A former student of Michael Haneke’s, now operating under the Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion banner, Peter Brunner seems primed (and positioned) to be Austria’s next internationally recognized auteur, with a style and tonal proclivity comparable to those of his aforementioned mentor’s. Though his previous film, 2018’s English-language To the Night, failed to catch on broadly despite its trendy contemporary surrealist style and Heaven Knows What-parallel cast, its dour provocations seemed too much for the audiences that saw it at Czech Republic’s KVIFF that year. Now, Brunner’s latest feature Luzifer has made its debut at the 2021 Locarno Film Festival, a film no less grim-faced than that last one, paired with a visual sensibility that almost, maybe justifies its confrontationally bleak material.
Pitching itself in the festival program as “Inspired by the true story of an exorcism,” it becomes clear rather early on that whatever source text Brunner is drawing from has been reshaped and expanded considerably in the adaptation process (interviews suggest it was stumbled upon while researching newspaper clippings for a previous project). Ultimately building to this advertised “exorcism,” Luzifer doesn’t rush to its gnarly, violent conclusion, but steadily strides towards it, giving a whole sense of the insular, extreme lives of its lead characters. Starring the very in-demand Franz Rogowski (borrowed from Haneke’s Happy End) and Susanne Jensen, a nonprofessional actor whose life experience bears a strong resemblance to that of her character’s (Brunner supposedly prefers to cast in this manner). The pair play son and mother, living in a chosen exile from society, out somewhere in the Alpines. Rogowski’s Johannes is mentally handicapped and unable to communicate in language recognizable to anyone outside of himself, his pet eagle, and his mother, Marie, a former addict who has resigned herself to a hardcore evangelical lifestyle in the wilderness with her son. But despite their best efforts, modernity finds its way to these two in the form of land developers looking to transform the area into something tourist-friendly, flooding the woods with aggressive drones that throw into turmoil both the natural ecosystem and that which exists within this particularly intense parent/child dynamic.
Not really bothering to play coy about the film’s grisly conclusion, the press material for Luzifer has Brunner casually describing the matricide that occurs in the film’s closing minutes (the result of the aforementioned “exorcism”), with an intent toward shifting the audience’s attention to the narrative and character path taken to this classically tragic moment. In this way, Brunner attempts to offer Luzifer as both gritty character study/psych profile and broad, occult-tinged allegory about spirituality and nature, with the film not totally convincing as either, its scope unable to contain both halves. Jensen and Rogowski give these massive, faux-naturalistic method performances (worked on for at least a year while living on location) that help to legitimize the film’s belief in itself as an accurate depiction of human psyche, though many will cringe at the latter’s unabashed take on this cognitively disabled character, not so far off from Adrien Brody in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (thematic similarities only help to underline the comparison). Peter Flinckenberg’s cinematography accounts for Luzifer’s strongest feature, consistently, brilliantly lit and composed around the landscapes of the actor’s bodies and the Alpine forest with a knowing ease. It’s impressive work that, along with Jensen’s performance in particular, sometimes makes the dubious premise feel more significant than it is; it can at least be said that Luzifer offers complex images where it lacks similarly substantive philosophy.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
More famously known for his visual effects work on such timeless classics as Star Wars and Jurassic Park, Phil Tippett never quite successfully pivoted into filmmaking proper. While his illustrious career saw him recognized with various accolades (including Oscars and Emmys aplenty) in both its stop-motion and CGI phases, he only ever sat in the director’s chair for a handful of shorts, alongside a soon-forgotten made-for-TV sequel to Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Tippett began work on an independent project even before Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation, but it quickly languished in development hell with the advent of his visual effects studio. Mad God, the said project, has after 30 years of painful budgetary constraints and ten of painstaking hand-crafted animation finally come to fruition: Packed with a maelstrom of grandiosity and chaos for the entirety of its 83-minute runtime, Tippett’s labor of love comprises stews of steampunk, body horror, and religious mythology, offering nothing less than a ravishing sensory experience of lurid phantasmagoria, molded less in the vein of Bertrand Mandico’s pop psychedelia than in an apocalyptic inferno.
And what an inferno it is, in more sense than one. A sweltering desolation accompanies our sojourn as Mad God descends into the nethers of hell, mirroring the path taken by the narrator of Dante’s Inferno. Traversing endless, anachronistically connected tissues of untold cruelty and horror, a diving bell housing our unnamed protagonist — gas-masked and clad in cyberpunk gear, ostensibly to shield against the noxious purgatory that awaits him — is lowered through the earth, past fantastical realms of carnage, bone, and bloodshed. Coming to a halt on the twilit surface of a battlefield, the bell delivers its resident, gameplay-style, onto the latter’s next quest: to penetrate even deeper subterranean ground, journeying across impossible parallel universes co-signed by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch and Pier Paolo Pasolini in order to plant a bomb to destroy them. And so Tippett’s odyssey, equally compelling and off-putting, enmeshes the viewer in a maximalist excess not too formally different from the likes of Flying Lotus’ trippily mutated Kuso, abetting its dream logic with lurid visions of the scatological and profane. Yet where one might tend to categorize the latter work as replete with irony given its primarily digitized designs, this label applies less to Mad God, a creation through whose profanity emerges a sanctity etched by its creator’s endearing commitment to practical effects, reflective themselves of time passing, from the 1990s to the present day.
This commitment underscores Tippett’s sincerity in appraising the thematic and aesthetic spectacle of its images; each frame of Mad God’s maddeningly hallucinatory world realizes a somber truth of mankind’s eternal penchant for conflict and evil, intricately fleshed out through both the comical and the grotesque. This ahistorical film proffers, in fact, a historical thesis of pessimism concerning humanity’s cyclical violence, as its hellscapes span both antiquity and modernity, beginning with the wrath of God in Leviticus and tracing the anachronisms of plagues, trench warfare, slavery, sexual depravity, medical institutions, and so on. Recalling the fantastical world-building of both Spielberg’s Ready Player One and Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, Mad God capitalizes on those radical cultural summations to concoct, out of Tippett’s frenzied mind, a troubled, personal, and wholly original statement of the aching human heart.
Writer: Morris Yang
For many depressing reasons, it’s not surprising to see a film like The River in competition at Locarno in 2021: it’s helmed by an artist of some minor international recognition (Lebanese director Ghassan Salhab) and operates in broad artistic strokes, concerning itself with the collapse of the modern civilized world in tandem with the deterioration of one couple’s relationship. But “broad” is the operative word here, as nothing The River does or attempts to accomplish has an ounce of specified intent: the man and woman (awkwardly inhabited by Ali Suliman and Yumna Marwan; to claim they’re acting here is a bit of a stretch) are never once named, are never given any personal history outside of a few vague details about their past domestic life, and are never developed beyond what can be gleaned after five minutes. They begin in an outdoor cafe — again, not named; its significance is ultimately a moot point — arguing over something and using ambiguous verbal language (again, does it really matter over what?) when an unnamed foreign military presence suddenly intervenes — all off-screen and represented with cheap sound effects, with the two leads occasionally looking off into non-diegetic space to suggest more than what’s actually here — which makes the two take off into a nearby forest for no discernible reason other than there’s another hour and a half that needs filling.
So Salhab isn’t interested in the particulars of his work’s narrative, which isn’t inherently a bad approach to take with the given material, but it is one that would require him to actually settle on any given theme or develop his ideas beyond their most obvious base sentiments if any of this is to work. Instead, he keeps things obtusely nebulous: anything and everything his images could signify, can and do to some degree. The man and the woman are stand-ins for ALL of mankind, so they can’t be defined as individuals; the armed forces represent ALL civilized conflict, so no need to establish any political subtext beyond the seemingly obvious. It’s the type of film that can only function on the most amorphously allegorical of terms, one where any sort of historical context is practically a prerequisite to “get” anything that occurs on screen. But even with these tools at a viewer’s disposal, one would still get the creeping feeling after a little while that this is just Salhab and his actors dicking around in the woods whilst searching for profundity where there clearly isn’t any. His formal skills are pedestrian at best — he hangs on every dissolve for at least ten seconds, like he’s worried you might miss such a masterful technique — which could have at least been something of a saving grace. Instead, by aiming for a certain type of flimsy universality, Salhab just further evinces how little he has to say at all.
Writer: Paul Attard
Training for riots in blue and red gear, the police force, as depicted in Il Legionario, are made to look like Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. But there is little playful energy in Hleb Papou’s feature debut, an extended version of his 2017 short of the same name. Daniel (Germano Gentile) is a riot cop for Italian police, and his career puts him at odds with his family, who immigrated from Africa some years earlier. Daniel’s family, especially his brother Patrick (Maurizio Bousso), resent his work, and with good reason. In the opening scene, we see Daniel running through clouds of smoke to beat unseen figures. His familial opposition only grows when he learns that he will soon be sent into the occupied block where they live to perform a mass eviction. You see, in Rome, coming home isn’t that easy.
Daniel is forced to suffer something of a double consciousness: the ostensible camaraderie and pride of the force set against the discomfort he expresses to his girlfriend at being the only Black man in the squad, at having the nickname “Hot Choc,” and at otherwise being provoked by his team under the auspices of being pushed to train harder. We see the cops discussing which race is best to sleep with, and all manner of other incidents which elucidate their obvious bigotry. Daniel is scalded by his family for associating with such types, but never becomes a truly active lead character himself, only engaging in minor subterfuge as he attempts to stop the force from discovering his link to the home.
Coming less than a year after Steve McQueen’s Small Axe quintet, it’s difficult not to think of the John Boyega-starring Red, White and Blue, which followed real-life cop Leroy Logan’s efforts to reform the Metropolitan Police from within. Papou shares McQueen’s visual penchant for shots that linger in the middle distance, but the Italian filmmaker has little interest in investigating the social systems that might push Daniel into the space of uncertainty that he spends the film occupying.
Instead, Il Legionario plods along, characterizing the occupied housing block through do-gooder signifiers like a candlelit vigil and a cringey performance at the house by a mustachioed acoustic guitarist. It continually talks down to its audience, despite presenting a well-worn ideological dilemma: “When they were building the colosseum, we were swinging clubs,” says Daniel’s brother Patrick (Maurizio Bousso) to his son, in one of a number of portentous jabs at meaning that feel more like dialogue from an id-pol-baiting laptop commercial, underlined by a doomy score and wide-lensed shots of the city landscape. And so, while Papou inhabits the buildings and rooms of his characters well, he never summons the feeling of a real city beyond those walls, even as the script (which he shares credit on with Giuseppe Brigante and Emanuele Mochi) does its best to explain Italy’s swing toward fascism.
Writer: Ben Flanagan
The Sacred Spirit
The Sacred Spirit, Chema García Ibarra’s feature-length debut, asks a weighty and fitting question for these unstable times: Is there an unknown force in the universe orchestrating the bizarre events that constitute our day-to-day lives? In a world where the likes of Pizzagate and QAnon are becoming consistent talking points for mainstream news media outlets, it’s a popular inquiry — one whose prevalence is growing at an alarming rate. Naturally, it also weighs heavy on the mind of José Manuel (Nacho Fernández), a member of a local ufology group in Elche, Spain, who turns to members of his oddball collective and their auspicious leader, Julio (José Ángel Asensio), to find a cosmic explanation regarding his missing younger cousin’s whereabouts. We come to learn that José’s introduction to the group was through his mother — a popular local psychic, whose clairvoyant visions have ended due to Alzheimer’s — which helps to instill a small sense of sympathy towards the character: He, like many others drawn into the impenetrable mystery of unidentified flying objects, has gotten here not because he legitimately came to these conclusions, but from a strong sense of community. The sentiment is one that Ibarra doesn’t entirely let off unchallenged — the film’s big reveal in the last five minutes fully explicates this ideology as a breeding ground for systematic abuse and wide-spread corruption — but is one he shows a careful amount of goodwill towards. He could have easily made this a comedy of human error, where the punch-line repeatedly lines up to dunk on these doofuses as they prepare for another prayer ritual to make contact with aliens. True, we’re meant to laugh at them to some degree, but never outright pity them.
It’s also because of this remarkable amount of maturity and compassion that things never outright fail, even when Ibarra’s formal tendencies wear thin. For his non-professional actors (who make up most of the major players), he favors this big-eyed, sorta theatrical style akin to the type found in Matteo Garrone’s most putrid affairs. It’s not big or boisterous, just a tad off-putting with how hard it’s trying to be quirky — a clear sentiment that’s further proven by the constant static shot compositions which are employed throughout, all symmetrical and fixed like a wannabe Wes Anderson flick (the film was also shot on 16mm for what looks like no discernible reason other than bragging rights). This cloying ethos is reflected most strongly with the aforementioned rug-pull ending: it aims to shock with its unpleasant worldview — even if it’s a conclusion most could naturally assume as a logical endpoint, given the subject matter — but feels cutesy and calculated in how everything plays out. If anything, the conclusion does the exact opposite of Ibarra’s clear objectives: It provides easy explanations to difficult, even outright impossible questions.
Writer: Paul Attard
Where Are You
Snuck into Locarno’s Histoire(s) du cinéma section (generally reserved for restorations and works explicitly about film history), husband/wife directing duo Riccardo Spinotti and Valentina de Amicis’ Where Are You seems to have made it into the fest as a favor to Riccardo’s father, acclaimed Italian cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who was attending this year as a lifetime honoree receiving the Pardo Alla Carriera award. One of the great contemporary cinematographers, the senior Spinotti is probably best known for his work with Michael Mann — though more contemporary times have found him working alongside Brett Ratner and Marvel Studios (also, more intriguingly, Deon Taylor). Regardless, Dante Spinotti is certainly an artist deserving of such an honor, so it’s a shame that this occasion was tainted by the inclusion of Where Are You, a film that he did indeed produce and shoot, a fact that it’s surely best not to highlight so publicly.
Granted, this seemed like the fate Where Are You was bound for when it failed to catch on at smaller fests in 2019/2020. Then titled Now Is Everything (still listed as a separate film on IMDb), the film played the Torino Film Festival and the Tallin Black Nights Festival (an interview where Dante defended Marvel movies against Scorsese’s “theme park” comments accounted for the bulk of the film’s press there), before vanishing from the circuit. Its convenient, post-pandemic retitling is hard not to perceive cynically, especially as the film itself scans as totally insincere: a trite, hollow story of celebrity ennui, half-heartedly abstracted by faux-Malick cinematography and bad jumpy editing provided by the film’s producers. With these elements in mind, one can probably understand that Where Are You is biting a lot from Knight of Cups, though unlike that film, this one is totally wrapped up into the superficiality it thinks it’s critiquing. Baiting festival goers and film buyers alike with a performance from Spinotti family friend Anthony Hopkins, the famed thespian inevitably appears on screen at the film’s one-hour mark for about three minutes — black and white footage of him writing at a desk and saying the film’s title bookend the narrative, insinuating a framing device that goes unmentioned otherwise — during which he’s forced to act off of Irakli Kvirikadze, the film’s blank, sneering lead.
In Kvirikadze’s defense: this is basically what’s required of him in the role of a world famous photographer with a best-selling coffee table book (seriously) that’s brought him wealth, attention, and dissatisfaction. The film hops around between antagonistic interviews with an envious arts journalist and pained, faux-sensual flings with a cast of similar looking models. As it goes with these types of narratives, there’s an expectation that the audience will find something stirring in the contrast between outer beauty and inner turmoil, but this is of course a cliché, and one that requires an artistry not present in this production to justly render. The introduction of a metaphysical mystery element late in the movie seems like it should fix things, but only makes proceedings more unbearable, introducing an unearned pretension to the proceedings, pushing the film from unpleasant to laughable (posters for Contempt and Blow Up prominently positioned in key shots tell you where the filmmakers’ heads are at). A pure act of nepotism (Sting’s daughter and Jack Nicholson’s son also have roles), Where Are You is a flimsy film with bad ideas, embodying precisely what it aims to condemn.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
Admittedly light on story, Rose, a directorial debut from actress Aurélie Saada, is more of a cultural celebration than the straightforward story of aging sexuality (in the vein of Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria) it is sold as. Thoroughly dedicated to the director’s Jewish roots, both Ashkenazi and Sephardic, whether it be the music written by Saada herself (that of more traditional Yiddish songs) or the makroud recipe shown just before the credits, there’s a cultural maximalism in the film’s frequently spirited family gatherings. The protagonist’s Tunisian origins evince a further specificity, heavily steeped in tradition and seeking to center the Sephardi Jewish diaspora within France. Beyond just representation politics, there are greater generational complexities running through the central family ties. The death of Rose’s (Françoise Fabian) husband, for instance, extends wider than her character as the newly widowed matriarch now has to reflect on the relationships of her three children and how she has lived through them.
There’s an uneasy oscillation between soap opera tendency and the more sensitive beats of drama; the extended members of Rose’s central Goldberg family most frequently bring the film to the former’s edge. Medical pronouncements are declared over dinner to heightened reaction, forgoing understated realism to unnatural melodrama. In an otherwise uneven script, however, Rose’s view of her children and how they’ve changed since her husband’s death proves a strength; she watches as her son Pierre’s (Grégory Montel) relationship to Tsilla (Déborah Saïag) loses warmth over the years, a warmth her large family still retains on the whole, and observes her daughter Sarah’s (Aure Atika) inability to move past her ex-husband. Through careful reflection, she lives vicariously and meaningfully, and it is this family tree that holds together in Rose an otherwise sprawling net of personal significance. While the film leans towards the cliches of directorial debut wherein its side characters tend to be defined by their relationships, it somehow still works, as a hyper-subjective portrait of motherhood and the limitations to its lenses past a certain age.
Rose stands out from the recent French festival darlings like Party Girl and Things to Come whose ruminations on love after love acquire an air of breezy homogeneity; its own epiphanies are founded on the unbalanced but intimate parts of rebirth. Long takes revel in a prioritization of family and the rocky stages of rebuilding romance when both bodies and minds have evolved so much over time. Saada writes from a place of admiration towards the women in her own family, and it is this ancestral warmth that celebrates aging as opposed to pitying it. The later scenes do devolve into comedy, though rather different from and more mature as opposed to Saada’s 2006 Foon, the so-bad-it’s-good television teen comedy, and employ the naturalism of non-actors (thereby mitigating its scripted soapiness). The resultant linguistic blend, oscillating among French, Arabic, Italian, Hebrew, and Yiddish, explicates Rose as a narrative of roots, albeit one that feels like more of a personal passion project than anything, having quite astutely understood how culture blends and evolves within family.
Writer: Sarah Williams