Death and Disenchantment By Mihai Chirilov

in 42nd Chicago International Film Festival

by Mihai Chirilov

In a festival like Chicago where the best movies were about an upcoming demise made obvious from the title (Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), and a peculiar view of the sold dream of immortality (Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven), talking about death is not only legitimate but appropriate. It’s not even as depressing as it should be, given the gravity of the topic, since some movies were too clumsy to handle it right and others were just too laid back to take it seriously. But still… As one of the characters from Gates of Heaven puts it, “it’s a whole world down there”, and most of the movies from the New Directors competition proved that just right.

Fateless (by Lajos Koltai) was probably the most faithful to what death really means. It’s enough to witness with open eyes this powerful rendition of Imre Kertész’s eponymous novel to have proof: even though it comes with a different, if not offensive point of view, on the Holocaust and its atrocities, it doesn’t play cheap games with the audience. The Holocaust may not be such a tragedy for the main hero, who tried to survive and make the best out of his experiences in German concentration camps, but here death is real, smelly and ever-present.

That is not to be said about Guernsey (by Nanouk Leopold), for instance, a slow and undeveloped movie which deals with the consequences of death. A woman finds one of her colleagues dead in the bathroom. This sudden and unexplained suicide leads her to have a closer look at her own life and family. Will she be missed after death? Or is there a ‘delete’ key in all of us that makes us immune to the aftermath?

Death has a brief ‘cameo’, so to speak, in the Iranian movie Poet of the Wastes (by Mohammad Ahmadi). The hero is a street cleaner who discovers small secrets about his neighborhood by collecting people’s garbage and browsing through it. Often funny, and with a certain charm, this movie, like all the Iranian ones, is trying too hard to be about the big issues in the world. Praising love, poetry and life, Poet of the Wastes remains small, pretentious (trash is poetry, excuse us…), but has one effective scene that involves death: the street cleaner finds himself in front of the building of a threatened poet who never left his house, only to notice that the usually closed window is now open and a ladder leads to the first floor. Climbing the ladder, the hero discovers the tragedy, but all we can see is a devastated house. No corpse. It’s like in Guernsey: death comes silently, takes someone with it and leaves the building like nothing ever happened. The invisible death.

On the contrary, in Well-Tempered Corpses (by Benjamin Filipovic) we have plenty of corpses. We even have a guy who dies twice in the same day and resurrects accordingly, but also a bunch of other dead people unlucky enough to endure the cold in the morgue for good. It’s that kind of dark and cynic comedy where nothing’s too serious to laugh at. Including death. If only the whole script was better.

Grain in Ear (by Mang Zhong) is definitely serious stuff. A young Korean woman is living in China with her son while her husband is in jail. She couldn’t have it worse: she is constantly on the run, trying to sell snacks without having a work permit, she indulges in an affair with a married man, her kid dies, and a soon-to-be-married policeman rapes her. Desperate revenge takes over in the last reel and this surprising move actually saves the whole enterprise, although everybody else in the movie dies from poisoning.

Last but not least, death gets a glamorous lifting in Stories of Disenchantment (by Alejandro Valle & Felipe Gomez). Visually stunning and narratively challenging, this is an enchantingly dreamy cross of Moulin Rouge and Borges’ stories. The narrative might be stuck in a limbo, but the movie takes you with bat wings on a surreal and fast trip into your unconscious, where life and death are overlapping each other on a Möbius strip.