REVIEW: New York Film Festival 2019, Part 1
New York City — The press screenings at the 57th New York Film Festival have been underway for two weeks now, with one week to go. This year, however, the scheduling is imbalanced, with the big U.S. productions withheld till the end, presumably at Netflix and Amazon’s behest. So my columns are a bit imbalanced as well. I will get to the new films by Olivier Assayas and Noah Baumbach as well as the Korean film “Parasites” in my second installment, as soon as those films are screened.
Of the many I have already seen, a particularly affecting and beautiful film for me is the Spanish language film “Pain and Glory” by one of the world’s great directors, Pedro Almodovar. Almodovar’s work has gotten better, deeper, more magical over the years. “All About My Mother” (1999), “Talk to Her” (2002) and “The Skin I Live In” (2011) have filled me with wonder and the sense of something uncannily brilliant. Now, at age 70 and white-haired, Almodovar has returned to an actor he has worked with so well in his early films, Antonio Banderas, to create a man very much like himself, a filmmaker who has felt himself at a dead end and who has complaints of multiple bodily ailments and psychological distress. All this is conveyed with a charming lightness of touch, flamboyant use of color and lively graphics. The film moves back and forth from an opening image of Salvador suspended in water to images of his sunlit childhood and the remarkable child he was, with his beloved mother played by Penelope Cruz. Particularly moving is the visit of an old lover of Salvador’s to the now solitary gay man; also his talk with his mother at the end of her life, acknowledging that he could not be the son she wanted him to be, could only be what he was; and also the boy’s stunned response to the sight of a bathing worker’s beautiful body. The film watches this man, who is now feeling old and unable to make the films that are what he lives for, find his way back to that work and to life itself. Almodovar has never made a better film than this.
Age also figures heavily in Martin Scorsese’s new film “The Irishman,” which just started its commercial showing in New York. Only Netflix was willing to support this film, so it will have a short run in theaters and then turn up on the small screen (not the best place to see it). It’s very long (three and a half hours), but such are the skills of this director that you are totally captivated the whole time. Scorsese, now 76, goes back to the Mafia and to his familiar actors after many years. De Niro plays the central character, a real person, Frank Sheeran, a World War II combat veteran who becomes a trucker and then a hitman for the Mafia as well as a Teamsters union leader. The film derives from a book titled “I Heard You Paint Houses,” a biography of Sheeran and his close relationships with a mob boss named Russell Bufalino, played with quiet authority by a controlled Joe Pesci, and Jimmy Hoffa, head of the Teamsters, played with great bombastic flair by Al Pacino. Sheeran, just as he methodically shot German POWs during the war after ordering them to dig their own graves, moves seamlessly and without a moment of self-questioning into loyally carrying out the killings the mob asks him to do. The violence, though, is at a distance, business-like and matter-of-fact. There is so much more to be said about this film, but everyone will be hearing a lot about it so I won’t go on much longer. But I should note the “Citizen Kane”-like structure framed by De Niro’s voiceover from a nursing home, and also structured around a 1975 car trip to a wedding that keeps us continually going back on the road, life’s journey — and then to all kinds of events in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s heyday of the mob and its intertwining with unions and politicians — it’s a big canvas. Scorsese, at the press conference with his actors, talks fluently and with his usual great intelligence about his process, especially about a new digital de-aging technique that allowed him to easily take the actors back and forth in time. But what I would have really loved him to talk about is why he returns again and again to this mean and brutal world, with nothing redemptive, now pretty much defunct, in this film almost entirely male, and without making a judgment. In fact, at the press conference, Scorsese actually referred to Sheeran, unruffled killer of scores, unquestioning follower of orders, as a good man. This question applies to De Niro, as well, since it’s he who brought this project to Scorsese and who really wanted it. Perhaps he found something very moving about the self-restraint of the man who does what he is told or what he “has to do” even if it means the betrayal of a friend, a kind of male heartbreak that never gets put into words. But perhaps that’s not a question it’s fair to ask of artists. Further, the quieter, more distancing tone of this film — which feels like a culmination of Scorsese’s work with this milieu — gives you room for reflection, and you can see how the ferocious struggles for power resonate with what we hear from the horrible news every day, the willingness to do anything, the stoicism of just getting it done and done efficiently — all metaphorical in many ways. I do ask myself why I should sympathize with such a man, but I have no doubt that the film itself is a beautifully made masterwork.
Marco Bellocchio’s “The Traitor,” another Mafia story but with a intensely moral center, is riveting to watch even at tow and a half hours long, totally enjoyable and satisfying. This is a film I know people in this area would really like, and hopefully the fact that it’s in Italian won’t keep it out of the Triplex. It, too, is built on a real life story, of the 1984 informing to the government by one of the Cosa Nostra, Tommaso Buschetta, played by the excellent Pierfrancesco Favino. The film opens on a celebratory party/meeting of two Mafia families in Palermo (which we are told all the world’s heroin passes through), celebrating an agreement to divide up the huge profits that come from this business. But massacres follow, in the street and in church, at weddings and baptisms, at lovemaking: All through sensual scenes of the joy of life, the huge numbers of the killed are mounted as actual numbers on the screen. The central character of Buschetta, who has moved his family to Rio but left two sons behind in Sicily who are slaughtered (one a heroin addict), decides to commit the ultimate forbidden act of informing in 1984. The film follows him, an authoritarian stoical figure who never confides in his beautiful wife, and his growth to a kind of redemptive nobility. The courtroom scenes are extraordinary, a madhouse circus, as he is cursed by all — and the individual exchanges in court where his steady truthfulness is pitted against lies and animal brutality — somehow all expands into a rich picture of the intransigence of this horrific destructive institution, how deeply rooted it is, the insistence on sustaining it and destroying anyone who threatens it. It’s not only the poor who do so, the mean and ignorant, but also the president of the state himself. There’s a feeling of fratricide, killing old friends, killing the young that they caressed as children. And yet there are extraordinary heroic people like the prosecutor Falcone, a real-life hero who knew the risks he was taking but had to do the right thing anyway and was himself murdered for doing so. The film flows through all this, with gorgeous shots of Rio through windows, of ancient Italian streets, of tigers pacing in zoo cages. It moves fluidly through time as well as space, with flashbacks, and big rich visuals: scenes of dancing punctuated with the mowing down of people, as the camera casually seeks out a statue of the Virgin on a wall, encircled with flowers, holding a skull. Even for someone like me who would rather not see violence on the screen, Bellocchio conveys this world in all its brutality but leaves you with a sense of beauty, wisdom and humanity. He does this in an operatic, large way, supported by a lush musical underpinning. He’s another old guy, close to 80 now, some of us cut our film-going teeth on his early startling “Fist In the Pocket” and “China Is Near.” Then some wild, sometimes quite mad-seeming films followed, and I, for one, lost sight of him for decades. Who would have thought that, of all the great Italian directors of his generation, it would be he who would live so long and produce so much and end with such a triumph?
“Synonyms,” French-language but written and directed by the Israeli director Nadav Lapid, is not a film likely to be widely available because it presents difficulties for a general audience. But it turns out that it and “Young Ahmed” (discussed below) will be shown briefly in October in Chatham at FilmColumbia at the Crandell Theatre, and that “Synonyms” will also be shown at Walter Reade after the festival is over. Winner of the top prize at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival, its central character Yoav, played by an excellent Tom Mercier, has fled Israel for Paris, refusing his origins and his language. This is not the Paris one loves, but a place of menacingly speeding noisy cars and estrangement everywhere. Yoav, taking a bath in a temporary empty apartment, is robbed of everything he was carrying and, naked and freezing, bangs on doors that don’t open until a young couple befriends him. It’s a film about an attempt to start over again in a different world, but given recent terrible Jewish experiences in France, the choice of Paris is itself fraught. The film is ambitious, bold and difficult but full of fascinating moments. The camera images are wild and raw, violently passionate and startling. There are cinematic echoes from other, great films: Yoav’s borrowed coat, for me, evokes Brando’s in “Last Tango in Paris” — and there’s full-frontal male nudity and sexual explicitness here, too. In one striking scene, another young Israeli man deliberately puts on a skullcap in a metro car and leans belligerently into people’s faces, proclaiming that he is Jewish and humming Hatikvah loudly — reminiscent of the subway scene at the end of Haneke’s “Code Unknown,” with Arab men intimidating a metro car full of frightened French people including Juliet Binoche. But that it’s a Jew who does this is startling. The film deals with questions of Jewish and Israeli identity in a unique way. It’s a complicated film and only a really lengthy discussion could do it justice. Sometimes it feels like it’s dealing with madness. At the same time, Yoav justifies his estrangement as no different from the earlier Jewish worlds his grandfather and father cut themselves off from. When doors close on him again at the film’s end, he cries out affectingly, “You are sending me back to a country whose fate is sealed,” and the film’s final image is of him throwing his full body weight against his friend’s closed door over and over and over again. In accepting top prize in Berlin, the director emphasized the existential, rather than political, nature of the film’s struggle, and also that the intensity of the struggle makes clear the depth of his attachment to his country. While “Synonyms” deliberately has a disturbing and difficult style, the roughness and abrupt cuts are often effective. I think this film is well worth making an effort to see.
“Young Ahmed,” for which Belgian directors the Dardenne brothers won the Best Director award at Cannes this year, is a straightforward but chilling look at a young Muslim boy of perhaps 13, who reveres the example of his martyred terrorist cousin and is a fanatic follower of a neighborhood imam. The anguish of his horrified French mother, the resentment of his sister, eventually the kind professional people who try to help him all are entirely unable to get through. As a film it’s flat, too flat and narrow, but its concerns, of course, are of great current interest. Though Ahmed is not seen as a monster, the film provides no sympathy for him, just the chill of such young people in our midst.
“Beanpole,” an award-winning film by young Russian director Kantemir Balagov, concerns the terrible cost of war on those who survive it, in this case the battles around Leningrad during World War II. The film focuses on the aftermath, particularly for two women, both beautiful and strange and complexly entwined. Iya, nicknamed Beanpole, is very tall and very blonde and suffers from a kind of PTSD taking the form of freezing in place. Masha’s war wounds are stranger still. These two characters are not easily grasped but they feel real, as does the worn older doctor they work with at a veterans’ hospital where the ex-servicemen laugh and banter but many have grievous wounds casually revealed. The film moves through it all with such mastery, such gorgeous camera work — of beautiful expressive faces, of the settings — even in the confined spaces of rooms cut up from grand but butchered old structures where the walls are the color of faded blood. A child figures into this in a very painful way, and Masha’s desire for a child is one of the central themes. One sitting can’t begin to get at all that is going on in this rich piece of work, but it is enough to make clear that this director contains brilliance and it will be exciting to see where he goes from here.
Another film made by a young and talented director to watch for in the future is “Fire will Come” by Olivier Laxe, a wonderfully made Spanish film, beautiful to look at but also enigmatic, shot in a gorgeous mountain area where the love of nature is evident in every frame. The film reveals a very simple poor life, which, to our eyes, is rich in beauty. The hero, just out of serving two years in prison for arson, has a weathered face you couldn’t call handsome and we can only begin to surmise his story, but when he and his very old mother (whose house and farm he returns to) walk with their cows along a steep winding path surrounded by mountains, the trees they move among are all so present, as are the gentle-eyed cows and the dog. There is beauty as they simply move around each other in an old kitchen with an ancient-looking stove, silently cooking an egg. The director was himself raised in this area and the sense of authenticity and earthiness is richly and satisfyingly conveyed.
Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” is a quiet, gentle film set in her favored area, the Pacific Northwest, in the 1820s. She did an earlier film, “Meek’s Cutoff,” bringing a fresh vision of early America but that was set in 1845, and she said this one was more of a challenge because there were no photos to work out of. Her subject here is the friendship between two men, one a Chinese immigrant and the other a Jewish cook. The immigrant is the more entrepreneurial, looking for ways to make money, which ends up involving the first cow in the area. But in the end, the film is about the loving, caring relationship that develops between these two. Some of the humor in it feels a little too cute and for me, “First Cow” just isn’t as wonderful as Reichardt’s “Old Joy,” or “Wendy and Lucy,” but that’s a very high bar and good it is anyway, and enjoyable. Reichardt works on a very small budget and is stubbornly non-commercial, for which many, myself included, honor her. A new film by her is always an event to look forward to.
The film by a woman director that’s likely to have most box-office potential is a lesbian love story, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” by Celine Sciamma, set in 18th-century France along a too perfect, wildly beautiful coast with a wild sea thrashing against rock formations that evoke cornball romantic Hollywood movies of the ‘40s or overheated Victorian novels. A young self-contained painter arrives at night to a mysterious grand house to paint the portrait of a despairing aristocratic girl about to be married against her will. While Sciamma uses the conventions of the romantic and of the European art films skillfully, it all feels a bit stale and clichéd. On the other hand, the self-assurance and professionalism with which Marianne enters the strange situation is genuinely appealing, as is the emphasis on women looking at women, the purely female gaze, which relates not only to Marianne as an artist painting a portrait of Heloise or teaching a class of women art students how to look, but the erotic/romantic meeting of eyes. But the film, for me, gradually bogs down in how thinly the women are characterized.
The French film “Sibyl,” directed by Justine Triet, is one very busy film. A psychotherapist with a partner and two children who decides she’s going to become a writer, Sibyl gets caught up in the love life of a young actress made pregnant by an actor who is actually involved with the woman director of the film they are both working on. If that sounds intricate to you, that’s a mere fraction of the entwined mess — with flashbacks and parallels, infidelity and professional betrayal all under the steaming Stromboli volcano (of Ingrid Bergman/Rossellini fame). This film is ambitious, effortful, good-looking, smart and skilled, and a reminder of how hard it is to make a really good film.
People I respect thought “Varda by Agnes,” Agnes Varda’s final film at age 90, was charming and important (perhaps impossible to criticize the dying, iconic Varda). I frankly found it garrulous, though near the end of Varda’s talking on camera for two hours, the film totally redeems itself by several leaps of visual poetry concerning mortality. Varda speaks of talented photographer Guy Bourdin, of whom she took photos many years earlier, who died young, and Varda had her pal DJ put her hugely blown-up image of Bourdin on an immense rock by the sea, a dangerous job because low tide lasts only a short while. Indeed, when they go back the next day to look, the water has washed his image away, just as we all shall be washed away. Varda speaks of her failing vision and humorously shows us what she sees and how blurred it is, then evokes a sandstorm sweeping herself and DJ away. This final statement from someone for whom images were so important ends very affectingly with nothing but subtly shifting blurs on a blank screen.
German director Angela Schanelec’s elusive “I Was At Home, But,” which won the Best Director prize at the Berlin Film Festival, is a film I found interesting but difficult for a general audience: much silence, motionless characters, long takes of the simplest objects and no apparent plot. And yet the director’s careful attention to the bare quotidian facts — someone loosening the ties of his sneakers, say — has an hypnotic effect. The central figure, newly widowed and mother of two, Astrid’s sudden brutal lashing out at her children and their attempts to touch, console and stay close to her are powerful, as is the use of speeches from “Hamlet,” especially describing Ophelia’s despair, being overwhelmed and drowning, which connects to the film’s not quite visible theme of a woman breaking down. The film’s opening and closing animal tableaus — of a predatory dog gorging on a rabbit, and a beautifully contemplative donkey looking out a window, recalling Bresson’s “Balthazar” — are evocative bookends for this film: a work that asks you to put up with a lot, but suggestive.
An Italian version of Jack London’s 1909 book “Martin Eden,” by Italian director Pietro Marcello, about a working-class young man so smitten by an upper-class girl that he sets about educating himself and in the process becomes a writer, somehow doesn’t deliver on the promise of its beginning, despite a very appealing young actor for the role. But in the end, Jack’s not interesting enough, and the girl he adores is even less so. Jack’s ideas and his many political proclamations, though increasingly assertive, are never clear. Still, the movie is enjoyable, the images can be lovely — especially of narrow Neapolitan streets — and small inserts of archival footage, of an evocative child, of an ancient frigate on the seas, of a young boy and girl jitter-bugging — maybe taken from old movies or photographs, or else new ones convincingly made to look old — that comment obliquely on the story and add charm to it.
There are less ambitious films offering smaller pleasures, like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s rambling shaggy-dog of a film “To the Ends of the Earth,” an incredibly industrious Japanese TV crew, all male except for Yoko, their show host, playing an Anthony Bourdain kind of role. Yoko (in real life a pop star) is an adorable slip of a thing who has a winning upbeatness as she narrates a trip to Uzbekistan and will not say no to anything she is asked to do, and do again, by a callous young director — from eating uncooked rice as though it were delicious to subjecting herself to a terrifying amusement park kind of ride, which feels like a form of torture: game openness or masochism? But the film has a quiet intimacy as it follows this girl around this alien place, she not knowing her way and unable to communicate, attracting everyone’s attention, with sellers at a bazaar pushing goods on her to buy and with hulking groups of men menacingly eyeing her as she races by, head down, though she’s a plucky character on the whole. The ending is puzzling; it feels like camp. But as a whole, moving back and forth from humor to something darker, the film is endearing.
There are a number of other films that are well-made and engrossing but feel slight and humdrum, like “The Moneychanger” from Uruguay, or others that seemed to me just silly, like the Chinese “Saturday Fiction.” There are yet others not ready for prime time, like “The Atlantics,” a first-time feature by Mati Diop, lead actress in Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum.” And then there are films that are extraordinary but could never be seen except in festivals or the most rarified urban moviehouse. Such a film that I was much taken with, that again asks of an audience what most people will find unacceptable, is “Vitalina Varela,” a Portuguese film directed by Pedro Costa. The film is, for most of its long duration, extraordinarily dark, opening with a nighttime procession of barely visible figures — their black skin merging with the darkness — moving slowly and solemnly. Heads are bowed and the funereal atmosphere really pervades the whole film. We are peering at rough rock surfaces and the poorest of dwellings, which, with the minimal light and faded colors and weathered textures, still looks beautiful in a handmade way. The face of the central character, weathered and full of strength and contained emotion, is also remarkably beautiful. Little happens. Vitalina has come from the Cape Verde islands to Lisbon to find her husband after many decades of separation only to discover he died three days before. Quiet shifts in camera position or the subtlest shifts in lighting make a big difference as the story of Joaquim unfolds — of what happened between him and Vitalina, why he left without telling her, how he lived, how she felt — the tale of an immigrant from Cape Verde living in poverty, and also a tale of personal betrayal. The story is not told in a linear way, but fractured with an austere kind of poetry that is very effective. For this film as earlier ones, Pedro Costa returned to the Fontainhas slum district of Lisbon, since demolished, where the Cape Verdean immigrant community lived, and his characters are all playing themselves. Ventura and Vitalina also figure in earlier work. Costa recognized in interviews that he was a “white middle-class guy from Lisbon” who couldn’t find his voice until he began working with the Cape Verde immigrants. The humanity, aesthetic interest and originality of what he produced from this feels quite breathtaking to me. I am grateful that the NYFF will include a film like this among its offerings, because the full great story of what cinema can do would not be complete without it.