Neighboring Scenes ends its short Film at Lincoln Center engagement today, and we are happy to be covering it for the first time in this, its fifth year. Celebrating contemporary Latin American cinema, in its myriad forms and cinematic modes, Neighboring Scenes uses big tickets (last year it was Carlos Reygadas’s Our Time) to draw an audience, before exposing them to plenty of recent, smaller scale work by filmmakers emerging from the region’s rapidly evolving industry. Below, compiled in this single dispatch, are our thoughts on some of the festival’s main draws, including: Pablo Larrain’s Ema, fall festival regular Workforce, and buzzed short film Green Ash, among other hits and misses.
Pablo Larrain has got to be one of, if not the, most aesthetically chameleonic filmmakers on the international festival circuit today. Just look at the Chilean auteur’s recent filmography — emphasis on look. The visual qualities of Larrain’s twin 2016 biopics alone demonstrate the stark changeability of his work, with Neruda all shadowy neo-noir and shades of ‘60s and ‘70s European genre films, and Jackie a colorful piece of American pop art that approximated what a certain Lana Del Rey music video might look like stretched out to feature length. Go back further in time and find the analogue VHS filters of 2014’s No and the grimy exploitation textures and sensationalized ultra-violence of Larrain’s 2013 breakthrough Tony Manero. None of these really point to the aesthetic sensibilities of Ema. Larrain’s latest, weirdly, more so reminds of Lukas Moodysson’s long-forgotten Mammoth, both in its antiseptic wide shots of domestic discord and slow descent into sexual inhibition, and through the commonality of actor Gael Garcia Bernal filling the role of a simpering husband. Thankfully, similarities end there: Ema uses its typical disintegration-of-a-relationship narrative as only a starting point for a film whose real aesthetic ambitions are dictated by the undulating rhythms and physical elasticity of dance — more specifically, reggaeton. Played by extraordinary newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo — whose expressions and body language vacillate rivetingly between psychological opacity and unmistakable intention — the titular Ema makes the wrenching decision to give up an adopted child with her husband, Gastón (Bernal), a choreographer in whose troupe Ema dances. As the nuclear family that the three had formed dissipates, so too do its established roles — and in the aftermath, Ema moves to assert her own agency. No longer a mere performer, Ema orchestrates her own narrative, inserting herself into the sexual lives of both of her son’s new foster parents, manipulating bodies and bending them to her own choreography. This is a film enamored with the idea of exploring, through an almost primal visual language unlike anything Larrain’s done before, distinctly feminine forms of power and control as articulated through physicality. Sam C. Mac
Miguel Hilari’s Compania is a small, modest gem of a film, a poetic evocation of mystical and religious ceremonies juxtaposed with the natural beauty of the agrarian and the banality of the urban. Although hardly novel (Carlos Reygadas has been mining similar material for years), it’s still a fruitful dichotomy, and Hilari structures the film as a series of contrasts – rural and urban, of course, but also between organized religious services and more colorful, almost arcane ritualism. The Film Society of Lincoln Center description provides a bit of context to the film (which Hialri seems to have kept purposefully vague); it describes the film as a portrait of an ‘indigenous community who migrated to the city and have returned to their small mountain village in the Andes to honor the memory of their ancestors for a festival of the dead.’ There’s no proper narrative here to speak of, but instead a series of movements. Compania begins with a quiet journey under cover of night through snow-covered mountains, filmed inside a car with bodies in silhouette. The sun rises over snowcapped ranges, and the film pauses for a traditional musical performance of some kind, before segueing into various sequences of local life, including recollections of the filmmaker’s father’s death, a baptism, and people tending to their animals. Most striking is a beautiful sequence of villagers parading through a fog-shrouded landscape in colorful costume, a dreamy, abstract bit of jubilance that nonetheless carries a hint of melancholy. Despite some moments of stasis, Compania is mostly a film of constant motion, literally in the figures of people traversing various landscapes and traveling to and from the city. It’s a gorgeous film, with cinematography that reminds of Dion Beebe’s work for Michael Mann, finding rich variations of shades of black in the undulating night sky. Without being didactic, Hilari is still able to suggest a loss of sorts, as the film ends on a quiet moment of horses grazing in a field, fog creeping in, gradually enveloping them until they disappear into it. There’s a kind of cryptic, mysterious beauty to the unknown, a quiet revelry in the grandeur of the natural. Daniel Gorman
Marcelo Gomes’ Waiting for the Carnival unfolds in the village of Toritama, the self-proclaimed “capital of jeans,” in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco. Though it is a site of near-constant production, it has no factories as such, and is instead comprised of small household workshops (known as factions), where “self-employed” individuals regularly put in ten- to 12-hour days. The late capitalist illusion of “being your own boss” is self-evident, as is the frightening efficacy of the town’s self-perpetuating, self-regulating cycles of exploitation. (A 19-year-old kid with a six-month-old casually observes a recent trend of young townspeople not getting married, but choosing to have children.) But what’s most striking about Waiting for the Carnival is its self-conscious, but never insistent awareness of its own representational methods. Just as the director observes the myriad stages of craftsmanship that go into each piece of clothing, so he cannily exposes his own aesthetic interventions, practically cycling through a set of documentary clichés: ruminative voiceover, classical music cues, a layered soundscape of various spaces of labor, among others. An illustrative moment: After lamenting on the “distress” of the workshops and the “anguish of repetition” he observes therein, Gomes offers a set of close-ups of teary-eyed workers (their eyes likely irritated by dust), not so much exploiting the Kuleshov effect as laying bare its manipulative potential. In a lesser film, this sequence would be the soul-crushing kicker; here, it’s merely another instance of Gomes letting the seams show, so to speak. Waiting for the Carnival’s constant tension between the director’s aesthetic mediation and the general theme of material/bodily exploitation comes to the fore during the annual Carnival, during which nearly the entire population of Toritama takes to the sea, many households even selling essential belongings just to fund the six-day trip. As one family is unable to afford the costs, Gomes pays for them to go—in exchange, that is, for their vacation footage. When the Carnival ends, they and the rest of Toritama will resume their work. But what Gomes’ self-implicating documentary suggests is that it never really ended. Lawrence Garcia
David Zonana’s Workforce possesses lofty artistic ambitions for a debut: it apes Bresson rather liberally, utilizing somber diegetic music cues, mostly non-professional actors, a relatively impressive depth of field, and an impending sense of looming morality as each impoverished character struggles to find an ethical ‘right’ in a world that sees them as subjects. One such victim of a broken late-capitalist system is Francisco (Luis Alberti), who toils away with his younger brother Claudio at a never-ending construction job that requires them to spend countless hours perfecting the lavish mansion of their bourgeoisie employer. When Claudio dies in a freak accident — this occurs within the first few minutes of the feature — the insurance company is quick to claim he was drunk, resulting in no financial compensation for the pregnant widow the worker has left behind. There’s a bubbling outrage that slowly builds throughout this early section, as Francisco enters into a Kafkaesque maze of bureaucracy where nobody has a straight answer and there’s always someone else to speak with instead; there’s an immediate (and rather effective) political anger to these proceedings, one that Zonana oddly chooses to abandon with Workforce’s strained second-half. After the soon-to-be owner of this estate dies mysteriously (it’s hinted that Francisco has taken revenge for his brother; Zonana lacks any real conviction here to push the topic in either direction), Francisco decides to move into the property with his other co-workers. This turns what should be a meditation on the accumulation of classist microaggressions that make up all capitalist relations into a petty melodrama that aims for universality: we slowly become our own rulers when we are allowed to be corrupted. But this is entirely missing the point of the precedent drama and is something of a coward’s way out in regards to taking a firm theoretical stance; it also requires Francisco, out of seemingly nowhere, to become a serial rapist and degenerate for the convenience of the watered-down message. Paul Attard
The Neighboring Sounds festival booklet describes Private Fiction as Argentinean filmmaker Andres Di Tella charting a turbulent 20th Century romance through archival photos and letters from his parents, Torcuato, an Argentinean man, and Kamala, a woman from India. Di Tella has indeed concocted an experimental, hybrid documentary, filled with home movies, snippets of his own films, scenes between himself and his young daughter, and a pair of actors who he has hired to read aloud his parents’ correspondences. Private Fiction is, at heart, an epistolary film, but Di Tella muddles it up with so much navel-gazing, a litany of postmodernist bells and whistles, that the whole project collapses under its own weight. Torcuato and Kamala’s letters give some sense of what it might be like for a mixed-race couple in the 50s and 60s, both self-describing as outsiders in whatever country they happen to be in at a given time. But Di Tella meanwhile launches several different threads of voiceover, attempting to interrogate the nature of photography and memory, while hinting at some kind of mystery at the heart of his parent’s relationship. Meanwhile, the young actors recording these letters are themselves a couple, although their parallel story never intersects in any kind of interesting way with the main narrative. There’s a lot going on here, but it is all lacking in any real overriding aesthetic agenda to organize the bounty of material. No one is doubting Di Tella’s good faith here, but in attempting to excavate his own family history, he fails to dig deep enough, instead leaving us with a surface-oriented smattering of contemporary avant-garde tics and his own pretensions. Daniel G
When we open our eyes, what is it that we first see? There’s inanimate objects that we can recognize, but that requires several steps beyond the fundamental act of perception that occurs when one chooses to see the world around them. Before we can cognize even the simplest of items, there’s a bit of dance that takes place between two opposing optical forces: darkness and light. Green Ash opens with an understanding of such a dichotomy, how both are integral natural forces that serve as access points to the basics of vision: stray bands of tinted sunlight pierce through a blackened screen with no accompanying music, creating a rhythmic pattern of growing intensity that builds off of the Brakhage-ian tradition — one that suggests that the most miniscule of changes within a frame can completely alter a viewer’s understanding of a work. Pablo Mazzolo provides little context outside of the purely ocular: we’re informed of the hundreds of Hênia-Kâmîare women, children, and elders who jumped from the Córdoba Mountains in 1575, all to avoid lives of servitude to the Spanish Empire. Yet, nothing shown pronounces an immediate connection to such horrific events; the mountains, covered in lush green hues, flicker not only with a fixation on light-intervals, but with attention placed on differing focus-fixtures that adds a hallucinatory aura to the overgrown ridge. One becomes disoriented rather quickly with this approach, where what we’re ostensibly viewing becomes different from what we’re experiencing: the distance between the landscape as is and the feeling provided from abstracting these images on their most pictorial level becomes greater. Mazzolo keeps turning the brightness up by the end, basking in the fervor of his increasing luminosity before redefining this space once again — by setting it against a crudely-drawn map of Argentina, revealing how minuscule these mountains are on a more global scale. Again, viewing these hills as something historical, or even geographical, is not the first thing we would even consider seeing; such concepts have little value against the totality of illumination. Paul A
Shot between August 2016 and January 2017 in the Dom Pedro Hotel in the slums of Sao Paulo, Brazilian filmmaker Maira Buhler‘s Let it Burn is a somber, delicate portrait of broken people living in limbo. The film has no on screen text or identifying markers of any kind, even the small bit of information above comes from a brief coda at the end of the film. Buhler seems less interested in facts and context than in simply recording denizens of the hotel, themselves never identified by name. Instead, Buhler films almost everything in intimate closeups, as we are privy to quiet, emotional moments between friends and lovers, as well as brazen, unapologetic drug use and both physical and emotional violence. The film is basically a series of vignettes, but Buhler has loosely organized them so that they flow, have a rhythm. It’s not a stringent structure, but instead a gradual sense of convergence, as the tenants caress each other or lay in bed together, that then transforms into something else. People begin to separate, arguments break out, couples break up and threaten each other, tears are shed. And throughout there are brief musical interludes — even in this place, people tend to have a song in their hearts. The film is at times reminiscent of Pedro Costa’s early work, when he was mixing documentary and fiction modes with the residents of the Fontainhas slums, as well as the recent abstract portraiture work of Khalik Allah’s Field Niggas and Black Mother. Let it Burn isn’t as accomplished as those other works, as Buhler is working in a more traditional verite mode and seemingly uninterested in any blatant expressionism. But this is still an invaluable document, giving voice to those who have none, telling them that their lives matter and that their stories should be told. Daniel G