San Sebastian 2019: Blood Spilling Everywhere

in 67th San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Gerald Peary

These days, it’s not just Hollywood action flicks which are deeply violent. Even prestige pictures by “A” directors are steeped in blood. Think of the extended brutal mauling of the Manson chicks at the end of Quentin Tartantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, or the shock at Venice this year when The Joker, the jolly life and times of a psycho killer, took home the Golden Lion.

So too at the 2019 San Sebastian International Film Festival had blood spilling everywhere in this festival dedicated to the most serious art house cinema. Mostly, not always, the violence was motivated by the cruelties inherent the stories.

Shall we begin with the most controversial film in Competition? That would be Goncalo Waddington’s Patrick, a German-Portuguese co-production, about a bruised, hateful young male hustler. He was a victim of child abuse, and he now takes out his anger by raping and beating young women and showing off his brutalities on the Internet. The young actor, Hugo Fernandes, who plays Patrick, is shot up close so that we see the eroded, pimply skin on his handsome face, like being privy to the real, demonic Dorian Gray. Creepy!

I give credit to director Waddington for making a film with few compromises for the audience, showing dispassionately the travails of this screwed-up young man. But even those who go along with the narrative probably drop away when Patrick, on parole, turns beastly again, stabbing the man who had abused him but, worse, beating up his innocent girl cousin. This scene is no less disturbing by occurring off-camera.

There’s also much violence in Adikhan Yerzhanov’s A Dark Dark Man from Kazakhstan, but I find it works beautifully and organically, both grim and slightly tongue-in-cheek. This is a kind of detective story in which a young cop, charged with finding a pedophile killer, operates in a world where nobody in the police cares at all about solving crimes, only about putting money in their pockets and having fun beating up people. Unlike in an American police movie, nobody even pretends for a second that they are trying to uphold the law. Graft and corruption are your job. But the thuggish law is as inept as the Keystone Cops, so that the most violent scenes play as slapstick black humor, bodies piled on bodies, clumsily wrestling and shooting away to little effect.

My big question is whether director Yerzhanov is familiar with American hardboiled fiction and films. A Dark Dark Man played somewhere between Dashiell Hammett and the Coen Brothers, with unfamiliar Kazahkstani rural landscape slyly deconstructing the detective genre the way the terrains of Italian spaghetti westerns subvert the old-time cowboy film.

Paxton Winters’s Pacified [Pacificado], set in the barrio of Rio De Janeiro, in the slums above the Olympic Stadium, is more about gang leaders’ male posturing and one-upping each other than about the explosive murders they commit. But when it comes to daily violence, women here tend to be the convenient victims. The most intense scene here is when a teenage girl is taught a lesson for stealing makeup from her own community rather than from foreign tourists. For this tiny infraction, the local godfather carves up her face, scars her for life.

Women are victimized again in The Other Lamb, shot in Ireland by a Polish director, Malgorzata Szumowska. This is a terrifying, unsettling feminist tale about a cult of mothers and daughters all living under the spell of a Jesus-like male abuser known as The Shepherd. He doesn’t need to beat them up to get what he wants from them, which usually means sex and adoration. But not so fast! One day, he asks all the mothers to drown themselves, Jonestown fashion, so he can have the daughters without any hindrance. There is a mournful sight here of a swamp of dead women washed up from the waters. Is it too much? Is this really necessary for the filmmaker’s harsh feminist vision to leave its imprint?

And is there another way than all these awful things so in your face on screen? I must mention in praise David Zonana’s Workforce [Mano de obra] from Mexico. The catalyst for this Bunuelian fable is when, as workers are building a home, a body falls swiftly from a roof and thuds to the ground. Blink your eye and you missed it. And when the impoverished protagonist of this film decides to kill the rich bastard who owns the home and unfeelingly exploits the workers? We see our hero testing a wire with his hands. The movie jumps ahead, and we learn that the rich man is dead. That is all! Tastefully handled off-screen violence.

Gerald Peary