Lonely Souls

in 56th Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by Janka Barkoczi

In sharp contrast with the vivid, joyous and dynamic atmosphere of the northern Greek metropolis, the international competition program of the 56th Thessaloniki Film Festival brought as many lonely and desperate souls onto the cinema canvases as were possible to be found in the first and second features of the last year. The well-balanced selection of 15 films presented 15 different dimensions of desolation from the dusty post-socialist towns of Eastern Europe to the mystic isolation of the cargo ships crossing the Mediterranean Sea and the travellers of the never-ending Argentinian roads. The poetry of loneliness is the of poetry of time as we learned from the tales of ageing mothers and confused sons, from all the melodramas featuring misunderstood teenagers or old folks haunting their nearly lost dreams.

Fitting to the character of psychological chamber play movies, the most conspicuous attribution of the field was the high number of outstanding performances based on the minute portrayal of human spirit with the widest range of empathy and wise understanding of individual behaviour. Among the most compelling performances we have to highlight the legendary Emília Vášáryová in the role of the old alcohol addicted actress, Eva Nová in the Slovakian film with the same title directed by Marko Škop. Eva’s heart-breaking struggle with her passion, loneliness and her alienated son is as beautifully reflected in the desolate environment of the block houses of the decaying town as claustrophobic is the city of Dublin in Glassland, which can be considered as a pair film with the aforementioned one. Here we find another tragic parent-son duet, played by Toni Collette and Jack Reynor, between delirium tremens and the redeeming detox centre that counts as a high price for salvation. In both cases the revolving figure of the alcoholic mother depicts how to bear shame and helplessness at a stage when you can’t find companionship anymore.

Both Micah Magee’s Petting Zoo and Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Sparrows (Þrestir) centre around teenagers who are just starting adult life but no one wants to lend them a hand in this rites-of-passage. The two coming-of-age stories are not only remarkable because of the mature acting of the protagonists (Devon Keller and Atli Óskar Fjalarsson), but they are also linked with similar delicate camerawork touched by the sweaty, tangerine Texas heat of the former and the icy, crystal clear Icelandic air of the latter one. Stepping further with the panorama of picturing reclusive life strategies on the cinema screen, we can’t forget about Elder, the young homosexual worker teen who is the hero of the movie From Afar (Desde allá), directed by the Venezuelan Lorenzo Vigas. The fresh and twisted screenplay tells about the romance of two reserved souls without the chance of finding real partners in each other. Elder is seduced and betrayed by a mysterious 50-something man who seems to be the saddest person in the universe. In order to unveil the secret of this depression, the boy starts to explore the microcosmos of the unapproachable stranger without noticing that he himself must also be lost and becomes similarly unapproachable in the end. The German competitor of the selection, A Heavy Heart (Herbert), which could be the less shiny European remake of Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, follows the devolution of a retired boxer due to irreversible amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The well-acted story returns again to the themes of pride and shame, modelling them through a tempestuous relationship in its most painful and most everyday details.

The dance of the desperate souls on the beautiful Greek seashore comes to an end with two unusual family dramas, the Golden Alexander winner brother-ballad, Rams (Hrútar) by Grímur Hákonarson and Land and Shade (La tierra y la sombra) by the Colombian César Augusto Acevedo. Both of them are inspired by the experience of being alone and finding a new place in the nuclear community and the family as a result of understanding that this is the only way of survival either in the unmerciful Colombian sugarcane plantations and the Icelandic countryside.

The issue of isolation with all its psychological consequences can’t be represented more impressively than through stories of travelling, departure and arriving home. Road to La Paz (Camino a La Paz) by Francisco Varone is a road movie in close accordance with the main thought of the festival that appealed to the audiences and artists for tolerance and solidarity towards any human being in crisis and need. The last journey of an old Muslim to Mecca with the help of an amateur taxi driver teaches us about getting to know ourselves during the voyage with a unique and subtle tone. Speaking about loneliness and isolation we have to notice that we have returned to one of the massive ancient issues of mankind, and this year in Thessaloniki we found a film competition mirroring – more authentically, than anywhere else – the lone Odysseus’ principal feelings and adventures.

Edited by Steven Yates