Onoda, 10,000 Nights in the Jungle
Every pronouncement that points to a Second Coming ruptures the human sense of linear temporal experience, pulling one out of the unending succession of days epitomized by Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech. In the Pacific War in the Philippines, the most famous such line was General Douglas MacArthur’s “I came through and I shall return,” which no doubt had an altogether different resonance for Japanese forces. Though as we see at the beginning of Arthur Harari’s Onoda, 10,000 Nights in the Jungle, which dramatizes the real-life case of Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, who remained stationed on Lubang Island in the Philippines for three decades following the end of World War II, the dynamic is a universal one. (It is no doubt the basis of myriad studies in comparative religion.) The first line of the film is a diary entry dated 15th September 1974: “They had said: We’ll come back for you. No matter how long it takes, we will come back.” The voice belongs to wearied, older Onoda (Kanji Tsuda), and “they” presumably refers to his army superiors: the intelligence department under which he trained, particularly Major Yoshimi Taniguchi (Issei Ogata). Over the course of the film’s 165 minutes, we feel, through Onoda’s person, the sheer heft of this promise — as well as the crushing collapse of belief in it.
Indeed, Onoda is in some sense less about the belief itself than about its physical incarnations, the toll it takes on the body. Although we flash back early on to Onoda’s initial recruitment by Taniguchi, Harari does not try to pathologize him. We get a sense of why he was chosen — he was rejected from becoming a pilot because of a fear of heights — but his home life and background are intentionally obscured. His unwavering nationalism is accepted as a dramatic assumption, so the film doesn’t ask “Why?” but “What follows from this?” This focus, like that of so many castaway stories, is thrown onto the needs of survival: the ability of Onoda and his dwindling group of soldiers to face up, both physically and mentally, to each new vicissitude. The film thus works as both a procedural of island life and a kind of parody of the pastoral. The simplicity of life on such an abundant, undisturbed land is mirrored in the forced asceticism and order of a fanatical worldview, which is most starkly rendered in Onoda’s intermittent, but uniformly hostile interactions with the locals. When Onoda and his last-surviving companion Kinshichi Kozuka get a hold of a radio, left by a Japanese group (including Onoda’s father and brother) who try to get them to surrender, the film’s ironic vision becomes even more pronounced: A startling ellipsis shows us Onoda and Kinshichi now aged, having made a nightly ritual of listening to its broadcasts. It becomes, for them, a kind of oracle, portending an end that, in their interpretation, lies always in the future.
Still, Onoda’s watch must end eventually. As the film approaches this endpoint, Harari’s interventions — previously functional, if somewhat anonymous — make themselves felt more acutely. In particular, Onoda’s encounter with a young tourist, Norio Suzuki (Taiga Nakano), who set out in search for the now-(in)famous lieutenant, is a bracing mix of alcohol-fueled logorrhea and stoic silence. And the final collapse of Onoda’s worldview is as wrenching as any of the violence across the film, reminding us that cinema, like any other ritual of belief, is an inescapably physical experience.
Writer: Lawrence Garcia
Early on in Audrey Diwan’s Golden Lion–winning feature, Happening, a young woman is singled out in a classroom, unable to answer her professor’s query about a poem. Through a group of classmates, we learn that she is set to leave school to get married, though their gossip is cut short when the professor turns his question onto one of them — the film’s central character — Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei). She, though, does not fumble, and indeed expertly holds forth on the poem’s recurring war imagery, its historical context, and even the writer’s use of anaphora. But before the end of Happening, adapted from Annie Ernaux’s 2000 novel of the same name, an unwanted pregnancy will place Anne into much the same position as that former classmate: As a young woman living in France circa 1963, she will be forced to either choose domestic life as an unwed mother, or else risk imprisonment and death for a chance at a life made possible by a university education. (“I’d like a child one day, but not instead of a life,” Anne remarks to a sympathetic doctor who’s nonetheless unwilling to help her.) And as Diwan suggests using claustrophobic compositions, a pervasive atmosphere of conflict and suspense, and a recurring use of militaristic, in-the-trenches imagery: for a young woman, this situation is a war of its own.
For the most part, Diwan does not develop the film dramatically: Happening does not progress toward an end that illuminates the beginning (or any other moment of the film), but rather functions as an intensely linear experience. It sets up Anne’s attempts to get an abortion against a series of impediments — financial, personal, physical — and charts her efforts at overcoming them. Among the university students, Diwan sketches out a believable atmosphere of repressed sexual desire and concomitant prudishness, but by and large, details of environment and character are used to highlight Anne’s growing isolation. As the weeks pass on, the script methodically closes off various alternatives, leaving Anne with only more drastic options.
All this makes for an undeniably physical experience: A scene where Anne uses a metal skewer to try and induce a miscarriage recalls a similarly squirm-inducing passage in Titane. And it’s hard to deny that Diwan gets the effects she wants, conveying something of what Anne is going through, what she feels in the moment. But when, toward the end of the film, Anne declares her desire to become not a teacher but a writer, pointing to both Ernaux’s source novel and a kind of retrospective viewpoint that’s entirely absent from the film, one does wonder at the limits of Diwan’s approach. The film’s intense physicality is no doubt true to Anne’s present-tense experience, but especially given the period setting, one does wonder at a different sort of film — one that widened its scope enough to make room for just one moment of reflection.
Writer: Lawrence Garcia
Fire of Love
Despite boasting a title that seems more suited to a reality dating show about finding love with a hunky firefighter, Fire of Love is actually a documentary about the singular eccentricity of volcanologists, two in particular: husband-wife duo Maurice and Katia Krafft. Thus far in her young career, director Sara Dosa has carved out a niche corner of the film world by telling true stories of distinctive characters — war vets turned mushroom hunters in Oregon, a seer who communes with nature spirits in Iceland — and her portrait here of the Kraffts extends her interests into new terrain. On the surface, Maurice and Katya certainly fit that oddball mold: Katya looks like she emerged straight from Steve Zissou’s crew, sky blue jacket and red stocking cap seemingly her staple look, while the pair chase volcanic activity around the globe at a moment’s notice, offering such exclamations along the way as: “Volcanoes are one of the most beautiful things in nature but they kill.” Too right they do, and part of Fire of Love’s power comes in our knowledge that this pair will indeed meet their death at the hands of one of their beloved natural wonders. It allows Dosa to forgo any kind of organizing narrative principle, instead allowing for a free-flowing, at times amorphous melange of beautiful images and observations.
The Kraffts left behind hundreds of hours of footage and thousands of photographs, and Dosa excavates this archive of material in graceful collage. “A kamikaze existence in the beauty of volcanic things,” is how the Kraffts are described as living, and that beauty is easy to reproduce here: in one shot, sleek, silver proximity suits are set against a background of dark orange lava flows rippled with yellow veins, giving a distinctly sci-fi feel; in other moments, splatters of molten red spray as if we were watching a slasher flick; and then there are the dark billowing plumes emitted from “gray volcanoes,” one of the most ominous images (we’re told) despite how we’re conditioned to assess danger. It’s in this incompatibility, this need to retrain our understanding of visual stimuli while watching Fire of Love, and in the surreality and sometimes unreality of the images we’re presented, that the film proves most rewarding: these aren’t just pretty landscapes placidly captured for the latest streaming nature doc, but images that slide in and out of abstraction, ones that hold threat and terrible beauty when placed in context, but which still dazzle even when not. Snaking zags of lava flow cutting across ash-gray ground; geysers of red, molten rock that look CGI-grafted onto compositions: these images work as both purely visual expressions and as a part of the film’s larger though loose narrative. Dosa pairs these remarkable images with themes of love — this is nothing if not a multifaceted, somewhat wonky love story between a man, a woman, and the volcanoes that bind them — the limits of time and how we direct our energies, our role in nature, and, most indelibly, the undefinable allure of the unknown and our march into murk as humanity’s prevailing raison d’etre.
In other words, Dosa’s film is confident in its imprecision, comfortable riding various visual and philosophical waves to appealingly exploratory rather than conclusionary ends. And so it’s both baffling and frustrating that all this is guided by Miranda July’s unfortunate voiceover. There’s a certain logic to the decision, as her idiosyncrasy is well-noted and perhaps an on-paper fit for detailing the strange lives of the Kraffts. But in practice, the effect is regrettable, her monotone intonation recalling the droll, sometimes twee nature of her fictional work, an affectation at odds with the Fire of Love’s general temperament. Genuine emotional weight becomes puzzling in July’s mouth, the impression of a joke always threatening to upset the delicacy of Dosa’s chosen images and construction skill. It’s certainly not enough to tank the film, and at least the narration script feels organically and appropriately conceived — unlike something like 2021’s The Alpinist, which is utterly undone by its awkward, shallow, and platitude-riddled voiceover work — but it’s yet another disappointing instance of a documentary’s failure to believe in the power of its images (sort of essential to the medium, no?), particularly grating here given the bevy of archival material and tantalizing words of the Kraffts. It seems likely, given the unfortunate trend of attaching big-name narrators to nonfiction fare that skews even slightly esoteric, that this ill-advised development was imposed upon Fire of Love rather than being Dosa’s first choice, but the result is the same: another documentary that would be best watched on mute. Still, this earsore aside, Fire of Love is a formally impressive work that notably understands the function and power of its chosen medium — too rare in a post-true crime, talking-head-heavy doc world — and so remains a cut above its fellows despite such a notable blemish.
Writer: Luke Gorham
It’s almost more fascinating to note the array of footage that isn’t in Sierra Pettengill’s daring archival film Riotsville, USA than the materials that are. Specified as being compiled solely from footage shot by U.S. military or broadcast news, the film traces a path through both the concrete and the indefinite, making unmistakable the connections between 1960s “innovations” in policing and the all-pervasive threats that legitimate protests face at a moment’s notice today. But despite its confrontational bluntness and bleak subject matter, the film is anything but didactic.
Riotsville, USA refers to a certain twist on the Potemkin village that the American military perpetrated in the ’60s. Shoddy miniature towns built on military bases, all plywood facades and childish signage, that served one sole use: to provide the army and the police an area to practice riot control and suppression tactics. As numerous commanding officers watch, soldiers play-act at being anti-war protestors before being effortlessly quelled (to the officers’ applause). An especially nasty recurring gesture is laughter at a man pretending to be a Black Power agitator, his more open outbursts amusing the people in charge.
If Riotsville, USA had confined itself to this approach, transforming propaganda into procedure, it would already be worthwhile. But Pettengill goes much further, at least within the span of about five years. The inciting element is the formation of the Kerner Commission by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 for the purpose of analyzing the many riots that had occurred the previous summer; though composed of the most centrist and milquetoast politicians possible, it nevertheless handed down a damning portrait of racial and economic inequality that made such disturbances inevitable and advocated for an effort greater than the Vietnam War to combat this climate.
While the immediate connection is made explicit, in its note that the only spending policy that Congress chose to enact was to greatly increase federal funding for police budgets, Riotsville, USA spends a good deal of time looking at the perspectives of those who had some voice on the national stage, especially via a few panels on the Public Broadcasting Laboratory, a PBS predecessor whose funding was withdrawn in response to supposed liberal bias. From a fiery preacher to a police captain who cites Reader’s Digest as a well-respected publication, all their actions and words are explicitly contextualized within a certain apparatus of thinking, in dialogue with the apparatus of control being developed nationwide.
Along with this mountain of footage, assembled deftly by Cameraperson editor Nels Bangerter, Pettengill enacts numerous interventions, breaking the film’s ostensible diegesis and directly addressing the viewer’s understanding. At unexpected intervals, voiceover written by Tobi Haslett unfurls over stunningly treated footage — whether it be odd morphing, pointillist focus on black dots amid white newsprint or red-green-blue television ray, or circular vignetting — which foregrounds the poeticism suggested by Jace Clayton’s electronic score and the sheer surrealism of soldiers parading in an empty town, moving between objective facts and media analysis. More prevalent and just as effective is the use of brutally frank intertitles — often only a single short sentence — which provide information so damningly direct that any further explication could upset the balance.
Riotsville, USA uses its last third to consider another significant 1968 convention: the Republican National Convention in Miami which nominated Richard Nixon, or rather, the riot that happened in nearby Liberty City, a Black neighborhood repeatedly ignored and downtrodden by its affluent neighbors. In this tracing of an alternate view upon the official history, and a final analogy which lays all idealizations of a city, utopian and fascist, to bear, Pettengill caps an incisive examination, as hypnotic as it is fervent.
Writer: Ryan Swen
After a series of accomplished shorts and one medium-length feature, the magnificently opaque Notes on an Appearance, Ricky D’Ambrose has returned with The Cathedral, a loosely autobiographical saga surveying two decades in the life of a dysfunctional family. As Phil Coldiron has pithily stated, “D’Ambrose, for his part, believes unfashionably in art,” an assessment borne out by D’Ambrose’s fidelity to classic modernist influences — “Bresson, Resnais, Antonioni, Duras, Akerman,” according to Coldiron. But Michael Sicinski has suggested a more contemporary bedfellow, namely German filmmaker Angela Schanelec. Indeed, The Cathedral can sometimes play like an academic exercise, albeit a fascinating one. By deemphasizing traditional performances and largely eschewing shot-counter-shot and continuity editing, D’Ambrose is one of our few young, contemporary filmmakers really thinking about how to sequence shots and confer meaning through images. Beginning with a monotone female voiceover, the film unfurls a complicated familial genealogy, charting a phalanx of grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, leading to the marriage of Richard (Brian d’Arcy) and Lydia (Monica Barbaro), who will in turn conceive the film’s ostensible protagonist, Jesse (played at age 12 by Robert Levey II and as a teenager by William Bednar-Carter).
The film’s precise structure presents one isolated scene at a time, in chronological order, jumping from year to year as archival footage of momentous events are inserted between the narrative fragments to chart the passage of time. We see the first WTC bombing in 1993, footage of Hurricane Katrina, and miscellaneous period-specific commercials and news broadcasts. These brief interjections function as a marked formal contrast to the fictional story that is unfolding, as D’Ambrose favors static master shots and precise framings, zeroing in on small details that act as synecdoches for unseen moments. Taking Bresson’s axioms on sound and image to heart, D’Ambrose constructs an entire secondary world through implied, offscreen space and careful deployment of sound. InRO contributor Morris Yang says that it “feels akin to flipping through a family album, examining the foundations, structures, and seams,” an impression articulated throughout via D’Ambrose’s emphasis on clipped, brief interactions. Family dynamics and interpersonal conflict are only alluded to, or established after the fact.
Richard gradually emerges as a foolish egomaniac who mismanages money and alienates his wife’s extended family. For her part, Lydia remains mostly an enigma, particularly once she and Richard divorce and both remarry, the addition of step-parents further complicating the plot. For all it’s formal austerity, what Lawrence Garcia has dubbed D’Ambrose’s “archival sense,” The Cathedral gradually opens up once Jesse reaches high school and begins experimenting with filmmaking. One can only assume that D’Ambrose has the most insight into these scenes, as they are based largely on his own coming of age. The filmmaker has occasionally inserted old video footage of his own making into his shorts, and there are interludes here that are likely from the same cache of that years-old material. At one point, teenaged Jesse speaks to his class about an old family photograph, detailing how the light on the floor made an impression on him, as it reflects across various other surfaces in the photo. The Cathedral, then, reveals itself ultimately to be about how we use images to organize our memories, how we make sense of our lives through the gradual accumulation of information, photographic or otherwise. It’s a bracingly vigorous work, occasionally alienating but precise in its survey of emotional turmoil. Call it D’Ambrose’s portrait of the artist as a young man.
Writer: Daniel Gorman