Fall festival season is in full swing, and as usual the lucky patrons of the Vancouver International Film Festival get to sample a piece of all of the pies. Films from Cannes, Berlin, Venice and elsewhere arrive in town, over 300 in all, and play out without all of the chaos of Toronto. While many films are truly the Greatest Hits from other fests, VIFF is much more than that. The 2015 edition featured many smaller, relatively unknown films making their North American debuts and, I’m happy to say, perhaps the strongest contingent of Canadian films I’ve yet seen there.
Two films hit me harder than the others. The first was Lost and Beautiful, an Italian wonder by Pietro Marcello. It’s the tale of an immortal demi-god, Pulcinella, who is sent to find a baby buffalo that a shepherd swears can speak. The story touches on some aspects of Italy’s recent history, specifically surrounding the Royal Palace of Carditello in Campania – its decline and rejuvenation and acquisition by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage. The shepherd, Tommaso, fixes up the estate before the government takes it over, and dies on the grounds, leaving the buffalo in the hands of Pulcinella. What follows is magical, melancholic and touching. The buffalo, named Sarchiapone, must find a home, and narrates its thoughts as Pulcinella leads it from place to place, trying to fulfill Tommaso’s wishes. But as the story moves on, and Pulcinella grows frustrated at the inability of the people he meets to step up and do the right thing, I was left with a strong sense of loss.
Marcello isn’t saying that we don’t believe in magic anymore. Pulcinella is, after all, a demi-god, and the townspeople all seem to know this and talk to him. But rather, he’s saying that no one cares. The people who talk to Pulcinella often seem annoyed by him, or they find him anachronistic or old-fashioned. A man later in the film who agrees to take the buffalo waits only long enough for Pulcinella to leave before thinking about eating the animal. There is a complete lack of respect for the magic, for the wondrous, and a sense of apathy. This echoes too in Tommaso’s work restoring the Palace of Carditello… as soon as he has passed, the government moves in with no sense of excitement, but rather… ennui?
In the end, Sarchiapone’s story is heartbreaking by itself, and even more so for what Marcello is saying with it.
The other film which really got under my skin was Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent. It’s the story of a shaman named Karamakate who lives alone in the Colombian Amazon, and the two run-ins he has with white men, forty years apart. Played respectively by Nilbio Torres (young Karamakate) and Antonio Bolivar (elder Karamakate), the man has lost his tribe to the ravages of the white armies who have wiped out almost all traces of indigenous life and installed Christianity in the jungle. The first encounter, with a man named Theodor Koch-Grunberg and his local servant, brings to Karamakate the possibility that some remnant of his tribe has survived. Theodor offers to take Karamakate to them in exchange for helping him find a sacred plant to regain his failing health. In the later section, Karamakate meets Richard, a Bostonian researcher also looking for the plant and following Theodor’s diary as a guide.
The film is exquisitely shot by Guerra in crisp, gorgeous black and white, and his adapted screenplay from the real Theodor’s diaries is tight and intelligent. The younger Karamakate acts tense towards the white Theodor, agitated. He lacks trust and finds fault in the man’s actions. He is driven only by his desire to locate what is left of his tribe. The elder Karamakate, more pensive and melancholy as his memory fails him, treats Richard with more of a scholar’s wisdom, but nonetheless has misgivings about the trip. Motivations behind all the characters’ actions come to light slowly and naturally, while the violence and destruction wrought by Europeans’ slaughter of the native population surrounds them always.
Guerra’s film has some fierce power. There are sections reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, and The Mission, and other films where invaders, both military and cultural, have left local populations decimated and bereft of their history. But refreshingly, this is a film completely told from the local side. Karamakate is the beating heart of the film, and it is everything he comes to learn about his world which provides the film with its power.
As with Marcello’s film, Guerra doesn’t shy away from suggesting that there is some magic in this world… but unlike Marcello, Guerra suggests that maybe it can be rediscovered.