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Cine-Letters, Rotterdam 2012   

Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin


Hola Cris –


Let’s start at the end: the new Brazilian film Neighbouring Sounds (O som ao redor), which won the Fipresci Award at Rotterdam. It has a stylistic verve, married to a tangle of popular genres, that reminded me irresistibly of Paul Thomas Anderson at his best. Director Kleber Mendonça Filho has, precociously (after a bunch of acclaimed shorts), that exhibitionistic-virtuosic streak which many young and/or aspiring filmmakers inherit (not always with happy results) from Kubrick: everything builds to crescendos, clinches, big scenes, slam-bang fusions of tight suspense and thundering music. The streak is on from the first frame here: percussion builds in layers, metronomic cutting, the accumulation of street corners and apartment block fronts and rooms …


But that’s where the film managed to jump off the screen, too, and get into a network that constituted one of the principal axes of Rotterdam this year. Neighbouring Sounds isn’t just movie-crazy (although it’s full of cinematic thrill); step by step, shot by shot, scene by scene, and especially sound by sound (it has a brilliant sonic design), the film maps a fraught, real, urban space, where paranoiac surveillance and security in every well-off home fight a hopeless battle against street culture, crime, and chance events (the poor guy who loses his way home post-party!).


And, as one trod the venue-points of this film festival – from the Pathé to the Cinerama and across the bridge to the Lantaren, often in the snow – one kept, in both imaginary and real senses, treading these paths so rigorously laid out by works both cinematic and post-cinematic. From James Benning’s Small Roads (a digital piece that was not as realist as it appeared, as its maker cheerfully told us) to (in a more literary fashion) Patience (After Sebald); from the endless car and bike rides of the weak L (far below Attenberg, while being in its ‘school’) to Ai Weiwei’s Ring cycle (devoted to highly structured views of Beijing’s Ring roads), playing away on monitors in a specially designated café … And indeed, doesn’t Iain Sinclair grumble in the Sebald doco that our walks in the name of art are going to need to become ever more extreme now, right out to those same Chinese roads?


When did the ‘walking movie’ start? Long before Garrel or Antonioni or even Naruse, probably back to moments in Chaplin or earlier. Certainly, it formed the basis of a rarity in the Brazilian Mouth of Garbage retrospective, novelist João Silvério Trevisan’s Orgy, or The Man Who Gave Birth (Orgia [ou: O homem que deu cria], 1970): freaks and queers and nuts growing from a single body to small army and still treading that road to nowhere by the end …


over to you, Adrian



Querido Adrian,


To respond to your letter, let me start with this image: the tangle of Tokyo highways as filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in Solaris (1972). This real image, which belongs to us and leaves its trace in us because of cinema, can well illustrate those ‘extreme walks in the name of art’ you mention. For me, it concentrates an emotion that your letter has reignited. You say it very well when remarking that, as we moved between the different festival venues, we were still treading ‘in both real and imaginary senses’ the paths laid out by the films.


A strangely moving work in the most mysterious of styles, Masao Adachi is something like the (fleeting) portrait of a thought (that thinks itself). In it, the simple, transparent images filmed by Philippe Grandrieux – accompanied by evocative, minimalist music composed by his son – act as a canvas, onto which are projected the words (delivered stream-of-consciousness style) of the Japanese director. At one point, Grandrieux appropriates Solaris’ image of roads, and turns it into a powerful, graphic example of Adachi’s reflections: ‘All films are interconnected’, he says, and Grandrieux amplifies the sentiment: ‘Cinema moves from one film to another through time, above and beyond those who make it’ …


As I took in this scene, I thought I was dreaming – that I was in the presence of a ghost, or an apparition. There are films whose beauty can be measured only by how they affect you. Masao Adachi possesses an extremely enigmatic quality: as it connects up diverse colours, textures, properties of light, intensities and sounds, it activates a wellspring that overflows us, goes beyond us. At any given moment, we become aware that our thoughts and emotions have come in contact with those of the two filmmakers, and are being drawn along by the sensory flow of the work.


Another film that could be put in this category is Rua Aperana 52, the latest and most self-referential piece by Julio Bressane, a musical, temporal tour dedicated to a landscape very familiar to the filmmaker: the family home and the surrounding street where he shot so many of his films. I once wrote – in fact, describing the finale of Tarkovsky’s Solaris – that ‘the world of a man is his home and his plot of land’. In Rua Aperana 52, Bressane begins from a collection of family photos – taken by the director as real, lifelike material – in order to arrive at a selection of extracts from his own films made, over the years, in the same spot. Through this trajectory, we witness the way in which cinema can transform an intimate landscape into mythic terrain. It is another instance of an extreme walk in the name of art.


Your turn, Cris



Querida Cris,


There is another kind of voyage, another kind of ceasless border-crossing that I invariably experience in the Rotterdam program: the skidding between or merging of different genres, tones, cinematic approaches. Watching Verano, for instance, I felt the same powerful sensation that I did upon encountering Ana Poliak’s Faith of the Volcano a decade ago: straying back and across this extremely thin, light, permeable barrier between fiction and documentary – thanks to digital filming. Of course, what Verano does is, essentially, what has defined modern cinema since at least Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1953): compelling your performers to actually travel somewhere by car or train or foot, enter a real holiday resort, interact with actual local inhabitants – and to strike the roughly preplanned fiction (as one strikes a match) off the fabric of these quotidian happenings. But the digital camera allows this trembling slippage between registers in a new way. José Luis Torres Leiva is a filmmaker I like: in last year’s Rotterdam offering, the haunting Three Weeks Later, he used all the resources of static camera and long take that this new form allows; while here he pushes almost into Grandrieux territory (if we can imagine a summery rather than nocturnal and wintry Grandrieux), with extensive overexposure and blur. It’s one of those movies so light you feel it could vanish at any moment – Masao Adachi had that aura, too – and that is actually quite an achievement, something hard to do in cinema, which all the Old Masters (Resnais, Bertolucci) long for.


Other slippery films: the strange and sometimes outrageously provoactive Lacan Palestine by Mike Hoolboom, a theory-laden Histoire(s) du cinéma-type collage (a very Canadian mode, this) which also got into extreme and chaotic, found-footage juxtapositions (I recall Hoolboom urging Natural Born Killers upon me as the best/most avant-garde movie of 1994!) in the service of its political muckracking. Abigail Child’s A Shape of Error – disappointing to this die-hard fan of her Mayhem (1986) – which was an equally odd, midway experiment between double-screen gallery installation and impressionistic historical narrative (Mary Shelley & co. romping about a lush Italian villa). And Gastón Solnicki’s Papirosen, one of the beter works in the Rotterdam program, a personal cinéma-vérité family chronicle that mixed Sylvania Waters-style ‘TV reality soap’ with the sometimes agonisingly self-conscious introspection and relentless interrogation of Argentina’s psychoanalysis-mad culture.


But there were perfectly classical films, too: Thursday Till Sunday (De jueves a domingo), Goodbye First Love (Un amour de jeunesse)


Your filmgoing companion, Adrian


Querido Adrian,


Perhaps, compared to the films you mention in your second letter, Thursday Till Sunday and Goodbye First Love might seem ‘perfectly classical’ – but allow me to cast this verdict into doubt for a moment, in order to see just how much is classical (or perfect) in these two works.


Thursday Till Sunday is a family road-movie that faces very strict challenges: to film a trip by car to the North of Chile covering one weekend, and to have co-exist in the same space both the world of a disintegrating couple and the childish universe of their two kids. The debut film is certainly a noteworthy effort by its director (Dominga Sotomayor) but, at the same time, this is its main problem: we can view it only as an exercise, whose most inspired fragments arrive, curiously enough, at the most unexpected moments. I especially remember a scene where the child, in the back seat, begins to cry; the tension starts to invade the car’s claustrophobic space and – as spectators trained in this kind of situation – we expect that the shot will culminate in screaming, that despair will infect the parents, and that an explosion of rage will end marking the sequence’s climax. But the mother simply takes the child, places him on her lap and, little by little, her screams subside. The camera stays on the car window, and the landscape becomes a tunnel through which time slips and day becomes night. There are some other passages like this in the film: the classical structure is traversed by sheets of suspended time, dramatic progression gives way to plastic abstraction. And these are, in my opinion, the film’s best moments.


Goodbye First Love is also a film made from fragments, where everything happens extremely quickly; it helps to think of (and feel) it as a portrait, rather than a self-enclosed process of life apprenticeship. It is a work built on bodies and ellipses, mechanisms of sensuality and melancholia … I would not deny that the film works best for me when it approaches its subject more from a purely physical side, rather than when it tries to introduce some ‘theoretical comment’ into its narrative; but I also believe that whatever tiny reproach one allows, it cannot overshadow the film’s greatness. Goodbye First Love is, above all, a film that attempts to capture a state of mind, in all its voluptuousness and fluctuation. Hansen-Løve’s achievement does not seem to me easy or trivial. Anne Émond’s Nuit # 1, for example, is another film that aspires to something similar, the portrait of a particular emotion associated with an age and a time. The director fixes on two people who have just landed together in a room, and gets them talking for an hour and a half. The result is a total disaster. No matter how hard the actors try to make their lines credible, or how many constant, explicit references are made to a certain kind of ‘chamber cinema’ that the director brandishes as her Letter of Introduction (and the more she believes it enables her, it disables her). Everything in this film is fake and contrived. A vision imposed from outside – the scourge of many films that carry the pretension of offering the ‘portrait of a generation’ – attempting, unsuccessfully, to wholly ‘inhabit’ the actors’ bodies so that it seems it is directly from them that the truth of their words emerges.


It is an inverse movement in Hansen-Løve: a state of mind allows a way of inhabiting the world. There is something we feel in Lola Créton’s gestures, something that vibrates in her gaze, that irradiates the dialogue, that resonates in spaces, to the point of taking over the entire film. But, probably, to really appreciate this film as it demands and deserves to be appreciated, you have to be able to say ‘I live to love’ like the protagonist does, and spent a long time waiting for a letter, an email, a phone call …


Your compañera who (as you know) may have the ‘monopoly on feelings’, but not on words, Cris



Querida Cris –


This is my sixth time in Rotterdam since 1997. I have to say, to take a general overview, that it is not quite the festival it has always, in my experience, been – especially during Simon Field’s years as resident Visionary of the event. I was prompted by make this comparison by Simon’s own references, during a special tribute session, to the dear, departed Raúl Ruiz as a ‘Rotterdam filmmaker’ – the type of artist (and person) who summed up its open, experimental, wayward, adventurous, encyclopaedic spirit. (But at least we saw Ruiz’s lovely Ballet aquatique, 2010.) Small, informal gatherings, here and there, of critics and programmers and other Festival directors, kept batting around this question: where has the cinephile spirit gone, exactly?


For me, there was a simple way to divine the fact that something was different, and even a little bit wrong, this year: Rotterdam is the place I go expecting to see the new Garrel, Akerman, Ferrara … and none of these were there. As in many countries, it seems, political changes and pressures have led to an undermining (sometimes an outright assault) on various institutions of culture in the Netherlands – especially those on the avant-garde, critical or radical side – with the result that not only was Rotterdam a few days shorter, its choices were also, on the whole, a bit safer and more conventional.


In actual fact, the event’s programming policy seems to have splintered more than ever, without a Simon Field or a Huub Bals to cohere its diverse fragments. The distance yawned very wide between the commercial, George Clooney-type movie (which I don’t bother attending, because I know I can see those anywhere in the world – even on the plane home) and the slightly in-grown, cinephilic cultism of the special retrospective programs. Gabe Klinger and Gerwin Tamsma’s selection from the Brazilian underground of the 1960s and ‘70s, for example, was dedicated and lively, but a few too many of the films struggled to live up to their wild, projected hype. The annual idolatry dished out to the Philippine New Wave in Rotterdam is having a less than great effect on filmmakers including Khavn De La Cruz, Raya Martin and even Lav Diaz – it does them no favours to keep proclaiming that every single thing they dash off in a few days is a Deathless Masterpiece. And Olaf Möller’s large retrospective focus on Peter von Bagh came with a dose of sub-critical nonsense: this (undoubtedly) great man who ‘has seen every film worth seeing’ and ‘met every icon and every genius, every maverick and every overlooked auteur, every underrated master and even every interesting underachiever from this our art’s ancient mornings – every one’! Really? However, this focus did turn up one of Rotterdam’s most uninhibitedly silly films: The Count (Kreivi, 1971), which von Bagh candidly told the audience afterwards he would like to destroy. As silly/excessive movies go, this one had it all over Whit Stillman’s damp squib, Damsels in Distress.


But … after all, Rotterdam is the place where we could catch, from out of history’s oblivion, the sublime Anna (Alberto Grifi & Massimo Sarchielli, 1975), the first and best film we saw there; and from the new offerings, the remarkable A Woman’s Revenge (A vingança de uma mulher), truly a revelation of the festival …


Your man in the dark, Adrian



Querido Adrian,


I'll start with a simple but significant fact: of the one hundred minutes of footage in A Woman’s Revenge, sixty of them unfold inside walls as red as those in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972). This association (which doubtless comes to my mind because of the extremely powerful way both directors work with décor and colour) becomes less arbitrary if we take into account that A Woman’s Revenge is built upon one of most noticeable elements of the Swedish director’s work: masks.


In Rita Azevedo Gomes’ film, the male protagonist is one of these men of the world who ‘has seen so much that nothing can surprise them’, a character who dissects, with a clinical eye and a satirical tongue, the theatre of vanities in which he himself plays a part – as a dandy whose personality is moulded by the mask he has chosen to wear in order to inhabit this circus he despises. Until one night, when he meets a woman who is not who she seems to be, a woman who guards a secret and whose story will strike him deeply. Avatars of the encounter …


Based on a story by Barbey d'Aurevilly, A Woman’s Revenge works on a number of topics that are the raison d‘être of this period’s melodrama: love, jealousy, murder, honour, revenge … But by virtue of its ingenuity, this film succeeds where many others have failed. In its gallery of variations, of different intensities, on a story told a thousand times before, it shines with a special brightness; the director manages to communicate to the spectator the same fascination for a story that has long obsessed her (some fourteen years passed before she could bring it to the screen), and which results in a truly unique and powerful filmic treatment. In this context, I inevitably make a comparison with Cornelia at Her Mirror (Cornelia frente al espejo), another adaptation of a prestigious literary work (in this case, a Silvina Ocampo story) that we saw in Rotterdam. If Azevedo Gomes’ film reveals itself to be a superb example of a genuine process of adaptation, Daniel Rosenfeld’s piece strives to disguise its own vacuity: actors reciting, hesitantly and without direction, a text that does not seem to have received any prior revision; plus a mise en scène that is totally flat, lacking the least recognition of the possibilities of the film medium – and the result is not even minimal imagination in the staging of this narrative.


I have already indicated that much of A Woman’s Revenge takes place inside a house; this is literally so while the film works through its series of flashbacks. However, instead of introducing these flashbacks via direct cuts, the director uses a whole raft of techniques to introduce them in the same space where the woman tells her story: sometimes, the positions of the actors’ bodies function as a trigger activating the scene change, without any need to physically alter the setting; at other times, Azevedo Gomes darkens the scene in order to re-set the lighting – however, in her hands, this theatrical technique (again, the Bergman connection) reveals an uncannily filmic force; at yet another moment, a tracking shot from one room to another in the house takes us back in both time and space, highlighting the wound of the past injury that, like a ghost, lives on in the heroine’s present.


A Woman’s Revenge is a film strong in contrasts: a story of exaggerated romanticism crowned by a halo of the grotesque; a ‘talking picture’ – built upon speech, on precise diction and intonation – bisected by images of iconic, overwhelming power (the dark eyes of Rita Durão, the tears of Fernando Rodrigues); a period film in which the costumes and sets, far from being a display of opulence or a mere support to escort us into a particular historical context, become a truly expressive element of the mise en scène. And, above all, a work that does not exhaust its mystery in the resolution of an enigma, because when the protagonist’s secret is finally revealed to us, when at last we understand her motives and aims, we understand also that the revenge referred to in the title yawns as a bottomless abyss.


My experience in Rotterdam, a festival I attended for the first time this year, was certainly quite different from yours. It is true that we expected to find some films that were finally not scheduled; but it is also true that we discovered others of which we knew nothing – some written up here, others (like Anna) for later attention ... If I had to honestly sum up, in a purely subjective way, my days in this city, I would need to appropriate the definition somebody used to describe the sight of people kissing in lifts: muy romántico y muy cinematográfico. Finally, and while enjoying the company of the best guide, I had the privilege of dining at the table where Movie Mutations was born, and, one night, got (a little) drunk on Raúl Ruiz’s favorite liquor. As the song says: I never had it so good!


Your woman in the window, Cris


The Spanish-language version of this text appears in Transit (March 2012), see here.


from Issue 2: Devils


© Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin March 2012. Translation from the Spanish by Adrian Martin.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.