Steve McQueen has always been a fine purveyor of potentially rich and powerful narratives, but he’s been much less consistent as their steward. His first three features (Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave) all focused on singular individuals locked in combat with dominant cultural norms or mores, and succeeded to varying degrees in this character-heavy vein. His fourth film, Widows, is a detour into genre work entirely ill-suited to the director’s strengths, but it’s also the most illustrative study of McQueen. It’s both artlessly didactic, building its narrative to some eventual mic-drop social commentary, and visually ostentatious, employing showy camerawork to no discernible purpose other than the pursuit of that one shot. Most egregious are the director’s cheap, stake-raising shock tactics, which in earlier films emerged organically from his protagonists’ tribulations, but which have no natural place in Widows. Lovers Rock — technically the second of McQueen’s Small Axe pentalogy, but the first to screen as NYFF’s Opening Night Film — doesn’t entirely mitigate the director’s irksome instincts, but nonetheless proves a uniquely joyous work within his filmography.
Lovers Rock is, at its core, a dancehall film, capturing the swaying bodies and small human dramas that occur across a single night during a 1980s house party. While other Small Axe films (notably, Mangrove) open up into more expansive cultural interrogations, it’s the microcosmic intimacy here that marks the most tangible aesthetic shift for McQueen. The director resists the urge to overtly contextualize his small story — though cursory knowledge of the (declining) anti-imperialist Rastafari culture and resurgent racism of Thatcherian Britain help define the particular milieu of Lovers Rock — and leaves the soapbox at home. Small Axe places much emphasis on the space afforded Black communities, and while other entries deal explicitly with the frictions that occur when white hegemony meets movements for minority equality, Lovers Rock instead offers something of a respite from this explicit confrontation. Rather than dwell on traumas, McQueen allows the men and women here to dissolve into warm hues and bouncy reggae rhythms, blanketed in the safety of community and reveling in willful, fleeting ignorance of the world outside. The dance floor, a modified living room space bathed in artificial amber lighting, is a brief haven where bodies abut and connections are made; young women practice dance moves beforehand, and young men, festooned in their best (period-ludicrous) dress, attempt suavity.
This being a McQueen film, it isn’t entirely subtle. Even in the its best moment — which here happens to be a collective, prolonged a cappella extension of Janet Kay’s woozy “Silly Games” — is held a bit long and feels like a conspicuous flourish. The director’s camera, which should float through the dance floor’s moving tableau, capturing with nonchalance the couplings and gestures and intoxications, instead employs cuts and close-ups, punishing where it should be gentle, driving into bodies and recalling the director’s familiar, heavy-handed intentionality. Unlike films like Climax or Ema or even the Step Up franchise, there’s precious little kineticism here; the cinematography subsumes rather than captures the fluid movement it seeks to showcase. But McQueen offsets some of his inelegant visual tics by overcoming his arch storytelling instincts; he instead focuses on small details that lend real feeling, such as when he continually guides the camera back to one particular reveler during this scene, capturing the humanity of both her exuberance and complete inability to stay on pitch. The director also introduces certain dramatic conflicts that threaten to disrupt the Lovers Rock’s low-key vibes, specifically a sexually rapacious local and an emotionally-disturbed cousin, but as if inverting Widows’ histrionic register, he manages to reconcile these developments with welcome restraint, elegantly absorbing them into the film’s swoony mood.
And that’s the best thing about Lovers Rock; despite a few blips, it’s largely animated by joy rather than directorial affect. Instead of disrupting the refuge of the dance floor, these narrative intrusions accentuate the necessity of it. For one night, the darkness that weighs down on this community is set aside in a way that larger dangers cannot so easily be. For the first time in his career, McQueen leans into sweeping romance, on both a character and communal level, and the resulting film, still tinged with veiled peril, marks an apogee for the director. So even if past films (and other Small Axe efforts) suggest Lovers Rock is little more than a lovely aberration, viewers can find respite in its moving, delicate rhythms. Luke Gorham
Fauna, Mexican-Canadian director Nicolás Pereda’s ninth feature, begins with that most familiar of low-budget indie-film setups: a pair of artists (actors in this case), Paco (Francisco Barreiro) and Luisa (Luisa Pardo), take to the road together for a weekend trip. But the film soon displays not just a deftly controlled tone, but also a tendency towards transformation. The extended opening scene balances conspicuous visual flourish (a Kiarostami-like composition through the windshield of a moving car) with the actors’ behavioral naturalism, and in addition uses dialogue to develop a sort of deadpan, existentialist comedy of waiting. Once the pair arrive at their destination — a depopulated mining town in northern Mexico where Luisa’s parents live — the film shifts gears into a comedy of embarrassment, mostly centered on Paco’s interactions with Luisa’s father and her brother Gabino (Lázaro Gabino Rodríguez). In a particularly amusing scene, the latter two urge Paco to perform something from the narco-themed television series that he’s in — this, despite the fact that he has no lines — eventually precipitating a hilarious, perfectly-timed pan to the surrounding bar space, a setting no doubt chosen for its genre iconography.
Pereda’s underlying concern here is the industry dominance of narco-themed Mexican productions. But no dry, didactic tract, Fauna approaches the issue by slipping into the genre’s guise: Halfway through, the film abandons the characters we started with, and plunges into a mutating mystery, with the actors taking on new roles appropriate to the hardboiled proceedings. The details of this second section are ultimately of no significance (it’s enough to say that a stolen bath towel forms a major plot point). What’s remarkable is that through canny compositions, shot selection, and judicious shifts in behavioral emphasis, Pereda manages to maintain a coherent tone across both sections, while still keeping the story framework of each distinct and surprising. Though previously a purveyor of staid docufictions, Pereda has, by his own admission, become increasingly excited in “the possibilities of fiction.” But freighted as his interests are with larger industry concerns, Pereda’s fictive explorations are, necessarily, as cautionary as they are liberating, as open to crass exploitation as to artistic innovation. The pitfalls of mere equivocation remain, and few will be satisfied by the non-committal postmodern flourish that closes the film. But at its not infrequent best, Fauna offers the thrill of creative evolution. Lawrence Garcia
The Truffle Hunters
The Truffle Hunters is a relatively modest festival contender, though one can see why it’s found traction on the circuit, with major play at Sundance, Toronto, and now New York. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, who previously collaborated on the 2018 stock car racing documentary, The Last Race, as director and cinematographer respectively, each act in both capacities on this film. This melding of roles speaks to the aesthetic inclinations of The Truffle Hunters and its stylized approach to nonfiction filmmaking, which is at once its great appeal, but also a point of frustration.
Taking place amongst the crisply shot foliage of Italy’s northwestern Piedmont region, The Truffle Hunters concerns itself with a small collection of elderly men and their dogs, who make a living off of harvesting the ultra-rare Alba truffle. These mushrooms have never been able to be cultivated outside the wild, and so knowing where this obscure fungus grows is lucrative knowledge, albeit knowledge in danger of being lost to time. For whatever reason, the truffle hunting tradition has not been passed on to younger generations, so the film’s proceedings have a melancholy air; this is in fact a document of the end of an era. This was more or less the idea behind The Last Race; as with that film, Kershaw and Dweck intend The Truffle Hunters to be a celebration of a niche community and an argument on behalf of embracing finitude in both culture and life. These are noble enough ideas, and the movie and its subjects are mostly sweet and pleasant to spend time with, but the film is told in an impressionistic fashion that actively avoids giving us a broader cultural context to weigh these truffle hunters against. And so the film is rather thoughtful about its profound, abstract questions, but doesn’t really want to contend with its subject in a specific manner. What the film works out to is a series of “One Perfect Shot”-esque tableaux, rigorously composed and generously lit; quite gorgeous as imagemaking, but constricting as a nonfiction form. This approach is likely to be passively enjoyed. In choosing to exert this much control over this production, Dweck and Kershaw ultimately produce something handsome, yet free of personality or character. M.G. Mailloux
Song Fang’s long-awaited second feature film premiered at Berlin shortly before the world it depicts completely fell apart. As such, it is the perfect film to watch in this time of socially distanced online film festivals, at least for those of us who enjoy torturing ourselves with a vision of what once was and is no longer. A director travels around Japan, China, and Hong Kong, showing her film at various festivals. She meets people, occasionally — new acquaintances, old friends, visits to her elderly parents — but mostly she is alone — on trains, in hotel rooms, on long walks in parks. A hint of a backstory is given: she has broken up with her longtime significant other. But there’s very little detail, not that it would matter much anyway. The point, such as it is, is that she’s alone now, but still in the world.
Like her excellent 2012 debut, Memories Look at Me, The Calming is a film that understands the joy of a nap in the afternoon sun or the feel of wind blowing through green trees. Or, most of all, the sound of that wind, captured by the brilliant sound designer Zhang Yang. Also like Memories, her latest work enjoys watching people look out of windows, in the parents’ apartment especially, which looks to be very similar to, if not the same as, the parents’ apartment where her debut took place. Here we watch people watching the streets and the sky, but Song never cuts to a point of view shot to show us what they’re seeing. And she shouldn’t: it’s not a film about looking at the world, it’s a film about a person looking at the world. The Calming’s particular slow cinema style seems now to come from another dimension, a time long ago when a person could travel far from home and watch movies with strangers and wander unfamiliar, yet unthreatening, streets. It’s a film about a rebirth, a re-centering, the recreation of the self that must come after a life-changing event. Rarely has a film made me more jealous. Sean Gilman
Inspired by both director Ephraim Asili’s personal experiences living in a Black radical collective and the formalism of late-’60s Godard (a giant poster of La Chinoise occasionally pops up to make this more blatantly obvious), The Inheritance serves as a sociopolitical update on a rather archaic mode of Marxist filmmaking, emphasizing the ways political activism is exploited and re-purposed within the tapestry of modern iconography. Mao’s Little Red Book has now been replaced with the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter, a slogan gleefully adopted by the new occupants of freshly-formed socialist shared space located on Philadelphia’s West Side. It is here that John Africa, an anarcho-primitivist leader who was eventually murdered during a police raid in 1985, founded the MOVE liberation group, an organization whose hard work and perseverance serve as a stark juxtaposition to the intellectual and aesthetic posturing provided by these younger faux-revolutionaries. When Africa’s son speaks to the group about his time growing up amid so much systemic and political violence, they could hardly be less interested; one is attempting to tune his guitar the entire speech, while the others begin to bat their eyes in other directions. All of these despondent radicals are played by actors, with real representatives from MOVE stepping in to provide a historical context to this scripted drama of interpersonal relationships, all of which eventually dissipate due to selfishness and juvenile pride.
The central tension here — between the reality of an activist’s largely boring day-to-day activities and the fiction created by those prone to moral posturing online — is a tricky one. It requires an adroit touch in order to avoid straw-manning a younger generation, or uncritically praising and promoting local advocacy. But Asili doesn’t possess the abilities needed to pull this off, often playing into a blunt, didactic tone that’s more in line with the formal antecedents he’s cribbing from. A scene of the flatmates arguing about house rules feels especially emblematic of this issue, resulting in a series of mawkish retorts and misplaced anger towards the inherent paradox of non-commercial activism: living with capital while also fighting against it. The first-time feature filmmaker has several interesting elements in play here, and he’s often able to draw humor from these rote interactions — but he also has no overarching vision by which all of these pieces can come together in an organic or meaningful way. Asili ultimately produces a product that has more functionality as an academic exercise than as legitimate political discourse, a work that any of his attitudinized characters could have created and patted themselves on the back for. Paul Attard