Magic and Loss

in 53rd Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by Tonci Valentic

In its 53rd edition, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival offered a great variety of films, especially in the international competition, where movies from several continents were represented, providing viewers with a range of genres and approaches such as social drama, dark comedy, artistic experiment and magical realism. Having that in mind, it is hard to find a common aspect that could most accurately portray this year’s selection. For example, Iranian hypnotic feature film ”Taboor”, with its Lynchian story and timeless setting, seems to come from another galaxy compared to the straightforwardly and naratively conventional American drama ”I Am Not A Hipster” by Destin Daniel Cretton. Nonetheless, there are two movies which stood out for their powerful imagery, profound introspection in regard to the psychological limits of human endurance and traversed fables: ”Southwest” (”Sudoeste”) by Brazilian director Eduardo Nunes and ”Living” (”Zhit”), directed by Vasiliy Sigarev. The title of this article “Magic and Loss“ (borrowed from Lou Reed’s concept album released in the 90’s) is precisely what those two feature films represent: magical realism portraying life in its purest form, and existential drama dealing with loss – the impossibility of mourning, and the whole complexity of the grieving process. One film focuses on the magic of life, and the other on life within the proximity of death. Although completely different and opposite in many ways (from the plot and the director’s approach to the visual representation), they both metaphysically question the notions of life and death, in a creative and evocative way.

Let’s begin with the magical Brazilian black-and-white mystical experience. Due to its rich photography, the convergence of past, present and future, enchanting atmosphere, excellent editing, long shots and subtle movements of camera, it is not surprising that it in a way resembles the poetic cinema of Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr. It is hard to describe Nunes’s movie, but here is an attempt to convey what the story is about. The film is set in a picturesque village in the Brazilian countryside where we follow the growth of a young girl, whose whole life unfolds in one day; for the characters around her, nothing changes dramatically, but she is rapidly getting older, living in some kind of mystical time-space warp. In the very beginning we witness a girl dying in an inn while giving birth. An older woman (often referred to as a witch) takes the surviving baby to her dwelling, a wooden lodge built on a lake. The girl escapes, following a boy who has found her, and lands on the shore, having no words to describe who she actually is. As the movie unfolds in its flawlessly timed rhythm, we see how the girl is getting older, and wherein lies a deep connection with a woman who lost her daughter and who also had the same name. Eduardo Nunes’s first feature (up until now he has directed five shorts) is an astonishing piece of visual art and atmospherically poetic inquiry into the magic of living. Technically superbly done, it presents the viewer with a kind of a riddle which is not easy to solve (nor, to be honest, easy to follow completely on the level of storytelling). It is worth mentioning that the film has been shot with a large image width (the aspect ratio is 3,66:1, much wider than usual Cinemascope) so its powerful photography and spiritual atmosphere can be properly experienced only in the cinema.

Compared to the dreamlike Brazilian magical realism, Russian ”Living” is more realistic, but supernatural on the narrative rather than visual level. We follow “slices of life”, three different stories which for the most part do not intersect (their paths cross only in several scenes), but altogether create a remarkable and atmospherically loaded drama on the trauma of death and losing loved ones. The first story focuses on a young couple who have gone on a trip to get married, but their happiness is short, wrecked by a brutal act of violence which sees the fiancé viciously murdered. The second story is about a dysfunctional family in which a young boy in an abusive environment desperately waits for his real father to come, not knowing he has just passed away. Perhaps the most intriguing is the third story, which has some elements of a horror movie; it is about a mother who awaits the return of her twin daughters, not realizing that they both are dead as she cannot cope with their loss. This is precisely what Vasiliy Sigarev wanted to portray: a mesmerising perspective on the pain and impossibility of really dealing with the deceased people we have loved. In the film they are depicted as “non-dead”, visible only to the mourners (for example, a girl sees her lover and husband in bed and speaks to him, a mother digs up the graves of her daughters and places them in the basement, a father who disappeared appears a couple of times in front of his ex-wife and son). One of the major triumphs of the film is that Sigarev manages to escape falling into the trap of sentimentality; he avoids a pathetic tone while portraying the characters with hard realism, which in combination with the previously mentioned surrealism and supernatural elements (ghosts, hallucinations and so on) creates a powerful and striking story. Hence, this is not a pessimistic movie: it deals with death but is titled ”Living”. It is precisely the human capacity for survival which helps us to continue our lives after loss, and these distressing tales are, above all, meditations not only on the trauma of death but also on the sincere joy of life.

Edited by Carmen Gray