Post-Apocalypse Now

in 68th Venice Film Festival

by Dana Duma

For most of us critics who seek out innovative works in a festival programme, the Orizzonti section provided the promised movies exploring new tendencies, new directions and different formats. The dissolving barrier between documentary and fiction defines one of the most exciting features presented in this Venice festival section, and it is to one such movie that the FIPRESCI award was given; Two Years at Sea, by the British director Ben Rivers.

A well-known name in the festivals circuit, the experimental filmmaker invites us to a new journey in his marginal world, a trip to a soulless landscape where his hero has chosen to live. As in his previous shorts and medium-length movies (This is My Land, Astika, I Know Where I’m Going, etc.), he follows the everyday life of a hermit, a man who lives in the middle of the forest, ‘far from the madding crowd’. We are not told why Jack has decided to live in loneliness, but he seems to enjoy living in basic, no-frills conditions, in a caravan floating up a tree. Although we have access to the most intimate moments of the hero’s routine (see the shower scene), we don’t understand completely the reasons of his isolation. There is something mysterious about Jack that the movie never reveals. We are just immersed in the pleasure he takes to read a book in silence, to walk in the woods and to drift across the lake in a boat. The splendidly photographed black and white images capture the beauty of the landscape with misty fields and the vibrating forest.

One can take the movie as an ecologist manifesto, suggesting the need to come back to nature and leave behind the noisy, alienating hyper-technological world. Incorporating abandoned cars and wrecked mechanisms, the landscape seems a post-apocalyptic one, a reading that can also be encouraged by Ben Rivers’ medium-length Slow Action, a film about the mini-societies of the future. But the director has aimed at more than this, as he states, “I want the film to embrace the different perception of time that Jake and his environment have, which is more patient and relaxed than my own urban living”. He brilliantly communicates this perception of time, through long takes that meticulously describe the place and Jack’s life, and through the subtle editing that marks the passage from a season to another by snapshots of the hero’s family. Rivers refined the mixture of documentary, fiction and ethnographic film in Two Years at Sea, the first feature of his cinematic work with an unmistakable seal d’auteur. The poetic insertions are also present in the complex texture of the movie. His personal trademark is completed by the fine anamorphic home-made processed image in black and white, which communicates the author’s special sense of freedom. For those who were not already aware of Ben Rivers’ works, his presence in the programme was one of the major discoveries of this year’s festival.

If Two Years at Sea mesmerized the FIPRESCI jurors, there were other interesting movies in the Orizzonti section that illustrate this interesting tendency of cross-breeding fiction and documentary. For instance, the Brazilian entry Girimunho by Helvecio Marins Jr. and Clarissa Campolina, which brings to the screen the amazing portrait of an old woman reminding us of the Cinema Novo aesthetics by documenting the beliefs and magic practices of the rural area.