Figures in a Landscape By André Waardenburg

in 37th Rotterdam International Film Festival

by André Waardenburg

In two of my favorite films from the VPRO Tiger Award Competition of the 37 th International Film Festival Rotterdam, landscape figures prominently. One of them, Aditya Assarat’s Wonderful Town, won a Tiger Award — its second prize after already winning in Pusan. The other, José Luis Torres Leiva ‘s The Sky, the Earth and the Rain (El cielo, la tierra y la lluvia), won the FIPRESCI Award.

Both films — diverse as they are — use landscape in a similar way. Wonderful Town ‘s Assarat was living in Bangkok when the tsunami hit Thailand . He watched it on television. A year later, he decided to go to the town that was hit hardest by the devastating tsunami. When he visited Takua Pa he noticed the town itself was almost already rebuilt, with hardly any sign that a disaster had taken place. But when he talked to the inhabitants, it was evident they were still scarred by the event — every person lost one or two family members. The space between the cleaned-up and rebuilt surface of things and the underlying emotional trauma interested him. In interviews Assarat says he felt “the soul” of the town, and wanted to express this in his first feature, and the town and its surrounding landscape are indeed a third character in his haunting film. Slowly it becomes clear something happened to this town.

By using an architect from the city as his main character, Assarat takes the idea of rebuilding and of (destroyed) town versus (intact) city as his theme. Though he is supposed to be supervising the building of a new hotel — a way to attract tourists and secure the town’s economic survival after the tsunami — the architect shows more interest in an abandoned, derelict ruin. Assarat begins and ends his film by showing us waves hitting the beach. In the first instance it is an innocent image, but 90 minutes later, a virtually identical image has acquired a new, profoundly moving meaning. The innocence of the first image is lost. The landscape has become guilty, to use a phrase from the Dutch artist Armando, who has obsessively painted and documented landscapes from the Second World War that in no way remind us of the atrocities that took place there.

The landscape that appears as a documentary image used as (stunningly beautiful) background is transformed into a traumatic space of mourning that can only be reclaimed through murder and a ritual funeral. The ghosts have to be exorcised — if they ever can be.

Chilean director José Luis Torres Leiva has a background in documentary, which is very evident in his first feature, The Sky, the Earth and the Rain. He shot the film in the south of Chile, in the Valdivia Rivers district. The landscape there is very powerful, and in its ruggedness quite beautiful. As in Wonderful Town, nature is a third character. And here, too, it takes on a more metaphysical meaning. As in Antonioni’s trilogy from the sixties (or tetralogy, if you count Red Desert as well) the natural surroundings and the way they are shot are used to comment on the characters. Without much dialogue, and relying on a subtle soundtrack, Torres Leiva makes the loneliness of his main, female character evident. By shooting her as a tiny figure when she strolls through the forest, for instance, he visually reveals her mental state. She is lonely, just as the landscape is, as shown by Torres Leiva through slowly paced camera movements that broodingly investigate the imposing nature. She is lost in herself, a feeling reinforced by the film’s sense of her as lost in the landscape.

Her inability to express her emotions and desires in a direct manner leads to a beautiful scene in the house of the man she cleans for. He is lying on his bed and is sleeping deeply. She comes into the room, slowly bending herself over him. When their lips almost touch, she retreats. Like the branches of a big tree blown by the wind, they connect with each other briefly and then move on again. No wonder Torres Leiva begins his film with a magnificent travelling shot through the woods and even up into a tree, with branches that slowly rustle. No matter how slowly life may move, it is always in transformation. The loneliness in The Sky, the Earth and the Rain is not a depressing, fixed state, but something the main character has to come to terms with. Then she can move on. Into nature. Into anything.