Attend a major film festival as a member of the press and you’ll bear witness to an array of small selfish acts. After leaving loved ones behind, seemingly reasonable adults act like starved elementary school students attending their last supper; cutting in line becomes second nature, and to those with the most perfectly placed friends go the spoils. Self-consuming thoughts like “my response needs to be first” and “my opinion trumps all others” flood the brain. Worse, friends turn into competitors when jockeying to meet the prestigious editor of a major publication. All of this happens in the name of digesting massive (and unhealthy) quantities of cinema. Still, we make the pilgrimage.
The Cannes Film Festival, due to its tradition as the central tastemaker in the international film world, breeds a special kind of self-righteousness and urgency in its attendees. Except the best of 2015’s Cannes offered a brave reproach to the indulgent festival experience, works of art that challenge problematic trends of personal gain and greed. These films stood out from a glaringly lackluster crowd by illuminating the mysterious roots of sacrifice and self-reflection in stories both modestly epic, challenging, and full of fight. Each exhibits a tenacious desire for ambiguous juxtapositions of ideas and feelings. Call them subtle gut punches.
The loveliest and most politically resonant of these, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, screened for distributors and festival programmers in the Marché hoping to gather momentum after winning the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. As with This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, Panahi subverts the restrictions of a government-imposed filmmaking ban and house arrest by effortlessly probing the contradictions and boundaries of Iran’s suffocating religious theocracy. Taxi might not carry the devastating payload of its two predecessors, but the film remains an essential expression of dissent through casual discourse and interaction, one spearheaded by the recurring image of Panahi’s infectious smile.
Hands down the film of the festival proper, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin is a colorful, abstract prism of perspectives that uses the wuxia genre and its standard conventions as a launching pad to discuss the otherworldly powers of emotional surrender. Set in China during the 9th century, its fractured narrative unfolds slowly and cryptically, exposing little in the way of plot information even as it introduces a labyrinth of characters and backstories. Trained killer Nie Yinniang finds herself caught between the mission and the man, forced to decide how and when to use brutal force despite possessing a supernatural skill set that can demolish any and all charging assailants.
Like his near-omniscient lead character, Hou’s camera watches with the utmost patience, observing action unfold from a distance. There are sudden and swift fight sequences that sometimes begin mid-punch, but much of the drama occurs during wordless interplays that contain years of pent up subtext and yearning. Pops of miraculous gold, red, and green fill almost every frame, giving Hou’s deeply realized mise-en-scène equal parts majesty and natural splendor. Realism remains the most elemental of aesthetics for Hou, and The Assassin captures not just the texture of a place, but the emotional panic of a time deeply concerned with the ripping seams of family, identity, and unrequited love.
By the end of Hou’s miraculous anti-war film, Nie Yinniang comes to represent a force for calm in a reactionary age. The final sequences, equally inspired by John Ford as much as King Hu, exemplify the amazing realization that with great power can come great decision-making. Riding off into the sunset isn’t just poetic cinema but an act of timeless protest.
Hou manages to pack a dense and thorny masterpiece within a mere 104-minute run time. Clocking in at just over six hours, Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights feels bloated by comparison, but purposefully so. His cagey opus of rants and raves takes inspiration from the devastating austerity measures handed down in Portugal from 2013 – 14, shifts in policy that have created a deep economic divide between the wealthy and the poor.
Arabian Nights is split into three aptly titled volumes: “The Restless One” merges documentary and fiction to express the devastating impact of cyclical uncertainty on labor forces and law and order, not to mention the role of tradition and procedure; “The Desolate One” examines a cross-section of absurdity and magical realism within the beguiling sprawl of urban existence; and “The Enchanted One” tonally deviates between a love for classic archetypes from the original One Thousand and One Nights and a desire to be rooted in the enduring community building of modern Portugal.
Messy, indecisive, and blatantly enraged, Arabian Nights expresses great compassion for the working-class citizen and strident disdain for corrupt power mongers. Yet its schizophrenic structure and smart-aleck attitude can be frustrating, a projection of its maker’s pompous showmanship. It is here the film feels less selfless than a staggering work like The Assassin. Gomes’s flair for bombast might create multiple necessary jolts in the viewer, but its assessment of longstanding social issues and collective malaise exist within a closed-off forum mapped and painted not by discourse, but by the auteur’s need to be the loudest voice in the room.
Marcia Tambutti Allende’s Beyond My Grandfather Allende, which played in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar along with Arabian Nights, keeps its sense of history personal. It suggests, rather optimistically, that national and individual reconciliation can occur when filtered through the lens of familial perspective. The film very quietly and meticulously rewrites Chile’s horrific totalitarian past by reinvigorating the spine of a surname perpetually bent by repressed grieving. Allende gives her kin the opportunity to step out of the shadows and truthfully speak about those lingering ghosts. Archival footage flows freely, as do the tears of mothers and daughters sorting through dusted off memories.
Critics’ Week standout Mediterranea plays things more safely, latching on to recent events about the plight of African migrants trying to start anew in Italy. Considering the subject matter, director Jonas Carpignano’s use of non-actors, and topical social themes, this urban drama echoes the neo-realist movement of the 1940s. Political bell-ringing tends to shift the focus away from the characters and toward overt moralistic agendas, but the film also frankly discusses ways in which makeshift communities uncomfortably overlap. Despite a sensational climax that feels too closely aligned with the finale of Do the Right Thing, Carpignano’s strong effort ends on a note of harmonious empowerment through mutual respect shared by people who’ve been socially programmed to hate one another.
No one respected the audience quite like the late filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, who passed away in early April at the tender age of 106. In 1982, the master Portuguese auteur was already contemplating his own mortality by making (and promptly stashing) Visit, Or Memories and Confessions. Up until its premiere in the Cannes Classics sidebar it has remained under lock and key, with strict instructions to be shown only after Oliveira’s death.
What an unveiling. Visit, Or Memories and Confessions is a sublime and simple mediation on the inevitability of death, but so much more playful than one might expect. Set entirely in Oliveira’s striking country home, the film unfolds from the perspective of two unseen visitors who provide an outsider’s impression of a very personal space. Sunny images glide weightlessly down corridors and walkways, occasionally turning a corner to find the director himself caught up in the middle of a writing session. He addresses the camera directly in a wonderfully sardonic way, using whimsy to convey very real themes of doubt and fear. It’s a quiet, drowsy love letter to the dimming past, the waking present, and an uncertain future with more hope than despair.
Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s great Cemetery of Splendor also dances between memories and waking states, as if the narrative itself was perpetually moving in and out of a dream. Fittingly, most of the film takes place in a hospital where the patients are all soldiers locked in slumber, illuminated by a grove of effervescent green neon lights. There’s government-sanctioned construction going on outside, but the buzzing sound of bulldozers rarely causes a disturbance. This is peace on Earth. When one of the men does wake up, his encounters with a nurse send Cemetery of Splendor even further into the realm of ghosts and spirits, a place more closely aligned with our world that anyone might think.
Weerasethakul shows powerful humility toward characters wrapped in dialogue with supernatural beings. There’s no sense of fear in Cemetery of Splendor, but an intoxicating free will that is enveloped by the flexibility of a given moment and spoken word. Such an experience transcends the concerns of individuals, and powerfully imagines coexistence in an ever-shrinking world where the living and the dead no longer fear each other’s presence. It bursts the self-imposed festival bubble once and for all.
ContributorGlenn Heath JR.
GLENN HEATH JR. is the film critic for the alternative weekly San Diego CityBeat and managing director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival. He is also contributes to Slant Magazine, Fandor, Little White Lies, MUBI's Notebook, and The L Magazine.