Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

in 28th International Camerimage Film Festival, Toruń

by Adam Kruk

Until the last minute, it was not known whether this year’s Camerimage International Film Festival would be held physically. The decision to move the event online, forced by the re-closure of cultural institutions (announced by the Polish government – instead of in advance, respecting the interests of economic and social entities – at the last minute as usual), was made a week before the festival. Hence, the creators, jurors and participants did not know how they would take part in the festival. The organizers were of course prepared for the hybrid version, and thus – also for the complete transfer of the event to online. And that’s exactly what happened: when participation in the real world turned out to be impossible, the platform was ready. However, it was difficult to maintain the same level of enthusiasm – not only because Viggo Mortensen or Johnny Deep could not come to Toruń, as announced. Most of all, because Camerimage is a celebration of the art of cinematography, which resonates to the fullest in the cinematic reality.

Fortunately, some pictures has been available in theatres before – like Matteo Garrone’s Pinocchio shot by DOP Nicolaj Brüel, who was awarded the Bronze Frog. Pinocchio, which premiered at Berlinale in February this year, is a live-action film which keeps – unlike the 1940 Disney version, which has been imprinted in the collective imagination – close to the letter of Carlo Collodi novel. And not only to the letter, but also to the strokes: costumes and set design were inspired by drawings by Enrico Mazzanti, illustrator of the first edition of the book from 1883. In the story of a wooden puppet, which does not want to learn, but would very much like to be human, the director has given up on a few threads, but he emphasized the social context that is always important in his films. In Gomorrah or Reality it was created by careful devotion to the realities of his native Naples, this time we are in the hills of Tuscany.

At the end of the 19th century, feudal relations still prevail here. Poor residents do not have anything to put in the pot, but they are proud to wear a once noble, self-owned jacket – perhaps Happy Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice) can be recalled. One of the local wretches is the carpenter Gepetto (Roberto Benigni) – simple and kind, who does not ask anyone for alms, but earns an honest living. The film begins with a scene in which he enters the inn and checks the conditions of the wooden furniture – the owner knows well that it is not broken, but gives the carpenter a bowl of warm food. We know the rest of the story well: Gepetto organizes (again for free) a piece of stump, from which a puppet emerges. He won’t be richer from it, but maybe a little less lonely.

Building this world, the director often finds himself in a difficult position. Sometimes he focuses on heavy realism in the depiction of the misery of Tuscan villages, other times on a Fellini-like circus creation. Consider animals: sometimes they are real, other times – as in the case of a whale – ostentatiously artificial, which makes them rather funny than scary. Others, such as Snail, Wolf or Fox (Massimo Ceccherini, who also co-wrote the script) – anthropomorphized. This inconsistency is baffling and makes us wonder how this or that was done or acted instead of following the story. Because of this – as I do with every Garrone movie – although I appreciate the mastery, I don’t enter his world completely.

Silver Frog went to the Finnish movie Helene by Antti Jokinen, a portrait of the eponymous Helene Schjerfbeck – one of the most important Finnish modern painters. What is most interesting about this film is the shift of the traditional object of desire from the woman to the man – the eye of Rauno Ronkainen’s camera merges with the protagonist’s gaze not only in the view of a young man (critic Einar Reuter) whom she wants, but cannot possess, but also while looking at the world, stylistically similar here to her modernist paintings.

Rightly, the biggest winner of the event – the winner of the Golden Frog and the FIPRESCI award – turned out to be Nomadland by Chloé Zhao. Beijing-born American independent director (although this definition has now become obsolete, because she is currently working on another picture from the Marvel universe) has already won The Golden Lion in Venice for her picture. By creating a poignant portrait of the end of the American dream, Zhao does not dazzle a nightmare, but takes the form of a ballad – sometimes gloomy, but not without hope, which is especially visible through the extension of the analogy between the modern nomads and the American pioneers forging their happiness on a new land. This mood and meanings are largely built by the images of Joshua James Richards, who lovingly photographed the Midwest US and its inhabitants.

Among them, the main focus is on Frances McDormand. The picture fits in the current trend in American independent cinema to diversify (by age or gender) characters, but it does it subtly – the film does not to convey one or another noble message, but flows with the rhythm of the protagonists’ lives. Of them, it is not McDormand that makes the greatest impression, although, as usual, she perfectly portrays such characters, clearly communicating through selected roles what she expects from the world. Her performance will probably be among the Oscar-winning favorites again (maybe it will her the third statuette?) – although it is indeed glorious, sometimes it feels redundant and too expected.

Precisely because we already know what McDormand stands for, we can focus more on the other elements of the film: vast roads and decaying buildings; shity jobs and ugly shopping malls; casual conversations and stunning sunsets. Above all, the real Americans who fill the screen – authentic nomads whose number, especially after the 2008 crisis, exploded on American roads and in the wilderness. These are their stories and their faces, captured with the Richards’ camera somewhere near fires, tents and campers, and they have great power. It is not purely a documentary, although the film was based on Jessica Bruder’s reportage “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” – there is something more behind it. It is a reality raised to the rank of poetry – and this is where the greatness of the film, as well as – more broadly – the magic of cinema, can be felt.

Adam Kruk
Edited by Karsten Kastelan