In the Rotterdam of the Senses: International Film Festival Rotterdam 2019
Now in its 48th edition, the International Film Festival Rotterdam has become something of an overwhelming experience, with hundreds of titles being shown over the week and a half that it takes place. Two Rotterdam attendees can end up watching entirely different films with virtually no overlap, making it easy to feel lost at sea amid the ocean of audiovisual productions on offer. But IFFR is a festival that caters to both film professionals and an eager local audience, the sprawling program finding its justification in the vast number of casual spectators that enthusiastically devour those films usually reserved to the self-referentiality of the festival circuit. If, on the one hand, this fact evokes the rights of consumer democracy, it also begs the question of what is the point of converging on the same city to potentially experience completely different festivals. The most convincing answer is that vital discoveries at festivals are often made outside of a movie theater, and thankfully so. Without word of mouth, unexpected encounters and casual epiphanies, film festivals would be as useful as a distributor’s Excel spreadsheet.
As the Old Continent gears up for another round of fascist brutality, the ghosts of yesteryear have not yet been put to sleep as Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018) bittersweetly demonstrates. An idealistic playwright wants to stage a public performance reenacting the Romanian army’s mass murder of Jews in Odessa in 1941, considered by some to be the inaugural pogrom that paved the way to the Endlösung. While it shouldn’t take a genocide to call Fascism by its name, rather than dwelling on the disquieting similarities between prewar and present-day Europe, Radu’s film explores the connection between memory and conscience. The Romanian director does the exact opposite of what Italian Neorealism did, in a sense. While Rossellini and his epigones whitewashed Italy’s criminal past on the side of Nazi Germany, Jude’s character tries to force Romania’s past down the country’s throat. This operation is admittedly marked by side effects, the most terrifying of which is the nationalist pride with which some Romanians still look at their antisemitic past. One of the artistic strengths of I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians is its ability to stage an ethical dilemma with irony but without trivializing it, conscious of the fact that only light(ness) can illuminate the depths of humanity’s darkness.
Illuminating indeed were the three recently restored fragments of Sergei Parajanov’s metaphysical universe, a cinema of uncompromised imagination and creative intransigence. Sentenced to five years in a forced labor camp in Siberia for “rape of a Communist Party member, and the propagation of pornography,” the bisexual Soviet-Armenian director was one of the most luminous Soviet dissidents. His visionary films, in fact, are the wildest opposition to the deadly ossification of a political project that had dreamt of liberating mankind but ended up micromanaging its misery. Freedom in Parajanov’s cinema is not a pretext but a plastic reality, an artistic necessity that comes across the screen in all its unfiltered and uncalculated stupefaction. The very surface of his films is already deeper than any possible interpretation could ever make it out to be. The tryptic that was presented in Rotterdam consisted of Hakob Hovnatanyan (1967), Kiev Frescoes (1966) and Arabesques on the Pirosmani Theme (1985). The latter pays homage to one of his sources of artistic inspiration, the eponymous Georgian naïf painter, and brings to life not only the original palette of Pirosmani’s canvases but also the weightlessness of his compositions. More a magician than a director himself, what is most striking about Parajanov’s cinema is the effortless stupor that every single frame provokes, an impenetrable cinema mysteriously deprived of any artifice even when meticulously staged.
Burdened as they are by the authoritarian weight of film history, it is much harder for young filmmakers to create without regard for the medium’s past, let alone in opposition to what came before them. Stuck in revival mode, crippled by the encyclopedic completism of internet cinephilia, many younger voices of world cinema appear to be speaking exclusively to the world of cinema and its followers alone. Though explicitly referencing the aimless coherence of Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Ena Sendijarević’s Take Me Somewhere Nice (2019) is traversed by a sprightly tone that manages to inject new life into an old motif. Raised in the Netherlands by Bosnian parents, Alma (Sara Luna Zorić) returns to Bosnia to visit her estranged and seriously ill father. Her tentative journey back to her roots as well as her fast-approaching adulthood are framed with equal doses of deadpan detachment and existential sympathy. Sendijarević explores the dislocating affliction of growing up in-between cultures and does so by lingering on those absurd aspects that those speaking the language of a culture they never really inhabited often experience.
The problem with character studies focusing on artists is that their subjects tend to live methodically exceptional lives, the likes of which we rarely, if ever, see or experience on this side of the screen. Which is why Federico Veiroj’s Belmonte (2018) is a refreshing addition to the canon. What the titular protagonist of the film strives for is an ordinary family life. Womanizing fills him with melancholy, art is a burden and all he seems to desire is normality, the very same one most people dream to escape daily. The worn-out stereotype of the artist maudit is turned upside down in Belmonte as all the myths of a life consecrated to art are deflated. What emerges is the solitude that an oversized ego usually causes, the inability to cultivate human relations. Artistic genius in Belmonte’s case is an infantilizing pathology, one devoid of any glamour, which ultimately leads to a paralyzing stasis neither the protagonist nor the director care to resolve.
Two supple films at this year’s IFFR peeked into the abyss that those left behind have to face when a loved one passes away. One, I diari di Angela – Noi due cineasti (2018), is Yervant Gianikian’s cinematic tribute to his life partner and artistic accomplice Angela Ricci Lucchi. The other, Gastón Solnicki’s Introduzione all’oscuro (2018), is the visionary summoning of a loss and the aesthetic rendition of the void left in its wake. While Gianikian relies on the material evidence of a love that was committed to film, Solnicki stages the inquietude that death inevitably provokes and the manic urge to keep alive what no longer is. Rather than a mere tribute in fact, Introduzione all’oscuro is the frantic and overflowing attempt to draw the sentimental cartography of Hans Hurch’s Vienna, the home of the director’s “most flamboyant friend.” Like a dowser Solnicki roams the streets of the Austrian capital to find in the horizontal planes of the material world the vertical heights of his mortal friendship. Hurch is returned to life not through images but through the sentimental architecture of his biography, which Solnicki’s film subjectively reconstructs. Introduzione all’oscuro accommodates the two opposing psychic phenomena that accompany mourning, the selfish need to hold on to what is forever gone and the selfless letting go of ourselves along with the object of lost love.
I diari di Angela—Noi due cineasti, conversely, relies on presence to convey the sense of definitive loss. In it, Gianikian travels through the portion of (film) history that he and his companion obliquely traversed together, using Angela Ricci Lucchi’s diary entries as signposts. The film thus works as both a retroactive introduction to their monumentally minimalist cinema and a moving farewell to earthly love. Though, rather than their cinema, what’s on display in I diari di Angela is the backstage of their daily life, their journeys and fraternal friends. Through them we get a glimpse at the second half of the 20th century in all its brutality and splendor, a century that Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi have exposed in its most vital contradictions without ever succumbing to its many blackmails. There is a grace and fragile vitality in this film that should be treasured and remembered, like the tragic lessons from the past century we already seem to have forgotten.