February 6, 2024


International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

By Shane Danielsen
International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Cass Cumerford in Flathead

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Even after 30 or so years, there are some things about the Netherlands I’ll never understand. How can an entire country live on sandwiches? Why are the stairs so ridiculously steep? (Seriously, it’s like risking death every time you descend.) And most baffling of all, why do none of Rotterdam’s cafes seem to open before 9am? As I crossed the chilly Schouwburgplein – head down against the wind, hands jammed into my coat pockets – I felt cold and hungry and, yeah, pissed off. Hardly the ideal state to begin a packed day of screenings at the city’s film festival.

Thankfully, there was no shortage of good stuff to watch this year, starting in fact with the very first film I saw: La Parra, by Spanish filmmaker Alberto Gracia, which premiered in the festival’s competition strand. News of his father’s death obliges unemployed, semi-destitute Damián (Alfonso Míguez) to return to Ferrol, his Galician hometown, for the first time in almost 20 years, to claim his old man’s ashes. He finds the city both changed and weirdly familiar. Once the thriving hub of Spain’s shipbuilding industry (and the birthplace of Franco), it’s now depopulated and economically depressed. Yet, in other ways, time has ground to a halt; even the local pension “La Parra”, where he takes a room, seems trapped in amber, somehow. A refuge for grotesques and lost souls like himself.

After a few fruitless days, Damián attempts to return to Madrid – but, like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner, finds himself mysteriously unable to leave Ferrol. Instead, he’s forced to wander its streets, replaying the same limited repertoire of encounters and conversations over and over – as succinct a metaphor for grieving as I can imagine. More unsettling still, he finds himself repeatedly mistaken for someone else altogether, a local man called Cosme – whom we saw, in the film’s opening moments, leading a number of blind hikers on a mountain climbing expedition, then hurling himself from the summit without a word, abandoning his vulnerable charges to their fate.

It’s a superb, genuinely disturbing set-piece, but one whose precise meaning, like so much else here, remains elusive. Is Damián actually Cosme? Is he dead? No answers are forthcoming, but momentary satisfactions come thick and fast, and the result plays like a fusion of Raúl Ruiz, Alain Tanner’s Dans la ville blanche, and Kafka. Even its boldest swings (the jarring, techno-infused score, for example) seem somehow apt, pressed into the service of a fully realised auteurist vision.

Speaking of which: also in competition at the festival, Australian filmmaker Jaydon Martin premiered Flathead, a documentary-fiction shot in Bundaberg over four years, which signals the emergence of a singular and considerable talent. Elegant, patient and humane, it won the festival’s Jury prize. Further exposure is assured.

Now in his seventies, recently widowed and off the speed and smack that sustained him for decades, Cass Cumerford returns to “Bundy” to take stock of his life. He has a face like a cliffside, the spare, loose-jointed frame of the ex-junkie, and a disarming lack of self-consciousness, whether he’s expounding on his addiction (“It was really just boredom, cause we had no hobbies”) or chundering into the dunny with his false teeth on the floor. Yet Cass is clearly looking for something – perhaps born of the awareness of his own incipient mortality. He falls in with some local evangelical Christians, and allows himself to be baptised in a river. He submits amiably to hippie energy-alignment treatments, and strikes up an odd, touching friendship with a local fitness influencer, Andrew Wong, who in the wake of losing his own father, instructs Cass on the tenets of Buddhism. But only in the film’s final moments, during a long, confessional monologue of surprising power, do we realise that Cass’s search for meaning is actually something else: a quest for absolution.

Some films announce their themes grandly; others proceed almost by stealth, quietly accumulating details and insights until something wide-ranging and profound is revealed. So it is here. There’s a capacious, wayward quality to Martin’s storytelling (inevitable, given the personality of its subject), but there’s also an apocalyptic power to many of his images – never more so than when, during the hippie ceremony, the camera looks up to reveal a massive fire blazing right outside. This, combined with Brodie Poole’s stunning black-and-white cinematography, often put me in mind of Béla Tarr’s masterpiece Sátántangó – though a more useful reference is probably the Italian documentarist Robert Minervini, whose adept balance of reportage and fiction, in films such as Stop the Pounding Heart and What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire?, finds an antipodean analogue here.

Flathead is about many things: small-town life and the possibility of grace, the bonding rituals of the pub lounge and the racetrack, and perhaps above all, the anxious, conflicted nature of Australian masculinity. You don’t have to be Freud to look at scenes of local blokes brawling in the dirt behind some houses, or firing their shotguns into the bush – at random, aiming at nothing – and see a ratbag cri de coeur, the clash of directionless energy and limited options.

I have to imagine Türkiye’s Zeki Demirkubuz would be happier had Nuri Bilge Ceylan never been born. He’d certainly be more famous – and probably a fixture at Cannes, which would seem the natural home for his intelligent, sober, handsomely crafted dramas. Alas, when it comes to under-represented (i.e. non-European) film territories, Cannes is like Highlander: there can only be one – and Ceylan, a Palme d’Or and Grand Prix winner, is most definitely it. So rivals such as Demirkubuz and Semih Kaplanoğlu find themselves consigned to other, less prestigious events: Rotterdam for the former, Berlin for the latter.

Hayat (“Life”) is Demirkubuz’s first film in seven years, the longest break in an otherwise prolific career. Clocking in at a hefty 193 minutes, the narrative is divided in two halves. In the first, Riza (Burak Dadak), a young baker, was preparing to marry Hicran (Miray Daner). But as the film opens, she has unexpectedly disappeared; not even her family knows where she is. Riza is confused – the union was semi-arranged, but he sensed no reluctance on her part – and, unable to move on, soon leaves their hometown for Istanbul in an attempt to track his erstwhile fiancée down. Though his pursuit becomes slightly less adorable with the discovery that he’s bought a gun.

Hicran barely appears in this section: she’s shown briefly in a passport photo, and glimpsed for a few seconds in one of Riza’s dreams. But she takes centrestage in the film’s second half, which follows her life over a number of years, in the capital and elsewhere, as she first attempts to be reconciled with her parents, and then enters into a loveless marriage with an older widower. Defining herself chiefly through her relationships with men, from her conservative father to her various suitors (including Riza), she encounters successive varieties of patriarchal control: bitter jealousy, anguished self-pity, possessive rage – a veritable Pilgrim’s Progress through aberrant male pathology. But, though independent, Hicran is also curiously passive, and that combination ultimately proves devastating.

Ceylan is famously indebted to Chekhov, whereas Demirkubuz is inspired chiefly by Dostoevsky (whom he read in his late teens, while imprisoned as a political dissident) and Camus, both of whose novels he’s adapted for the screen. As those influences would suggest, he’s an existentialist rather than a humanist, with a pessimistic, sometimes pitiless vision of human affairs, and there’s a chilly, click-into-place precision to both his image-making and his story-construction. This one, though, feels slightly more expansive, particularly in its novelistic second half. And while its final moments don’t quite come off – at the session I attended, I could sense the crowd turning against the film – the three hours that preceded it were superbly tense and gripping, a showcase for this underrated filmmaker’s considerable strengths.

Dostoevsky also features heavily in Iranian director Oktay Baraheni’s second feature, The Old Bachelor, which wears its debt to The Brothers Karamazov lightly but unmistakeably, and which deservedly won the festival’s VPRO Big Screen Award. Similarly lengthy (191 minutes), it’s also thoroughly compelling: with its dialogue-heavy confrontations – reminiscent at times of early Mamet – and brisk editing, its running time fairly flashes by.

An elderly man, Gholam, shares a Tehran apartment with his two adult sons from different mothers: bookish, sensitive Ali and hot-tempered, younger Reza. Despite Ali’s attempts to keep it clean, the place is a dump, strewn with empty pizza boxes, filthy plates, discarded clothes… and methadone bottles, because Gholam, we quickly discover, is a junkie. Brutish and sadistic, he also owns the building they occupy, and in between sharing fantasies about killing him, Ali and Reza urge him to sell the property and divide the proceeds between them. Gholam almost agrees, until the arrival of beautiful divorcee Rana causes him to reconsider. Intending to seduce her, he gives her a discounted lease on the apartment upstairs. Unfortunately, his oldest son is also besotted with this new arrival – and she, in turn, seems entranced by him.

With its forthright depictions of drug-use and prostitution, its detours into underground clubs and opium dens, this is a radically different and far more secular Iran than the country’s mullahs would ordinarily sanction onscreen. (At the Q&A following the screening, Baraheni admitted that showing the film in his homeland “might be tricky”. Yeah, no shit.) It also feels vivid and alive in a way only Saeed Roustaee’s movies have quite managed, lately. Most remarkable of all is its underlying nihilism, apparent in Gholam’s smirking admiration for Donald Trump (“Four more like him, and the world would be sorted out”), and his distinctly Trumpian belief that good men – Ali, for instance – are only so because they “lack the balls” to be properly evil.

Best known to Western audiences for her starring role in Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, Leila Hatami is one of the world’s great screen actors, her country’s equivalent to Isabelle Huppert. She’s typically magnetic here, her soft-spoken coquettishness occasionally slipping to reveal something far tougher and more self-absorbed. But even she’s outshone by her co-star, screen veteran Hassan Pourshirazi, whose sweaty, blustering performance as Gholam is one of the finest examples of film acting I’ve seen in some time. He commands the screen – physically as well as verbally, his fleshy bulk often filling the frame. He’s like Lear crossed with Claudius, a monster of unchecked appetites and boundless cruelty, and the film rises to meet him, all the way to its bloody, Taxi Driver–echoing finale.

This by any standard constitutes a major work; hopefully local festivals will take notice.

Scarcely less enjoyable was Daniele Luchetti’s Confidenza, an adaptation of Dominico Starnone’s bestselling 2019 novel. It begins at a high school in Trieste, where precocious Theresa (Federica Rosellini) is utterly in love with her Literature teacher, Pietro (Elio Germano). After graduating, however, she seems to flounder, skipping university to take a job as a waitress. Upon hearing of this, a baffled Pietro goes to see her; before long they’re lovers. But he’s also urging her to achieve her potential, to be the best version of herself, and Theresa heeds his advice, gaining first a master’s degree and then, in quick succession, a PhD.

One night, following an argument at a restaurant, she proposes a pact to bind them to each other forever. Each will tell the other a secret, something momentous about themselves that no one else knows. Though hesitant, Pietro agrees. (Cleverly, we never learn what these confidences are.) Rather than unite them, however, the incident fractures their relationship; he arrives home the next day to find her gone.

Each of the pair goes on to acclaim: Teresa as a mathematician at MIT, Pietro for his “compassionate” educational reforms, which see him seconded to the ministry. But he never manages to forget that his favourite pupil – and now possibly vengeful ex-lover – knows this devastating thing about him, something which, if ever revealed, could destroy him. And so his every triumph – his growing fame, his happy marriage, the admiration of his daughter – is shadowed at all times by the terror of discovery.

Flirting with a kind of airport-novel trashiness, the result proves both amusing (as an Elio Petri–like satire on emasculation) and engrossing, despite one major problem with casting. Rosellini is excellent as Theresa: carnal, discomfitingly intense. But she’s also unmistakeably in her mid 30s, even in the film’s early scenes, where she’s supposed to be a high school senior, and the effect feels a lot like that Steve Buscemi “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme. It’s the kind of forced counterfactual that one often encounters onstage, and as with theatre, one has to either accept it and move on, or be thrown out of the drama. I chose to give in to its absurdity, and I’m very glad I did, because the rest of the movie is terrific – never more so than the scene in which the pair exchange their secrets, whereupon Thom Yorke’s score, busy and Smile-like for the most part, becomes suddenly sparse and keening. Like a wind howling through the crack these people have just put in both their lives.

Finally, Grey Bees continues the stream of excellent features to emerge, steadily and improbably, from Ukraine during its war with Russia (see also Pamfir, Klondike20 Days in Mariupol). Adapted by writer-director Dmytro Moiseiev from a 2020 novel by Andrey Kurkov (best known for his international bestseller Death and the Penguin), this one is both explicitly political and quietly fabulist, a Beckett-like study of two old men in an otherwise-abandoned village in Donbass in the last weeks before the Russian invasion.

Sergiich (Viktor Zdanov) is Ukrainian, a retired mine inspector turned beekeeper. His ex-wife now lives far from the frontline with her new family, but he’s clinging stubbornly to their former home, while maintaining a principled distaste for both sides of the conflict. His neighbour Pashka (Volodymyr Yamnenko), meanwhile, is ethnically Russian, a former miner, and a bit of a rogue. They’ve been friends since school, despite their opposing temperaments. (Sergiich is taciturn and wary, Pashka voluble and impulsive.) But recent circumstances have, understandably, placed some strain on the relationship. Sergiich suspects Pashka of benefiting from aid packages delivered by local partisans – correctly, as it turns out – and is further spooked by the discovery of a corpse lying in a far field, the apparent victim of snipers. But from which side? Either way, its presence seems to signal the onset of deeper hostilities. He’s taken to keeping a spoon balanced on an iron by the front window of his house: a makeshift seismograph to detect the proximity of shelling.

Shot in winter by cinematographer Vadym Ilkov, Grey Bees depicts the region in a mostly penumbral semi-darkness, with electricity cut off and even fresh water in short supply. One image, a long shot of the two men arguing bitterly in the middle of a blasted field while an aid vehicle trundles slowly towards them, their words snatched away by the wind, encapsulates both the irreconcilable divide and the geopolitical absurdity of their predicament. But even Sergiich’s stoic neutrality can’t last forever: by the end, this supposedly apolitical man has elected to take action – albeit of a distinctly quixotic kind. As the credits rolled, I was reminded of the words of a tattoo I once glimpsed on the arm of a US Marine in Seoul: Live for something, or die for nothing. For better or worse, he does precisely that.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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