September 27, 2011
NYFF 2011: Critic's Notebook
by Vadim Rizov
The second act of Julia Loktev's first narrative feature—2006's Day Night Day Night—is a real time urban nightmare: an unnamed woman (Luisa Williams) wanders through Times Square with a bomb strapped to her chest, internally/inscrutably debating whether to detonate. When she decides, the movie inevitably gets less tense, but that first hour makes the film as a whole one of the most terrifying things I've seen: the lives at stake get to you less than the sense of a fragile, cringing person tensed up and ready to destroy themselves. Likewise, The Loneliest Planet offers up the continual possibility of something horrible happening for nearly a solid hour of walking, spikes with an unexpected crisis moment requiring a snap decision, then slowly loses excitement as, again, the first hour's more than enough to justify the whole film.
Considering he has less screen time than his two co-stars, it's awfully nice of Gael Garcia Bernal to provide his marquee value for a film that otherwise makes no commercial concessions, starting with disorientation before upshifting into prolonged tension. The blindingly fast post-title-card opening cuts to near-cubist effect through a young couple's vacation in an unnamed country, alternately at manic speed or with extended weird interactions: now Bernal's making fruit on a pancake sing a goofy song about taxes to anonymous children, now he and the girlfriend having a long unsubtitled conversation with a tiresome local couple, then suddenly they're bargaining for a tour guide on the street—in the same city/country? how many days later?—while a friendly, inebriated man continually interrupts, teetering between colorful future anecdote and potentially violent midday drunk.
Alex (Bernal) and fiancée Nica (Hani Furstenberg) aren't prototypical Ugly Americans abroad: they're self-consciously polite, right-on liberal types with a love for light backpacking who can barely stop themselves from chiding guide Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze) when he says he'd rather buy a car made by the Japanese than untrustworthy black people. (Alex settles for pulling reproving faces behind his back.) Dato's initially mildly menacing—especially when he demonstrates a "rope trick" by binding Nica's hands together, then freeing her with a giant knife—but his heavily accented, did-he-just-say-that anecdotes about mass castration and traditional drinking toasts eventually stumble towards warmth.
The Loneliest Planet premiered less than two months ago, so—although I'm not convinced it spoils all that much—I'll follow other festival reviews' lead in not saying What Happens in the middle of the film. That something must is inevitable: a couple onscreen without separation for an extended period is invariably a couple in trouble, and you watch Alex and Nica's relationship for small signs of friction or stumbling blocks but nothing stands out. They're an annoyingly self-involved, touchy-feely unit despite trying to be more polite than that, but they seem perfectly content. The midpoint reveals, to keep it vague, otherwise.
Their rural trek is excruciating. Every walk over a pile of steep boulders seems like a potentially paralyzing fall waiting to happen, every river crossing a disaster in waiting. As the only non-natives seen, they're obvious Americans traveling during a time when the country's international image is low, adding another way things could go wrong. Their scrambles over ever-changing terrain (with an extended soundtrack of rocks falling and disciplined breathing) are broken up by extended visual palate cleansers seemingly taken from miles away while Richard Skelton's droning string score plays. During these shots—disciplined, unnervingly prolonged long takes that recur about a half-dozen times, each unexpected and disruptive—three dots move from right to left on a gentle uphill slope against overwhelming grassy slopes, scrubby plains and sinister bright cliffs. Loktev keeps the directional graphic match going for around 20 minutes before allowing the characters to wander and bond, then sending them from left to right uphill as a tighter, friendlier unit. The Loneliest Planet has the menace of a horror movie, and the meticulous visual planning reinforces that nothing's been left to chance: something bad is coming.
As Loneliest deflates in the back half, the commitment to transfixingly queasy sex scenes as character development is appreciated but tension dissipates. Diminishing returns don't wipe out the earlier impact of the aesthetic aggression, which is incredibly exciting. The opening shot—the sound of creaking springs suggesting sex only to be revealed as Nica jumping frantically up and down naked in a bathhouse, building up heat so Alex can douse her—gets attention through misdirection, but it's an instantly arresting opening; the rest of the film follows forceful suit.
Corpo Celeste is a movie with serious problems: the very title, offering up the suggestion that "heavenly body" can be a religious or sexual epithet, has a self-explanatory irony and complexity built into it that's also pretty standard issue. Corpoperiodically stops for quite a few similarly familiar blunt metaphors, including having a teenage girl's first period fall on the day of a crucial ceremony (in this case, her Catholic confirmation, with the bleeding stigmata of a lifesize "figurative" crucifix double-underlining the irony). But the film breezes past standard short-story-isms to focus on a non-hysterical portrait of people dealing with the widening gap between their attachment to religion as a social anchor and increasing skepticism about its value or relevance. Twitchily shot by director Alice Rohrwacher and veteran DP Hélène Louvart, the film's tendency towards simplified moments is tamped down by the many diversions it takes from the central teen narrative, building a multi-character crisis of faith with different particulars for all its characters.
13-year-old Marta (first-time Yle Vianello, awesome) is new to Calabria, having just moved back to Italy with her family from Switzerland. Aside from her inexplicably hateful bitch of an older sister Fortunata (Paola Lavini), life with mom Rita (Anita Caprioli) is going smoothly enough. So far, so standard: the film perks up during Marta's first confirmation class, run by harried Santa (Pasqualina Scuncia), whose pained attempts to get teenagers to take the upcoming ceremony seriously as the start of their mature spiritual life aren't derailed by their question as to whether the figurative crucifix accurately reproduces the size of Jesus Christ's penis.
Clearly she's heard that one before, and it's quickly evident that devout Santa doesn't even care if the teens obviously have no connection to the religion she's teaching: she just wants them all to have this common experience that'll connect them with their parents. For her, religious ceremonies are an important part of daily life, filling out otherwise empty days, but her devotion to walnut-faced priest Don Mario (Salvatore Cantalupo) can't even guarantee that; he's hoping for a transfer to a bigger church, where he could have more administrative responsibility and a decent shot at becoming a bishop. He's no hypocrite exclusively fixated on power: in one scene by himself, he takes off his priest's collar and clothing, then reluctantly steels himself to study the Bible before bed. Still, he wants out, which is understandable: Reggio Calabria, as shown here, is decrepit and dirty. Occasionally, the film stops dead for Marta to gaze down at the city from great distances in scenes grain/telephoto lens fetishists will love emphasizing the rubble and barely passable urban infrastructure.
Marta's idylls give the film narrative breathing room, along with many understated moments of pro forma religion butting up against an underwhelming, even tacky reality: Don Mario at home irritably rubbing his neck before devoting himself to study, Santa distracted during a church admin meeting by a screaming child running around with a lightsaber, a group of teenagers singing about how they're tuning in to the radio station that is Jesus, who has the right frequency for them. There's dopey narrative lapses for sure: most egregiously, the character of Fortunata appears to have no purpose other than haranguing her younger sister until inexplicably standing up for her at the end. But most of Corpo Celeste is much better than that, taking on the gap between rote religious expression and hollowness without ever once explicitly stating the theme.
One of the more anticipated sidebar items is the immaculate restoration of Nicholas Ray's 1976 "student film" We Can't Go Home Again, the product of five years of labor. Eight years after essentially collapsing on the set of 1963's 55 Days at Peking and long after having exhausted studio goodwill with his drug use and erratic reliability, Ray wound up teaching for a spell at upstate New York's Harpur College. Over the years, Ray had a lot of wild ideas the studios wouldn't let him indulge, many of which arguably would've made his movies worse: it's hard to imagine how Rebel Without a Cause would've been improved by dream sequences of James Dean daydreaming about shooting a balloon gallery's worth of family faces.
We Can't Go Home Again—much of which consists of a variety of 16mm, 8mm and video-tweaked footage being projected onto a board, with a still photo backdrop occasionally changing in the background—is a serious head-rush of a career's worth of forcibly repressed ideas; many are goofy, but the energy's infectious. The whole project's got a very post-60s/early-70s feel, with earnest college students ranting about being disconnected from their parents, a girl masturbating next to a projector, and newly discovered sexual politics being put into action ("I'm a lesbian! I don't have to put on any goddamn pants!" yells one girl); it can be hilarious if you're in the mood for a time-capsule rush.
The multi-image bombardment doesn't always add up to more than a formal gamble without an obvious payoff; at its best—as with a four-part panel of images of the first day of class, with students looking out from lecture hall doorways down hallways being projected just above them—the simultaneous moving pictures synthesize into a geometric whole, like looking at four different areas simultaneously. Still, the quirkiness and indulgence means this is not the place to start for Ray novices; the film riffs extensively on his filmography, especially in the ending, a remarkably cogent bookending of his career. Ray's first film, 1949's They Live by Night, opens with a fugitive couple and a hyperbolic but heartfelt title card: "This boy... and this girl... were never properly introduced to the world we live in." At the end of this film, another couple escapes from a barn while Ray swings from a noose while delivering a climactic monologue. "Take care of each other," he says, "it is your only chance for survival." The boy and girl race off together, on the run and homeless in a contemporary American landscape as heartless as the one that isolated Ray's first martyrs; for all the dated period charms, We Can't Go Home Again ends by connecting 30 years of onscreen teen alienation.