NYFF Capsule Reviews #2

Everything Else (Natalia Almada)

Everything Else is the first fiction film by the accomplished documentarian Natalia Almada. Set in Mexico City, it chronicles the everyday existence of an average bureaucrat – just another cog in the system. The portrayal is patient, precise, and unflinching, and Almada, perhaps because of her documentary background, adopts a durational approach to direction (Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman comes to mind), and lets shots linger or just quietly observes the apparently insignificant actions of our daily lives, like putting on slacks. There are extended sequences which, rather than being boring, mesmerise you and by the end, because of their stubborn persistence, feel even oppressive and violent. Which is exactly what Almada is trying to show us through the character of Doña Flor (Adriana Barraza): we see her waking up every day, feeding her cat, taking the train, working at the mind-numbingly repetitive job of accepting forms for various government services, going back home at night, drinking tea, lying on her bed. On the surface these events are nothing, meaningless, but when accumulated day by day, this Kafkaesque bureaucracy ends up being frustrating and soul-crushing and thus harmful to our humanity. Doña Flor is apparently healthy, but she is also someone at the end of her rope. Worse, what this film shows us is that this Sisyphean routine can make us lonely and isolated too. Through television news voiceovers and various shots of the teeming metropolis, Almada tries to incorporate the crumbling social fabric of her city with its rampant corruption, poverty, and crime, which could be interpreted as having multiple meanings. On one hand, it mocks Doña Flor’s fastidious profession and makes it look even more ineffective. On the other, the city on the brink is perhaps the symptom, where the ‘system’ (to which she belongs) is the cause. Thankfully, Almada is not just here for the grim. A quite unexpected moment between Doña Flor and a stranger near the end of the film gives us hope that all is not lost, and tenderness could be found anywhere.

Son of Joseph (Eugène Green)

Anyone familiar and comfortable with Green’s whimsical and baroque-inspired work is in for a treat with Son of Joseph. Green’s latest film, which is a dry, deadpan update of the Nativity Story set in modern-day France, is about ordinary teenager Vincent, brought up by a single mother, who goes on a journey to find his father. Dad turns out to be a philanderer, a womanizer and a big shot in the Parisian literary world. Shot in the formalist style which is typical of Green (stiff body language, characters talking directly to the camera, reading rather than delivering lines), the film is charming and playful, and might seem light in instances, but this does not mean it is simplistic or trivial. Rather, it is a decision to let go of cynicism and embrace empathy with humor. The crisp imagery set in Paris, the funny but sharp digs at the snobbish French literati, the serious dialogue all add a wistful tone to the light-heartedness, asking and answering questions about family and familial bonds. This is Green’s most accessible and straightforward film, but it still manages to include a mesmerizing, baroque performance of poetry recital.

The Ornithologist (João Pedro Rodrigues)

Described by some as queer hagiography, The Ornithologist by Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues is a queer update on the myths around Saint Anthony of Padua. Fernando, as the titular professional, is working (or vacationing; it’s never clear) in the Portuguese woods when his kayak collapses and he is lost in the forest. After a series of bizarre and surreal events and encounters with people, objects and animals, this puts him on a path to become a saint, or at least a saint-like figure. Disturbing, darkly humorous and humorously dark, filled with demented and extreme imagery fitting the equally grandiose duties of sainthood, this is a take on the spiritual versus the physical where the former’s (i.e. faith’s) self-righteousness and piety is turned upside down after clashing with the corporeal, of the flesh, with all its blood and fluids and nakedness. Given that Rodrigues has always been interested in queer/gay themes, and how this film updates Saint Anthony’s trials and journey to a blasphemously queer context by reclaiming some of the core aspects of Catholicism which have always prosecuted the queer, it seems to be a quite personal film. Beautifully shot entirely in the great outdoors, with lush cinematography and crisp sound work, it is unsettlingly intense and visceral yet melancholic filmmaking, which despite its brutal, suffering core, ends on a self-aware, hopeful note.

Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo)

The latest film by the prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo is another in his trademark style of short, compact filmmaking about the coulda, woulda, shoulda of love and relationships, shot with his no-frills production style. As minimalist as these films are in terms of direction or technicals, the beauty is in Hong’s writing. Yourself and Yours deals with identity and what is our real self, or the more intriguing question: what if we have more than one real self, and how do we navigate these in our daily lives, especially when it comes to those we love or who love us? A young man, played by Kim Joo-Hyuck, is mad at his girlfriend (You-young Lee), for going on drinking binges behind his back, and breaks up with her. You-young, over the course of the film, is shown meeting different men around the city, claiming to be someone else. After a few days, Kim regrets his lashing out and tries to win You-young back, although she might be a different person now. All these different characters played by the same actress create charmingly confusing circumstances. It is best not to decipher or make sense of the narrative, but rather enjoy the exploration of the idea, but herein lies the problem as well. The concept is interesting, but it does not seem to be explored enough, and surprisingly Hong’s hands-off, spare approach leaves us wanting more; the ending is too pat, and even if the results are surely amusing, they seem half-baked too.

The Ornithologist (João Pedro Rodrigues)