Almost Acclaimed: Debut Films at the Stockholm IFF's Open Zone

in 26th Stockholm International Film Festival

by Dariia Badior

The Stockholm Film Festival which ended on November 22d, is one of those festivals that summarize the year in cinema. The Open Zone section which was judged by a FIPRESCI jury contained 22 films by “the world’s most acclaimed directors”. The aim of this program is obvious: to see some of the best directors, who were already represented at the biggest and best film festivals of 2015, competing with each other for a single award. Todd Haynes’s Carol was once more competing with Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi Tehran was set against Radu Jude’s Aferim!, etc.

Nevertheless, the festival selection board obviously decided to widen the range of “the most acclaimed directors”. Among the 22 competing films were two debuts, which means that the Stockholm film festival is not only summarizing the year, but also trying to make a forecast by pointing which newcomers should be added to the list of “acclaimed” directors by the end of the year.

If we stay with the Stockholm festival’s selectors, this year it will be Pablo Messina from Italy, director of The Wait (L’attesa) and the Canadian Stephen Dunn, director of Closet Monster.

Pablo Messina was an assistant director to Paolo Sorrentino in The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza). With his own, beautifully shot and superbly acted first-feature, Messina can simply write himself into the new history of Italian cinema.

The Wait is slightly influenced by Sorrentino, the world’s biggest baroque film director: the film is set in a big, rich and beautiful house in Sicilia which becomes a character in itself a well as the soundtrack, which is a little bit overdone.

Based on the play La vita che ti diedi by Luigi Pirandello, the main characters are two women who are spending several days together in the house. Juliette Binoche is Anna, the mother of Giuseppe who died – presumably – in an accident shortly before a young woman, Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), comes to Sicilia to meet her boyfriend and his mother and spend Easter with them.

Struggling with the reality of her loss, Anna doesn’t tell Jeanne that Giuseppe died, making this girl wait for him. With every further scene this situation risks to become unjustifiably pathological, but Messina proves his talent by not letting this happen.

Although we feel that Jeanne is somehow tortured by Anna, the writing and the sublime acting by Binoche hold The Wait in an appropriate dramatic frame. At a certain moment we start to understand Anna’s motivation: she isn’t sadistic towards Jeanne, she just hangs on her trying to survive the tragedy. By not telling Jeanne the truth, Anna denies the obvious and painful reality and extends her own happy life: the presence of her son’s girlfriend gives her a reason to cook a fantastic dinner, to put on make-up and a beautiful dress as if everything is fine.

But the further Anna goes with this denial, the stronger will be her own psychological climax when she realizes her loss with every single cell of her body. Messina shows these human attempts to outlive the darkness with humanity and understanding.

Unlike The Wait, Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster is a typical first-feature – ambitious and over packed with ideas but still promising an interesting journey for the director in his future work.

Closet Monster is partly built on Dunn’s personal experience of growing up gay in a small city and finding his own sexuality. One of the triggers for the traumatized main character, Oscar, is a violent hate crime against a young boy from his school which he witnesses as a kid. His father tells him that the boy was violated because he was gay and that makes Oscar’s process of self-acceptance much more difficult.

Years after this incident Oscar is living with his father, who is drowning in alcohol and self-pity after the breakup of his marriage. Oscar has mixed feeling about his mother who left him behind: he hates her (as does his despicable father) and wants her to protect him from all the frustration he feels about himself. Oscar’s closest friend is a talking hamster (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) who provides the wit in this film.

Proving that he is a promising film director, Dunn makes Oscar’s frustration very physical. The most fearful detail of the hate crime from his childhood was a metal rod, the instrument of violation. And every single time Oscar experiences a sexual awakening he imagines he is violated with this rod. When the process of self-acceptance is completed, Oscar will get rid of the rod.

This story of a painful self-realization could be more convincing if Dunn hadn’t overloaded it with a bunch of detailed subplots. Nevertheless, Dunn’s next project – a film about a family in a house floating in the open sea, sounds promising.

Edited by Yael Shuv