by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

Venice International Film Festival 2020 — Dispatch 3: Night of the Kings, Saint-Narcisse, The Ties

September 16, 2020
Credit: Venice International Film Festival

Night of the Kings

Storytelling is at the crux of Philippe Lacôte’s entrancing sophomore feature, whose structural integrity depends upon a viewer’s willingness to accept its dramatic reflexivity. A mythopoetic work invoking the oral tradition of One Thousand and One Nights, and utilising a Scheherazade-like figure as its bardic messenger, Night of the Kings intriguingly — and not ineffectively — infuses sociopolitical reality into a canvas of magical fantasy. This hybridization produces an atmosphere that’s at once earnest and self-aware — though the film as a whole is best described as theatrical cinema. This theatricality informs the political struggles taking place within the forbidding MACA prison of Côte d’Ivoire, where most of the film is set, and allows them to play out as literally as possible without the distractions of personal, anal-retentive intricacies.

An unnamed young man (Kone Bakary) is thrust into the raucous and chaotic MACA, and before he can overcome his initial disorientation he is singled out by the prison’s Dangôro (or supreme master) for the role of “Roman,” or storyteller. The occasion is a night when the moon turns red and Roman — a play on the French word for “novel” — will deliver a tale on prison grounds, in a ritual that signifies the end of the Dangôro’s reign and his naming of a successor. As the film’s opening intertitles reveal, the prison is “a world with its own codes and laws,” and this ritual, wherein the prisoners accept and perform their assigned roles without question, embodies tradition proper. Both political and narrative traditions, as it turns out: the former insofar as a sovereign hierarchy is upheld even through power successions, the latter via the act of storytelling as well as Lacôte’s stagelike presentation of it.

The rich tapestry of narrative threads interwoven within Night of the Kings transforms the concrete brutalism of MACA into a heightened and immersive communal space, celebrating the kineticism of bodies and words as they convey histories and fantasies both ancient and contemporary. As with Scheherazade, Roman’s fate depends on his ability to spin a tale past the morning sun, failing which he would be sacrificed. He gesticulates and orates on the life of Zama King, both an infamous Abidjan street bandit and an inhabitant of a mythical African kingdom. There’s an element of caricature to these stories, but Lacôte choreographs them impeccably and clearly elucidates his metafictional thesis on the promises such stories hold for the human imagination. It is enthralling to see Bakary, who plays Roman, having to improvise and expand on an elaborate palimpsest of Ivorian politics, youth disenfranchisement, and ancient mythology, not unlike the chameleon-like Denis Lavant who incidentally cameos as an inmate and advises Roman on the perils of concluding his tale. Lacôte’s title, likewise, is two-fold: there is the king who rules via the body politic, and the king who does so with words. Morris Yang


Residue

Director Merawi Gerima was born into an impressive cinematic lineage. His father is Haile Gerima, a foundational member of the L.A. Rebellion, and at its best the younger Gerima’s feature debut, Residue, recalls the early lo-fi work of such movement luminaries as Charles Burnett and Julie Dash. Its attention is certainly fixed in the same direction — Black working-class communities and difficulties specific to such ecosystems — but here accounts for 21st-century gentrification. The film’s structuring narrative is loose autofiction: a young filmmaker, Jake (Obinna Nwachuwu), who has been living and studying in California, returns to the D.C. neighborhood of his childhood in order to write a script inspired by its forced evolution. Early on, Residue works through expected conflicts: Jake’s parents are forced to contend with relentless, acquisitive property flippers; his old friends regard his sudden presence and questions with suspicion; a general tension between his present and past life begins to build. Other conflicts are more surprising: Jake’s close childhood friend, Demetrius, is nowhere to be found, and people don’t want to talk about it. 

This sense of unease builds across the film’s runtime, and informs its matching visual aesthetic. Both Residue’s guiding structure and individual scenes are handled with an impressionistic touch; Gerima pitches both the mundane and the more mysterious interactions at the tenor of a fever dream. Gerima shoots with a handheld camera and primarily employs tight framing to build a sense of visual intimacy, but also occasionally disrupts this mode with vertical camera flips and ethereal, Malickian narration. Another memorable composition finds Jake’s parents using a slide projector to cast baby pictures through an open doorway and onto a wall already dotted with framed family photos. More foundational to the film is how Gerima intercuts Jake’s re-navigation of his neighborhood with flashbacks and dream sequences, moving from digital compositions in the present to grainy past remembrances steeped in violence and repressed trauma. Memory is fluid here, reaching into the past and slipping back into the present, upsetting Jake’s stability. His growing dismay with the community, which starts to manifest as emotional disarray, recalls the psychological disorientation of early Polanski, but here emerges from a specific reconfiguration of one’s reality rather than an untethering from it. 

Residue also features a pair of the year’s best scenes, which each illustrate both the director’s precise voice and eye. In one, while Jake visits a friend in prison, Gerima shoots the scene from two perspectives: the first finds the pair chatting and emoting, in a tight two-camera close up, through a smudged glass partition; the second intercuts the first, continuing the same conversation in voice-over, as the two grown men wrestle and laugh in a verdant forest glen. It’s a shattering moment, an image of shared and desperate nostalgia for a past that never was, and a direct contrast with the brutal childhood memories that litter the rest of the film. Residue’s other great moment comes at its end when, after a violent eruption, Jake flees from pursuing cops, the camera watching as he rounds a corner and continues his flight before it pulls back and up, situating itself in between a young white couple who briefly watch and comment on the action from their apartment balcony before returning to idle millennial chitchat. The rest of Gerima’s film doesn’t always strike quite the same balance of understated feeling and poetical artistic flourish, sometimes bordering on self-conscious opaqueness, but it reflects a discursively nuanced and visually distinct DIY vision unburdened of Hollywood filmmaking expectations or pandering neoliberal hegemony. In a year where traditionally accepted power structures are being questioned and condemned with increasing ferocity, Residue is a minor revolution of its own. Luke Gorham


Saint-Narcisse

There is surely more space in Hollywood for queer cinema than ever before, but this visibility inevitably comes with an obligation to play towards the industry’s conservatism. But this is why it’s such a blessing that Bruce LaBruce continues to make the sort of movie that he makes — and with some regularity, too! Born out of a punk tradition, and steeped in the aesthetics of porn and soap opera narrativizing, LaBruce’s films are political, funny, and sexy in ways that so often elude contemporary queer cinema in the west. His latest film, the Quebecois erotic doppelgänger thriller Saint-Narcisse, isn’t so different in these respects. In fact, it may be the slickest manifestation of LaBruce’s cinematic stylings yet. 

The slickness can be attributed to a jump in budget for LaBruce which allows him to indulge in the best digital cinematography of his career, while also limiting the extremity of his usual provocations (no unsimulated sex, nor anything as intense as the genital reconstruction footage in The Misandrists). Still, critiquing Saint-Narcisse’s ability to push buttons is really only appropriate in point of comparison to the rest of LaBruce’s filmography. Set in 1972, the film concerns itself with Félix-Antoine Duval’s Dominic as he attempts to make contact with his absent mother in the wake of his grandmother’s death. Naturally, Dominic comes to find that his mother is in fact a lesbian witch living in the woods with her ageless lover, and that he also has an identical twin brother imprisoned in a monastery by a predatory priest with a St. Sebastian fetish. Lord knows that many an exhausting script has been reverse engineered from similar sorts of faux-eclectic groupings of trope and archetype, but Saint-Narcisse is founded on a remarkably deft script that manages to thread all these strands together in a way that makes a shocking amount of sense. Yet, while this might be the film’s most impressive aspect, it’s also what holds it back, for at times things make a little too much sense. This is to say that the screenplay does too good a job of underplaying its more gonzo elements, prioritizing tonal consistency above all else. Still, what may have been lost in terms of edge and verve can hardly negate the joy of LaBruce’s debauched gay sensibility. It also doesn’t take away from Saint-Narcisse’s timely celebration of families formed outside of nuclear, patriarchal arrangements, which Labruce has championed his whole career. Saint-Narcisse may not ultimately be LaBruce’s most audacious film, but it is a new, thoughtful instance of his particular brand of audacity. M.G. Mailloux


The Ties

In recent years, Venezia has been a strong catalyst for auteurs to premiere some of the year’s most internationally acclaimed films. While Daniele Luchetti‘s The Ties (based on Domenico Starnone’s novel Lacci) certainly was not a highlight from this year’s festival, it’s at least distinguished as the first Italian entry to serve as the opening film since Giuseppe Tornatore’s Baarìa in 2009. Luchetti’s The Ties reflects on a Neapolitan family of four, oscillating back and forth in time across roughly 40 years, with no palpable distinction between the different eras. This lazy execution proves standard: The Ties is also ideologically vapid, failing to put forward new ideas or any refreshing aesthetic modes of expression. Italian “realist” dramas are a dime a dozen at film festivals, and Luchetti’s new film is yet another rehash, telling a familiar story of love and betrayal. The use value of The Ties is to pad the lineup of a film festival and adhere to a prescribed formula: a minimalist screenplay revolving around ordinary life, a moralistic platitude, and an aesthetic schema of unembellished photography. Cinematographer Ivan Casalgrandi’s over-use of extreme close-ups, color-corrected neutral lighting, low depth of field, and wobbling camera movements, with the occasional interspersing of a long-distance composition, lack a coherent visual logic. 

Thematically, The Ties attempts a study of dysfunctional family dynamics and unbalanced matrimonial strife to question the motive of these relationships over its decade-spanning structure, but Luchetti fails to provide any foundation for his characters’ interiority or their existential/psychological modes. Silvio Orlando (a frequent collaborator with Nanni Moretti) plays Aldo, an adulterous husband who is no longer capable of bearing the guilt of his philandering behavior. At the beginning of The Ties, he decides to come clean to his wife, Vanda, played by the reliable Alba Rohrwacher (Happy as Lazzaro). Despite the early confrontational moments, little is elucidated, and Luchetti’s careless direction prevents the audience from understanding what tethers the couple (and their children) — is it love, despair, fear of abandonment, some combination of these, none of these? The director would surely wish his audience to read profundity into this open-endedness, but it’s merely the product of underdevelopment. 

Because Luchetti is incapable of eliciting much meaningful, organic reflection and feeling from the viewer, he frequently imposes and infuses different musical pieces (predominantly J.S. Bach) to perhaps better evoke the emotionally euphonious and redemptive mood he so desires for his film. And indeed, after Vanda attempts suicide, both her and Aldo’s words work as accurate assessments for the film itself: in voice-over, she laments what she perceives as “superficial and devoid of sensitivity” while Aldo angstily shouts, “I’ve no energy!” Even the film’s metaphorical title — which refers not just to familial bondage but also to the shoelaces that the young son here ties like his dad, a simple-minded allusion that suggests the son may inherit the sins of his father —  is yet another in a series of artistically flaccid decisions. It’s simply the operating procedure here, as The Ties does little to distinguish itself in any singular way, failing even to craft substantive characters that might have cut through the film’s obvious derivative resolve. Ayeen Forootan


In Between Dying

In the rarefied world of slow cinema — the kinds of films that flourish at film festivals but with limited commercial prospects outside those specialized confines — there’s a fine, indistinct line between contemplative and boring. Hilal Baydarov’s In Between Dying spends most of its time on and around that line, but largely falls on the right side of being productively strange rather than frustratingly inscrutable; it’s curious instead of tedious. After a brief prologue of a man, woman, and child in a field with a white horse, alternating male and female voices delivering crypto-poetic voice-over narration, we are introduced to Davud (Orkhan Iskandarli), a petulant young man who berates his sickly mother before storming out of their home. He picks up his girlfriend and goes to see a man nicknamed “The Doctor” about purchasing some weed. A scuffle with another man ensues, and Davud shoots him dead. Davud and his female companion quickly make their getaway while The Doctor sends some of his underlings after them, presumably to kill Davud in retribution. 

It’s an inauspicious beginning, threatening to become yet another low-budget rendering of young lovers on the run. But Baydarov complicates his scenario almost immediately, when Davud shoos the young woman away and begins traveling alone. The structure of the film gradually takes shape, with Davud encountering a series of women in various states of duress, while Baydarov occasionally cuts away to both the men following Davud and the pastoral family gathering glimpsed at the beginning of the film. First, Davud meets a woman whose father keeps her chained in a stable; when Davud frees her, she immediately kills the father by biting him in the neck. Next, there’s a woman who sits by the road watching passing cars to avoid her drunken, abusive husband. When the husband appears and finds her with Davud, the two begin to fight and the woman smashes a rock over her abuser’s head. Davud then meets a woman clad in a flowing white wedding dress as she flees an arranged marriage with a man she does not love. After traversing a fog-shrouded field hand in hand with Davud, she kills herself rather than returning to her loveless union. Finally, Davud helps a young blind woman bury her elderly mother. 

There’s a lot going on here, as the atmosphere takes on the formal qualities of a ghost story of sorts. There’s a sense of allegory at play, a kind of survey of the violent undercurrents of Azerbaijani society, while Davud becomes a spectre, bringing both death and liberation to those he meets. Each encounter becomes its own minor, self-contained narrative, suggesting a bunch of potential individual stories all taking place simultaneously. Meanwhile, the brief sequences of the family with the horse function as both imaginary flashbacks to some halcyon past and flash-forwards to an imagined future. It’s all very suggestive, and Baydarov, working with cinematographer Elshan Abbasov, lovingly films vast landscapes in crisp, widescreen compositions that swallow up human figures. In his own description of his film, Baydarov quotes one of Bresson’s maxims, “feeling before understanding,” a succinct statement of purpose for In Between Dying. It’s not a perfect film by any means; the thugs that are trailing Davud wind up becoming a kind of Greek chorus that over-explain Baydarov’s themes, while also interrupting the gentle, ethereal rhythms that guide the rest of the film. And for all the emphasis on female suffering, only Davud becomes a fully-fleshed character, with the various women he encounters acting more as symbolic signifiers. Despite those blips, In Between Dying remains a compelling film, ravishingly beautiful and tantalizingly strange. Daniel Gorman

You Might Also Like

In Review | Online film and music criticism