Minimalist films at Mannheim-Heidelberg

in International Film Festival Mannheim Heidelberg

by Roberto Tirapelle

In an era in which the blockbuster always dominates the screens (these days Napoleon is released in theaters with moments of great cinema such as the Battle of Austerlitz), it is not so much auteur cinema that is trending (although fortunately always present in its various aspects) but mainly minimalist cinema.

Let’s start with Melk (Holland, 2023, 96 min) by Dutch director Stefanie Kolk. The death of a stillborn child complicates the mourning process, but the film evolves with a dignified and minimalist style. The first part focuses on the milk that the mother’s breasts continue to produce and that she would like to donate – an endeavor more difficult than expected – is very sad and not easy to involve cinematically. The second part, completely silent, gives meaning to the film and structure and support to the protagonist: she decides to take part in silent walks in the woods. The participants write their thoughts on paper and don’t even know each other’s names. The film gets under your skin in this context of nature, forest, and silence. The characters’ suffering exists, but the director takes it into account with the proper distance.

Dreaming & Dying (Hao Jiu Bu Jian, Singapore, Indonesia, 2023, 77 min) by Singaporean Nelson Yeo instead plays its minimalisms with dreamy images. It could almost be said, “I dream or I am awake,” as the Shakespearean quote says. The three people who meet for a class reunion are quiet, and their limited conversations evoke jokes and memories. Real situations slowly emerge, and the dream turns into reality but always lightly. The humor that dictates Nelson Yeo’s poetics manifests itself in fantastic apparitions such as a talking fish or the walks of a couple who have known each other for a long time. The rhythm is marked by a mysterious intensity balanced by the crashing sea waves. The film contains few words, but the fabric of silence opens the door to regrets and slight melancholy.

“Upon Entry” (Spain, 2022, 75 min) by Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastian Vasquez can be defined as a minimalist film because it is a camera show where the words are copious and rich in meaning and spoken with perfect, almost theatrical, American English. However, the action takes place in three rooms in the transit area of an American airport. The central theme of the film is about the immigration system and security. The words, dialogue, and interrogations make it a theater of violence without being violent. The two people who want to go to Miami from Spain have all their documents in order, but the border police want to review the two cases. Thus, anguish arises in the separate interrogation rooms, a claustrophobic background, a revelation of unsaid things from the past, and a crisis in the present. The two directors can make words become music, perhaps a requiem, perhaps a redemption.

No film can be more minimalist than The Red Suitcase (Nepal, Sri Lanka, 2023, 87 min) by Nepalese director Fidel Devkota, but it is also a mystical work on the director’s homeland. Fidel Devkota wants to tell us that another culture, far from globalization, courageously challenges Westernization. Still, cell phones exist. A courier must take a shipment from Kathmandu to a remote mountain village. At the same time, a solitary figure with a red suitcase heads towards the same destination. During the journey, the courier encounters solitary figures cut out in static images composed with rigor. Fixed shots on a few scarce words and very few movements of the actors, the journey continues, crossing a landscape between the darkness of the sunset, the foggy blanket, and the pale dawn that illuminates the unpunctuated gestures. The final sequences are all silent, except for a cell phone ring and a prayer frame around a deceased figure. The return of the courier, who bathes in a river and leaves a twig along the way, along a road that raises little hope.

“Where The Wind Blows” (Il vento soffia dove vuole, Italy, 2023, 108 min), an Italian film by Marco Righi, is minimalist and mystical. Faith and mystery come here together in the mountains of the Emilian Apennines. Backdrops, scenography, and impoverished environments revolve around the taciturn protagonist: he has abandoned the seminary and dedicates himself to work on his father’s farm, regularly going to church, having chaste meetings with a girl, independently preparing meals at home for his sister, the only remaining member of the family. But the psychological framework of the boy is not entirely convincing; he remains an enigma, especially about faith. He manages to convince a friend who works on the farm to introduce him to religion. He baptizes him, but this further test of faith unexpectedly leads him to a leap into the abyss. The director and the script seem not to want to fill the gaps between daily life and the transcendent; the characters (the protagonist, the friend, the priest, the sister, and the girlfriend) are left to their fate, and this makes us understand the courageous minimality that characterizes the film.

With Riverbed (Birket El Arous, Lebanon, 2022, 80 min) by the Lebanese filmmaker Bassem Breche, we return to the much-used theme of women in a traditional society through a mother-daughter story. The minimalist dimension of the film manifests through the absolute silence that drags the story’s protagonists: a single woman who, for her independence, has left her husband and family and maintains a less than close relationship with a neighbor. Her divorced daughter reappears, and as strangers, they must tune back in. Previous wounds are difficult to heal. The director imposes silence on almost the entire film; the camera focuses on the faces of the actresses, and their movements are symmetrical. It seems like a performance from the Art Biennale, tragic, not impulsive; it is a suspense test that the script, the cinematographic shooting, and the actresses, who are beautiful in their stature, must overcome to heal their destiny.

Roberto Tirapelle
Edited by Anne-Christine Loranger