The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Fernando F. Croce, Kelley Dong, and editor Daniel Kasman.
Dear Danny and Kelley,
Funny you mention a good night’s sleep in your last piece, Danny, as that’s a friend I have yet to meet during festivals. Fears of being late to screenings or behind on my coverage often keep me from enjoying a truly refreshing slumber, while the adrenaline of the environment keep my eyes wide open during the daily dash from title to title. As a result, there are times when I’m not quite sure if a moment or a scene or a whole movie is real or if I’ve dreamt it. The Platform, for instance, lingers like a nightmare brought on by indigestion. Given that Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s vicious sci-fi parable traffics in food, vertiginous fluctuations and hellish repetition, however, a nightmare might just be the intended effect. Indeed, its protagonist, Goreng (Ivan Massague), is introduced waking up to find himself in the film’s dystopian setting, a multi-level prison nicknamed The Pit. His cellmate, Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor), doubles as a mordant guide for the place’s rules: An opulent feast, prepared at the very top of the edifice, makes its way down from cell to cell, giving occupants a few minutes to dig in. Every month, the inmates change levels at random. (The characters are currently on Level 48.) Each of them gets to choose an item to hang on to; Goreng has a volume of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Trimagasi prefers a self-sharpening knife.
Caustic and claustrophobic, The Platform ruthlessly milks its central metaphor of regimented verticality. Variously paired in the literal upstairs-downstairs structure with a compassionate government worker (Antonia San Juan) and an eager fugitive (Emilio Buale), the protagonist has the dilemma of either wallowing in the savagery or becoming an agent of change. Set aside a plate for the level under you, or piss on the rest of the food. “Self-management,” as the shadowy authorities behind The Pit describe its purpose. Cannibalism may wait in the lower zones, but madness starts at the top. Can solidarity bloom in an eat-or-be-eaten spiral? The theme is blunt, and so is the image—compact and stark, a square of brutalist concrete that gathers splatters of blood, grub, and shit. Gaztelu-Urrutia intensifies the confined spaces with looming close-ups and jagged montages, and introduces a wild-card element in the mysterious young woman (Alexandra Masangkay) who moves between floors like a vengeful spirit. Ultimately, as one character puts it, “the important thing is the message.” Blatant ideas and symbols are underlined, political pungency is diluted with religious implication. (Emaciated and hawk-nosed, Massague’s Goreng starts out resembling the knight of La Mancha and ends up a gore-soaked Messiah.) The film is not without bursts of grungy, visceral energy, but as a Ballardian scald it is as bare as the elevator banquet once it finally reaches the basement.
A gentler variety of class commentary informs Sandra Kogut’s Three Summers, where the extensive white-collar corruption exposed by Brazil’s Operation Car Wash serves as a launching pad for a warm comedy of proletarian hustle. The first of the eponymous summers, set in Rio during Christmas 2015, could be subtitled “Before.” In it, a sense of unperturbed abundance ripples through a vast vacation home as multiple generations of a wealthy clan are gathered for holiday celebrations. The mistress of the house gets misty-eyed over an anniversary video montage, the teenage scion gets ready to move abroad, dances and games and karaoke matches fill the air. Running the festivities from behind the scenes is the head housekeeper, Madá (Regina Casé), who keeps everything in check while nursing her dream of opening a roadside kiosk of her own. About the only obliquely dissonant element is a string of mysterious calls clogging up the patriarch’s cellphone. An extramarital affair, or something more… illegal? If the film’s opening section suggests a rowdier version of Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours, the second, taking place one year later, lightly evokes Joseph Losey’s The Servant in its view of plebeian mice at play while the bourgeois cat is away. With the abrupt disappearance of their bosses right before a police raid, Madá and the rest of the workers find themselves without pay in the confiscated mansion. Champagne and swimming pools help cool their impatience, and point the way to a bright idea.
Taking the family yacht out for a spin with tourists, Madá points to the many luxurious homes left vacant by owners under investigation—the ones in good condition, she says, belong to either gringos or soccer players. Like much of Three Summers, it’s a buoyant spin on a bitter joke, a shot of outrage leavened by hope. That mix of resourcefulness and humor in the face of a systemic screwing is vitally embodied by Casé, a sly comedienne whose persona has long embodied working-class earthiness. (As a boy watching ‘80s Brazilian sitcoms, I remember her playing several early versions of Madá.) Her blitheness is nicely complemented by the grave prickliness of Rogério Fróes, who, as the patriarch’s elderly father, shifts gradually from unfirm befuddlement—he has a marvelous scene midway through, stranded in a cabana during a downpour and wandering where he went wrong with the son now caught in a scandal—to eager cohort in the heroine’s schemes. (“Sometimes I think I was born too early,” he marvels when discovering the online resources that can turn an abandoned villa into an Airbnb community.) Kogut’s graceful touch grows heavier in the third and final segment, which finds Madá’s entrepreneurial foxiness momentarily cracked by tragic personal revelations. There’s nevertheless genuine poignancy to the tenacious optimism shared by film and protagonist alike, an optimism that looks pointedly vulnerable in Brazil’s current political climate.
The historical aftershocks noted by Patricio Guzmán’s The Cordillera of Dreams also reverberate through Andrés Wood’s Spider, a different reckoning with Chile’s violent past. The genre this time is not the documentary but the thriller, a continuous shuttling between people and time periods in order to refute a character’s ominously complacent quip: “Nobody reads history books.” When a brutal act of vigilantism leads the police to grizzled ex-soldier Gerardo (Marcelo Alonso), a tangle of sinister connections begins to emerge—piles of weapons are found in the old man’s home, and an illustrious businesswoman named Inés (Mercedes Moran) becomes determined to keep him locked up in a mental institution. Flashbacks establish the darkness shared by the would-be strangers, with Gerardo the young hothead (Pedro Fontaine) recruited into a group of right-wing agitators by Inés (María Valverde) and her beau Justo (Gabriel Urzúa) in the early 1970s. Gallivanting through town like a fascist Jules and Jim, the trio start rumbles with political opponents, set fires and explosions, and basically set the stage for the arrival of Pinochet’s murderous regime. A martyr is needed for their cause, and Gerardo volunteers for the fake death and disappearance. Back in the present, his sanity is examined by a suspicious nurse (María Gracia Omegna) while Inés struggles with an alcoholic Justo (Felipe Armas) and her own unsettled emotions for her former confederate.
Maybe it’s the air of heavy portent or the determinism of the structure, or maybe it’s the manner Alonso, in his glasses and snowy beard, bears a distracting resemblance to Michael Haneke. Whatever the reason, Spider (the title refers to the arachnoid emblem worn by members of Patria y Libertad, a real-life ultra-nationalist group) is the most Teutonic Latin American film I’ve seen. There’s more than a hint of Caché to its exhumed conspiracies and perverse passions and fractures in comfortable modern lives. The 1970s past, familiar to Wood from his semi-autobiographical Machuca, is filmed in rich nocturnal tones that embody tension and allure; the present, by comparison, is as ashen and antiseptic as a faded memory, its most vibrant sequence but a queasy setup for a domestic terrorist attack. Even as elements of revenge and amour fou are incorporated into the narrative, Spider remains curiously tame, setting up intriguing labyrinths for audience identification and then putting up directions in billboards. The reconsideration of an ethos, the rekindling of an affair, sin and guilt and inquiry—things that should jostle fluidly on screen are instead indicated notionally, rigidly. By the time the film reaches its concluding note of pat irony, it feels so pinned down that "Butterfly" might be a more apt title.