For as long as the cinematic form has existed, it has embraced nostalgia, that cultural drug which oversees virtually every socio-political framework known to modern man. From D.W. Griffith and the reimagining of an idyllic Confederacy in The Birth of a Nation, to Nazi glorification under Leni Riefenstahl, and to the period dramas and decade-specific indies currently populating screens and streamers, the search for an unblemished or imagined past lingers as a perpetual referent — and, in some cases, an end in itself. Nostalgia, likewise, has co-opted the cinema in an ideologically suspect production of manufactured tastes: what are the Oscars, for example, if not millions in an imagined global consensus reminiscing over the trends and moralisms of the era? In short, when a film explores some chunk of personal or national history today, it tends more often than not to offer its intricacies as thematic moodboards, its peregrinations as emotional bait.
The choice of opening film for this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival, then, offers a sly subversion of nostalgia politics. Head South, the fourth feature of New Zealand filmmaker Jonathan Ogilvie, may be slight by all counts, but its refusal to neatly coalesce the subjective and autobiographical experiences of its protagonist — teen schoolboy Angus (Ed Oxenbould) — shouldn’t be dismissed as negligent or even wilful obfuscation. Surveying the post-punk craze of the late ‘70s and set half a world away from its British origins in 1979 Christchurch, the film recounts the turbulent association of Angus’ coming-of-age with his cultural milieu, sharing in the host of anxieties universal to contemporary adolescence. Sporting a goofy shaggy-hair imitation and a wan, somewhat embarrassed smile, the high-schooler is thrust into the real adult world when he’s expected to front a band for a side performance, to some older, meaner punksters no less. With no real experience singing or strumming, however, and without the support of his closest buds (who unceremoniously ditch him after being low-balled for weed), the bulk of Head South looks, indeed, about to head south.
Though urban slang designates the south as the metaphorical spot for oral sex, Angus’ playbook references two other souths: the magnetic equivalent and the true one. For his tongue-in-cheek dad (Marton Csokas), who’s very much a loner like him, Angus is unmotivated, unguided, and somewhat dull; but for the youngster, whose home life is marked by a periodically absent mother and an intense love — and loneliness — for the inner world of loud music, the certitude of magnets alone can’t quite prescribe his way forward in an age where nonconformity has become convention and hormonal releases seem ubiquitous all around except for him. Striking up a friendship with Kirsten (Benee, the New Zealand singer-songwriter), working at the local drugstore, the unlikely reorientation of passion and purpose soon gets underway, although marred by no few hiccups and last-minute blows. Following 2021’s bold and compelling techno-thriller Lone Wolf, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Ogilvie returns with a personal tale that’s quirky as much as it’s wry, empathetic, and quietly moving. — MORRIS YANG
Shadow of Fire
The rare Shinya Tsukamoto film to not star the director himself, Shadow of Fire is his third consecutive period piece, following Fires on the Plain (2014) and Killing (2018). The film’s confrontational nature arguably begins with its first shot, a seemingly simple image of a woman sleeping that doesn’t quite resemble other period movies. It’s smooth and shiny, an aggressively digital image that makes the ruined tavern where she lives and works into something uncanny and untextured. Fires on the Plain and Killing similarly focused on using digital to break period piece conventions, but the former took place in the last days of World War II and the latter during Japan’s Edo period. In Shadow of Fire, WWII is newly over, and the ruins of a brutalized Japan are the stage.
Period pieces are typically not intended to look like Shadow of Fire (or the prior two Tsukamoto films). Shadow’s daytime scenes are a little too harsh and bright, and the film remains a chamber drama set in its one dingy location for the first half. The blown-out whiteness of this film’s windows recalls Yoshishige Yoshida’s Japanese New Wave classic Eros + Massacre, which took a similar aesthetic approach as commentary on the inescapable post-Hiroshima mood of Japan. War movies are also generally not meant to focus on characters who seem to have lost their identities entirely, even if the archetypes survive. We never learn the name of the woman at the start (played by the mononymous Shuri), but once we see her gloomily selling sex alongside what little food and drink she has to passers-by, we know everything we need. With one exception, nobody else in Shadow of Fire ever warrants a name: the other main character is a wily orphan (Ouga Tsukao) who lives with the woman and helps her to get by via theft, the latter serving as a makeshift mother in the first half. Two men enter the picture at separate times: a baby-faced soldier (Hiroki Kono) who plays makeshift father until his past trauma comes to the fore, and an older soldier (Mirai Moriyama) who wants the child’s assistance with his private revenge and who starts bringing names from an unseen past into the picture.
Tsukamoto’s breakout, Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), is certainly still his most influential film for kicking off the Japanese cyberpunk wave, and arguably his greatest. Despite being a body horror film and about 35 years older, it has a surprising amount in common with Shadow of Fire in its methods. Both films were clearly limited by their budgets and didn’t leave their primary locations too much as a result, and both used some of the cheapest tools available at the time for their unique properties, with the earlier work’s black-and-white 16mm film becoming digital cinematography. Tsukamoto also obscures violence, with Tetsuo’s monochrome blood turning into Shadow’s PTSD fits caused by offscreen gunshots. How the adult characters treat the child is the film’s preoccupation, but the youngster is frequently off-screen in his own right — even when he stops a confrontation, it’s framed with his arm suddenly appearing before he does. Both films are also short and atmospheric: narrative developments occur, but Tsukamoto prioritizes developing a bad-times atmosphere. The finest moment here involves a strange dream of a nighttime sequence that suddenly shifts to monochrome, showcasing debris and ash as the shot pulls out to a tableau resembling what was once a city on an island, now blasted into a necropolis.
Shadow of Fire isn’t quite as distinctive as Tetsuo, and its innovations are more technical and minor-key; even the aforementioned tableau is small-scale. Having such an archetypal approach to characterization is somewhat unusual, but far from unprecedented, and it gives the arc of the film a certain “hurt people hurt people” oversimplification. No one could accuse Tsukamoto of being dishonest by portraying post-war Japan so gloomily, and the film isn’t monotonous, but removing names and most backstories didn’t necessarily have to mean abandoning psychological specificity for the woman and the child. One also wishes the film didn’t end with the much-overused arthouse trick of the boy looking into the camera and then vanishing into a crowd.
The film is most interesting in its structural design. In addition to the thought-provoking decision to use digital photography, the storyline is shaped according to the contours of a minimalist diptych, with the boy and a gun he stole as the main points of recurrence in both parts. The two men reveal more layers as their respective portions of the film progress, and are thus more interesting as contrasting characters than the more static, passive parts of the woman and child. The dust dream and a subsequent confrontation provide the bridge taking us from a “feminine” domestic chamber piece to a “masculine,” revenge-driven road trip through no man’s land. Despite the change in settings, Tsukamoto’s own digital cinematography, the final score by composer Chu Ishikawa, and Masaya Kitada’s sound design are largely continuous with what came before, and a true escape was never going to be possible in a film like this. Elem Klimov’s classic Come and See is the obvious point of comparison, but where that film blew up the horrors of a child facing pure evil into a surreal apocalypse, Tsukamoto takes the hangover of a loss and shrinks it down to a parable made up of gloomy implications. Foremost among these is that the shadow of fire is inescapable and has its own corrosive burn. — ANDREW REICHEL
Banel & Adama
It’s rare, but not unheard of, for a filmmaker to land their debut feature in competition at Cannes. Such instances include Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road. But given Cannes’ strong preference for established artists, beginning one’s career in competition can be a mixed blessing. It sets expectations higher than if one’s film had screened in Un Certain Regard, a section more commonly associated with first-timers. And of course, it positions your film among those of well-known international directors, films more likely to capture the attention of audiences and the press. Banel & Adama, the first feature from Senegalese director Ramata-Toulaye Sy, was reasonably well-received when it premiered in 2023, but it was too small, and in some ways too strange, of a picture to compete with the likes of May December, The Zone of Interest, Anatomy of a Fall, Asteroid City, and a dozen other high-profile titles. Set for general release later this year, Banel & Adama will undoubtedly fare better, since it’s a film that demands both concentration and adjustment. Neither strictly realistic nor overtly supernatural in its narrative approach, Sy’s film stages a conflict between two incompatible systems of belief. But it’s unusual in that neither worldview is privileged or validated.
On its face, Banel & Adama seems to be a love story set in a village in northern Senegal. Sy mostly depicts events from the point of view of Banel (Khady Mane), a young woman exhibiting an incipient feminist consciousness that is at odds with tribal customs. She rejects the gendered division of labor, wanting to herd cattle rather than sow the fields or wash clothes. She is repulsed by the thought of childbirth, despite being told it is her job as a Muslim woman to provide a male heir. But above all, she courts suspicion by being deeply in love with her husband Adama (Mamadou Diallo), where most women of the tribe accept their arranged marriages and sexual duties as basic responsibilities, and little else.
Before the film’s action begins, we learn that Banel was previously married to Adama’s brother, as per custom. But she was always in love with Adama, and so when her first husband died, she was fortunate enough to be betrothed to Adama, also by custom. As we slowly come to realize, good fortune may have had little to do with Banel and Adama’s eventual marriage. At first, Sy seems to want us to admire Banel for her independence, since her point of view aligns more closely with a Western perspective on female agency. The demands of the tribe are largely based on superstition and an overriding ideology of collectivism, with everyone born to play a specific role. In fact, Adama is next in line to become the village chief, but he has no interest in doing so and, with Banel’s blessing, refuses to take the position. Events soon spiral out of control, with an unprecedented drought killing off most of the tribe. The elders believe that Allah is punishing them because Adama refused his rightful place as chief, and soon he begins to regret his decision, his responsibility to the community weighing heavily upon him. But Banel is relentless, insisting that the entire tribe can die so long as she and Adama are together. Every time Adama acts on behalf of the tribe, she frames it as a direct betrayal.
At the start of Banel & Adama, Sy’s style of blocking, framing, and mise-en-scène is relatively familiar from the history of African cinema. One sees clear echoes of Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène, as well as color patterns and spatial organizations we might associate with Mahamat-Saleh Haroun and Abderrahmane Sissako. Gradually, this organic picture of community breaks down, and the various characters are seen grappling with the implications. The unexpected drought, for example, is most likely attributable to climate change, but this interpretive framework is unavailable to the members of the tribe. Instead, it is seen as retribution, either from Allah for abandoning tradition or, in Banel’s eyes, due to the insufficiency of Adama’s love.
And so, on close inspection, Banel & Adama is not a showdown between religiosity and feminism, but between selfishness and a sense of duty, however misplaced. Banel’s passion for Adama begins to look a lot like malignant narcissism, while the elders can only confront new crises with old, inadequate logics. Sy depicts absolute social collapse as the result of an inability to think outside the binarism of conservative beliefs and radical individualism. In both cases, insularity leads to utter destruction. — MICHAEL SICINSKI
The Electric Kiss
In his new short film, Rainer Kohlberger proposes the titular electric kiss as an ultimate pleasure, a literal sum of the neural impulses that produce joy, perhaps recalling another titular device from a notable late 20th-century doorstop-cum-novel. The kiss, though, is quickly labeled as fictive, explicitly an attempt to draw us closer to some unseen reality. The nature of this reality, much as the film, is rigorously obscured as Kohlberger applies complementary layers of distortion. The Electric Kiss is Kohlberger’s second film to feature text, after 2019’s It has to be lived once and dreamed twice. Where that film’s text was delivered as narration by Annika Henderson, here it appears as subtitles, brightly colored in defiance. This is noteworthy, not as a value judgment, but for its dissonance with the traditional purpose of subtitles. Rather than an aid toward understanding, they function as a distraction from the film’s images. Alternatively, they insist on themselves as a part of those images. Either way, the effect, like that of the undermining of the title, is destabilization.
Also aligning itself with It has to be lived once… over Kohlberger’s other films is the presence of non-abstract images. In fact, the film begins with a human figure — or, at least, something in the shape of a human figure. The figure’s motion is chopped up — with Kohlberger alternating between two perspectives, one framing the figure head-on and one adopting a canted point of view — and looped such that each shot advances only slightly in time, nearly repeating. The shape of this transformation of the temporality of the movement is similar to the shape of the visual distortion on the image: neither distinctly analog nor digital, and combining the waves of a CRT display with the discreteness of a malfunctioning JPEG. Under all this, as well as under a VR mask and gloves which — along with black tie attire — obscure all of the figure’s body but a few slivers of an impassive, seemingly human face, is the actual motion. And then two vertical lines, maybe a further artifact of distortion, though now more in line with a degraded film print or maybe the strings of a marionette? It’s impossible to reconstruct the real arc of motion in order to tell if it resembles organic movement or puppetry. This is an actuation of the posthuman landscape the text playfully gestures at, in which technology and the human are genuinely indiscernible.
Indeed, in interpolating organic imagery alongside the digital abstraction he’s known for — one sequence recalls the blinding void at the center of his previous film, Answering the Sun — Kohlberger has produced his most ominous film. The one other “character” appearing alongside the indeterminate puppet, a vaguely monstrous visage claustrophobically framed as to be similarly indiscernible beyond its glowing eyes, might be overly portentous (much like the text), were there not a bit of winking evident. As it is, the film may not be as impactful as the “pure” imagery of Answering the Sun, but, as is the case with Kohlberger’s aesthetic disorientation, the indeterminate space between a foreboding posthuman parable and an overdramatic goof is a productive one to explore. — JESSE CATHERINE WEBBER
The recent construction of the $217 million Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, confirmed by Hindu mythology as Shri Ram’s birthplace in India, and the ruling right-wing party’s wide publicization of its consecration ceremony has, amongst many other things, perpetuated a fixed definition of religious devotion. It’s an outwardly expressed grandiose gesture, reminiscent of an overly decorative and colorful musical number of, say, a Sanjay Leela Bhansali-directed Bollywood picture; in other words, maximalism to the power of maximalism. This oversized display, however, also propagates hate of a similar intensity toward others who don’t belong to the same religious community: the construction of the temple is on the same site where the Babri Masjid mosque stood until 1992, when right-wing Hindu mobs with the same “Jai Shri Ram” sentiment demolished it. Intentionally or not, then, this decade-spanning politicization of religion has forced devotion to be absolute, be it love for your deity or hatred toward the Other.
Anirban Dutta’s second film, Anubhuti (which translates to “feeling of a realization for something”), featuring three actors, one location, no dialogue but a lot of Indian classical music, is a mini-devotional epic that strives to unite without dividing. Its scale may be smaller and its tone much softer, but that doesn’t mean that it is in any way less passionate or expressive than a grandiose gesture; its expressivity comes from its imagination and its consistent attempts — sometimes successful, sometimes not — at breaking down all barriers that seem to limit the art of devotion.
The film’s story, if we can even call it that, draws upon Hindu mythology, the art inspired by it, and reality to create a romantic space unbound by time. It’s about two devotees of Lord Krishna (Rittick Bhattacharya): his wife, Radha (Shamila Bhattacharya), who, the introductory title card informs us, “shared precious moments” with Krishna in person, and one of his most beloved devotees, Meera (Aritraa Sengupta). Unlike Radha, Meera could never “intimately experience, touch, feel, and succumb to temptation for Krishna”; she connected with him through poetry and music. The film honors her artful devotion by placing all three of them in the same timeless stage-like setting to set up a love triangle of sorts that pits the two women against each other as they vie for the absolute affection of their God.
But Dutta’s vision of absolute devotion prioritizes the unification of their affections, not the conflict. The harmonizing hum of the sitar, the soul-cleansing sound of the bansuri (an ancient side-blown flute), and the deep, melodious voice of Vaishali Sinha (who’s also the composer of the film!) combine to create a flow that constructed artifice rarely disrupts. Dutta realizes this and uses Sinha’s varied renditions of Indian Classical music and hymns as a guiding hand to shape the film’s loose narrative. The images generally impose greater order, but some beautifully complement the music’s soulfulness. Primary among them is an extended close-up shot of Krishna, Radha, and Meera’s feet resting close to each other on a floor smattered with pink, purple, and red powder, playfully applying color to each other’s feet until they become indistinguishable. It’s an obvious literalization of the film’s ethos, but one that, like the gentle superimposition of Meera and Krishna’s hands applying color to each other with Radha and Krishna’s hands dancing in unison, convincingly communicates the blissful feeling that comes from pure artistic devotion.
Other elements of the film, however, disrupt this flow. Dutta assumes that long, unbroken takes would complement it as we get more time to just be with the characters. But when most of them are static wides mimicking a spectator’s POV shot of watching a stage play from an ideal distance, we also get more time to notice that staginess, especially the blocking. The images, immaculately orchestrated as they are, are also pillar-sized obstructions to the immaterial feeling that its musicality tries to generate. Equally disruptive is the asynchronicity of the two lead performances. It’s harsh to call one great and the other bad, but that’s the most accurate way to distinguish them. Sengupta, as Meera, is a natural at expressing herself through her big eyes and nimble body language; she’s entirely in sync with the film’s musicality, flowing from anger to joy to frustration to devotion effortlessly. Conversely, Bhattacharya’s Radha is all concentrated effort: her eyes widen too forcefully, and her gestural movements, supposed to mimic Meera’s, are too programmatic. We see her performance, but never through it; this conflicts with the film’s goal of creating a fluid connection between these two women.
Our awareness of filmic artifice and effort is not a negative though. It’s perhaps not what Dutta wants to achieve through Anubhuti, for the film is absolutely not an absolute devotional experience. But it doesn’t need to be. Its awareness of filmic construction allows it to remain connected to the real world and not simply exist in a mythological utopia. Meera and Radha are not immortal ideals, then, but two mortal devotional women who are willing to sometimes demean the Other in their quest to achieve Krishna’s love. Eventually, they reconcile and, in doing so, demonstrate that the art of religious devotion is not simply surrendering to God; it’s to do so mindfully, fully aware of the difference between unconditional love for your deity and delusional hatred toward the Other’s love. — DHRUV GOYAL
8 Views of Lake Biwa
Imagine Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter — a devastating, years-long descent of a small town in the aftermath of a communal tragedy that traces grief and guilt across several characters — if it were weirder, Estonian, and inspired by the Japanese art tradition of “eight views.” If you can’t imagine that, don’t worry, you’re normal. If you can, you’ll love 8 Views of Lake Biwa. Most Westerners, including the Baltic home audience for Marko Raat’s film, will have little if any pre-knowledge of this East Asian art tradition. Imported to Japan via China, the label describes paintings depicting eight perspectives of one locale, which are predetermined and include things like the returning sails at Yabase and the evening snow at Hira, in search of something like an essence of the place. As the title suggests, Lake Biwa of Shiga Prefecture, the largest freshwater lake in Japan, has taken on such a special position that it’s sometimes referred to as the “eight views of Lake Biwa, ” and this appears to be their first prominent cinematic translation.
But that title is a bit misleading because the lake in Raat’s film is not Biwa but Lake Peipsi, the massive body of water located between Estonia and Russia. An isolated remnant of Orthodox Russians who fled 17th-century homeland oppression now hold the role of custodian over the lake and make due as a fishing community. Occasionally, modern geopolitics slips in to intrude upon the fairytale luster, such as with the mandated military service of a young man; though, for the most part, the village carries on with a lifestyle that could be lived in either the 17th or 21st centuries. Much like Egoyan’s quintessentially Canadian The Sweet Hereafter, the social bonds of the community become manipulated and perverted in the face of a shared tragedy. And also like Egoyan’s film, the central tragedy concerns the unexpected death of several teenagers after an accident involving the town’s central body of water. Only Hanake (Elina Masing) and one of the adults on the boat survive.
If 8 Views of Lake Biwa is an attempt to essentialize the character of a place, it’s a place with wounds that can never be mended. Part of what it means to be of Lake Peipsi, as glimpsed through the eight episodic vantage points, is to try to leave the community. It’s a place full of sin but without the morality found in the fairytales embedded deep within the European heritage. The lake, like God, has the power to give and take life, and both are approached with the same attitude of reverence and theology of sustenance. Most importantly, it’s a broken community searching to be made whole; from kinky sexual art to strange practices of silence, each member of the fishing community searches for something that they can never find.
8 Views of Lake Biwa is most intriguing as a formalist project. Sonically, there is more whispering — often the internal monologues of Hanake — than just about any film this critic has ever seen. One gets the sense that certain things aren’t meant to be said too loud here. A reserved familiarity with the eight views may incline a viewer to expect beauty and even grace; instead, they will be assaulted with arbitrary violence and tragedy, the latter of which is passed around like the bird flu. The film is also notably weird, in mostly productive ways. The screenplay, likewise courtesy of Raat, embraces an entertaining, almost Brechtian strangeness and never strays too far from its more serious ambitions of geographical essentialism through an episodic return to the lake landscape and chapter titles. In one of the most memorable visuals, a man asks the lone painter in the community to paint his new wife. He asks with the intention to impress and make comfortable his new spouse, and also to help him warm up to her. The woman in the final painting has more in common with a victim of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica than it does with any of the great portrait subjects of art history, but nobody takes offense, nor does anyone find the painter’s attempt dishonest — and this speaks to the doomed character of the people of the lake.
This is Raat’s first feature film, and it’s clear he has no interest in the way of the safe commercial film, the route first-time directors so often feel compelled to take. Sometimes, his absurdist film even approaches outright experimental terrain. In fact, it’s the chapter structure encompassing the eight landscape images, which would in more narratively controlled films perhaps register as one of the more alienating features, that here provides the signposting that keeps 8 Views from mere vanity or empty showmanship, and offers viewers something far more contemplative and profound. — JOSHUA POLANSKI
Obsessive Hours at the Topos of Reality
Antoinetta Angelidi’s filmography is composed of five films across five decades, stretching back to Idées Fixes/Dies Irae in 1977. Over the subsequent half century, Greece’s pre-eminent avant-garde filmmaker released Topos (1985), The Hours (1995), Thief or Reality (2001), and now her latest documentary, Obsessive Hours at the Topos of Reality. At 74 years old, Angelidi reflects in this new film: “Our life is so unbelievably rapid. It’s just two or three things, all told.” This film’s title combines the titles of each of her other films and, directed by Angelidi’s daughter and collaborator, Rea Walldén, Obsessive Hours is pervaded by a revelation of unity, one which extends far beyond Angelidi’s own life and work.
Angelidi’s films are characterized foremost by their density. A less than fully attentive viewing of Thief or Reality might offer the viewer little more than, for example, a passing glance at Courbet’s L’Atelier du peintre (1855) at the Musée d’Orsay. Her tableau vivant compositions spin webs of reference across art history. One scene in The Hours directly echoes Balthus’ La Chambre (1953), and yet a particular costume derives from Max Ernst. And like Ernst’s Dadaist collages, Angelidi’s films draw indiscriminately from personal and collective memory: on Topos‘ soundtrack, quotations from Dante commingle with sounds that seem to belong to a birthing room and an experimental score from composer Georges Asperghis. Each element contributes to the tapestry while carrying out its own narrative. Obsessive Hours, produced on a shoestring budget during Covid and shot entirely within the apartment that Walldén and Angelidi share, nevertheless attaches the same seriousness of intent to each creative decision.
The film is effectively an extended interview between Walldén and Angelidi on the subject of the elder director’s life and work, intercut with scenes from her films. But the change in emphasis from the aural/visual to the verbal does not result in a standard talking head documentary. A shift from monochrome to color as Angelidi begins to speak about her filmmaking career seems legible enough, but later, when Walldén’s camera tilts up as a siren suddenly starts blaring in the middle of an anecdote, it’s evident that contrapuntal meanings are at play. The shot that lasts for much of the film, with slight but important variations, shows Angelidi speaking to the camera in extremely high contrast black-and-white. Her face and hands seem to float, emerging from the total darkness surrounding her. Not only does this black space echo the uniformly dark backgrounds of many of Angelidi’s films, the ether of infinite visual memory they seem to spring from, it also represents vision as a binary, with perception teetering on the live edge of nothingness.
The other impetus for undertaking Obsessive Hours was the two eye transplants that Angelidi required in 2020. As much as Obsessive Hours looks back on Angelidi’s creative output, it contextualizes these works in the history of a pair of eyes. Sight is not something to take for granted. She recalls being locked in a dark room as a child and slowly adjusting until she could make out forms, seeing Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) for the first time, painting when she couldn’t find the words to speak. While relatively simple in conceit, Obsessive Hours ventures further than much of the experimental genre that advertises an essay on vision, proposing instead to reconsecrate the very faculty of sight. — DYLAN ADAMSON
Potenciais à deriva
For the past several years, Leonardo Pirondi has created a fascinating body of experimental works that play with fictional documentary frameworks to produce complex layers of meaning. From a voyage of the Brazilian military to find a mythical island in Vision of Paradise to a sociological experiment involving children isolated in a forest in When We Encounter the World, these films revel in the ambiguity of both their metafictional premises and their avant-garde formal language.
Potenciais à deriva is the best and most mysterious of these works to date. The text at its beginning states that it has been reassembled from fragments shot by an anonymous Brazilian artist in Los Angeles who is living in exile from the 1970s military dictatorship (Pirondi is a Brazilian artist currently living in L.A.). A voiceover describes a sea voyage while the camera is trained on vegetation on land, and later a disembodied interview subject — whose voice is heard while an empty chair is shown in front of filing cabinets — describes feeling that the floor is not trustworthy, as though it’s on a boat rocking in water. Much of the film occurs in this same room, as the camera spins around capturing blurred streaks of light from the windows while the sounds of a boat can be heard. Other scenes work with similarly disconnected sound and image: announcers cover Brazil winning the World Cup while a map is shown pinned on the wall, and a radio transmits messages from left-wing Brazilian revolutionaries to an empty room in L.A.
The film is opaque and open-ended, but all of these elements speak to distance and exile. The fragmentary structure and elision of content invoke the erasure of oppositional truth by right-wing violence, the invisible interviewee a ghostly proxy for the regime’s victims. It speaks more to what’s missing than what’s present, and produces a feeling of historical vertigo. The “documentary” premise is more believable than in some of Pirondi’s other films, and while the audience is arguably not expected to believe it by the end, that uncertainty amplifies the work’s effect and asks a permanently unanswerable question. — ALEX FIELDS