by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

New Directors/New Films 2020 — Dispatch 3: Nasir, The Metamorphosis of Birds, The Cloud in Her Room

December 17, 2020
Credit: Film at Lincoln Center

Nasir

What’s immediately striking about Nasir, Arun Karthick’s sophomore feature, is the ebb-and-flow rhythm of its slice-of-life portraiture. Karthick immediately and consistently trains his camera on the toil of hands, maestros of daily drudgery; characters’ heads, meanwhile, often extend beyond the frame, as if to suggest their peripherality with regard to life’s grind. In the world of Nasir, bodies are made to work, to seek purchase on rocky ground where only quickly-smoked cigarettes can provide momentary respite from life’s Sisyphean struggle. Thanks to Karthick’s delicate direction and attention to detail, otherwise tedious tasks, like the hawking of saris in the clothing shop where the eponymous character works, become thrilling. In one sequence, the camera cuts between the various employees’ respective counters, blurring the line between salesperson and auctioneer in a flurry of transactional repartee, the scene’s wash of vibrantly colored fabric punctuating the everyday hysteria of commerce and providing a counterpoint to the film’s hardscrabble core.

Soon, however, as it becomes marked by rippling disquiet, Nasir opens up into something far more sobering than merely cinema of the quotidian. Nasir’s daily routine and small scale endeavors are slowly enveloped within menacing external discourse; radio reports and fringe characters recount growing unrest with the Muslim population, of which Nasir is a part, in the Hindu-majority region of Tamil Nadu where the film is set. These bandied bits of foreboding establish a clear tension between bottom-rung Maslowian needs: what does the struggle to get by (or, more idealistically, the struggle for upward mobility) look like when it exists alongside the ever-looming, existential threat of prejudicial violence? Adding to the film’s particular understated horror is that Nasir is an obviously soft soul, a man who takes care of his developmentally-challenged nephew and devotes his limited free energies to a love of poetry — in this way, the film’s early movements recall Paterson, only replacing a bus’s relative calm with the freneticism of street vendor work. All of this builds to Nasir’s bruising crescendo, where the whisperings of violence at last and tragically turn tempestuous, Karthick’s camera unmoored and caught in the chaos as it collides with and then bounces off bodies as if in pursuit of safety, before a cut leaves viewers with a final, startlingly static shot of the shape of Nasir’s final peace. Luke Gorham


Credit: Film at Lincoln Center

The Metamorphosis of Birds

In the first volume of his literary magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time, French writer Marcel Proust writes: “Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves, and not anything else, and by the immobility of our conceptions of them.” This assertion works as a solid signpost on how one might best encounter Catarina VasconcelosThe Metamorphosis of Birds. It’s evident from the beginning that this poetic and personal work of metafiction is concerned with the power of meticulous and sensitive observation. The film opens with an extreme close-up of eyes, and later, among other various household objects the camera captures, mirrors, magnifying glasses, and even the reflective surfaces of water play a crucial role in forming the film’s ocular discourse. Or, as it’s more precisely stated in one of many subjective voice-overs, “Objects have their own secret lives.” It’s this that the 34-year-old Portuguese director seeks to capture in her slow-burn, essayistic debut feature, using exquisitely tender 16 mm cinematography in academy-ratio fixed frames to invoke the same magical quality she sees as hidden within life’s ordinary things. Vasconcelos’ delicately lit compositions frequently suggest the quality of still-life photography or even the Flemish style of painting; her formal constructions here, whether capturing various fruits or parts of the human body or a flower’s petals, are rendered so as to reflect the full tangibility of the world — or, as another bit of narration suggests, “We observed the world as if we were inside a painting.” 

With Vasconcelos and her family members handling the voice-over duties for a litany of various characters (some of which take place in different periods of the past, and alternating between first and third person), The Metamorphosis of Birds recounts (or reinvents) the familial memoirs and histories of the director’s parents and grandparents — Henrique, who spent much of his life as a mariner at sea, and his beloved wife Beatriz, who longed for his return. This narrative fodder helps the film take its eventual shape, aiding in the continuous oscillation between interior shots of domesticity (recalling a chamber piece) and grand exterior compositions, where vast oceans and fecund forests function as allegorical dimensions for Henrique and Beatriz — in the same manner, birds are identified with the family maid, Zulmira, while Catarina herself is fascinated by the mountains — and also enhancing the film’s fluid form and a revitalizing atmosphere. In some ways, Vasconcelos’ work is aesthetically reminiscent of old masters like Manoel de Oliveira, Raúl Ruiz, and Andrei Tarkovsky as it seeks to connect the personal facets of one’s domestic life to a more ontological universalism where all humans are “located in the intervals of existence, between the earth and the sky.” Its hybrid visual approach makes sense, then, crafting a private family scrapbook filled with generational nostalgia, but also expanding to consider the overwhelming beauty of both joy and grief and to contemplate such quintessential concepts as living, dying, reincarnation, remembrance, and the state of being in the world. Given such grand ambition, it’s perhaps not surprising that the final result of this introspective cinematic exploration is indeed nothing less than a complex love letter, one that is simultaneously rooted and celestial, sober and lyrical, palpably sensual, intellectually meditative, and, most importantly (in a Proustian sense), conceptually kinetic. Ayeen Forootan


The Cloud in Her Room

Zheng Lu Xinyuan’s The Cloud in Her Room represents the type of opaque arthouse drama that tends to do exceedingly well on the international film festival circuit, with critics bestowing praise upon these works that reads like they’re treating press kits as gospel. Most professional reviews from well-regarded trade publications have been quick to highlight how dreamlike the film’s monochrome cinematography is or how the lethargic narrative is intentionally aimless as a bid to mirror the desultory existence of its central protagonist Muzi (Jin Jing) as she visits her hometown of Hangzhou; what most have failed to do after authenticating such basic labels is to argue what value any of these elements actually brings to the film. This speaks to a larger failure of current criticism, wherein feature-length works that boast any impressive formalism, even if all it accomplishes is to mask the dull proceedings, are met in good faith with critics assuming the deficiencies are their’s and not the film’s. So when it comes to the nitty-gritty of assessment, it’s easiest to go with the obvious first: yes, the muted black-and-white color palette is indeed impressive and at times even impressionistic, and it does most of the heavy lifting in terms of establishing the film’s melancholy mood. But it’s only an impressive visual aesthetic, not a great one, which would require the look to work in tandem with the narrative in a way that builds upon its central themes, not just offering eye candy to those zoning out from the film’s central tensions. 

Yet, one would be forgiven if they opted not to invest themselves in the day-to-day life of Muzi and her family, as Zheng herself doesn’t seem terribly interested, injecting little dramatic weight into their individual conflicts beyond surface-level complications — her father is a lecherous artist, the mother has “friends” from overseas — that don’t cause friction, but rather mere irritation. What’s even more burdensome here is Cloud’s inability to ever build into itself anything that suggests progression; each scene is stacked carelessly on top of the previous, oftentimes switching modes entirely in the form of docudrama-like interludes with minor characters, which is assembled in a way that crafts a rather centerless hole of a viewing experience. There are hinted-at sociopolitical underpinnings regarding fluctuating personal identity within a country that’s likewise in flux, but they’re so muted and underdeveloped that it feels more like stretching to locate profundity within a work that’s decidedly lacking in any. This isn’t to suggest that every piece of cinematic art needs to carry some burden of deep insight, but they do need something that coheres the visual and thematic components and finds meaning in a single, cogent entity rather than two separate ones inelegantly tethered. As it stands, works like The Cloud in Her Room aren’t concerned with such goals — and since it took the top prize at Rotterdam this year, it’s clear that there exists a market where a lack of ambition isn’t quite the deficit it would seem. Paul Attard


Credit: Film at Lincoln Center

Kala azar

Kala-azar is the Indian name for Black Fever, a potentially fatal parasitic disease, and according to the official synopsis for the new Greco-Dutch co-production Kala azar, the feature debut of writer-director Janis Rafa, the title “describes a place that cannot sustain animal life any longer.” Kala azar also refers to a film so pretentious that even its press materials can barely hide a contempt for the finished product, one that in fact has its head so firmly planted in its own ass that to describe it as the work of a particularly precious first-year film major with a minor in philosophy would be generous. So, okay, the plot: in a nameless European city, a nameless hipster couple travels to the homes of bereaved pet owners and offers cremation services to those who have recently lost their furry friends. The female half of this pair is especially sensitive to the fragile life of animals, a point hammered home when she goes so far as to pick up a bit of roadkill in order to give it a respectable send-off. From here, it doesn’t take long to figure out what Rafa is up to, which amounts to both comparing and contrasting the lives of her human and animal subjects. 

A scene of dogs playfully frolicking in the mud precedes a graphic sex scene between our protagonists, who are of course animalistic in their passion and abandon. In another scene, a shot of a dog getting its teeth cleaned is paired with a moment where said female hipster digs at her own gums and asks male hipster if he sees anything out of the ordinary. And when an elderly pet owner dies, his dogs briefly licking his lifeless corpse before losing interest, female hipster is shown crying over an unknown animal they accidentally ran over with their hipster van. Not enough? Well, there’s also the scene where an older woman applies a salve to the open wound of her dog, which whimpers in pain, while the same woman later applies the same salve to the wounded knee of female hipster, who is brought to tears by the moment of human tenderness and connection. Meanwhile, male hipster pisses on his own open wound in a graphic medium-shot, naked genitalia exposed in all its glory. It’s almost like…we’re all animals, you know? Or, is human empathy what separates us from the beasts that surround us? Perhaps we are the real beasts, with nary a care for anyone but ourselves, and certainly not for any four-legged friend. After all, isn’t existence nothing if not a never-ending cycle of death and renewal? 

This constitutes the would-be profundity of the film’s making, and it’s at roughly the 20-minute mark of this nonsense that viewers’ eyes may be lost in the back of their heads. Perhaps some of this obviousness could be forgiven if the filmmaking was more than merely competent, a series of long takes and static shots that are supposed to enhance the film’s ostensible naturalism, but which only manages to feel rote calculation in service of its facile messaging. There is little dialogue present, a decision made to presumably further emphasize the connection between beast and man, save for female hipster’s repeated rehearsal of their cremation pitch, because what is language if not mutually agreed-upon empty repetition? Female hipster does get an extended monologue at one point, the only one in the film, where she talks about how a childhood dog dragged her father into the middle of traffic, causing him to injure his face when he fell to the ground. “The cat didn’t even recognize him when he came back,” she severely intones, which is of course one of the most unintentionally hilarious lines I’ve heard in ages, and one I will most certainly work into future conversations. So, I guess thanks for that, Kala azar; you at least mustered one moment of pleasure in your stultifying 90 minutes. Steven Warner


Giraffe

Frequently beautiful but frustratingly opaque, Anna Sofia Hartmann’s Giraffe plays like a compendium of festival film tics, a set of carefully curated Big Ideas in search of a compelling reason to care about any of it. In crafting what is essentially a treatise on modernity by way of Jia Zhangke and Chantal Akerman, Hartmann cycles through aesthetic forms while utilizing a staid relationship drama as structural scaffolding. Giraffe takes place largely in the Danish island of Lolland, where academic Dara (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is cataloging homes and interviewing residents that are going to be displaced in the process of building a new tunnel connecting Lolland to Germany. Hartmann also follows a crew of itinerant Polish workers who are laying fiber optic cabling that will be part of the tunnel. Eventually, Dara begins a tentative affair with one of the workers, a younger man named Lucek (Jakub Gierszał). There are also occasional trips on a ferry that transports people on and off the island (and which will itself be rendered obsolete by the impending tunnel). Here, a third character is introduced, a cryptic ferry worker played by Maren Eggert, who imagines narratives for strangers she observes on her travels. 

As in a lot of current European art films, Hartmann favors largely static master shots, always maintaining a careful symmetry and allowing the camera to occasionally pan slowly left or right. The result is a handsome film somewhat lacking in formal variation, with shots stacking up in a dull, metronomic rhythm. Hartmann is obviously interested in the various threads of our modern, interconnected world and losing our links to the past, but her approach is too diffuse to really land. Bits of narrative information are unproductively obscured, revealed only in drips and drabs. Scenes of Dara and Lucek in the throes of passion seem like they belong in another movie. Meanwhile, there are epistolary sequences of Dara reading aloud from a diary discovered in an abandoned, soon-to-be-demolished home, pseudo-documentary interview scenes detailing the plight of the Polish workers, and glacially paced trips on the ferry, which Hartmann films like an alien spacecraft. That’s a lot of ideas for a film that barely clocks 90 minutes, and there’s a clear imbalance found in how much better some of this works than other parts. Hartmann clearly has talent, but one wishes she would either commit to the human story at the center of her narrative or eschew traditional narrative altogether; this middleground isn’t working. Daniel Gorman

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