Death Stalks Mar Del Plata By Ronald Bergan

in 20th Mar Del Plata International Film Festival

by Ronald Bergan

Death as a theme haunted many of the films in the official selection at this year’s Mar del Plata festival as much as it haunts the world. Naturally, in any group of films there is always a fair amount that contain deaths and murders, but in this particular selection, Death emerged not only as part of the screenplays but as the subject itself.

Like Nannio Moretti’s The Son’s Room (La stanza del figlio), the Spanish Lest You Should Forget Me (Para que no me olvides), directed by Patricia Ferreira, was about the death of a young man and the effect it has on his nearest and dearest. The delicate film that stays on the right side of sentimentality, plays with the idea of memory. The mother tries to erase all memory of her son, a brilliant architectural student. The boy’s grandfather, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, writes down his memories of his grandson, just as the boy had tried to reconstruct the old man’s memories. Memory again plays a vital role in P.S ., directed by Dylan Kidd, in which a thirty-something woman (the ever-smiling Laura Linney), who works at Columbia University, tries to recapture a lost love in the arms of a much younger man (Topher Grace), who happens, not only to have the same name as her dead boyfriend, but looks like him. A typical example of an American indie, it is a witty but contrived tale.

Shinya Tsukamoto’s Vital has a young medical student, suffering from amnesia, brought about by a car accident in which his girlfriend is killed. This visual tone poem, drifting between reality and imagination, is mainly seen from the young man’s point of view as he tries to remember. Gradually, while dissecting the body of a young woman, who may or may not be that of his dead fiancée, he not only recovers his memory but his love.

Robin Campillo’s Les Revenants (They Came Back) had an extremely interesting idea — what would happen if all those who had died in the last ten years came back to life? How would their families cope, what would be the social and psychological effects? Unfortunately, the film misses a good opportunity by making the ‘revenants’ act like aliens from outer space. And despite all the detailed scientific analysis of them, nobody seems to want to ask them about their experiences while being dead. Jab-e talj (Bitter Dream), which won the FIPRESCI prize in Geneva 2004, a brilliant black comedy from Iran, directed by Mohsen Amiryyoussefi, tells of the job of preparing corpses for burial.

Multiple death as a result of politics is shown in the two films about the Nazi era in Germany, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (Der Untergang), a well-made but somewhat distasteful film on the last day’s of Hitler (there is very little that a Nazi could object to in the film) and Volker Schlöndorff’s The Ninth Day (Der Neunte Tag). The former has Frau Goebbels killing her beautiful Arian children one by one with poison as they sleep. Schlöndorff’s far better film, much of it set in Dachau concentration camp, has death waiting to pounce on the Catholic priest, while he wrestles with his conscience about whether to compromise his principles by collaborating with the Nazis. Curiously, the same actor, the extraordinary skull-faced Ulrich Matthes, plays the priest and Goebbels in Downfall, a film which Schlöndorff told me he detests.

These films and a few others in competition, make Death an inevitability as well as realising its visual impact. For example The Great Journey (Le Grand Voyage), directed by the Moroccan Ismael Ferrouji, ended in a death, in this case an elderly man who has fulfilled his dream of going to Mecca; and an exquisitely filmed suicide ends the subtly beautiful The Wife of Gilles (La Femme de Gilles), directed by the Belgian Frédèric Fontayne. At least the FIPRESCI winner, the Argentinean A Year Without Love (Un año sin amor), was about a young man with AIDS, who manages to keep delaying Death, not by playing chess, as in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal , but by taking medicines and not allowing the spectre to change his life.