A Procession of Overripe Symbols

in 64th Locarno International Film Festival

by Yael Shuv

Grapevines, mangroves and other plants are not just part of the landscape. They are also very useful (and overused) symbols, as was demonstrated by many of the films at the international competition of the Locarno Film Festival. Too many films, in fact, seemed like bare ideas, not fully developed, on which symbols were hung like overripe fruits.

Milagros Mumenthale’s Argentinian film Back to Stay (Abrir puertas y ventanas) winner of both the Golden Leopard and the FIPRESCI prize — chose an old house and a grapevine as its main symbols. The film tells of three sisters living together in their late grandmother’s house. Each of them copes differently with the grandmother’s absence and with the need to let go and grow up (we conclude that the girls were brought up by their grandmother though we are never told what happened to the parents).

While the sisters sometimes go out (only one young man is allowed to come in), the camera never leaves the premises, reflecting the girls’ difficulty in departing the womb. A conflict grows out of one sister’s need to get rid of the old furniture, while the other insists on hanging on to the past — finally giving up and tearing the old wallpaper off the walls. Redefining the house is a way of opening the doors and windows (as in the original title) to the future. The grapevine that grows in the yard is revealed as another major metaphor when one sister decides to uproot it (with the help of their male tenant, who contributes a bit of sexual tension) and thus infuriates her sister because apparently the grandmothers’ ashes are buried with the roots. Uprooting the vine, therefore, is too easily deciphered as cutting the final umbilical cord.

Frédéric Choffat and Julie Gilbert’s Mangrove puts its central trope in the title (emphasizing the fact that the protagonists remain nameless). The film tells of a young European woman returning with her son to an isolated beach on the south coast of the Pacific where she once was engaged to a local man. Flashbacks to steamy sex scenes indicate that the serene beach is a false façade. When the woman penetrates the swamp in a canoe and digs out a knife that was buried in the mud we realize that the mangrove — half exposed to the sunlight, half hidden under the water — symbolizes the hidden truth that drove her away from the seemingly pastoral existence.

Her father killed her lover and then threw him into the sea to feed the sharks. His death was then declared as a consequence of drowning and the woman did not dare to reveal the truth. It is only now that she exposes the secret to the sunlight, leaving the inhabitants the gift of a dead fish (or is it a small shark?) pierced by the murder weapon. This aggressively symbolic gesture can be read as a sacrifice to God or rather as a reminder usually associated with Mafia films, in which people tend to get unwanted dead presents and/or swim “with fishes” against their will.

Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet does not give names to the flora, but rather uses the green and yet treeless mountains of Georgia as an abstract, paradise-like backdrop for an exercise in coupling. A young couple — she is an American, he is Mexican, perhaps signifying that men and women are from different planets — embark on a pre-wedding journey into Georgia. There is nothing to hold on to and nowhere to hide. When they are inexplicably attacked by some locals, Nica finds that she can’t hold on to Alex, who instinctively chooses to hide behind her. He corrects himself immediately, but too late.

Not long after, the damsel in distress is carried across the stream by their virile Georgian guide (while Alex saves the backpack). This leads to a kiss by the fire, and we know the relationship between Nica and Alex is doomed. Is the film telling us that in the wild women will always choose the alpha male, even if the weaker male looks like Gael García Bernal?

Whereas the title The Loneliest Planet seems to be mostly a play on words, Mike Cahill’s Another Earth actually creates a whole new planet (or rather a reflection of the old planet) to make a rather small point. Young and beautiful Rhoda drove her car into John’s family car and killed his son and pregnant wife. When she is released from jail a few years later she decides to cleanse her sin by cleaning John’s house. A handy scriptwriting contrivance means that he doesn’t recognize her, and therefore the film allows him to fall in love and into bed with her. The sex scene is soaked in pietà, as Rhoda transforms from an exterminating angel to an angel of mercy. The idea of the other Earth that appears in the sky duplicating our own, gives tangible presence to the fantasy that if we could do it again, we’d do it differently.

Another beautiful sinner appears in Gianluca and Massimilliano De Serio’s Seven Acts of Mercy (Sette opere di misericordia) which adopts an ironic structure to tell a story of heavenly redemption. The rough Luminita, a young illegal Romanian immigrant in Italy, kidnaps a baby and imprisons a sick old man in his own apartment so that she can keep the baby there until she exchanges it for a fake passport. The acts of mercy described in big titles on the screen shed an ironic light on the acts of violence that follow them. But this ironic light transforms into celestial light that washes Luminita when, affected by the baby’s innocence, she literally metamorphoses into a spiritual being. The old man participates in the transformation process — when she collapses after the failure of her evil plan, he undresses her suddenly soft body and dresses her in clean clothes that he kept in the closet. These clothes — that somehow fit her perfectly — seem to give her a new personality.

Imprisonment, as in the story of the old man in Seven Acts of Mercy and also in many of the other films in the competition, was a perpetual state of being, both physical and metaphoric. The protagonists of Fernand Melgar’s Special Flight (Vol Spécial), Anca Damian’s Crulic — The Path to Beyond (Crulic — Drumul spre dincolo), Sebastian Lélio’s The Year of the Tiger (El año del tigre), Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s Smugglers’ Songs (Les chants de Mandrin) and Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval’s Low Life were literally kept prisoners — most of them found guilty of being foreigners in unwelcoming countries. Other protagonists, such as the muscular policeman in Nadav Lapid’s Policeman (Hashoter), the fat kid in Azazel Jacobs Terri and the obsessive young woman in love in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye, First Love (Un amour de jeunesse), were imprisoned in their own bodies, each of them unhappily succumbing to its needs and demands.

Images of the separation wall in Tawfik Abu Wael’s Last Days in Jerusalem (Tanathur) can also be read as a symbol of imprisonment, though they are presented in a context of a superficial melodrama about a bourgeois Palestinian couple planning to emigrate from Jerusalem to Paris (which they indeed do in the end). The only thing that stops them from going is themselves, and not any external authority, neither Israeli not Palestinian. He is a doctor called back to the hospital to tend to kids wounded in a bus accident, she is an actress sleeping with her director, and their marriage is on the rocks. Their story could take place anywhere in the world, therefore the constant turning of the camera to the dire sight of the separation wall in East Jerusalem seems opportunistic and heavy handed. This real wall is too big and too charged to simply be used as decoration for a trivial relationship melodrama.