From Society’s Margins to the Centre of the Screen
by Jason Best
Delivering spectacle and surprise at almost every other corner of the city, Lecce’s flamboyant Baroque architecture seems to have anticipated cinema in its capacity to convey movement and illusion. Had they lived in a different age, Antonio and Giuseppe Zimbalo, Lecce’s pre-eminent 17th-century Baroque architects, would surely have been snapped up by Cinecittà. A hard act to follow, then, for the 24th edition of the Festival del Cinema Europeo, but fortunately the best of the films selected at the festival for this year’s European Feature Film Competition had enough dazzle of their own not to be outshone by their illustrious setting.
It wasn’t all about show, though. Far from it. Filmmakers tackled significant issues, with ideas of marginalisation, alienation and exclusion proving recurring themes in the competition’s films. I was also struck by the number of films that featured confused encounters and prickly clashes between diverse cultures.
One film featuring both a culture clash and a marginalised outsider was Icelandic director Ninna Pálmadóttir’s Solitude (Einvera). Indeed, her film has two lonely souls, one old, the other very young. The elder of the pair is grizzled, introverted farmer Gunnar (Þhröstur Leó Gunnarsson), who has been forced to make way for a hydroelectric dam and leave the land that has been farmed by his family for generations. Having been generously compensated by the government, he moves into a modest home in suburban Reykjavík but is all too clearly ill at ease with life in the city. The one person to offer him friendly overtures is 10-year-old paperboy Ari (Hermann Samúelsson), who lives in the house opposite and is the neglected child of fractious, recently separated parents. First-time director Pálmadóttir charts the duo’s slowly growing bond with considerable sweetness, while the chemistry between Gunnarsson and Samúelsson is undeniably charming, but her film’s other characters are underdeveloped and unconvincing, as is the narrative strand about the government’s treatment of refugees, their plight skimpily conveyed by means of brief media reports.
In Anna Roller’s Dead Girls Dancing, another work by a young director making her feature debut, three German teenagers, newly minted high-school graduates, travel to Italy for a road-trip holiday. Sceptical of what the adult world has to offer them, and uninterested in any local culture they encounter, Ira (Luna Jordan), Malin (Katharina Stark) and Ka (Noemi Liv Nicolaisen) are determined to kick over the traces and enjoy themselves. Together with enigmatic hitchhiker Zoe (Sara Giannelli), they come upon a mysteriously abandoned village, an eerie hilltop Marie Celeste, and seize upon it as something akin to a deserted film set, a scenographic space in which to act out their hedonistic fantasies, rebellions and jealousies.
The protagonist of director Christina Ioakeimidi’s Medium is another teenager on the cusp of womanhood. Sixteen-year-old Eleftheria (Angeliki Beveratou) has come to Athens from the north of Greece at the height of a sweltering summer to be of use to her older, very heavily pregnant sister. As everyone around her waits for the stifling August heatwave to break, Eleftheria seeks to embrace the possibilities of first love, embodied by dashing neighbour Aggeleos, a junior doctor in his twenties with an enigmatic private life.
The leading figures in Zdeněk Jiráský’s I Don’t Love You Anymore (Už tě nemán rád) are even younger. Marek (Daniel Zeman) and Tereza (Maisha Romera Kollmann) are two disaffected 13-year-old Czech children, one an aloof working-class boy with a single mother, the other a pampered middle-class girl, who run away from their respective homes and go on the lam, rather implausibly crossing two national frontiers en route. Compulsively filming on their mobile phones, these teenage rebels have only fleeting brushes with adults, including a Roma family living in a shattered tenement slum in Bucharest, before they finally run out of momentum and spark on the banks of the Danube.
At the other end of the age scale, the titular protagonist of director Anna Jadowska’s Woman on the Roof (Kobieta na dachu) is Mira (Dorota Pomykała), a severely depressed woman in her 60s who is struggling to deal with cryptic financial woes. At her wits end, she attempts to rob a bank with a kitchen knife but finds little sympathy or understanding from her peevish husband or from her self-centred adult son in the aftermath of the attempted heist. Powerfully acted by Pomykała, the film is strikingly shot by cinematographer Ito Zbronier-Zajt, who crafts with Jadowska a drained visual palette that appears as washed-out as its central character.
In Légua, co-directed by Filipa Reis and João Miller Guerra, three generations of women are also striving to understand their place in a rapidly changing world that is all too ready to overlook them. The setting is an old manor house, out in the sticks of northern Portugal, which elderly housekeeper Emília (Fátima Soares) tends for long absent owners, rigidly pursuing a strict round of dusting and cleaning with the aid of the more relaxed middle-aged Ana (Carla Maciel). As the increasingly infirm Emília tries to keep the past alive, Ana has to decide whether to join her husband, departing for a labouring job in France, or to remain and care for Emília. Her visiting student daughter Mónica (Vitóría Nogueira da Silva) meanwhile longs to return to the bright lights and party scene of university city Porto. Filmed in long, slow takes, Légua is at times a difficult watch but will make a deep impact on viewers who attune to its patient rhythms.
Spanish writer-director Avelina Prat’s gentle parable Vasil is a much more immediately accessible affair and deservedly won the festival’s audience prize. Yet she too turns a sharp social eye on the current state of Europe. Her film’s eponymous hero, played winningly by Ivan Barnev, is a homeless, jobless Bulgarian migrant in Valencia who is offered a sofa to sleep on by retired architect Alfredo (Karra Elejalde). Vasil’s host marvels at his prowess at chess and bridge but otherwise proves to be remarkably incurious about his guest, who meanwhile encounters varying degrees of hostility, prejudice and condescension at the snooty local bridge club he attends. Inspired by the director’s father, who similarly took in a homeless Bulgarian for a spell, Vasil shrewdly probes the difficulty of truly connecting with another person, whether an immigrant or even a member of one’s own family.
Austėja Urbaitė’s Remember to Blink (Per Arti), another of the competition’s first-time features by a writer-director, depicts a knottier, far more barbed culture clash. Would-be adoptive mother Jacqueline (Anne Azoulay) is in the process of adopting young Lithuanian siblings Karolina (Inesa Sionova) and Rytis (Ajus Antanavičius) and has hired 20-year-old Lithuanian student Gabriele (Dovilė Kundrotaitė) to act as nanny and translator for the initial weeks the children spend in the idyllic forest home she shares with her artist husband. As Gabriele plays and bonds with the children, a fierce battle of wills develops between the controlling, punctilious Frenchwoman and the permissive but equally strong-willed nanny. Urbaitė beguilingly charts this tussle against the twin backdrops of rich, mysterious nature and the mythic tales Gabriele weaves to entertain and console the children.
Léa Fehner’s Midwives (Sages-femmes) also features young women striving to assert themselves in a caring profession and focuses on a pair of newly qualified midwives, friends and roommates Sofia (Khadija Kouyaté) and Louise (Héloïse Janjaud), as they grapple with the near impossible demands of their job on the maternity ward of an under resourced and understaffed Toulouse hospital. Filming real childbirth scenes with an unflinching handheld camera, Fehner gives her film a documentary urgency while subtly etching its characters’ often surprising narrative arcs.
Midwives was clearly one of the strongest films in this year’s competition, and the festival’s Golden Olive-Tree jury duly awarded it their Best Film prize. On the FIPRESCI jury, we chose as our top film Martin Skovbjerg’s Copenhagen Does Not Exist (København Findes Ikke), in which a mentally fragile young man (Jonas Holst Schmidt) – another of the competition’s outsider figures – is probed and interrogated about his girlfriend’s mysterious recent disappearance by the young woman’s intimidating father (Zlatko Buric) and haughty brother (Vilmer Trier Brøgger). Why, though, did the lovers actively seek to marginalise themselves, deliberately cutting themselves loose of all social and familial bonds? Adapted by Eskil Vogt from the novel Sander by Terje Holtet Larsen, Copenhagen Does Not Exist doesn’t give the viewer an easy route through the labyrinth of its elusive narrative, but my fellow jurors and I were impressed at the way it worked at the same time as a challenging love story, a puzzling psychological drama and a gripping thriller, making demands on us with its fractured narrative and audacious editing, and amply rewarding our efforts.
© FIPRESCI 2023