To Grieve Perchance to Dream: Three Films of the Festival

in 60th Gijón International Film Festival

by Ela Bittencourt

While still in the midst of the pandemic, I took part in the 60th Gijón Film Festival, where three of the films that garnered critical attention centered on the expression of grief and articulated how cinema transmutes even the most painful experiences into ecstatic ones.

The first film was Anhell69 (2022), the debut feature from Colombian director Theo Montoya. It’s a devastating portrait of a Colombian LGBQT+ generation decimated by hate crimes and drug use, as well as the internalized trauma that becomes a violent weapon against young queer bodies under constant threat. Anhell69 is startling because it expresses both an earnest desire to fight against all odds to affirm one’s identity and a death wish powered by the creed to live fast and die young. Death as pain, death as seduction, death as a masquerade: Anhell69 transits amongst all these registers.

The film’s visuals are likewise hybrid and permeable: from the pale graininess of documentary-style footage garnered from casting calls in which young men—soon to become filmmakers’ friends and lovers—speak of their lives in blasé terms, to the lush and lyrical nocturnal scenes in which the Colombian city of Cali emerges as an existential limbo, a liminal space between life and death.

The Realm of God (El Reino de Dios, 2022), the second feature from Mexican director Claudia Sainte-Luce, centers on a young boy, Neimar, whose school days are filled with a mixture of spiritual piety and innocent wonder, but whose everyday life as an aspiring track-horse jockey is tinged with an undercurrent of grief. In El Reino, the smallest moments trill with suspense. The conversations that young children have about good and evil during their religion class crackle with offbeat humor, and Neimar’s need to take the host twice during his communion speaks as much to the ardency of his wish to connect with the spiritual realm as it does to the official religion’s inability to fully satisfy this wish. Neimar must deal with the accidental death of a mare he cherishes and, subsequently, the death of his beloved grandmother. Between these two tragedies, Neimar passes from grief to acceptance, and from a curious child to the young man he’ll soon be.

Notably, El Reino, like Anhell69, is a finely honed mixture of fiction and nonfiction, a fact that speaks to the extent to which hybrid languages, and the acceptance of their accompanying porosity, textural delicateness, and ambiguities regarding the nature of the truth, have become part-and-parcel of cinematic craft, reflected in an ever-growing number of such films at major festivals, particularly in the debut and experimental  sections. Where Anghell69’s stitching of these two elements announce themselves readily, El Reino is more oblique about revealing which scenes or even characters are amalgams of reality and invention,.

Estertor (2022), by Argentine filmmakers Sofia Jallinsky and Basovih Marinaro, showed in the Retuyeos section, which prioritizes early films and aesthetic heterogeneity. (Nota bene: the Argentine duo won a prize in Gijón in 2021, for their previous film, Palestra). Estertor was one of the most daring films at the festival this year: it takes on the weighty topic of Argentina’s dictatorship and violent past of disappearances and torture, and transmutes it into a profane orgy, tinged with mordant humor and punchy dialogues.

To sum up the film’s plot broadly: a former torturer (at least that’s my reading) withers away, paralyzed, while his nurses and home attendants of both sexes indulge in perverted sexual escapades—both toying with the ill man’s body and pleasuring each other. In addition, one nurse allows strangers to pay and come for quick sessions in which they appear to verbally abuse the man. One can only guess that they are former victims or relatives of victims, who suffered at the torturer’s hands.

Estertor flirts with the absurd without slipping into grotesquerie. The balance comes mostly from the fine ensemble performances, a result of intense improvisation. The character of Estefa, a kind-hearted, pregnant nurse carrying a baby for a friend, who is also secretly prone to deviance, deserves special attention for its fine writing, and for Cecilia Marani’s assured performance of hilarious, deadpan ambiguity.

Estertor isn’t interested in the big questions of justice, or in giving its audience a historical lesson. Like Anhell69, which transmutes death and identity into reverie, the film takes the historical past and shows its perverted underside: the numbness to suffering it generates in all concerned. Though it should be said that Estefa, who serves as the audience’s intermediary, pivots between a desire to fit in with her devious pals and earnest empathy.

Overall, Estertor is a delicious shock to the nervous system. It asks viewers to reconcile the solemnity of the past with how it’s being processed in the film through ostentatious debauchery, shrouded in nubile games and even a certain infantilism of its main characters. This may be, overall, the film’s most pointed “lesson,” if there is one: as audiences, we are too often fed preconceived, prepackaged visions of good versus evil, victim versus perpetrator, without having to struggle with the nagging ambiguity that often pervades our actual lives. Estertor is so effective—and at times so delectably terrifying—because it asks us instead to constantly consider who’s being victimized and how, and what realized justice might mean. Its dreaming, like that of the two prize-winning films, Anhell69 and El Reino de Dios, feels ripe with grief; it feels dangerous.

Ela Bittencourt
Edited by José Teodoro