Festival programmers aren’t stupid. They know journalists on tight deadlines are grateful for a hook, and they assemble the screening schedule accordingly, often pairing films with similar premises or themes. Both of yesterday’s Competition films, for example, look deeply askance at religious faith—though only one does so overtly, and it’s the allusive approach that ultimately proves more thought-provoking.
Negative reviews of Matteo Garrone’s Reality complain that it has nothing new or trenchant to say about the reality-TV phenonemon, which is true enough. On the surface, it’s a fairly simplistic tale of all-consuming lust for fame: Neapolitan fish merchant Luciano (Aniello Arena) agrees to audition for the Italian version of Big Brother at the urging of his kids, gets a callback, and then goes off the deep end, alienating family and friends as well as ruining himself financially. But consider the details. Luciano renounces pretty much everything he knows, focusing instead on the glory that allegedly awaits him. He’s convinced that he’s being observed at all times (by scouts from the show), and alters his behavior based on what he believes will favorably impress those in charge. He sells his business, gives away all his possessions—what need will he have of such meager assets when the call from the producer finally comes? Even his wife and kids, as much he loves them, can’t be permitted to hinder his pursuit of the ultimate happiness. Does this sound like a worldview you may have encountered elsewhere?
Garrone (whose previous film, the grim sociopolitical mosaic Gomorrah, could scarcely be more different from this loopy fable) doesn’t belabor the allegory, but he’s not exactly subtle about it, either. Reality opens by descending from the heavens and concludes by re-ascending from a fantastic kitsch-paradise, while the climax is precipitated by Luciano’s participation in a Good Friday pilgrimage. In truth, the movie works better conceptually than it does moment-to-moment, as its luckless hero’s journey into delusion does follow a predictable trajectory (albeit one enlivened by Arena’s winning performance). But it’s still invigorating to see a movie unafraid to make a bold statement, though few seem to have noticed. If Luis Buñuel were alive today, this is roughly what I’d expect him to be up to. Grade: B
Considerably blunter, but also much more consistently gripping, Beyond The Hills, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s follow-up to his Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, unfolds in an Orthodox monastery, where 24-year-old Alina has come to visit her friend Voichita, now a nun. Almost immediately, it becomes clear (despite never being explicitly stated) that Alina and Voichita were lovers when they roomed together at the local orphanage some years earlier, and that Alina is still violently in love with Voichita. But Voichita takes her devotion to God seriously, and Alina’s erratic behavior when she’s politely but repeatedly spurned (and pressured to accept Christ) convinces the other nuns and head priest that she may be possessed. What follows is at times almost unbearably intense—where 4/3/2 maintained a gradually escalating level of coiled tension, Beyond The Hills flat-out explodes again and again, like the chorus of a Pixies or Nirvana song. At two-and-a-half hours, it’s the longest film in Competition this year, but it feels like one of the shortest.
Thing is, though, while I worked hard to perceive ambiguity in Alina’s situation (which is loosely based on a real-life event), Mungiu winds up making what seems to me a fairly emphatic judgment. I happen to agree with said judgment (quasi-spoiler: I’m an atheist), but that doesn’t make the movie any less unproductively dogmatic. These two young women seem more like pawns than did Otilia and Gabriela in 4/3/2, and the film as a whole has the authoritative certitude of a thesis statement; I kept waiting for some sort of troubling complication, but waited in vain. Mungiu has few peers when it comes to formally rigorous nail-biters, but I’d like to see him tackle material he’s more conflicted about. Grade: B-
Exhaustion prevented me from getting to a late-night screening of the three-hour transsexual movie I promised you (coming tomorrow), but I did manage to catch up with another director’s follow-up to his Palme d’Or winner: Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mekong Hotel. If you read my coverage from Cannes two years ago, you may remember my bellow of triumph when Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives took home the gold—generally speaking, I’m a fan of “Joe’s” beguiling blend of naturalism and animism. But the hour-long Mekong Hotel, conspicuously filed under Special Screenings rather than Competition or even Un Certain Regard, barely even qualifies as a doodle. Indeed, much of the film is incomprehensible without the director’s personal introduction or access to press notes—we spend a lot of time watching some dude play classical guitar (this turns out to be a friend of Joe’s from high school), and roughly half the scenes are excerpts from a screenplay that Joe can’t yet afford to properly make. At other times, his stable of actors (including the two usually called Jen and Tong onscreen) have unrelated, unscripted conversations about whatever’s happening in the moment, often involving the 2011 flooding of the Mekong and the memories it inspires. One truly has to cherish Joe’s sensibility for its own sake not to see this as a gentle, affectionate instance of a great artist just dicking around. It’s not painful to endure or anything (in part because it’s so short), but to borrow the title of one of last year’s celebrated Cannes premieres: This is not a film. Grade: C
Tomorrow: The three-hour transsexual movie, I promise. Also, Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce, among others, duke it out in Lawless, the new film written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat (who previously collaborated on The Proposition). And has Thomas Vinterberg finally made his first good movie since 1998’s The Celebration? Here’s hoping.