Venice, day nine. There’s something almost ineffably melancholic about watching a festival empty out. As I type these words, twenty-four hours or so before the awards will be announced, the press room I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time in, is now home to a smattering of survivors. The end is nigh, people are flocking home, and the jury led by Bong Joon-ho is busy picking this year’s winners somewhere on the island. It’s been a strange, uneven ride, with a lineup so front-loaded it was perhaps only natural that the fest’s second week wouldn’t live up to the sheen of the first few days. But the last stretch was still home to some belated surprises, among them, Jan P. Matuszyński’s Leave No Traces. A follow-up to his 2016 Locarno prizewinning The Last Family, Matuszyński’s second feature is based on an ignominious piece of Polish history. In May 1983, 19-year-old Grzegorz Przemyk was beaten to death by the Polish Civic Militia. His crime? Refusing to show his ID to a cop (an order he did not even have to obey, as the martial law had already been lifted). Grzegorz was arrested and taken into custody with friend and fellow student, Jurek (Tomasz Ziętek)—a fictional version of the real witness in the case. And it’s on Jurek’s shoulders that the film rests; Leave No Traces isn’t so much interested in trying to understand what exactly happened, or to find out those responsible for the tragedy, but to outline how the system sought to silence the backlash that followed, and discredit the young man’s version.
In that way, it’s a success. Based on Cezary Łazarewicz’s novel of the same name, and adapted for the screen by Kaja Krawczyk-Wnuk, Leave No Traces yields an autopsy of the state apparatus as it struggles with what a minister calls, in a wondrous understatement, “a slight public image problem.” Helmed by de facto dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish regime had already begun confronting new threats from civil society, chief among them the Solidarność trade union, which rallied thousands to Grzegorz’s funeral in the early 1980s. No background knowledge of these players is needed to savor Leave No Traces; the film never morphs into a history lesson. At its best, it thrums with an incendiary fury that brought me back to Costa-Gavras’s Z, another cry of rage and a fulminating investigation into a country’s shady past. Sure, the wounds Costa-Gavras was poking at were still unbearably vivid when Z came out (only six years had passed since its release and the high-profile murder it hones in on). Leave No Traces doesn’t enjoy the same temporal proximity or pulse-pounding rhythm, but it still bursts with the fury of an unavenged crime; Grzegorz’s killers were never brought to justice, a conclusion that feels inevitable long before Jurek finally makes it to court.
There’s no denying the gargantuan size and scope, or the some of the difficulties Matuszyński shows in keeping up the momentum. Clocking at two hours and forty minutes, Leave No Traces is a sprawling, meandering epic, a tale of countless subplots and subterfuges. Jurek may well be the centerpiece, but the film belongs to a handful of other characters—chief among them his father (Jacek Braciak) and Grzegorz’s mother Barbara (Sandra Korzeniak), whom Matuszyński posits as opposite gravitational forces in the moral battleground Jurek has to cross. But if the end result can sometimes feel disorienting, the film doesn’t get lost in its own material. Like Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, Matuszyński keeps a point of view above the events, and there’s something admirable in his implacable commitment to leave no stones unturned, as Leave No Traces dogs a whole platoon of people who made sure the truth behind Grzegorz’s death never saw the light of day. In a story that favors conversations over actions, Kacper Fertacz’s handheld long takes grace the proceedings with a febrile excitement, while the 16mm palette, coupled with Paweł Jarzębski’s fastidious production design, don credibility and vividness to the early 1980s Polish locale. Anchored as it may be to a temporally and geographically specific tragedy, the fervor Leave No Traces brims with is universal, its plea for justice ever topical. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking of George Floyd as the end credits rolled.
Echoes of a similar anger ricocheted from another official competition title, Audrey Diwan’s Happening. Based on Annie Ernaux’s 2000 novel of the same name, the film follows a young woman up against a calcified system that’s already decided which role she ought to play within it. The year is 1961, the place Angoulême, and the girl Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) a French Lit undergrad powering through her studies in hopes of one day becoming a professor too (“teachers recognize teachers,” a lecturer tells her halfway through). But the dreams are cut short by an unexpected pregnancy. With abortion still illegal in early 1960s France (something that would only be rectified in 1975), Anne must look for other avenues to solve her conundrum. And look she does, as Happening turns into a relentlessly infuriating exposé of the barriers the university student is up against, either shunned or outright deceived by the medics she visits (when one of them mutters “I can understand your motivations,” that’s about as close as the film gets to a moment of doctor-patient compassion).
What’s surprising about Happening isn’t so much its plotting—there’s very little you can’t predict about the increasingly harrowing beats here—but the subtle and illuminating ways in which Diwan and co-scribe Marcia Romano understand the toxic ramifications of the patriarchy they’re dissecting, and how those have metastasized across genders. If my notes don’t fail me, the word “abortion” is never actually uttered in the film, and what’s most striking and disarming is the extent to which its taboo-status has been internalized by those Anne summons for help. Even her two best friends Hélène (Luàna Bajrami) and Brigitte (Louise Orry-Diquero) shiver at the thought (“don’t ever joke about that,” the latter goes when Anne floats the possibility; once she realizes what Anne is dealing with, she’s the first to hiss, “you’re on your own”). Still, I fear that billing Happening as an abortion drama is both accurate and reductive, for the drama grows into a much larger discussion on desire itself. In 1961 France, that’s still unmistakably the province of men—and all transgressors are readily slut-shamed. But Diwan conjures some of her most intimate and delicate scenes when the film pulls the curtain on the girls’ own longings; in one, Brigitte opens up to her friends about her sex life, and the eroticism of the sequence teems with a liberating, exhilarating charge.
That’s of a piece with the film’s overall ethos. Happening works to outline and debunk the ossified power structures that made Anne’s plight possible, the system that candidly and unashamedly left her with no choice but to accept her condition and the narrowing of future choices it entailed. But it also seeks to open up a tiny, fragile space for solidarity between young women who could enjoy none in the public domain. I can’t gloss over some of the most excruciating scenes (two of which I could only watch through my fingers) but they do not exist for shock value alone—quite the opposite. Anne’s is a fight against her own body, and the unflinching ruthlessness of Diwan’s directing matches the brutality she inflicts upon it. Shooting in the boxy Academy Ratio, cinematographer Laurent Tangy achieves two effects, amplifying Anne’s growing entrapment while also aligning our p.o.v. with hers. And if Isabelle Pannetier’s penchant for pastel blue garments harkens back to the colors of Éric Rohmer, Happening avoids period trappings: this is not a historic reenactment, but a story told entirely in the present tense. It’s a paean to the ongoing fight for women’s reproductive rights, as timely now as it was then, which the film addresses without ever tipping into a manifesto. It’s a brutal, savage watch, but not a punishing one—not entirely, at least; in its own roundabout way, Happening crackles with a life-affirming energy that makes its coda all the more powerful, and its flickering empathy all the more indelible.
That same energy transpires through Rodrigo Plá and Laura Santullo’s The Other Tom, unveiled in the Orizzonti sidebar six years after Plá opened the section with his 2015 A Monster with a Thousand Heads. Long-term collaborators, the film marks the first time Plá and Santullo share writing and directing credits. Based on a novel penned by Santullo, it follows single mother Elena (Julia Chavez) as she tries to navigate a troubled relationship with her troubled only child Tom (Israel Rodriguez). Neglected by over-worked Elena and daydreaming of seeing his estranged father Julian (MIA for the past three years), the long-haired primary schooler hurtles through the film as a hellion prone to all kinds of violent tantrums. Unable to cope, Elena consults a doctor who instantly diagnoses Tom with ADHD and prescribes all manners of drugs. But the treatment only makes things worse, until a near-fatal accident needles Elena into a U-turn: awoken to the dangerous side effects of the meds the boy’s been guzzling, she decides he’ll no longer take any. It’s all too late.
The crippling anxiety that permeated A Monster—a hellish vision of Mexico’s health insurance bureaucracy—ripples on to Elena’s struggle. What kicks off as a low-key drama about a mother wrestling with a little troublemaker swells into a Kafkaesque nightmare once doctors and Child Protective Services get involved. “It’s a family decision,” she brays about her change of mind; “it’s negligence,” school teachers retort. Working with cinematographer Odei Zabaleta, Plá and Santullo achieve a visual style that reminded me of Michel Franco’s Sundown—glacial, static compositions where the fixed camera keeps mom and child at the center of the frame.
But The Other Tom is also deeply human, and in crafting a story that could have so easily tipped into self-pity and hyperboles, it achieves a feat akin to Diwan’s Happening: it earns its dramatic heights without ever feeling manipulative. Credit for that goes as much to the directors’ unobtrusive approach as to the film’s gripping lead performances. As a mother struggling to retain custody of her child, Chavez (to my knowledge, here in her acting debut) imbues equal parts desperation and determination in her turn as Elena, and the result is riveting. And in Rodriguez (also a newcomer), The Other Tom finds its greatest asset. His Tom seesaws between unhinged anger and flickering hope, with a dexterity that makes even the most saccharine exchanges feel nimble and heartfelt. There is genuine poignancy in his fears over a meds-free future (“The Tom on the pill was so much better than me,” he murmurs halfway through) and catharsis in the late moment of reconciliation between mom and child, the boy whispering, “when I say I hate you it’s only because I am angry.”
Hardly ambitious, The Other Tom’s narrative can be fairly formulaic—you’ve seen this story before, time and again, and it doesn’t take much effort to predict where Plá and Santullo will take you. But the idea of an ordinary person caught in a David vs. Goliath struggle against an uncaring system gives it a credible, emotional ballast. Though the scale may well be small, the film’s heart isn’t.