Pretty pictures are one thing, good movies another. Two features at Abu Dhabi—Özcan Alper’s feature film debut Autumn and Ciro Guerra’s second film, The Wind Journeys—showcase growing visual talent greatly influenced by heavy-weights of contemporary Latin American cinema. It is always refreshing to see visual influence at work, especially influence from filmmakers’s contemporaries, as it suggests the successful circulation and impact of today’s great directors. But in an age where auteurism more often than not is sadly misconstrued by filmmakers as meaning they need to write their own pictures, these two features are just cases of how visual inspiration alone is not enough.
Autumn, the stronger of the two films, as Fernando F. Croce has observed, is coming form the Lisandro Alonso (Liverpool) school of dark hued, highly textured travels to rural hinterlands. Like Alonso’s Los muertos, Alper’s debut film follows a man released from prison who travels home, remaining disconnected and out of step with the world around him even as he sinks into his surroundings. There is a reason Alonso practices narrative minimalism, and that reason is evident in Autumn. The nuances of such simple journeys are expressed cinematically, not from a script’s pat symbolism and bland social equations. Whenever written ideas assert themselves in Autumn—be it the flashbacks to protests and prison which initially seem to creatively use archival video footage in contrast to Autumn’s 35mm, or the parallel malaise of a local prostitute who is drawn to the film’s hero—Alper reveals that his gift is one for atmosphere, not the construction of the film nor the expressing of ideas. It is cinema on a shot by shot basis, refusing to cohere because its mopey ex-con and mooning hooker are age-old clichés, ones which someone like Alonso would have granted a physical weight and mystery to combat and complicate the simple types. But the gift for atmosphere nearly makes Autumn. Alper sets his hero’s recovery in Hopa, Turkey, near the Georgian border, and the look is a unique one of autumnal, forested mountains, densely granular compositions of the brown/grey/green palette of the surrounding rainy, leafy hills, perennially in the murk of cloudy light. Its bland title notwithstanding, Alper’s debut carries one of the best evocations of the specific feel of a season in a very specific location, casting the film in a moist, hushed air of, ultimately, hackneyed and superficial malaise and melancholy.
The Wind Journeys also packs visual punch which gives some energy to its drawn-out runtime before the film reach the point, as all films of this kind do, where you realize the cinema isn’t generating ideas as much as it is perpetuating them. Swapping old gunfighters for accordion players in the Columbian Wild West, Ciro Guerra’s film follows the most basic bildungsroman/road-movie path, with its beleaguered old master (Marciano Martinez) who wants to give up “playing,” and his young follower/apprentice (Yull Nunez )—or maybe his son?!— who wants nothing more but to learn how to play. If the film wasn’t a welcome offspring of Carlos Reygadas’s (Silent Light) school of big, blocky widescreen compositions of colors, faces, and landscapes, The Wind Journeys’s tiresome and overlong pastiche might be harder to tolerate. But size seems a rare thing in movies these days, outside the work of Michael Bay and Reygadas, where the art-house trends towards an intimate kind of "contemplative cinema." So while nothing of human, artful inspiration ever really occurs in The Wind Journeys—despite its myriad of accordion “duels,” drum-playing manhood rituals, and reticent old sagey-ness—its chunky claim of the Columbian landscape in the name of cinema is of welcome scale.
Something needs to be at stake for a picture to touch you, to say something. A strong visual sense alone cannot introduce a value to the world to put in danger. That takes ideas. But Autumn and The Wind Journeys are halfway there, as ideas are dead on arrival without the cinematics to animate them to life. Their directors are ones to watch, in the future, especially if they open up their visual world to the ideas of collaborators.