space, he is confronted again and again until he cannot ignore the man. In its essence, Epilogue takes the phantasmagoric confrontation of the young man with his deceased soldier father from I Am Twenty and expands that one scene into an entire drama, at once comic and sorrowful. Finally, crucially, this small, moving tale is narrated as the past from an indeterminate present, a present where Myagkov's intellectual yuppie addresses the camera directly, relating what he calls a life changing occurrence. And while we too live through this intimate yet fantastic confrontation of generations, Khutsiev cagily refrains from giving away the lesson, the “life changing” result: it is up to the audience to understand what could have changed, or indeed if anything even has.