Family Values By John Harkness

in 46th Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by John Harkness

One lesson that might be considered by many of the first and second time directors who screened in this year’s Thessaloniki Competition is that the best way to get an unsuspecting audience to sit through your audacious formal construction is to give them an emotional doorway into the film through engaging characters. Not likable characters – though likable doesn’t hurt – but engaging. Characters who actually interest the audience.

That, along with what seems to be widely held view that editing causes cancer, were problems that beset more than one film in this year’s competition. And yet look at the way that Ramin Bahrani uses cutting to create the narrative rhythm of Man Push Cart, which won the Best Actor and the audience prize here and the FIPRESCI Prize in London this year. Compare that with those films where the directors would plunk down the camera, wait for the characters to wander into frame, then hold on the empty frame after the scene was completed. Nobody cares about the empty frame. We’ve seen it. Move on.

Thus, it’s not surprising that the main prize winners of the competition jury and the FIPRESCI jury were both films that were closer to conventional filmmaking than experimental, were portraits of family lives that resembled reality without sacrificing narrative and emotional drive. The Mexican film Sangre may be the most realistic portrait of a dull married couple ever, though I’d suggest that if audiences want to watch an expressionless lump of a character eat breakfast in real time, they don’t need to shell out for a movie ticket to do so. Not at today’s prices.

Como Pasan Las Horas, which has been at several festivals since its premiere at Mar Del Plata, is a portrait of a family over 12 hours, husband and wife, wife and mother, father and son, and the unexpected twists life can take in a day. Isolating the characters in pairs – Susana Campos’ Virginia with her aging mother (Roxanna Berco) at a family cottage, Guillermo Arengo’s Juan with their four year old son, Santiago (Augustin Alcoba) at the seaside, director Inez de Oliveira Cezar works on themes of distance and mortality within a family.

Her grasp of the characters’ emotional dynamic, and the actors willingness to live in the expressive emotional spaces she creates even overcomes an unfortunate fondness for visual trickery. Como Pasan Las Horas opens with a distorted anamorphic image that alarmed some audience members – this at a press screening – so much that they went out to complain. I knew it was right, as the image was in focus, but was worried that we were in for two hours of Sokhurov-lite. This is an annoying mannerism the director uses to indicate Virginia’s perception of her mother as a creature of the past. I think.

Ultimately, Cezar holds us with the emotional authenticity of her characters. The mother-daughter and father-son dynamics have the feeling of reality. We believe them. We are engaged by their relationships and wonder what will happen to them – and what we expect will happen to them doesn’t, which is a plus.