One of the pleasures of the festival circuit is watching a new filmmaker develop into a major talent right before your eyes. After seeing Gerardo Naranjo’s small but assured Drama/Mex at Toronto in 2006, I filed him away as someone to watch, and that sense of promise was only strengthened when the New York Film Festival showcased his Godard-influenced I’m Gonna Explode a couple of years later, even if that film seemed rockier than its predecessor. With Miss Bala, screening here in Un Certain Regard, Naranjo has officially arrived—so much so that I suspect people will look back at the lineup in years to come and marvel that this powerhouse wasn’t in Competition. He wasn’t kidding: He was gonna explode.
Shot almost entirely in virtuoso single takes, Miss Bala follows Laura (Stephanie Sigman), a beauty-pageant contestant (the film’s title is a play on the Miss Baja, California title she covets; bala is Spanish for bullet) who drops by the wrong nightclub at the wrong time and finds herself in the middle of a massacre. From that instant, and without letup, her life becomes a surreal waking nightmare, as the ruthless head (Noe Hernandez) of the Tijuana drug cartel responsible for the hit decides to take a personal interest in her professional aspirations, including the Miss Baja pageant. What follows is a high-octane action flick with deliciously ironic twists and flat-out gaspworthy set pieces—I’m tempted to utter the ultra-hype phrase “not since Heat”—as well as, I believe, a corrosive metaphor for the brutal demands society makes of women in exchange for success. That the film concludes with a banal scrawl detailing the human cost of Mexico’s drug war potentially undermines that reading, admittedly, and it may take a second viewing for me to work out whether Miss Bala is as powerfully subversive as I’d like it to be or just an unbelievably exciting just-say-no tract. But since I can’t wait to see it again, that’s hardly a problem. Either way, I feel confident in saying that Gerardo Naranjo is a name you’ll be getting to know. Tentative grade: B+ (But I am, as folks have noted in the comments,an insanely tough grader; there’s almost no chance this film won’t make my top ten list when—not if—it gets a U.S. release. Think of it as an A-.)
Compared to Miss Bala, yesterday’s two Competition titles, though agreeable enough, seem almost ridiculously innocuous. Judging from many disappointed reviews, people were expecting something way more vicious from Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papum, in which Michel Piccoli plays a newly selected Pope who’s too terrified to greet the faithful. (The title is a Latin phrase that translates roughly as “We got us a Pope.”) In a strange way, though, I actually appreciated Moretti’s unexpectedly gentle take on this crisis of faith, and don’t much feel as if rote potshots at Catholicism would have served it any better. (I’m an atheist, for the record, though I was raised Catholic.) Piccoli’s tremulous performance beautifully captures the weight of unthinkable responsibility, and while it appears at first that Moretti, playing a psychoanalyst called in to calm the Papal nerves, will be the Geoffrey Rush to Piccoli’s Colin Firth, I was somehow tickled rather than irked when the character was sidelined into goofy comic relief, organizing a volleyball tournament among the sequestered Cardinals while the Pope-elect roams the streets. Like much of Moretti’s work (the Palme d’Or-winning The Son’s Room being the main exception), Habemus Papum is slight but amusing, and often oddly touching. We got us a decent time-killer. Grade: B-
The same designation well suits Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, from Israel, which attempts the Herculean task of making an academic rivalry involving Talmudic scholarship seem like high drama. Passed over for the prestigious Israel Prize for nearly 20 years, an aging professor (Shlomo Bar Aba) finally gets word that he’s to be honored, to the immense relief of his adult son (Late Marriage’s Lior Ashkenazi, almost unrecognizable with 40 extra pounds and a heavy beard), who’s lately begun to eclipse Dad in the same line of work. Cedar apparently wants to preserve the big twist that gets things cracking, but I immediately guessed what was up when the Israel Prize committee asks the son to drop by for an emergency meeting, and I suspect you will, too. Reasonable filial tension lurks in the fallout of that meeting, emphasized formally via snappy editing rhythms, an insistent score, and several expository interludes that recall the aggressive whimsy of Amélie; much more than in his previous films (which include Time of Favor and Beaufort), Cedar displays here a flair for light comedy, most notably in a scene set in an office so tiny that each entrance or exit forces the entire room to clear space for the door to open. The performances, too, are first-rate — Micah Lewesohn, playing the father’s chief rival, somehow manages to convey a complex amalgam of arrogance and resentment with the Sharpei-like furrows of his gigantic forehead. Still, it’s hard not to feel as if much engaging ado is being made about not a whole lot, and the film’s tacit (and titular) acknowledgement of that fact doesn’t do much to compensate. Grade: B-
Finally, it’s probably best not to say too much about Kim Ki-duk’s excruciating Arirang, if only because the guy’s clearly suffered enough already. I hadn’t heard that an actress had nearly been killed on the set of Kim’s previous film, 2008’s little-seen Dream, but apparently the incident sent him into a deep depression, from which he’s now emerged by spending 100 tiresome minutes whining into a digital video camera about what he terms “director’s block,” along with numerous interludes in which he bellows the title song, a Korean standard. When Lars von Trier felt this despondent, he made Antichrist; I thought it was terrible, but at least it was an actual film. Arirang, on the other hand, is precisely the sort of self-indulgent, useless, “therapeutic” one-man tripe I feared might become commonplace with the advent of cheap video cameras. Presumably, festival gatekeepers have spared us previous efforts of this sort, and Kim (of whom I’m frequently a fan; his best work includes Time, 3-iron and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring) snuck in only thanks to his status as a world-cinema middleweight. I genuinely hope that making this confession helped restore his spirits, but asking us to sit through it is a bit much. Grade: D-
Tomorrow: Yes, it’s time once again for those Cannes perennials, the brothers Dardenne. They’ve already won the Palme d’Or twice (Rosetta, L’Enfant), but are shooting for the hat trick with The Kid With a Bike. Otherwise, I’ll be taking a chance on some unknown titles, hoping to luck into a winner.