by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

New Directors/New Films 2020 — Dispatch 2: Identifying Features, The Killing of Two Lovers, The Mole Agent

December 9, 2020
Credit: Film at Lincoln Center

Identifying Features

Within a cinematic tradition that associates the violence of Mexico’s crime-infested northern border with the high-stakes machismo of drug cartels and CIA spies, Identifying Features sets itself apart by virtue of its provenance and scope. The feature debut of Fernanda Valadez, a young and relatively unknown director, the film is also, atypically, centered around the victims, rather than the agitators of the region’s carnage. Its ostensibly prosaic title, taken from procedural terminology, clues us into this gear-shifting: Many would-be emigrants never make it past the border and are killed along the way, and parents yearning for a sense of closure make their way to the authorities, providing the physical traits of the deceased needed to identify them. Some, however, cannot be conclusively labeled dead or alive, and are henceforth declared missing, their whereabouts unknown. Valadez’s assured narrative follows Magdalena, an elderly woman whose son made the trip from Guanajuato to the north two months prior and has not been sighted since. While his companion has been found dead, his throat slashed open by a machete, the only trace of her son is his duffel bag, recovered near a mass grave. The border police believe him dead, and urge her to give up the search; the grieving mother persists all the same.

While refreshingly situated on the other side of the U.S-Mexico border — focusing less on the implications of mass immigration and more on the emigrants themselves, specifically those who meet their ends at the hands of bandits and kidnappers — Identifying Features avoids deeply interrogating its landscape’s political history, consigning its purview to impressionistic visuals and sparse storytelling that shed little light on the equally cryptic violence it depicts. For one, it is not clear who the villains are, exactly; buses get stopped en route and gunmen ransack their passengers’ worldly possessions, not before slaughtering them indiscriminately. The relentless sadism and perpetual menace Magdalena bears witness to as she treks across no man’s land clearly contrasts her more small-scaled human encounters (a recently deported man around her son’s age; a surgeon and fellow mother claiming her dead son), shifting the focus away from geographical specificity and onto personal subjectivity, which is seen best in her subdued, suspended grieving and attempts to reconcile with fate. Bordering on abstraction, Identifying Features ultimately frustrates given a dearth of broader context, but it latches onto one key attribute: as proof of kinship, the bereaved draw blood to compare with the departed, identified too by the blood they shed. Morris Yang


Credit: Film at Lincoln Center

The Killing of Two Lovers

Robert Machoian’s The Killing of Two Lovers begins with a close-up of David’s (Clayne Crawford) face. His stern and concentrated look belies the sadness eating at him, something only hinted at by the sound of his quavering breath. The film quickly cuts to a shot of a couple on a bed, and then to David pointing a revolver at them. What prevents any blood from being shed is the sound of a toilet being flushed in an adjacent bathroom, which in hindsight we understand as coming from one of his children. As David jumps out a window and runs back to his car, a soundtrack of ominous, creaking metal and other non-diegetic sounds establish the quiet tension that suffuses the film. The aforementioned couple is revealed to be his wife Niki (Sepideh Moafi) and a new man she’s seeing named Derek (Chris Coy). The premise is simple: David and Niki are in the throes of a potential divorce, and while they’ve agreed to see other people, he’s unable to deal with this emotionally. The opening scene proves to capture the rest of the film well: this is a movie that continually teases violence — be it physical or emotional — maintaining its momentum by allowing us to witness David on the verge of a breakdown.

Machoian is, more than anything, an economical director. He ensures that every shot has a perceptible tranquility. Most of the film is composed of relatively still long takes, the colors are washed out, and conversations are always meant to serve a purpose in driving the simple narrative forward. His greatest trick is in using the 4:3 aspect ratio to his advantage, allowing for the compact space to build on the intensity and drama that bubbles underneath, adeptly making any scene stressful. While he generally reserves close-ups for the tensest moments, more than halfway through the film he allows for a frustrating debacle between David and Niki to play out as a wide shot in a front yard; he allows the suffocating bitterness to fester and grow outward into non-interior spaces, to be palpable in the air and not just people’s faces. This ramping up is crucial for the film’s climax, which is the only scene shot in 1.66:1 and that features David, Niki, and Derek working out their intersecting relationships. While the film’s visuals are intelligently put together, its use of non-diegetic sound and other audio effects to capture David’s anger are heavy-handed and unnecessary given Machoian’s naturalistic shooting style. At worst, they reveal how little there is here in terms of characterization. And ultimately, every person onscreen is one-dimensional if they’re not perfunctory. This feels especially true of the film’s final scene, which opts for a muddied message and safe conclusion. Had it ended one scene earlier, Machoian would have better captured David’s questionable likability and flawed personhood, and the way he’s destructively impacted everyone around him. Joshua Minsoo Kim


The Mole Agent

The Mole Agent is a bit of a baffling creation. The newest work from Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi bills itself as a documentary, but nothing about the work feels real or authentic. Part of the problem is the set-up, which is too cutesy by half: a private investigator hires an 83-year-old octogenarian named Sergio to infiltrate a nursing home and gather information regarding one of its patients, whose family fears abuse and neglect. But you must understand, Sergio is old, and so he doesn’t know how to properly utilize the modern-day tools necessary to spy; he thinks the camera app on his iPhone is used exclusively to FaceTime, for instance. He’s also given a giant pen and chunky-framed glasses that secretly contain a camera, because apparently this is a 1968 Bond film, and while it’s clear what Alberdi is doing here, the jokes are so obvious that one can’t help but still roll their eyes. It’s also established that a camera crew is already on the premises under the guise of shooting a documentary, so it’s not evident what the point of jumping through all of these hoops is anyway, particularly when the cameras follow Sergio everywhere he goes. And remember, the documentary crew is not a ruse, because they are indeed making a documentary, which is this film, and…you can see how this whole twee endeavor gets exhausting pretty quickly. 

It’s all especially galling when the filmmaker’s obvious goal is to simply capture the everyday lives of these senior citizens, individuals who have essentially been discarded by an uncaring social system. Alberdi focuses most of her attention on the female population of this particular community, who run the gamut from depressed and lonely to spry and horny. Sergio is certainly a charmer, even being crowned “king” at an anniversary celebration for the facility, and he befriends many of these women, which allows Alberdi to share their stories. Unfortunately, at only 90 minutes, The Mole Agent barely has the time to focus much attention on any one individual with any detail, let alone the catalog of them it attempts, resulting in portraits so thinly-sketched that it’s nearly impossible to muster any emotional investment. There’s also something about this entire production that feels both calculated and condescending, like an episode of the television series Undercover Boss. Alberdi wants to show that these individuals are indeed living, breathing human beings with rich histories and who still harbor hopes and dreams, but she reduces nearly all of them to caricatures for the camera. This is the type of film that people walk out of and say, “Aren’t old people cute,” which does a great disservice to the forgotten men and women at its core and the mechanisms that orchestrate their exile. Good intentions aside, The Mole Agent is borderline insulting in its approach, and not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. If the ostensible ethics that inform Alberdi’s film resonate, you’d be better served to go volunteer at an elderly care facility for a few hours. There’s no doubt it would be a vastly more rewarding experience than watching this dubious flick. Steven Warner


Credit: Film at Lincoln Center

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs

In the annals of films about nomadic shepherds, Pushpendra Singh‘s The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs stands in good company. There’s something about this subject that lends itself to great cinema — whether its Luigi Falorni and Byambasuren Davaa’s The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan (2008), or more recently, even Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (2020), there’s something uniquely alien about the nomadic lifestyle, even (as in the case of Nomadland), when it’s happening in our own backyard.

Inspired by the poetry of 14th century Kashmiri mystic, Lalleshwari, The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs tells the story of a nomad named Laila (Navjot Randhawa), who finds herself trapped in a loveless, arranged marriage to Tanvir (Sadakkit Bijran), a fellow shepherd. Upon returning to Tanvir’s home village, Laila is courted by Mushtaq (Shahnawaz Bhat), a somewhat goofy ranger with the air of an Indian mall cop who can’t seem to leave her alone. Exhausted by the constant display of ineptitude by the men around her (Tanvir cluelessly misinterprets Mushtaq’s blatant advances at every turn), Laila decides to chart her own path in life, fending off their clumsy advances and ham-fisted attempts to control her life and refashioning herself into a fierce, independent creature.

Divided into seven chapters (or songs) that cover everything from marriage to regret to attraction to renunciation, The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs is a strikingly composed magical realist feminist fable set against the breathtaking backdrop of the mountains of Kashmir, an area between India and Pakistan that is hotly contested by both nations for its wealth of natural resources. Singh (who also wrote the screenplay), gives the film the air of a timeless fairy tale, rich with symbolic imagery and playful observations on masculinity and feminine independence. Like all great fables, the film is rife with real-world parallels for its story, but on a grander scale, Laila becomes a symbol for all of Kashmir, reclaiming her agency from two warring factions fighting over her. Singh merges feminist ideals with a larger geopolitical struggle, hedging a macro view of liberation from patriarchal power structures with a more micro examination of archaic cultural traditions, and thus creating a multilayered, intersectional narrative that resonates beyond its humble, unassuming tale of wandering shepherds. The results are a lovely thing to behold. Matthew Lucas


Window Boy Would Also Like to Have a Submarine

There seems to be a popular, contemporary aesthetic that utilizes a retreat into narrative alienation, where the sum of static wides and a distanced ennui, enveloped within often allegorical environments, creates a familiar trajectory where emotionality is elicited via the dissonance between the viewer and a film’s would-be poetics. With Window Boy Would Also Like to Have a Submarine, director Alex Piperno continues this tradition, orchestrating a not-so-elaborate matrix that seeks to pithily express the conditions of globalism that overwhelm the film’s protagonist. We follow a young crewman, Chico, who finds a door in the bowels of the cruise ship he works upon, leading him to the apartment of a middle-aged woman who invites his presence with a coy, simmering eroticism. The apartment is actually in Montevideo, and this bit of fantastical flourish likewise informs the romance that develops.

The cruise ship is depicted as an indecipherable labyrinth, in contrast to the homey, navigable apartment within which the protagonist finds escape, and this bit of foregrounded grammar quickly establishes the socioeconomic logic of the work: disembodied music that the mostly white guests of the ship enjoy echoes through the industrial substrata of the vessel, reverberations in the ship’s thick pipelines and skeletal stairways. This manner of presenting space becomes the only conduit to the characters on screen, as their psychology remains mostly occluded and this “world” that subsumes them strips them bare of the personal. In other words, the spatial construction is the ideological catalyst for the film’s varying explorations of disenfranchisement and capitalist saturation. It’s a fair, earnest portrait that Piperno composes, but it grows increasingly derivative as its monotony becomes one that encourages a normative mode of “looking.” The camera is a diagnostic element rather than a participant in the crisis, and the further utility of such works, ones that barely use the temporal strata of their images to further articulate themselves, is dubious. 

The pacing similarly becomes cumbersome in the absence of any obvious intent. Arguably, the film’s elliptical nature and its quick cutting further underlines the various abstractions at play: the eventual implosion is inevitable, and time’s elusiveness always oppresses. But such musings fail to take on any evocative quality here: too neatly is the title recalled as a facet of the imagination, a way to survive that sinking ship. To its credit, this spick and span re-presentation succinctly makes its inquiry into such notions of hopelessness without the tired brooding to which similarly-themed films so often subject viewers. But it’s also fair to ask, as one must after so many of these festival titles conclude: Yes, and? We know what capitalist realism looks like, even when blanketed within fantasy trappings as it is here. But there must be something more, something else to imagine, no? Zachary Goldkind

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