In the Face of Solitude
by Kata Gyürke
Strikingly lonely heroes balancing on the fringes of society, involved in secret affairs, formed the backbone of the competition programme of the CineFest Miskolc International Film Festival. The author attended the festival as a member of the FIPRESCI jury.
It was as if loneliness and resignation were allied with melancholy yet fierce love stories, sensual adventures, intellectual outbursts, and unrelenting social criticism – the CineFest competition programme has perhaps never been so strong. We were fortunate to be in Miskolc.
The seventeen feature films also provided a broad sampling of the year’s biggest festival successes and heralded the autumn’s cinema releases. There was the best director from Cannes (The Taste of Things / La passion de Dodin Bouffant), the Crystal Globe-winning film from Karlovy Vary (Blaga’s Lessons / Urotcite na Blaga) and the Heart of Sarajevo winner (Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry / Shashvi shashvi maq’vali), the best independent film by the Hollywood Critics Association (Past Lives), as well as the long-awaited new films by Tudor Giurgiu, Wim Wenders, Aki Kaurismäki, and Yorgos Lanthimos.
Hungarian cinema was represented in the competition by Barnabás Tóth’s Master Game (Mesterjátszma), and Gábor Reisz’s new film, Explanation for Everything (Magyarázat mindenre) was also a huge success in Miskolc. This year’s Lifetime Achievement Award went to the famous documentary filmmaker Tamás Almási, while the European Cinema Ambassador Award went to Jean-Marc Barr. The renowned actor served as the jury’s president.
Interestingly, few feature films reflected on Ukraine this year, but in the documentary competition, David Gutnik’s The Rule of Two Walls, made in Ukraine, did and won the top prize in the CineDocs section. The new Kaurismäki film, Fallen Leaves (Kuolleet lehdet) which was selected by FIPRESCI as Film of the Year and has just been awarded the Adolf Zukor Prize, the Grand Prix of the festival, in Miskolc, also did not escape the topic. The film received a sold-out premiere and a huge ovation from the audience.
In the feature film competition, aside from the Slovakian Victim (Obet’), only Kaurismäki tackled the neighbouring war in the narrative. The director has stayed true to himself, and this time too he moves his lonely characters like marionettes, around whom he builds a world that is austere and taut, yet colourful (often blue and yellow). Dialogue is sparse, but when it does occur, it is exceptionally witty and insightful. Rather, it’s the radio and its programmes consistently announcing news about Ukraine.
In Fallen Leaves, we don’t see the main characters smile much (only at important narrative turning points), but their moves resonate with us. We follow them to workers’ dorms, construction sites, karaoke parties, where loneliness and alcoholism go hand in hand. The director masterfully constructs the narrative while paying homage to the giants of cinema and art. It may not be a magnum opus, but it is quintessentially Kaurismäki, offering genuine intellectual refreshment.
The Swiss-Georgian film, Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry, recently recognized with the Heart of Sarajevo award, also captured the heart of Miskolc, receiving numerous accolades at CineFest. From our jury, it received the FIPRESCI award, from the International Confederation of Arthouse Cinemas (CICAE) the Arthouse Cinema Award, and it gained the festival’s Grand Prize, the Imre Pressburger Award for the Best Film. The young director, Elena Naveriani, paints an expansive fresco and seems to understand just about everything about human nature. She not only knows but also shows the poetry of everyday life, the layers of human relationships, the inevitable intertwining of time and the body. The love scene is simply unforgettable. Naveriani boldly reaches out to the unknown or the sensual, delving into the nature of freedom while narrating our loneliness and the complex, uncontrollable nature of life.
This is not the first time that director Elena Naveriani has worked with the outstanding Georgian actress Eka Chavleishvili, and Berlin-based cinematographer Ágnesh Pákozdi, also a long-time collaborator with whom they made this their seventh film together. Chavleishvili portrays Etero, the central character of the film, a strict 48-year-old woman who encounters love for the first time. The encounter forces her to confront her entire life in a fateful and unexpected way. The director frames the story superbly and the cinematographer is a brilliant partner in articulating the vision. In the opening scene, Etero has a near-fatal accident while picking blackberries, and in the closing scene, a fatal change is also unfolding before our eyes. In the meantime, we are immersed in the scenic beauty of the Georgian countryside, the richness of its characters, the life of a remote village and become witnesses to a complicated love affair.
The festival also provided an opportunity to view the Hungarian short film programme of the CineNewWave section, where we saw numerous valuable and exciting works. Among them, we awarded the FIPRESCI Short Film Award to Bianka Szelestey’s As If I Should (Mintha kéne) because of its ability to confront us with the absence of generational dialogue with such power and tension. The story unfolds in a car, amidst the tension of Christmas, in complete communication chaos. But fate intervenes to remind us of the fragility of life, the unique significance of the past and tradition. The director was also featured with another film, Pragma, which won the Hungarian Film Critics’ Prize earlier this year and received an invitation to Cannes.
Wim Wenders’ new film, Perfect Days, deeply touched all three members of our jury. We loved and admired its poetic richness, its cinematic references (whether quoted from himself or from his favourite director, Ozu), as well as the delicate acting by Kôji Yakusho, the lead actor. In this film, Wim Wenders seems to take his time, slowing down and giving space to the simplicity of everyday life. The story takes place in Tokyo and follows the peculiar days of Hirayama, a man who cleans public toilets (meticulously).
The lonely man has a deep love for nature, spending his free time contemplating in a park and photographing trees. In the evenings, he reads and, inexplicably, listens to the music of the 80s underground scene. His car is a special cleaning unit, and music plays from cassettes, including Lou Reed’s generational song, “Perfect Days.” He almost becomes the embodiment of perfect balance, but when an unexpected visitor arrives, inevitable questions arise. Who is this man? The thought lingers for days, returning again and again, perhaps because the director himself comes to mind. One of the most beautiful closing scenes of the festival suggests the impossibility of an ending.
However, the best opening scene of the competition is associated with American-Korean director Celine Song. Past Lives, presented at the Sundance Film Festival and Berlinale competition, opens with a bar scene: the three main characters are seen talking, we don’t know what about, but a narrator (as if it were us) speculates about their relationship. The coming-of-age story takes Nora and Hae-sung’s childhood friendship as its starting point to tell of life-changing choices, understanding childhood traumas and true love. Nora lives in New York and is a successful writer, like her husband Arthur, while Hae-sung is adrift in Seoul. Twenty years later, when the former friends meet again, they must inevitably answer a fundamental question: what growing up means? The director builds on the best traditions of Korean cinema but incorporates the charm of American cinema as well. With meticulous detail and subtle balance, the film dares to be emotional. Past Lives is technically one of the most perfectly executed films, and it is no wonder that it has become a favourite among American audiences, ranking high on film top lists, and being chosen as the best independent film by Hollywood film critics.
Another opportunity for a lengthy discussion and analysis was the Iranian competition film Terrestrial Verses by Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami, which was also a big hit at Cannes, where it was one of the favourites of the Un Certain Regard. The nine-part film, based on fragmented stories, reveals characters from various layers of Iranian society in a nuanced and cleverly structured portrayal. It conveys the message: “This is Iran now” depicting everyday life where people navigate between strict cultural, religious, and institutional laws. Unfortunately, some “human stories” seem disturbingly familiar: regardless of disguises, humans tend to be monsters and are prone to abuse even the slightest power. Yet, in the spirit of the best tradition of Iranian cinema, this film is also subtly witty, sometimes touching and certainly brave, where the bright side may not necessarily defeat but outwits and bypasses the darkness. Its closing scene is also unforgettable: the devastating images of the Iranian earthquake flickering in the background.
Even darker than the Iranian film was the Bulgarian-German co-production of this year’s Karlovy Vary Crystal Globe winner, Blaga’s Lessons (Urotcite na Blaga), a tense social drama that perfectly blends the genres of Eastern European art film and thriller, directed by Stefan Komandarev. He has chosen a lonely, elderly widow as his central character, giving us a historical perspective on the harsh reality of Eastern Europe’s hopelessness, the lack of social support, the intertwining of systemic poverty and crime. He does this by highlighting a well-known basic situation, the analysis of telephone scammers and the plundering of the elderly. In a brilliant performance by Eli Skorcheva (winner of the Crystal Globe for the Best Actress in Karlovy Vary), we meet Blaga, an elderly teacher who becomes a victim of scammers. As drifty, strict, and consistent as she is, it is difficult to identify with her, she is not our role model. The only innocent character has a different fate. “There’s a different kind of war here”, a turning point in the plot reveals, and we watch with clenched stomachs until the equally brave, startling final scene awakens us to the truth.
Tudor Giurgiu, who has competed at CineFest before, told another Eastern European story. More specifically he presented a film about an untold chapter of the Romanian Revolution, capturing a profound sense of history. His film, Libertate, is a Romanian-Hungarian co-production and had its world premiere in August in Sarajevo, where it won the International Confederation of Arthouse Cinemas (CICAE) award. This time, the film won the International Ecumenical Jury Prize in Miskolc. Giurgiu was filming with returning collaborators, including editor Réka Lemhényi, with whom he worked on his previous anti-corruption film Why Me? (De ce eu?). In this unknown story of the days of the 1989 revolution, soldiers, policemen, demonstrators, and members of the secret police clash, but when they desperately flee the siege in civilian clothes, everyone becomes indistinguishable from one another. Many end up in an overcrowded swimming pool, where more people are held captive day by day. Chaotic scenes unfold in the crowded pool, making it increasingly difficult to identify the characters. Cinematographer Alex Sterian’s images masterfully enhance the authenticity of the drama and the dynamics of mass psychosis. The poetic closing shot, depicting the loneliness of the one innocent character, burns unrelentingly into our memory.
I conclude my festival overview with a beautiful costume drama. Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s film The Taste of Things transports us to an enchanting world. Starring Juliette Binoche (Eugénie) and Benoît Magimel (Dodin), the film pays tribute to French gastronomy with a sometimes restrained, sometimes searing sensuality. It is the end of the 19th century, and we spend time in a chateau in the Loire, mostly in its kitchen. Soup is boiling in a copper pot, herbs are being chopped with a tightly gripped knife, and not far away a large turbot fish is soaking in white wine. The story goes that the famous gourmand and his faithful cook are creating new culinary wonders to delight and impress their friends. You can follow the preparation of these special dishes, but there is much more to it than that. It is an almost bewilderingly sensual film. The perfectly balanced dishes reveal more than a thousand gestures about the emotions of the protagonists and Dodin’s desire to marry Eugenie. But his proposal threatens her independence. The film, which shows love in its purest form, won the Best Director prize at Cannes.
Edited by Savina Petkova
© FIPRESCI 2023
Originally published in Hungarian in the Filmvilág Magazin’s October 2023 issue.