Love (and Food) in the Times of (Financial) Cholera

in 61st Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival

by Giulia Dobre

The President of the Mannheim-Heidelberg Film Festival stated from its opening night the matter of this year’s filmic trouvailles.

It was going to be all about the Zeitgeist!!!! As Dr. Kotz put it: …“Live Your Life! But How?“ we simply wrote on the poster in big fat letters, so big that nobody will any longer think that we had chosen the subject just for fun, or out of embarrassment. What is actually really important in life? How do you become happy? Is it important to have a good career, or do friends, a partner, your own children, and a family, mean a great deal more? Do we need nature, or do we need the city, with all it has to offer? Is loneliness worse than any bond that holds us back? How can you combine self-development with a sense of security? By what rules should we abide? … And I have one more question: the model of society by which we live, at least here, would seem to thrive on the fact that everyone can shape their own destiny. But is this even possible? Can you really do this? Make your own happiness?”…

As a natural suite to this statement, at least two of the main basic ingredients for fulfilling a human’s soul were main subjects in the films presented at this year’s Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival main Competition: a lot of LOVE, and a lot of FOOD. Hazard of which kind?

Presented as the Festival’s official Opening, the Argentinean Not So Modern Times (Tiempos menos Modernos) speaks about Oscar, a solitary Tehuelche living in the immensity of Patagonia, confronted inadvertently with the modern technology. The man sees his simple house inhabited by many new images foreign to his culture, such as the one of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (Dir. Charles Chaplin, US, 1940). The Director Simón Franco intended to make an X-Ray of a man who always felt left aside, such as his entire race. There are no intellectual coups-de-grace in this film, everything is presented in a smooth and simple evolution.

With lavish photography by Mauricio Riccio and adequate music by Luis Díaz Muñiz, and with Payaguala as the protagonist, Not So Modern Times is a film about colonization. One that is less territorial than subjective. This opera prima lingers in our memory for its warmth and its wit, for its elegant and wise non-declamatorily manner of undergoing a lost battle. A battle against consumerism, against alienation, against a sort of mercantilism that leads to idio(sincra)cy. One film that intended to exploit this sort of pantheism, where humans live a tranquil life in an inherent environment, musing about the inequalities of society, is Ballad of Rustom (Rustom ki dastaan) by the Indian filmmaker Ajita Suchitra Veera. The film uses the richness of the Indian countryside, turned into a dreamy land that is hard to identify with. Eight main characters tell the story of a young government servant, Rustom, with a passive imagination, and of his friend Kapil. One young man, who is meandering through life, falls in love with a young painter and meets strangers while travelling. The film abounds with romanticized scenes of ‘life in the countryside’ and some touching echoes of Cehov’s provincial tales.  The film unfolds as a string of scenes that accord to the director’s fantastic vision of rural life, instead of a coherent narrative. It’s a place where people are fighting to get a landline telephone connection in their houses, or where the rich who come there for their week-ends, despaired by the cultural and moral degeneration, are preparing to move to Europe…

Ballad of Rustom makes use of some loud Parisian-like music that just doesn’t blend with the look and feel of the film. The cinematography draws attention by playing with light and darkness. But there is too much talking in the film, on any possible subject that ranges from God to science, philosophy and post-modernism, turning it into a very pretentious, yet void movie.  In the Iranian film Final Whistle (winner of the Main Award of the Festival), the writer-director-main actress Niki Karimi delivers a strong story. It is filmed under emergency, with a lot of shoulder camera, like if clandestinely. The result is chaos and quite seldom at the border of the cheap TV melodrama. The film abounds with the gross-plans of the main actress-director washing her gorgeous green eyes into rivers of tears, which no doubt are more in her nature than the sobriety of the story telling of a Ghobadi, for instance.  But ultimately the film is revealing that women find themselves (and not only in that particular world) facing situations where they have to solve their problems alone, in a suffocating space that does not allow much room for defense…

A very fresh and scented filmic breeze came to Mannheim from a so called “cooking” movie from the US, by first time directors Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin. Now, Forager: A Film about Love and Fungi tells of a couple who gathers wild mushrooms and sells them to smart New York restaurants. With an unpretentious lifestyle and an unstable income, the man will not compromise, while the woman wants more stability.

The film is dripping with fair pictures of cooking sessions, of gentle and graceful images of nature. The filmmakers juxtapose the fictional story about the growing distance between the two lovers with images of a hectic New York, or pictures of the seasons passing and fine close-ups of mushrooms in the wild (from the poisonous known as the Destroying Angel – Amanita Verna, to the delicious Porcino-Boletus Edulis).

The authors’ astute intention is evident and perfectly proficient here: speaking about the unspoken through these natural analogies.  The couple slides further apart with no turmoil or hysteria. We are here powerless and in dismay, saturated with a state of deep melancholia.

A hazard of the screening schedule or clever manipulation of the festival’s outstanding Prospero, Dr. Kotz (as the next film in competition elongated the fungi area with an Estonian first film at the opposite Pole of human expression)? Mushrooming (Seenelkäik) is director Hussar’s satire about the senselessness of contemporary discourse, where fame, even though transparent, is the only value of the general public. How this fame has been achieved, it does not, of course, matter.

The plot is launched in a very Shakespearian manner when an improbable trio of persons gets lost in the woods. One is a politician (Aadu), another one is his absentminded wife, and the third is a bewildered rocker. Hussar aims here at the lack of interest and analytical capacity in our culture. As it appears that intelligent discussions have been widely abandoned in favor of clichéd, sentimental posturing.

Aadu the politician is a kind of anxiety-ridden ordinary man, for whom any experience, with the sole exception of nesting in his own house, is a source of terror. Uncomfortable with the past, mortified by the present and terrified of the future, he’s a subversive and funny emblem of a country (and a continent) undergoing tremendous change.

The first time director from Netherlands, Threes Anna, delivered a compliant tale about food and the clash of cultures. Silent City tells of Rosa, a young woman from Europe, who goes to Tokyo to learn from a famous Japanese fish master the art of preparing fish. For this purpose she simply needs to learn and understand what a fish is… The lavish cinematography and rhythm of the film states that living in the Japanese metropolis is like being submerged into water. Rosa can swim, but she can also drown…

Debut feature writer-director Tomasz Wasilewski shoots with a good deal of style and control, and In A Bedroom (W Sypialni) is certainly very different in attitude and content to many other films emerging from cinema nowadays. I must agree it has been a cinematic cold shower to my eyes, ears and soul, this sort of very up-to-the-minute, breathless and sharp filmic language telling of an untamed story.

The ‘heroine’ of the film is 40 year-old Edyta (the very impressive Katarzyna Herman), who advertises on internet as in search of casual sex. She drives to the homes of various men, slips a knockout pill into their drink, and then sets about stealing from them. It is usually cash, but often she simply enjoys eating a bunch of sausages or having a nice bath. These scenes are impressively staged, and despite her dishonest behavior, Edyta comes across as a rather sympathetic character. Even though sex lies at the core of her story, there is a look of real fear on her face when possibility of intimacy really appears.

The film does change direction, though, when she meets artist Patryk (Tomasz Tyndyk) and there begins an attempt at a relationship. It is initially based on suspicion, but gradually it develops, as she slowly opens up about the reasons for her behavior. The film is at its superlative when tracking Edyta as she glides into a nocturnal Warsaw and towards her various assignations, and rather slows up when she meets Patryk.

Wasilewski turns out to be a deeply skilled director in keeping his shooting style interesting, making the story gradually shift towards its climax. In this enthralling character study, the author uses filmic minimalism to ensure that glances and gestures say more than words. His attainment is dazzling, as for having portrayed a solitary woman in both fragility and strength, using precise image composition.

One of the last films in the International Competition that appealed to the public is the Australian Being Venice, a sort of coming of age story of a woman called Venice, living in a brightly textured Sydney, the perfect backdrop to this idiosyncratic father-daughter tale. It seems they have been separated both physically and emotionally for many years, and the film starts with “Arthur” arriving from New Zealand to spend time with his daughter in her small bedsit.

Arthur, a former hippie who once told his daughter to hang on to her fantasies as no one can take them from her, has to Venice’s disappointment turned into a “walking menu” who only thinks about food. Venice (apparently a poet) is discarded by her boyfriend early in the movie, and spends the rest of it moving from one confusing episode to another, always writing on post-it notes observations such as “giant ant sandwich”. But father and daughter seem unable to communicate and at one point Arthur tells Venice, “Write about it Venice, get your failings down on paper”. Eventually in one scene towards the end there is a sort of coming together, as Arthur admits his fears and failures as a father, while telling Venice she had “turned out all right”. Actor Garry McDonald is fittingly awkward as her undemonstrative father in this touching and often humorous drama. A film that, like most of its competitors, left a trace of unease, of melancholia or of oomph in our dehydrated souls.

Edited by Steven Yates