Déjà Vu in Rio By Claudio Cordero
Of all the festivals on the Latin American circuit, the Rio International Film Festival offers one of the most complete and varied program. There, we find the latest winners from Cannes, Venice and Berlin, and also the best Latin American cinema of the last twelve months: Auteurist and avant gardecinema, as well as Hollywood features, local productions — José Padilha’s Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite) was a clear standout there — and world premieres like Love in the Time of Cholera.
Offered so many options, I was surprised by a handful of films that didn’t let me down and led me through very similar experiences. On first sight, they were very different works; that’s why my feeling of déjà vu was so unexpected. In Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, Joe Wright’s Atonement, Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face, Marcos Jorge’s Estômago and even Kevin Macdonald’s documentary My Enemy’s Enemy, it’s evident that the manipulation of time is a technique widely accepted in contemporary cinema. It would appear that narrative continuity is a thing of the past.
The best film of this group is Lust, Caution, a historical drama that develops from a flashback. Everything starts in Shanghai, as a mysterious woman walks inside a café, makes a phone call and sits down to wait. Here we go back in time, just before the Japanese invade Chinese territory. The time leap is used to reveal the real identity of the woman (a young spy at the service of the resistance); to eradicate the suspense regarding the narrated actions (whatever happens she’ll be in the café four years later); and also to mark a specific moment, apparently insignificant but of great internal torment: It’s there, in the café, when the heroine will make the most difficult decision of her life. More than two hours later, the circle closes: We relive the initial scene and we witness its consequences. Ang Lee has managed to build a poetic cinematographic time loop, autonomous and without fissures.
Another historical reconstruction is found in Atonement, the second film of Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright. Here we witness a literary fictional game play out, because the screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, uses a godlike narrator. In this film we can’t be sure of anything, except of the feelings of Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner (Keira Knightley and James McAvoy), two lovers separated at the whim of Briony, a spoiled girl with a rich imagination. Of course, this dramatic premise allows the film to alternate between multiple points of view, and to resort to flashbacks in order to clarify the darkest passages of a deliberately fragmented story. Atonement is a subtle and interesting movie, though it ends up owing more to literature than to cinema itself. At the end we are more shocked by the final revelation than by the story; in other words, a brilliant narrative technique becomes more important than the emotions of its rather stiff protagonists.
But if Atonement is far from boring in its formal boldness, that is the case with Marcos Jorge’s Brazilian feature Estômago. On top of the cynical and coarse humor displayed in this misanthropic comedy about death, sex and high cuisine, there is the desire to impress the public with sudden twists in the story. The fact that the narration is constructed in two parallel timelines — from Nonato, the cook, before and after his arrest — has no explanation other than trying to maintain suspense in the outcome, whatever the cost, and to provide the audience with an answer to the question of how Nonato got himself in jail in the first place. The strategy is clever; maybe too clever for its own good. The problem is that when the pieces finally come together, they end up revealing the immense banality of this whole enterprise. Estômago is the proof that nobody can save a weak story, but that a good writer can help make it taste better. Too bad I was already full.