NYFF Capsule Reviews #1

Mimosas (Oliver Laxe)

Mimosas has been labeled as a religious Western, a metaphysical parable, an ‘Eastern’ Western, an adventure film, or other combinations of these terms. But this surreal tale of a couple of vagabonds and an idiot-savant trying to make their way through the perilous Atlas Mountains to bury the body of a sheikh is a remarkably suggestive film. At several instances it seems to give up its secret, but right at the moment when the truth seems to be within grasp, Laxe changes his mind and trumps us with an intellectually tantalizing but puzzling turn. Jumping back and forth in time, or rather environment, the film seems to be about the role of Faith in our lives, especially in the über-digitized world of 2016. Beautifully shot, but with minimal visual effects or technical wizardry and without any elaborate cinematography, there is a certain simplicity and straightforwardness to the approach (unlike the theme and narrative itself) which makes the film more haunting, disturbing, and hypnotic. That does not mean that it was an easy feat (a ‘making of’ documentary of the film was released, directed by Ben Rivers!). Split in three sections which are based on the Muslim prayer (to be specific, from the Sufi strain of the religion), the film is about the elusive, abstract and complex topic of faith. Faith, not religion. This breakdown works as a narrative tool to provide ellipsis, but also can be seen as representing the state of the characters. As the film proceeds, and we move on to the last section (procrastination), the actions of the protagonists become desperate and extreme, matching the level of total devotion and surrender, just as the enclosing prayer position does. The film seems to question whether faith is a good thing which gives you power, a necessary set of tools and skills to get through life (a therapy), or a human weakness, something woefully foolish: a threat to our existence which only results in our doom and ruin.

Kékszakállú (Gastón Solnicki)

This film from Argentina, which opened the new Explorations section of NYFF this year, is (very) loosely based on the Hungarian opera by Bela Bartek, the most obvious connection to which would be the film’s title and its use as the dramatic soundtrack. The short running time helps in a way, as there is not much to the narrative, but instead a string of tenuously connected but intricately created scenes and sequences about the coming of age of teenage girls (ranging from middle class to affluent), and the fears and anxieties of real life that come with growing up. This is framed (literally speaking, Solnicki’s camera is symmetrical and geometrical) within their dwellings such as the houses, apartments, and vacation homes which they inhabit and their relationship with them, which almost gives Solnicki’s eye an anthropological context. The decision to overlap and combine the banal with the grand brings a wry humor, but without any mean-spiritedness. Solnicki cares for his characters. For instance, the use of the hugely dramatic opera score as background music to scenes where a girl is trying to decide what to major in at vocational school works on many levels: a gentle mocking of how trivial the issue at hand is, a true reflection of the inner feelings of the girl for whom it is indeed a huge decision at that point in her life, and finally, a stylistic and aesthetic choice. A classical look at the mundane.

The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra)

Death comes as the end. For everyone, sparing no one. Whether you are one of the longest running monarchs in history, or a peasant. In this exceptional film, Serra takes a closer look at the inevitable: death and mortality. Solely and only concerned with the slow and painful end of Louis XIV on his deathbed (brought on by a misdiagnosis for gangrene), it makes for a remarkable film. Serra’s camera is patient, relentless, dutifully noting every step and phase, portraying dying as a protracted, perverse, ridiculous and unavoidable ritual. The film is shot in extreme close-ups, which recall the figures from classical paintings of that era, and add a sense of the grotesque to the proceedings. Serra keeps a detached approach to the material (even humor is extremely limited), and like a painter-documentarian just observes the process of dying without trying to incorporate any sentimentality. We are not allowed to emotionally connect with the subject. We might feel amazement, objective pity or disgust, but no empathy. This emotionally austere or stoic approach sounds harsh and bitter, and could have ended up being very clinical or bleak, but the director here uses an elegant style and macabre poeticism, which is objective at the level of a person or individual, but melancholic at the higher level of discussing death. A luxuriously decorated indoor setting, dimly lit, makes for a claustrophobic film about how we die and the gradual degradation as we give up on life. All of this hits hard and for some might be too cynical, but this emotionally hands-off approach makes it really oristic and matter of fact, which is an interesting result given how unrelatable the subject is to modern times. A slow, predictable, discrete decline, which is essentially a series of steps that apply to anyone. King or plebeian, knight or knave.