The Fascination With The Real

in 42nd Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Hans Christian Leitich

Splitting a prize may give an impression of indecisiveness. Then again, this might be a statement – hopefully a strong one. In case of the long final round of the debate of this FIPRESCI jury, the term “comparing apples and oranges” came up so often that precisely that seemed worth telling in the end.

The question of comparability came up because there are specific basic similarities in the construction of the plots of the two finalists – namely focussing on the attempt of a main character (each of a quite distinctive lower class aura) to restart a life at the fringes of civilization. In Los Muertos, Lisandro Alonso introduces us to provincial Argentina and to a taciturn man in his fifties who after a release from decades of prison travels deeply into the rainforest to reunite with the remains of his family. The more familiar, also poverty-stricken suburbs of upstate New York are the background for an inner travel of a woman of about thirty. In Debra Granik’s Down To The Bone, a married mother of two is fighting heavily to get rid of her addiction to cocaine and to self-destructive tendencies. Open endings in both films.

Completely different were, on the other hand, the approaches of storytelling. With his second feature film, Lisandro Alonso (La libertad) delivers another striking example of how much the new wave of Argentine cinema works on contemporary film styles – specifically underlining the fact that they are made on 35/16 mm. In many scenes, cuts come remarkably late, forcing the viewers to stay with scenes of a possibly disturbing nature (circling around sex, death, silence) or allowing the camera to drift around to show more of the surroundings — and making the sounds take over the viewer’s attention. Combined with elliptic plot omissions, namely explaining the murder victims which make the title, Los Muertos can be described as looking glass cinema – a fine example of hypnotic realism somewhat comparable to portrayals made by the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta,Le fils). The emphatic approach to low life is similar, just calmer.

Debra Granik’s Down To The Bone stands for a digital future of cinema which does not try to be DVD-optimized (to impress either by heavy editing in the way music videos do, nor by guerrilla aesthetics of handheld cameras), but by an emphasis on integrity of content which can be protected (and achieved) by low production costs. In camera and editing (both remarkably humble), this American descendant of traditional British kitchen-sink realism (Mike Leigh, e.g.) appears as discreet observer of strikingly precise portraits of human conditions and social microcosms. An all too repetitive character of a new relationship adds melodrama, a variety of animals, from a pet snake to an antler, fresh symbolism. And the relaxed intensity of acting underlines a rarely-seen naturalistic depiction of substance abuse in the aptly titled Down To The Bone.

Among the films of the Viennale – the non-competitive, but in its selection quite idiosyncratic Vienna International Film Festival – first and second feature films were eligible for the FIPRESCI award. It should be added that among those were some highly interesting examples for innovative aesthetics and structures – either in the field of the digital or the analogue. Or for craftsmanship. Or for social values and concerns. At a point of the debate the comparison with ice-skating was brought up – combination makes winners.

Hans Christian Leitich