Lookin’ to Get Out

in 53rd Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by Michał Oleszczyk

The fifteen feature films included in the main competition at Thessaloniki provided a varied, intriguing watching experience. From the competition’s most adventurous entry, Vasily Sigarev’s ”Living” (”Zhit”), to its most unfortunate glitch ”Loving” (”Milosc”) by Slawomir Fabicki, the films offered a number of insights into worlds both real and imagined, all the while presenting a variety of approaches to filmmaking: from straightforward realism to willful and strange allegory.

If there was a single theme running through some of the most interesting films in the festival line-up, it’s that of the sudden recognition of the world we live in as uninhabitable and calling for a radical renewal. Confusion and exhaustion rule the day: whether in Vahid Vakilifar’s ”Taboor”, in which a futuristically rendered industrial space seems to function as a ready-made coffin for its main character, or in Amir Manor’s ”Epilogue” (”Hayuta and Berl”), where modern-day Israel is presented as a graveyard of once-shared ideals, killed off by the free market economy. It’s perhaps telling that such similar visions of desolation and lack came from two countries currently at precarious political odds (”Taboor” was made in Iran).

Telling the story of an elderly couple seeking comfort in each other’s ailing arms, the aptly titled ”Epilogue” played a bit like a poverty-row version of Michael Haneke’s ”Amour”, with capitalism as a stand-in for death and the middle class as its ultimate victim. It opens with a long, meticulously rendered scene of a medical examination deeming the characters eligible for a meager state pension, and then turns into the story of a misplaced hope, as the man pursues his utopian vision of a cooperative that would resist the powerful clutches of the supply-and-demand mindset. The couple’s struggles, quarrels and ultimate reconciliation are beautifully rendered by the actors Yosef Carmon and Rivka Gur, who deserve special praise for their daring performances.

One of the most moving aspects of ”Epilogue” is the fact that the elderly couple – despite their age and failing health – still manage to affect some change in their relationship: they don’t give up on life. The same theme (of an individual trying to switch gears and transform their future) received a thorough, subtly comical treatment in Paul Negoescu’s ”A Month in Thailand” (”O luna in Thailanda”). Not as successful and well-rounded as some of the recent Romanian features, the film still invites comparison to the work of Radu Jude, Radu Muntean and Cristian Mungiu (whose retrospective, incidentally, was presented in Thessaloniki this year). Realistic in its presentation of the contemporary urban milieu and firmly focused on recounting a process taking place over a very specific, short period of time in the style of ”The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (”Moartea domnului Lazarescu”),  ”A Month in Thailand” tells the story of a man breaking up with his lover and coming back to the woman whom he left some time ago – all within twenty-four hours.

Framed by two moments of intimacy involving the different women I just mentioned, the film documents the shifts of judgment of Toma (Ionut Grama) and his slowly dawning realization that the relationship he’s involved in is unbearable to him. In this aspect, the film ties into other competition features portraying a craving for change – albeit on an intimate, individual level only. The film’s biggest success lies in its slightly ironic treatment of Toma’s dilemma: he spends most of the screen time pondering the workings of his own mind and fetishizing his own irresolution. Had he been more articulate (or pretentious), he might as well be the Jean-Pierre Léaud character from ”The Mother and the Whore”: he’s that irritating and funny in his narcissistic predicament. However, Negoescu is not into Eustache-like verbal immersion. His ambitions much smaller (and directorial chops much weaker), he’s perfectly content to present a circular story of a man rebuilding his life within a day and a night, and yet not really changing one bit.

”A Month in Thailand”, along with Sylvie Michel’s ”Our Little Differences” (”Die feinen Unterschiede”) and Tobias Lindholm’s superb white-knuckled thriller ”A Hijacking” (”Kapringen”), was among the most successful of the realistic films in the competition. The allegorical strand was interestingly represented not only by ”Taboor” and ”Epilogue”, but also by the aforementioned ”Living”: a punk-Tarkovsky fusion of despair and otherworldliness that was probably the festival’s most original entry. Blatantly feel-bad and yet strangely liberating, ”Living” resembles Kira Muratova in its stark, slightly off-kilter portrayal of post-Soviet Russia, but is also interested in matters of life and death treated in all seriousness.

Yet another allegory for the overwhelming confusion of today (as well as of the current Greek economic situation) was provided by Ektoras Lygizos’ ”Boy Eating the Bird’s Food” (”To agori troei to fagito tou pouliou”) – an exercise in hand-held observational precision applied to the metaphorical (and not always clear) situation of a young man’s self-imposed fasting.

There wasn’t a single comedy in the competition (although ”Our Little Differences” and the tone-deaf Bulgarian ”The Color of the Chameleon” had some comical elements in them), and the overwhelming feeling one could get from it was that of a desperate need for escape. The title of this piece, borrowed from Hal Ashby’s butchered masterpiece, conveys the overall sentiment that seems to emerge from the art-house cinema of today: no matter where it is shot and no matter what style it implements. One can only hope that we’ll all take a cue from Vasily Sigarev’s beautiful, sad poem of a film and will continue to press on even though our sense of loss and confusion can sometimes get all but suffocating.

Edited by Carmen Gray