in 30th Torino Film Festival

by Holger Römers

One of the pleasures of going to the cinema is that films can take you to a place you have never been to – and one where you might never want to go. Two competition entries in the 30th Torino Film Festival made striking use of the urban locations where they were shot, effectively giving the audience a feel for Havana and metropolitan Mumbai.

Lucy Mulloy states that she “wanted to let the visual imagery of Havana speak for itself, almost like a character in a movie.” And, to a degree, her Una Noche achieves that aim. Somehow the New York filmmaker managed to shoot her feature film debut entirely in the Cuban capital, apparently with some support from the country’s authorities. The latter is astonishing, because the film hardly paints a positive picture of Cuba’s socialism; it is only very late in the film that the director, who was also in charge of script, co-production, camera and (in part) music, has one of her protagonists pay lip service to the country’s highly-regarded healthcare system. Apart from that, Una Noche never questions the protagonists’ urgent desire to leave the island at any cost. Over the course of a day, this drama follows two young men across Havana as they hastily assemble a small makeshift raft to set off for Florida. Hotel kitchen helper Elio is secretly in love with his colleague Raul, who in turn develops a crush on Elio’s twin sister Lila, who acts as the off-screen narrator while trying to figure out what both guys are up to.

Loosely narrated and fast-paced, Mulloy’s film is very effective at suggesting the immediacy of young people’s erotic desires and naïve aspirations. At the same time, it revels in the decaying glory of the Cuban capital and the vivacity of its inhabitants, repeatedly catching people singing on street corners. This, however, is rather contradictory, because Mulloy’s narration implicitly presupposes that Havana must be such a hell-hole that fleeing it on a ramshackle raft through shark-infested, stormy waters is a perfectly sound option. Thus, you get the feeling that the filmmaker might be less sensitive to the particulars of her film’s location than to the expectations and presumptions of its intended Western audience. Colorful, vibrant, and self-consciously open-minded (dealing not only with gay love but also offering glimpses of a transvestite hooker’s private parts), Una Noche seems ready-made for the US art-house circuit – and it is very well made, at that. But ultimately it speaks to our prejudices rather than telling us more about an exotic place.

I.D., on the other hand, neither treats the motives of its protagonist as self-evident nor takes the audience’s reactions for granted. Charu is a young, college-educated, middle class woman who shares an apartment with two female friends in a newly-built Mumbai high-rise. She is about to go for an interview for a high-paying job with a marketing firm. Suddenly, a day laborer shows up at her door to do a quick paint job that had been scheduled for the day before: here, first time director Kamal K.M., who also wrote the script, underlines his protagonist’s detached arrogance in her interactions with the man. When the laborer suddenly faints, Charu faces a moral problem that she at first treats solely as a practical one. More annoyed than concerned, she tries to get rid of the problem by referring it to the building’s security, but is effectively tricked into taking the unconscious man to a hospital herself. There she ends up having to pay for the initial diagnosis but declines to sign an authorization form for the doctors to operate on the man immediately.

When the anonymous man dies and Charu sets out to track down his family in a remote, gigantic Mumbai slum, the director’s objective narration still keeps us guessing about his protagonist’s feelings and motives. Does she embark on this odyssey, accompanied only by the filmmaker’s camera, because she feels it is her moral duty to inform any relatives? Does she hope to be reimbursed for the hospital bill? In any case, it becomes obvious that the journey, which leads Charu to face the squalor and misery on the outskirts of India’s megalopolis, resonates with her morally. And, inevitably, it morally resonates with us too. Because, in a globalized world, the audience at a great Italian film festival is hardly less responsible for the plight of these anonymous masses than Charu is. The great thing about I.D., though, is that it never pretends to have the answer to the question, what exactly our responsibility – and Charu’s – is.

Edited by Alison Frank