Posts Tagged ‘San Sebastian film Festival’

Sultana’s Dream (2023) San Sebastián Film Festival 2023

Wri/Dir: Isabel Herguera | With the voices of Mary Beard, Miren Arrieta, Paul B Preciado, Roberto Bessi, Nausheen Javeed | Anime 80′

Fears of being a woman alone surface in this opening scenes of this ravishing animation that packs a potent punch in fluidly depicting life in a society ruled by men.

Isabel Herguera’s tale of female empowerment is a first feature for the San Sebastián-born filmmaker. Inspired by the exotic colours and sultry moods of the Indian subcontinent she bases her narrative on an avant-garde 1905 fable by a pioneering Bengali feminist writer Rokeya Hussein who imagines a utopian kingdom of Ladyland. Here, women call the shots in creating a harmonious society where they are educated and gain considerable agency while the men are locked away in purdah.

Set her timeline in the modern day Herguera’s glowing anime centres on Ines (Miren Arrieta), a young filmmaker who returns from India to Spain to seek career advice from her wheelchair-bound oceanographer mother who is a font of wisdom.

With its topical themes of politics, religious freedom, feminism and the environment Herguera’s well-paced and witty satire pokes subtle fun at the male-dominated society that still exists in India as Ines embarks on a peripatetic odyssey to realise her hopes and dreams in this visually captivating gem. MT


A Journey in Spring (2023) San Sebastián Film Festival 2023

Dirs: Ping-Wen Wang, Tzu-Hui Peng | Taiwan, Drama, 90′ 

Lovers of slow-burning Asian Arthouse cinema in the masters Jia Zhangke, Tsai Ming-liang or Kim Ki-Duk will warm to this drole and dystopian look at a marriage in decline and its aftermath.

A languorous opening sequence by a waterfall gives way to a bustling street scene that shows, without the need for words, that Khim-Hok and his wife Tua are no longer happy together. And who can I blame a bickering middle-aged couple forced into close proximity enduring the dregs of winter in a rain-soaked rural backwater, dreary despite its magnificent temples and lively food market.

Small domestic altercations in the couple’s cramped living conditions collide with serene moments in the lush Taiwanese countryside when Khim-Hok remembers their promising past and his estranged son’s happy wedding, seen in flashback, as he waits endlessly for a bus. Back at home matters come to a head after an incident with a jar of plums, and the following day when Tua quietly passes away he decides to relegate her body to the chest freezer.

But their son and his partner suddenly appear on the scene, unannounced, after years of absence. Khim-hok clearly has some explaining to do and this clarity focuses his mind and brings the past flooding back into the present leading him on a cathartic and often poignant journey of reflection and self-discovery.

Seasoned filmmakers Ping-Wen Wang and Tzu-Hui Peng direct this assured and resplendent Taiwanese tale that unfolds in evocative tableaux giving minor moments of everyday life a resonance without resorting to fanfare or fussy dialogue. Journey into Spring is a watchable joy – particularly for an international audience outside Taiwan – with its minimal dialogue. The sleek script speaks volumes leaving nothing spare in a muted and memorable 21st century parable. MT


San Sebastián Film Festival | Competition selection 2023

The San Sebastian Film Festival is Spain’s only A-list event running from 22 September until 30th in the North West Spanish town on the shores of the Atlantic, and often known by its Basque name of Donostia. This year celebrating its 71st edition, a selection of Spanish titles and international fare competes for the Golden Shell Award in venues such as the Kursaal and the Victoria Eugenia theatre. This year’s edition, honouring Victor Erice, and headed by Claire Denis as president of the Golden Shell jury, kicks off withThe Boy and The Heron and closes with James Marsh’s Dance First starring Gabriel Byrne.

THE BOY AND THE HERON – Hayao Miyazaki

A young boy named Mahito yearning for his mother ventures into a world shared by the living and the dead. There, death comes to an end, and life finds a new beginning. A semi-autobiographical fantasy about life, death and creation, in tribute to friendship, from the mind of Hayao Miyazaki. Out of competition

DANCE FIRST – James Marsh

Literary genius Samuel Beckett lived a life of many parts: Parisian bon vivant, WWII Resistance fighter, Nobel Prize-winning playwright, philandering husband, recluse. But despite all the adulation that came his, way he was a man acutely aware of his own failings. Titled after Beckett’s famous ethos “Dance first, think later,” the film is a sweeping account of the life of this 20th-century icon. Out of Competition

Competition films


A lyrical decades spanning exploration across a woman’s life in Mississippi, this feature debut from award-winning poet, photographer and filmmaker Raven Jackson is a haunting and richly layered ode to the generations of people that hail from the region.

A JOURNEY IN SPRING – Tzu-Hui Peng, Ping-Wen Wang

An old man with a limp, Khim-Hok, has depended on his wife over the years. They live in an old house on the urban fringe of Taipei. After his wife suddenly passes away, the man puts her into an old freezer and carries on as normal. But his long lost son and partner suddenly appears leaving Kim-Hok to face his demons.

SULTANA’S DREAM – Isabel Herguera

Taking her inspiration from a feminist sci-fi short story written in Bengal in 1905, Ines sets out on a voyage of discovery around India in search of Ladyland, the Utopian land of women.

EX-HUSBANDS – Noah Pritzker

Peter’s parents divorced after 65 years, his wife left him after 35, and his sons, Nick and Mickey, are off leading their own lives. When Peter flies to Tulum, crashing Nick’s bachelor party hosted by Mickey, he realizes he’s not the only one in crisis.

FINGERNAILS – Christos Nikos

Anna and Ryan have found true love. It’s been proven by a controversial new technology. There’s just one problem: Anna still isn’t sure. Then she takes a position at a love testing institute, and meets Amir.

GREAT ABSENCE – Key Chika-Ura 

Anna and Ryan have found true love. It’s been proven by a controversial new technology. There’s just one problem: Anna still isn’t sure. Then she takes a position at a love testing institute, and meets Amir.

KALAK – Isabella Eklof 

Jan is on the run from himself after being sexually abused by his father. Living in Greenland with his little family, he yearns to be a part of the open, collectivist culture and become a Kalak, a “dirty Greenlander”.

RED ISLAND – Robin Campillo

L’île rouge / Red Island is set in Madagascar in the early 1970s, on one of the last air bases of the French army, where military families live the last throes of colonialism. Influenced by his reading of the intrepid comic book heroine Fantômette, ten-year-old Thomas sweeps with a curious glance what surrounds him, while the world gradually opens up to a different reality.

THE PRACTICE – Martin Rejtman

Gustavo and Vanessa separate and have to redraft their projects together. Both are yoga teachers. Gustavo is Argentinian, Vanessa is Chilean. The trip to India is cancelled. Vanessa keeps the apartment and leaves the studio they shared, making Gustavo homeless. As a result of the accumulated stress, Gustavo injures his knee and replaces yoga: first with quadriceps exercises and then with the gym. But gradually he gets his life back on track and starts practising again.​


Ellias Barnès, 30, is the newly-announced artistic director of a famous Parisian fashion house. But as expectations are high, he starts experiencing chest pain. Out of the blue he is called back to Montreal to organise his estranged father’s funeral and discovers that he may have inherited much worse than his father’s weak heart.

THE SUCCESSOR – Xavier LeGrand

Ellias Barnès, 30, is the newly-announced artistic director of a famous Parisian fashion house. But as expectations are high, he starts experiencing chest pain. Out of the blue he is called back to Montreal to organise his estranged father’s funeral and discovers that he may have inherited much worse than his father’s weak heart.

MMXX – Christi Pui

Oana Pfifer, a young therapist, gradually slips into the net of the questionnaire she submits to her patient. Mihai, Oana’s brother, worrying about his birthday, is stuck in a story far bigger than he can handle. Septimiu, Oana’s husband, concerned about his health, vaguely listens to a strange story his colleague was caught up in a while ago. Narcis Patranescu, an organized crime detective, deals with an unsettling dark story while interrogating a young woman at a funeral.

THE RYE HORN – Jaione Camborda

Illa de Arousa, 1971. Maria is a woman who earns a living harvesting shellfish. She is also known on the island for helping other women in childbirth with special dedication and care. After an unexpected event, she is forced to flee and sets out on a dangerous journey that will make her fight for her survival. Seeking her freedom, Maria decides to cross the border by one of the smugglers’ routes between Galicia and Portugal.

PUAN – Benjamin Naishtat, Maria Alche

Illa de Arousa, 1971. Maria is a woman who earns a living harvesting shellfish. She is also known on the island for helping other women in childbirth with special dedication and care. After an unexpected event, she is forced to flee and sets out on a dangerous journey that will make her fight for her survival. Seeking her freedom, Maria decides to cross the border by one of the smugglers’ routes between Galicia and Portugal.


Illa de Arousa, 1971. Maria is a woman who earns a living harvesting shellfish. She is also known on the island for helping other women in childbirth with special dedication and care. After an unexpected event, she is forced to flee and sets out on a dangerous journey that will make her fight for her survival. Seeking her freedom, Maria decides to cross the border by one of the smugglers’ routes between Galicia and Portugal.

UN AMOR – Isabel Coixet

Having escaped from her stressful life in the city, 30-year-old Nat holes up in the small village of La Escapa, in deepest rural Spain. In a rundown country house, with a crochety stray dog, the young girl will try to put her life back on track. Having dealt with her landlord’s hostility and the mistrust of the village locals, Nat finds herself accepting a disturbing sexual proposal made by her neighbour Andreas. This strange and confusing encounter will give rise to an all-consuming and obsessive passion that will completely engulf Nat and make her question the kind of woman she thinks she is.


Astrid is the wife of an acclaimed lawyer. Silenced for 25 years, her family balance suddenly collapses when her children initiate their search for justice.

Special Screenings 

THEY SHOT THE PIANO PLAYER – Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal

A music journalist from New York sets out on a frantic investigation into the mysterious disappearance of Brazilian pianist Tenorio Jr, regular accompanist of Vinicius de Moraes, among others. This animated thriller moving to the beat of jazz and bossa nova portrays the days immediately before the Latin American continent was enshrouded by totalitarian regimes.

A PROPER JOB – Thomas Lilti

It’s a new school year. Benjamin is a PhD student without a grant. Given his lack of future prospects, he accepts a position as a contract teacher in a Parisian middle school. Without training or experience, he soon realises just how tough the teaching profession can be in an education system crippled by a chronic lack of resources. With the support and commitment of the other teachers, and a bit of luck, he will reconsider his vocation.


A Proper Job | Un métier Sérieux (2023) | San Sebastian Film Festival 2023

Dir/Wri: Thomas Lilti | Cast: Vincent Lacoste, Francois Cluzet, Louise Bourgoin, Adele Exarchopoulos, Mustapha Abourachid | France Comedy Drama 101′

Real life pals Adèle Exarchopoulos and Vincent Lacoste star in this amusing schoolroom drama – they were last seen giggling together on the Red Carpet at Cannes for the premiere of Elemental. 

A Proper Job is the latest from French writer/director Thomas Lilti whose sobering sophomore feature Hippocrates saw Lacoste as a junior doctor thrown into the deep end at the Hospital Rothschild in Paris. This time he’s Benjamin Barrois, a junior tutor with no experience – and it shows – trying to finance his PhD at a Normandy secondary school with few resources. And his first day teaching rowdy adolescents certainly gets off to a bad start when a more senior colleague mistakes him for an intern, in front of the class. This doesn’t help his cause.

True to say that many otherwise decent kids can be monsters in the classroom and that’s certainly the case here. Benjamin lurches from crisis to crisis as Lilti demonstrates in semi-documentary style the many pitfalls of being a schoolteacher nowadays. And we’ve already seen these situations in films like The Hunt (2012), Mr Backmann and His Class (2021) and most recently in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses (2023).

So when one of his pupils, an unruly kid with a troubled home-life, refuses to respect the simple code of class conduct Benjamin has a problem on his hands, then the boy files a complaint with the school head (Abourachid) that leads to a disciplinary process.

Lacoste is such a versatile actor you can’t help liking his portrayal of Benjamin: he can be serious but there’s always a cheeky glint in his eye. And when he joins a surfing break in Biarritz with other members of the staff there are moments of high tension and the camaraderie between the colleagues is really put to the test. They support each other unfailingly when the chips are down.

Lilti fleshes out the backstories of the other teachers: Pierre (Cluzet) is having marital difficulties, and single parent Meriem (Exarchopoulos) is struggling to teach her own kid while juggling her career. Another teacher Sandrine (Bourgoin) is pushed to the limit in a livid classroom confrontation.

Lilti never looks for simple solutions in his well-paced script, and the finale is spectacular. A really good cast and a sympathetic treatment of the issues involved make this another convincing feature from a much deserving director who has so far received 14 nominations but never won a prize. Let’s hope he will soon. MT


A Silence (2023) San Sebastian Film Festival 2023

Dir: Joachim Lafosse | Daniel Auteuil, Emmanuelle Devos, Salome Dewaels, Matthieu Galoux | Drama 100’

Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Devos star in this sober look at a family in crisis when a father is suspected of child pornography and his wife is left to pick up the pieces.

The sins of the father come back to bite prominent lawyer Maitre Schaar (Auteuil) in the French town of Metz where he has dabbled in child pornography forcing his wife Astrid (Schaar) into an untenable code of silence. But their teenage children Caroline (Salome Dewaels) and Raphael (Matthieu Galoux) are not of an age when they want answers and when other allegations start to emerge the truth can no longer stay hidden drawing proceedings to a devastating finale.

Joachim Lafosse – best known for award-winning films Our Children (2012) and After Love (2016) – is a master of atmosphere rather than plot-driven narratives, and his skill at creating a seething sense of disquiet comes into its own in the leafy suburbs of the Moselle city where the Schaar family endure a soul-searching daily existence in their plush mansion. And although Astrid (a dignified Devos) has done a good job of shielding her kids from the accusations, the family is clearly in disarray and Raphael, in particular, harbours a savage mistrust of his father and wants him to face formal justice after years of psychological trauma that started when the boy discovered incriminating videos on his father’s computer. A morose but thoughtful study in family dynamics in the face of dysfunction MT


Le Lyceen (2022) San Sebastián Film Festival 2022

Dir/wri: Christophe Honore | Cast: Juliette Binoche, Christophe Honore, Xavier Giannoli, Vincent Lacoste, Paul Kircher | France, Drama 122′

Juliette Binoche stars alongside Christophe Honore, who writes, directs and appears briefly in this tender stream of consciousness confessional that explores their teenage son’s tentative sexual awakening in a wintery Chambery on the foothills of Mont Blanc.

Told from the perspective of Lucas (Kircher) a breezy, upbeat opening scene sees father (Honore) and son motoring along a country road only to find themselves careening into the middle of a field, narrowly involved in a collision with another vehicle. And this near accident sets the febrile tone for the tragedy that will follow as the whole family implodes into anguish in facing a very different future to the one they all had in mind.

Always wearing its heart on its stylish sleeve in a beautifully nuanced way Honore’s emotionally honest film is at times difficult to watch as the heartbroken Lucas suffers an extreme reaction to his loss. But this also seems to crystallise his decision to start a sexual relationship with his friend Oscar, and a night of passionate lovemaking follows before Lucas leaves for a week in Paris with his artist brother Quentin (Lacoste), who shares a swanky flat with Lilio.

Paris is a new and radical world for the provincial teenager and Lucas is caught up in the excitement of discovery, but is also very much in awe of his brother who is busy preparing for his first exhibition. Using the city as a playground to flex his muscles in newfound sexual freedom, Lucas is also surprised to discover his puppyish unbridled appeal is much in demand with older and more sophisticated men. And this naivety does not always go down well with Lilio and certainly not with Quentin who sends him packing back to his mother after he oversteps the mark, complaining Lucas’ unbridled behaviour is disrespectful at a time of family grief. Everything comes together in a graceful denouement that sees Isabelle and her family finally seeing a light at the end of their tunnel of grief. MT


Something You Said Last Night (2022) San Sebastián Film Festival

Dir/Wri.: Luis de Filippis; Cast: Carmen Madonia, Ramona Milano, Paige Evans, Joe Parro; Canada/Switzerland 2022, 96 min.

This first feature for writer/director Luis de Filippis is an exercise in style. A short family holiday is (mis)used by parents and two sisters to behave badly – not in an outrageous way, but just enough to be really irritating throughout its running time.

Renata (Madonia), a writer in her early twenties is on holiday with a teenage sister Siena (Evans) and overbearing parents Mona (Milano) and Guido (Parro). Left at home is brother Anthony, who, like his sisters, is a victim of a passive-aggressive mother who tries to control everything from table manners to mobile phones. Mostly without success.

Ren, a trans woman, also has a secret to hide and one that will make her increasingly dependent on the family. Siena (Evans) wants to leave the nest and spends the nights cruising. Ren has an affectionate relationship with her father, who suffers mostly in silence – even during a farcical birthday party which brings out the worst in him. But most annoying of all is Mona’s forced happiness: the girl is always breaking into song and dance, hoping the rest of the family will join her. There is one rather moving scene where some kids on the beach take Ren’s doll, teasing her about her looks, and then destroying the toy – only for Guido to repair it for his grateful daughter.

The late Jean-Luc Godard postulated that style is everything and certainly de Filippis stringently adheres to a unity of aesthetics in a script entirely consisting of smalltalk and petty arguments. Everybody seems emotionally and intellectually regressed – the real arguments are buried too deep to be solved.

DoP Norm Li underlines the one note narrative with pastels colours and languid close-ups. We wait for something cruel to happen (like in early Bruno Dumont features), but de Filippis simply wants to emphasise that Ren is just one of the crowd, and certainly succeeds in gaining some admiration for creating another “Neighbours’ on sea. Not for everyone, but one has to admire de Filippis’ absolute adherence to the principle of unbroken exasperation. AS


Daughter of Rage (2022) San Sebastián Film Festival 2022

Dir/Wri.: Laura Baumeister: Cast: Ara Alejandra Medal, Virginia Sevilla, Carlos Gutierrez, Noe Hernandez, Diana Sedano; Nicaragua 2022, 90 min.

An eleven year-old girl is forced to make a living on Nicaragua’s biggest landfill in this passionate poetic realist feature debut from writer/director Laura Baumeister.

Everything from human clinical waste to the kitchen sink gets dumped into a massive crater at La Chureca the main rubbish dump near the capital Managua where a civil war is rumbling. Little Maria (Medal) scratches an existence collecting spare parts which can be cleaned and sold on for a decent profit. In reality Maria is a child from hell, she is lazy and aggressive but brave when the need arises. Her struggle for survival is an act of endurance and enterprise.

At home, her mother Lilibeth (Sevilla) has manage to salvage some puppies which have already been sold on to a gangster, who runs the site taking a cut by offering accommodation in makeshift huts. Recovering from a near rape attempt one night Lilibeth finds out that her daughter has fed the puppies contaminated food, which has inadvertently killed them. So Lilibeth will have to endure sex with the gangster – in front of her daughter –  to make up for the delay in delivering the puppies. Knowing perfectly well she will never be able to keep her side of the bargain she must disappear deep into the rain forest where Maria will be left – against her will – in the care of Raul (Hernandez), who runs a small processing site, cleaning and selling spare parts.

Although Maria desperately wants to leave with her mother she knows the consequences will mean a loss of income and no food. And this brings out the worst in her as she comes up against everyone in the plantation, fighting with a boy called Tadeo (Gutierrez) and smashing up a TV until the police arrive to raid the site.

Baumeister shows a country in chaos with smalltime gangsters controlling and exploiting the poor: every there are roadblocks and crime if rife. There is only one way out: mythical stories which will eradicate the depressing reality. Lilibeth tells her daughter the story of cat woman who prowls the forest. Maria just wants to escape, but where to and how?.

Daughter of Rage often feels like two films rolled into one, but DoP Teresa manages a seamless transition between realism and myth with intensely powerful images that overcome any shortcomings in the narrative leaving the audience in awe of a startling feature debut. AS

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL | 16-24 September 2022

Playground (2021)

Die: Laura Wandel | Drama, Belgium, 62′

Bullying and the casual cruelty of children is the focus of this schoolground psychological thriller – Belgian’s Oscar hopeful in next year’s academy award.

Everyone remembers a school bully or being at the receiving end of acts of nastiness that caused emotional if not physical pain. The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” was regularly trotted out by parents attempting to rationalise the situation but offered scant comfort as the next day at school loomed with trepidation.     

Playground launches us straight into the tearful time seven year old Nora is having when her father (Karim Leklou) drops her off at the school gates. And we feel for her, and it’s a touching and impassioned and astonishingly subtle performance from Maya Vanderbegue. She will gradually toughen up during the course of Laura Wandel’s debut feature but you get the impression there is a steely, not altogether, healthy resolve behind her wilful behaviour in the finale stretch, the camera lingering at the kids’ eye level, as the adult world seems far away, irrelevant, any grown up authority unable to intervene or limit the taunts and vicious outbursts of a playground transformed into a gladiatorial arena from the scared children’s’ perspective .

Nora clings to her elder brother Abel (Günter Duret) who soon becomes an unreliable ally: he’s got his own adversaries to deal with in the schoolyard pecking order, and resents Nora’s babyish demands for sibling allegiance when he has to protect his own interests and not appear weak, or involve her by association. Seen through the naturalistic gaze of Frederic Noirhomme’s camera kids are just as complex as fully grown adults but not yet capable of guile and disingenuousness in their facial expressions, making them fascinating subjects to watch.

Eventually Abel will turn the tables on his child tormentors in this impressive first feature which explores how kids separate from the parental comfort zone and learn to fight their own battles – quite literally. MT

PLAYGROUND wins the Grand Prix in Tallinn’s Just Film | FIPRESCI prize for Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival and the Sutherland Prize for Best First Feature at the London Film Festival.




Prayers for the Stolen (2021)



Dir/Wri: Tatiana Huezo | Cast: Ana Cristina Ordonez Gonzalez, Marya Membreno, Norma Pablo, Mayra Batalla, Eileen Yanez, Emeo Villegas Olivia Lagunas | Drama 100′

A lush and haunting tale of friendship and survival draws us into the vortex of oppression and fear felt by three girls growing up during wartime in rural Mexico. Recent figures from Amnesty suggest that around ten women and girls are killed in Mexico alone, every day.

Based on the 2014 novel by Jennifer Clement this is the latest human drama from Tatiana Huezo who has been quietly raising the profile of social and personal abuse for woman all over Latin America – from Civil War in El Salvador (in El Lugar mas pequeno in 2011) to human trafficking in Mexico (Tempestad (2016)). This is her third and most accomplished feature to date.

In a tight-knit community nestled in the Mexican mountains, we first meet eight year old Ana (Ordonez Gonzalez), digging a hole in the ground with her mother Rita (Batalla). Ana will ‘bury’ herself here when the guerrilla soldiers come to kidnap the local girls who will be turned into captives and slaves. In the bosky remote hillside violence is an everyday part of growing up for young Mexican girls. So Ana and her two friends create their own impenetrable parallel universe where they play at being women, comforting each other with an affectionate bond of friendship, singing and painting their lips with beetroot. Soon Ana’s long hair will be cut into a boyish crop to avoid detection. On lonely days she hides out in the empty houses of villagers who have long disappeared or fled, such as Juana and Don Pancho, whose abandoned flock of cows now roams free in the village.

Strong on atmosphere the film is cinematic study of what it means to grow up as a girl in a hostile environment where men are almost constantly the enemy. Ana’s father is supposedly working on the other side of the valley, but he has not sent money back for several years, and so Ana and her mother are forced to fend for themselves on the brink of poverty. One surreal scene pictures Rita desperately trying to get a mobile signal on the top of a mountain, along the other abandoned women whose ‘phones light up the darkness like mini torches glowing in the gloom.

Five years later, at thirteen, the girls become teenagers as they face the harsh reality of what being a woman really entails in this toxic climate of war and macho culture. Abstract danger becomes an inescapable threat, as a Russian roulette plays out one day when soldiers arrive to take Ana, forcing her into the dugout as her mother is threatened with death.

Some films are moving but this rich character drama is actually harrowing too, as we become emotionally invested in the girls’ story fleshed out in Huezo’s richly textured script, joining them in their descent into traumatised hell as a daily experience. The casual involuntary abuse from Ana’s mother is echoed by the disorientating fear she feels from the outside male threat. Ana – both as a child and a teenager – is impressively performed by two newcomers (Ordonez Gonzalez and Membreno), and is matched by Huezo’s assured direction and luminous camerawork by Dariela Ludlow.

IN CINEMAS FROM 8 April 2022, and exclusively on MUBI from 29 April 2022 | San Sebastian FILM FESTIVAL | Latin American Prix HORIZONTES WINNER



Azor (2021) San Sebastián 2021

Dir: Andreas Fontana | Cast: Fabrizio Rongione, Stephanie Cleau, Gilles Privat, Elli Medeiros, Carmen Iriondo, Pablo Torre Nilson, Ignazio Vila, Juan Trench, Juan Pablo Geretto| Argentina, Switzerland, 99′

Another sophisticated Argentine thriller along the lines of Rojo set during the ‘Dirty Wars’ and this time seen through the eyes of a Swiss banker who arrives in Buenos Aires to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his partner only to discovers intrigue and subterfuge amongst the elite.

In 1976 a military junta seized power from Eva Peron’s government resulting in the deaths of over 30,000 people. Swiss born filmmaker Andreas Fontana transports us back to these uncertain times with high society characters who feel real in their glamorous settings, manicured poolsides, lush estancias, exclusive polo parties where Fabrizio Rongione strikes just the right tone of cool circumspection and biddability in his role as the trustworthy banker with a listening ear (a million miles away from the shoddy service we’ve come to expect from our own banks).

Cleau adds allure as Ines, his chain-smoking wife and confidente, oiling the wheels of their social encounters – where smoking is ‘de rigueur’ -with her unthreatening, savvy charm. Other characters who stand out here are Carmen Iriondo, a society hostess, and the Monsignor, who strikes fear into the proceedings with his chilly glare. These are people you may not trust to post a letter but as the gatekeepers of Argentina’s shady upper echelons of power, they must be respected.

In their car from the airport Yvan and Ines witness two men being held up at gunpoint, Yvan suavely fails to bat an eyelid, and once in their comfort of their exclusive hotel, Buenos Aires stretches before them just like any other international capital city, although the tinkling harpsichord score warns of trouble ahead, in the style of those Claude Chabrol thrillers. The couple get a rude awakening from the rather glib thickly-accented lawyer Dekerman (Geretto), who welcomes them to BA on behalf of ‘the client’, before rudely ordering his own whiskey before offering Ines a drink (and failing to light her cigarette), preparing her for the macho set up that will follow.

Business here is not just about talent but also moving in the right circles and keeping quiet at the right time (the code word ‘Azor’ means to ‘keep shtum’, rather like the Sicilian ‘omertà’). As a private banker from a monied background Yvan De Wiel settles graciously into the hushed scenes of high society in this enjoyably taught first feature from Swiss director Fontana who writes and directs with considerable flair, capturing the zeitgeist of these dangerous times with a florid eye for local detail.

A De Wiel sashays discretely in soigné villas, lush lounges and amongst the polo ponies, he swiftly gains the trust of the movers and shakers repositioning his bank’s interests with the junta when it dawns on him that his partner Rene Keys had possibly pulled the wool over his eyes bringing his firm into question. But he has another string to his bow, that of deal-making (aka laundering blood money) using his utmost caution. it’s a restrained performance and one of subtlety.

From the outset Fontana creates a real sense of danger here, a feeling that anything could go wrong as De Wiel’s investigation leads him deeper and deeper into the exotic hinterland of Argentina’s pampas where the Junta’s sinister types hang out in the film’s seething finale.

There is more that a whiff of colonialism to Azor. Silence and an evocative ambient soundscape prove to be Fontana’s best weapon in ramping up tension in the final stages of his restrained thriller, a slick seventies score of musak playing out during discrete cocktail parties where these smooth operators mingle under swaying palms, waiters plying them with drinks as they plot and plan how to deal with the trappings of colonialism. MT

San Sebastian Film Festival 2021

The Employer and the Employee (2021) San Sebastian 2021

Dir.: Manolo Nieto; Cast: Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Christian Borges, Justina Bustos, Fatima Quintanilla, Carlos Lacuesta, Virgine Mendez, Manuel Guedes; Uruguay 2021, 105 min.

Another big screen treat from South America in this year’s Quinzaine selection, this time from Uruguay stars trailblazing Argentine actor Nahuel Perez Biscayart who has been the toast of the international festival circuit for Persian Lessons, Beats Per Minute, and See You Up There.

Elegantly paced and thoughtful despite its rather cumbersome title this ‘upstairs downstairs’ parable unfolds in a rural community in the north Eastern part of Uruguay near the Brazilian border where the magnificent widescreen landscape is very much the star of the show.

Uruguayan writer/director Manolo Nieto’s family affair has strong magic realist undertones: his titular boss and employee are not conventional by any means – and neither are their other halves. DoP Arauco Hernandez Holz conjures up lush, languid images in a richly textured slow burn tragedy in the style of Bunuel and Nuri Bilge Ceylan Greek where servant and master are forever bound together in a paternalistic system.

The way we meet Rodrigo (Biscayart), the titular boss, is symptomatic of all the main characters: caught at the border with some weed, he looks like your typical university dropout, and not a clever one at that. A  family doctor swings by to get his baby boy Bautista to sleep in the most unorthodox way possible. Wife Federica (Bustos), a blue eyed blonde, is concerned about Bautista’s health, and later they will take him to hospital for tests, in a nice little tense undercurrent that burbles on til the film’s finale.

Uruguay’s agricultural production had to change from traditional animal farming to soya planting, and only a few labourers can manage the sophisticated machinery for the harvest. Rodrigo sets out to meet the old retainer and farm hand Lacuesta (Lacuesta) who puts forward his teenage son Carlos (Borgoes) for the job. The young man also has a baby daughter with Estafania (Quintanilla) but lacks experience or any real commitment, preferring the more glamorous job of looking after the horses, and one in particular is Hidalgo, a race horse destined to be sold to the Arabs, if it does well in a 115 km marathon race. Carlos hopes to be selected as his jockey. But clearly he’s not up to the job of driving a tractor and a serious accident reveals his shortcomings as an employee.

Surprisingly, Rodrigo gives him another chance, even taking him to a brothel, where Carlos blacks out. The situation becomes even more bizarre when Rodrigo invites Estafanie to work on the hacienda as a maid. Federica and the young woman nearly come to blows over baby Bautista’s care. But Rodrigo is in a bind: the Farmworkers’ Union has filed a lawsuit against him as the boss with overall responsibility for the tractor accident, and so he promises Carlos can ride on Hidalgo at the famous race in Santa Fe where loyalties explode in a racy finale. Manolo Nieto delivers a calmly-paced and contemplative modern thriller that ponders on the past and the present in his native Uruguay. AS

San Sebastian FILM FESTIVAL 2021 |


Buñuel: A Surrealist Filmmaker (2021) San Sebastian

Dir; Javier Espada | Spain, Doc 90′

Spanish filmmaker Javier Espada shares his birthplace of Calanda (Aragon) with the legendary Spanish surrealist and Palme d’Or winner Luis Buñuel Portolés (1900-83) whose story forms the subject of his engaging new documentary that premiered in the Cannes Film Festival Classics section.

As a teen during the Easter Semana Santa processions Espada escaped the loud drums of the ceremony for the relative calm of his local fleapit and was instantly bewitched by Luis  Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1969), the image of Christ fusing with the character of the Marquis de Sade in his subconscious, creating subversive undertones.

Although far from a full-bloodied biopic of Buñuel’s films, this plays out as nostalgic tribute to the legendary director from one of his most ardent admirers. Espada’s obsession would also provide the springboard to a lifelong friendship with Buñuel’s regular screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière whose script for Diary Of A Chambermaid would continue with cult classics such as Belle De Jour and The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, and would also pave the way for Buñuel’s memoirs ‘My Last Breath.’

A recently restored archive from stereoscopic glass plates, clips and personal photos – provided by his sons Juan Luis and Rafael – and the Luis Bunuel Film Institute is enlivened by Espada’s own thoughts and those of the director providing insight into a charismatic career that started with his traditional upbringing in a well to do influential family in Calanda. But a tragic incident involving a donkey would put a subversive spin on the director’s output and much of his work would be banned banned by Franco’s regime due to its controversial subject matter. DoP Ignacio Ferrando Margeli provides a pristine black and white aesthetic in this dive into cinema history. MT




I Want to Talk About Duras (2021) San Sebastián Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Claire Simon; Cast: Emmanuelle Devos, Swann Arlaud; France 2021, Drama 95 min.

US born, French director Claire Simon explores one of the most obsessive love affairs in literary history: between Marguerite Duras (1914-96) and her much young partner Yann Andréa (1952-2014) that continued for sixteen years despite the age difference and his being gay.

Simon draws her material from the 1982 interviews made by Duras’ close friend, the writer Michèle Manceaux, who became Yann’s confidante in Neauphie-le-Chateau. The intimate two-handed drama sees a chain-smoking Yann (Arlaud) talking to Marie Claire columnist Manceaux (Devos) while the tape recorder is running. All this is intercut with archive footage and wordless dramatised sequences where the two lovers are pictured in romantic rendezvous. After Manceaux’ death, Yann entrusted the tapes to a friend who later handed them over to Andréa’s sister Pascale Lemée in 2015.

Marguerite Duras is possibly best remembered for her script of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour.  But it was in Caen during a 1975 screening of her film India Song, starring Delphine Seyrig, that she met postgraduate student Yann Andréa. He was an avid fan of her novels and initiated a – mostly one-sided – correspondence with Duras for the remainder of that decade. Then, in 1980, Duras invited Yann, who was gay, to live with her in a hotel in Trouville. Thus began an extraordinary relationship which lasted until Duras’ death sixteen years later.

Covering more or less the same ground as Josee Dayan’s Cet Amour Là, starring Jeanne Moreau as Duras and Aymeric Demarigny as Andréa, based on Andréa’s memoire, the interview is a sharp reminder of the closeness of love and death. Manceaux insistently but gently probes him with personal questions, Yann confessing “total love for Duras and her work. It was eternity that completely belonged to me. Passion yes, but passion struck by death”. He would leave his job, apartment and friends to be with Duras and was soon eclipsed and dominated by her. He tried to pull back, ending the relationship several times and even attempting suicide. Duras challenged his sexual orientation: “I am not just a writer, I am also a woman. You are not gay, I am all your desire”. Yann was soon convinced that his homosexuality was a form of solidarity that allowed him to escape his true feelings. But it went much deeper than that: “She was the master. She re-created me. And un-created my old self, to create me.” Passion and fiction overlapped. “I existed but at the same time I felt projected into her imagination.”

Duras emerges a bit of a control freak, reformulating her lover, changing the way he dressed and even his perfume, discouraging his personal friendships and forbidding him to read any  novels but her own. Even his rapport with Manceaux “felt like a betrayal of her”. His entire existence was subsumed by Duras, who opined “You only exist through me”. Yann felt like the main character in her book ‘The Malady of Death’. Andréa also played a part in Duras’ film L’Homme Atlantique (1981), “but I realised later, that she made me die by filming me; always in a chair, never moving. And finally, Yann actually felt inadequate and unable to satisfy his lover: “Maybe I love her less than she loves me, I am always a step behind, she wants to raise me to her intensity. She sees that I can not do it. That hurts her a lot.” But whatever went on between them Duras set him a monument in words: ‘Yann Andrea Steiner’, her final book.

DoP Céline Bozon uses a gap in the interview (which went on for two days) to focus on the countryside settings where Yann is pursued by alluring men. Enlivened by paintings of the couple’s sexual relationship and excerpts from India Song and L’Homme Atlantique this is a captivating piece of filmmaking that avoids sensationalism in portraying a remarkable, real-life relationship between a man and a woman. AS


Michelin Stars II – Nordic by Nature (2021) San Sebastian Film Festival

Dir.: Rasmus Dinesen; Documentary with Poul Andrias Ziska, Karin Visth, Rebecca Mead, Johannes Jensen, Sverri Steinhólm; Denmark/Spain 2021, 62 min.

In this foodie documentary Rasmus Dinesen (Michelin Stars – Tales from the Kitchen) travels to the Faro Islands to find out how the top starring Michelin restaurant KOKS thrives on its predominantly international clientele.

The pandemic brought out the best in Johannes Jensen’s entrepreneurial skills: despite enforced close his restaurant is back doing a roaring trade attracting diners from far and wide to sample the Nordic delights of chef in charge Poul Andrias Ziska who has to rely on local produce sourced exclusively from 500 square miles of rugged terrain under sub-polar weather conditions. KOKS is housed in a grass-roofed low ceiling farm homestead surrounded by fields and hills in one of the isolated Faroe archipelagos in the North Sea. It may look right out of ‘Hobbit’ country, but the Faroe Islands are made of mythological stuff: Nordic fairy tales, 37 different words for fog, sheep outnumbering humans, waterfalls, deadly cliffs and the native language spoken by just 50 000 locals.

And then there is KOKS. Poul Andrias Ziska, the spiritual leader of the establishment, has a young daughter and his partner is pregnant again. Karin Visth is one of the few women featuring in this male dominated set-up. The guests sit only a few inches away from the predominant kitchen staff. Journalist Rebecca Mead fetches up from the ‘New Yorker’ to sample the culinary delights and we also meet Marco Invernizi, a soi-disant ‘International Diner’.

But the food is the star here, a veritable work of art: Steamed Horse Mussel, Smoked Whale’s Heart, Breast of Fulmar and fresh Sea Urchins, to name but a few. Ziska is also an active hunter: we watch him on a boat going after whales, and killing a sheep, before dismembering them. The mass slaughter of whales is another gruesome addition, but the film makers have employed Pastor Sverri Steinhólm to parry any accusations: “We are using animals as food, but we are no Big Game hunters like in Canada and North Norway.” And Ziska also defends the killing of animals in the name of survival. He collects Fulmar eggs on a precipitous rockface, and exchanges some of them later with fishermen who have just come back with their catch; demonstrating an ancient custom of collaboration.

Nobody can deny the KOKS team’s achievements. But there are contradictions, and Pastor Steinhólm’s praise of the strength of the Faroe people and their ‘Nordic superiority’ are wishful-thinking in the light of the recent pandemic. AS


The Noise of Engines | Le Bruit des Moteurs (2021) San Sebastian Film Festival

Dir.: Philippe Grégoire; Cast: Robert Naylor, Tanja Björk, Marie-Therese Forline, Naila Robel, Alexandrine Agostini; Canada 2021, 90 min.

The bizarre debut feature of Canadian writer/director Philippe Grégoire is too clever by half, hurtling into cul-de-sacs, before petering out with a limp. There are some interesting moments, but overall The Noise is simply too pretentious and immature.

Gregoire kicks off in semi-documentary style with a group of Canadian customs officers being introduced by Alexandre Mastrogiuseppe (Naylor) to the use of firearms. Later Alex has sex with Laura (Rabel), one of the the trainees – all rather awkward as her efforts to wear a mask bring on an asthma attack, Alexandre coming to the rescue. He is nevertheless suspended from work by the strange unit chief (Agostini) who admits she is in an open marriage while she claws the underside her desk in frustration, enviously alluding to his multiple sexual escapades. Alexandre is then sent home to his mother (Forline), who owns a race course in a small town.

On the race course Alexandre is accosted by two police officers who accuse him of sticking an obscene drawing on the church door. Next he embarks on a treasure hunt instigated by Icelandic racing driver  Adalbjörg (Björg) a big fan of filmmaker Andre Forcier, the two eventually fetching up in a deserted backwater. The two policemen appear again, burning Alexandre’s hands on the hot plates of an oven, and other unspeakable parts of his body. Needless to say, things go from bad to worse for Alexandre who embarks on a journey to discover the holy grail of drag racing

Essentially The Noise is a series of disconnected episodes where everything feels unnatural, performed by an unexceptional cast, Shawn Pavlin’s images are as anaemic as the whole undertaking. So not a strong  debut for Gregoire despite some interesting ideas. AS

San Sebastian FILM FESTIVAL 2021 | 17 – 27 SEPTEMBER 2021

San Sebastian Film Festival – Tribute to Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp, one of contemporary cinema’s most talented and versatile actors, will receive a Donostia Award on Wednesday, September 22 during San Sebastian Festival’s 69th edition.      

Depp is a 3-time Academy Award nominee, a Golden Globe winner and 10- time nominee, a Screen Actors Guild Award Winner for Best Actor and 6- time nominee, and the winner of 14 People’s Choice Awards. With more than 90 audiovisual productions to his name, Depp has also produced some ten films, including the most recent, Minamata, by Andrew Levitas (2020), Hugo (2011), directed by Martin Scorsese, and Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan (2020), helmed by Julien Temple, winner of the Special Jury Prize at the last San Sebastian Festival. He has also directed shorts and the feature film The Brave(1997), which he also wrote, featuring Marlon Brando on the cast.

He made his movie debut at the age of 21 as one of Freddy Krueger’s victims in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and over the years, a relationship with the audience crystallised in the early 90s with his lead roles in the cult movie Cry Baby (Zabaltegi 1990), written and directed by John Waters, and his first collaboration with Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands (1990).


Over the following years he starred in films directed by prestigious filmmakers including Emir Kusturica (Arizona Dream, 1992), Lasse Hallström (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, 1993, and Chocolat, 2000), Tim Burton (Ed Wood, 1994, and Sleepy Hollow, 1999), Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, 1995), Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, 1997) and Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998) –screened at the Festival as part of the retrospective Terry Gilliam–.

In the 21st century, his part as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean saga (2003, 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2017) also earned him the admiration of the new generations. During this period, he received three Oscar nominations for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), Finding Neverland (2004) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). The latter earned him a Golden Globe, the awards for which he has amassed another nine nominations. His long inventory of acknowledgements also includes the Honorary Cesar (1999), a list now joined by the Donostia Award.

In recent years he has worked with Gore Verbinski (The Lone Ranger, 2013), Rob Marshall (Into the Woods, 2014), Scott Cooper (Black Mass, Perlak 2015), Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express, 2017) and Andrew Levitas (Minamata, 2020).

Depp has played writers, undercover cops or outlaws, almost always misfits, in casts placing him alongside Marlon Brando, Faye Dunaway, Jerry Lewis, Penélope Cruz, Helena Bonham Carter, Javier Bardem, Kate Winslet, Mark Rylance, Dustin Hoffman, Judi Dench, Antonio Banderas, John Malkovich, Marion Cotillard, Forrest Whitaker, Al Pacino, Benedict Cumberbatch, Morgan Freeman, Benicio del Toro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Leonardo Di Caprio and Christopher Plummer, among many others.

This will be Johnny Depp’s third visit to the Festival following his fleeting appearance in 1998 with Terry Gilliam, and his visit in 2020 for the participation of Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan.



Summer of 85 (2020) Mubi

Dir|Wri: Francois Ozon. France, Romcom, 100′

This upbeat breezy retro teenage love story is set in seaside Normandy over six weeks in the summer of Summer Of 85. As usual Ozon doesn’t take things too seriously but the romance feels real and the lively score of ’80s hits and memories of holidays in Normandy make this a sunny treat for everyone.

Aiden Chamber’s paperback original ‘Dance on My Grave’ took place in Southend-on-Sea but Ozon choses the Normandy coastal town of Le Tréport for his version of the tale with its strong emotional undercurrent stemming for the elation and them pain of first love showing how the central character discovers writing as a therapy for his broken heart.

Summer of 85 is more tragic than comic but Francois Ozon has a clever way spicing his dramas with subtle and subversive humour always leaving it open to individual interpretation. And there are random moments that may raise a smile, or may not. The balance is always delicately poised.

Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) is a cherubic blond 16 year-old, who hints in the opening scenes that see him in police custody, that the film will end in tears but we are not told why. And this is the enigma that hooks us into the plot driven forward by his literature teacher Mr Lefèvre (a moustachioed Melvil Poupaud)  disguise) who tries to persuade Alexis to write about his experience even if he can’t talk about it.

Gradually the story spills out in flashback narrated by Alexis who takes us back to the start of summer when he decided to take his friend’s boat for an afternoon’s sailing. Storm clouds soon gather and he is thrown into the water only to be rescued by another sailer in the shape of David Gorman,  (Benjamin Voisin) a dark-haired 18-year-old adonis who certainly knows the ropes.

Soon the two are back at David’s where a voluptuous Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi plays a welcoming Jewish mum Mrs Gorman who also runs a business specialising in sailing tackle. Admiring Alex’s own tackle she runs him a hot bath. Realising her son needs a close friend, but does realising yet just how close, the boy’s budding relationship blossoms, and he is offered a role in the business. But there’s good fun to be had — riding David’s  motorbike and sailing – not to mention between the sheets in this hedonistic affair that positively froths with youthful exuberance especially when a Kate (Philippine Velge) a frisky young au pair from England joins the party. Meanwhile Alex’s mother (Isabelle Nanty) and father are a more down to earth couple anchoring him in the reality of their working class set-up.

Summer in Normandy in always going to be a winner visually, whether down on the beach or in the verdant hinterland the setting is strikingly beautiful and DoP Hichame Alaouie conveys a retro feel with his Super-16 camerawork. And one of the best things about Summer of 85 is its rousing soundtrack of ’80s hits from The Cure’s ’In Between Days’ to Rod Stewart’s ’Sailing’. As David, Benjamin Voisin’s striking charisma carries the film: his confident intensity and effervescent charm set him out to be a star in the making. MT.



Memory House (2020) ** San Sebastian Film Festival 2020

Dir.: João Paulo Miranda Maria | Cast: Antonio Pitanga, Ana Flavia Cavalcanti, Aline Marta Maia, Sam Lowyck, Soren Hellerup; Brazil/France 2020, 87 min.

Miranda Maria’s debut feature is not a welcome calling card with its protracted sequences of gratuitous violence against animals. A more muted version would have certainly benefited the overall evaluation of a film which never quite reaches its potential in exploring the key issues the Brazilian newcomer seeks to address in his first feature, namely social injustice in Brazil.

Essentially a reflexion on modern colonialism Memory House opens with an absurdist scene that takes place in a European style 1950s office, involving the central character, a black indigenous worker Cristovam (Antonio Pitanga, once the star of the ‘Cinema Nuevo’ in the 1960s). He is listening to a tirade from his boss Kainz, speaking in German, his female assistant translating. The message is clear: Cristovam has to take a pay-cut to save his pension plan.

Things get even more bizarre when his fellow workers are forced to wear T-shirts bearing a separatist message and to sign a petition demanding independence for the South. A speaker spews out a message: “we came from Europe to bring innovation, a new perspective to the new country, but we can no longer continue to be the region which pays the most tax and receives the least in return, taking orders from the lazy folks in the North”. Cristovam, having been a “member of the Kainz family for over twenty years”, is one of many workers who re-located with the company from up North.

Cristovam’s reaction to this bad news is passive resistance: he steals a pair of security gloves which he later throws away on his way home from the factory in a village dominated by white, German speakers. The kids taunt him, not surprisingly, given his habit for carrying a bull-horn which he blows everywhere, even in the pub. There he has a desultory relationship with a much younger woman (Cavalcanti), highlighting his loneliness. But everything changes when he stumbles over an abandoned house which allows him to escape the alienation of the village. Here he makes into a new home for himself, gradually adding new things and developing a parallel, hallucinatory universe together with ferocious wild cats, jaguars, bulls with blazing eyes and objects that come alive.

Christovam takes up the life of a vengeful cowboy, driving the two worlds he inhabits into violent confrontation: The old way of living in harmony with nature collides with the exploitative colonial style capitalism, which has no place for him here.

The director’s intentions are clear but his didactic and schematic approach often undercuts the aesthetics of the feature. The inevitable climax is somehow telegraphed, losing some of its impact. But the main point of critique is the unbearable violence against animals, who Miranda Maria singles out for suffering much more than Christovam, who seems more of a Christian martyr than anything else. There is much to admire with the use of mysticism, but the director has to find a different ways to express himself if his work is to be acceptable to international audiences. AS

San Sebastian FILM FESTIVAL 2020


Beginning (2020) MUBI

Dir: Dea Kulumbegashvili | Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Rati Oneli, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Saba Gogichaishvili | Drama, Georgia/France 125′

Dea Kulumbegashvili won the top prize at San Sebastian 2020 for her serenely self-assured yet sorrowful portrait of dispossession that ripples out into wider concerns for her native Georgia and the world in general.

Seen through the eyes of a disenchanted woman living in provincial Georgia this debut feature is a sensual and stunningly cinematic exploration of all that is wrong with society from religious intolerance to misogyny and the erosion of rural life pictured in the film’s devastating scorched earth finale.

On the crossroads between Europe and Asia, Georgia is an independent country and of the most ancient Christian nations dating back to the 4th century. The film opens in a small town in the Caucasus Mountains bordering on Azerbaijan where, as the wife of a Jehovah’s Witness leader, Jana (Sukhitashvili) must play a rather subservient role to her husband David (Oneli). This film opens during a chapel service which is firebombed by an explosion, causing the frightened congregation to flee into nearby countryside. The incandescent blaze glows on silently for a while afterwards igniting Yaha’s own inner turmoil that will smoulder through this slow-burn Tarkovskian drama, delicately touching on its thematic concerns in a way that nevertheless speaks volumes for the audience.


Light plays a vital role in Beginning. Playing out as a series of vivid tableaux vivants, the jewel-like frames are often glow with a viridescent pool of light, Arseni Khachaturan’s fixed camera scrutinises the main character in each frame who is often bathed in a shaft of light, or closely observed while the speaking character is out of sight. One sublime take sees Yana lying in a bed of autumn leaves, the ambient bird song slowly dying out as she is transformed into a bliss-like state. Captivating for some viewers (it lasts for around 7 minutes), it may however test other’s powers of endurance. What Dea achieves here is a meditative intimacy with her character. And as we are drawn more closely into Yana’s orbit, we feel a deep affinity with her state of mind; the affect is quite astonishing and deeply calming.

Yana emerges tolerant and forbearing, inspiring our sympathy despite her inner discontent; she is never angry or histrionic even when the children she is preparing for their first religious communion collapse in a fit of giggles. She exudes an almost saint-like endurance except when talking to her self-absorbed husband who professes his deep neediness of her despite his inattentiveness. Shutting down her feelings of futility, he responds patronisingly during a conversation early on in the film: “Let’s find you a job”. Yet as she toils away in the kitchen, Sukhitashvili’s Yana is a luminously compelling heroine, resembling a latter day Jeanne Dielman, a woman who carries on calmly amidst gruelling domestic trivia, a loving mother bewildered by the lurid sexual abuse meted out on her by a visiting police detective come to investigate the chapel fire.

There is one scene where David and Yana appear to be on the same page in their tender pillow talk although David’s chief concern is rebuilding the chapel so his career path is not derailed despite his wife’s calmly-voiced inertia, her own work as an actor having been on the back-burner since their son’s birth.

The film’s painterly views of nature evoke Dea’s appreciation of her homeland and concerns for a rural existence threatened by the future. In a scene towards the end of the film a uniformed hunter looks menacingly into the camera possibly hinting at Georgia’s ongoing tricky relationship with Russia. One more puzzling scene contrasts a violent rape attack (Yana and the detective?) with the wild beauty of its rocky riverside setting where two figures tussle violently at the extreme right of the frame where they are almost indistinguishable from the flow-strewn purple and white undergrowth.

A visit to her mother reinforces Yana’s feelings of subjugation and disempowerment as a woman. Recalling her own difficult marriage, her mother warns Yana not to mention the incident for fear of rocking the boat. Yana is clearly alone in the world with two males who depend on her but never consider her own emotional well-being.

Finally, on a drive home one night David discusses their future in small-town Georgia. A move to Tbilisi is on the cards but David sees it from his own perspective as the camera looks out onto a dark and rainy road ahead. Yana remains locked in silence, a receptacle for everyone’s needs but her own. MT



Courtroom 3H (2020) **** San Sebastian Film Festival 2020

Dir.: Antonio Méndez Esparza; Documentary; Spain 2020, 115 min.

Madrid born writer/director Antonio Méndes Esparza has been living in Tallahassee (Florida) for eight years, combining teaching film at university with directing.

His first two features were fiction, Here and Now won the Cannes Critics Award in 2012. The titular court is the Tallahassee United Family Court, where families must appear when charged with negligence or even abuse against their minors. Although most court hearings in the US are open to the public, juvenile court hearings are usually held in camera – but the judge gave special permission to the filmmaker and his crew (mainly students) to be the flies on the wall for this astounding piece of filmmaking.

Shot in 30 days and consisting of Hearings and two trials, the emotional assault is huge. After all, parents are threatened with losing their children, jeopardising their most visceral human bond. While the children’s faces are blurred, the close-ups of the adults are often too painful to watch. Whatever might have happened before, mothers and fathers become fierce tigers when the chips are down, fighting to keep their young ones onside.

Speaking of the victims, the little ones are often desperate to be re-united with their abusers. The compassionate judge does his best to keep the families together, if at all possible. But there are exceptions if the child’s safety is threatened; the tears and sobbing of those parents who had hoped for a different outcome will stay with viewers for a long time. All this to the background of incessant noises: transcription keyboards and mobile phones tapping away.

A James Baldwin quote reminds us: “If one really wants to know how justice is administered in a country, one goes to the unprotected and listens to their testimony.” The director himself was at a critical point of his own life, which was also falling apart. “I was going through a divorce and a custody battle. Part of my survival was to make this movie and reflect on my own relationship with my children and responsibilities. You start to understand your faults and poor judgement – in the defendants I saw myself.” Even though filming meant catharsis, Esparza was still “afraid of documentaries, because I thought docs could hurt people to a certain extent. You deal with real people who can be offended by a movie.”

DoPs Barbu Balasooiu and Santiago Oviedo create a intense personal atmosphere with their close-ups, never falling into the trap of the Hollywood court drama. Far from being a set piece of dramatic arcs, this is cinema verite,  challenging the perceptions of its director and the audience. What could be a higher form of storytelling? AS


The Truffle Hunters (2020)

Dir. Michael Dweck/Gregory Kershaw | Doc, Italy/Greece/USA, 84′

When it comes to the ancient art of truffle hunting dogs are worth their weight in gold according to a new documentary that shows how man’s best friend is also his canny breadwinner.

Truffles are prized delicacies throughout the world of gastronomy. These ugly-looking tubers are part of the mushroom family but grow underground, and only dogs have the delicate skills to root them out. A single truffle can sell for thousands of euros. Grated over an omelette or in a pasta dish they transform the most meagre meal into an aromatic banquet for the senses and a luxurious treat. Recovering this culinary treasure is a dying art that takes place each autumn in the remote wooded areas of Northern Italy’s Piedmont region.

The Truffle Hunters plays out as devotional tribute to these knobbly delicacies elevating the earthy foodstuff into a food for the Gods with sumptuous camerawork and appreciation for those who painstakingly dedicate their lives to tracking it down and cherishing its storied gastronomic potential. The film unfolds in a series of sumptuous tableaux vivants each each one glowing with wonder and delight in vibrantly vignetting the various stages of the hunt that starts with the dog and his handler, and ends in the serious business of relishing the wafer thin slivers that transform any simple dish into a fragrant delicacy.

Rather like their aged counterparts in Il Solengo the truffle hunters or tartufoli are the stars of the film, along with their treasured dogs: Birba, Bibi, Charlie and Titina, who often receive a blessing in the local church. Theirs is an ancient and revered metier – instinct, dedication and experience are the tools of the trade and Carlo, Aurelio, Egidio and Gianfranco guard their arcane methods fiercely, newcomers fearing the masters will take their atavistic secrets to the grave.

The thrill of the chase is captured in the jerky POV of the dogs as they descend into the bosky wilderness wearing webcams round their necks. For some bizarre reason some locals have taken to planting poison in the bushes so each day could in end in these dedicated dogs’ demise. This element of danger brings a tragic twist a story that celebrates the lifelong bond between the hunter and his canine colleague, the heart and soul of this foodie film that shows how dogs can also bring home the bacon – or truffle in this case. MT


Simple Passion (2020) San Sebastián

Dir/Wri Danielle Arbid | Drama, France 100′

Lebanese director Danielle Arbid has made some impressive films but this flawed affair is vapid and rather impotent. Unsure whether it wants to be a soft porno movie or a reflective chick-flick about female empowerment, it fails on both counts. The timid narrative is not raunchy enough for the former or satisfying enough for the latter, and has the same Seventies look and setting as a Claude Chabrol thriller, without the dramatic bite or originality (come back Stephane Audran!).

Single mother Helene (a rather ditzy Dosch) lives with her young son in a  large country house financed by alimony from her ex-husband (played in a sneering cameo by Gregoire Colin). We then see her in one of those large university literature theatres her quoting Baudelaire to her students, although Dosch’s Helene doesn’t make for a convincing blue-stocking, wafting around half-naked with a pouting expression verging on tears. We soon discover the reason why. She has fallen for a charmless Russian security guard (played by Sergei Polunin) who is keen on Putin, covered in tattoos – and married, into the bargain. After scenes of rather saucy sex – but somehow devoid of real passion – the two confess their obsession with one another, after which the Russian leaves without so much as a smile.

Helene mopes around in a daze unable to focus on anything. At one point she has an ‘existential’ conversation about female ’empowerment’ with her friend over coffee, but that’s about as meaningful as this story gets. When the Russian suddenly announces his departure back to Moscow, Helene is bereft and consults a shrink (Slimane Dazi) who listens rather too lasciviously to her love confession. She admits to have visited Moscow “for a few hours” hoping to bump into her lover in the snowbound streets “just to breathe the air he breathes”.

Fast forward eights months, and the tone is considerably more positive, and Helene has a spring in her step for reasons that are unclear. When Sergei calls out of the blue one day they agree to meet up again in a finale that is both underwhelming and  inconclusive. The only question that remains: Why was Passion Simple selected for the main competition in a major film festival such as San Sebastian. MTAs

WORLD PREMIERE AT San Sebastian 2020 | 19 SEPTEMBER 2020

La Mu Yu Ga Bei | Lhamo and Skalbe (2019) San Sebastian Film Festival 2019

Dir/: Sonther Gyal | Drama Tibet/China | 80’

Best known for his standout feature The Sun-beaten Path, Sonther Gyal  is part of the first generation of Tibetian/Chinese filmmakers. His epic style and long takes go well with the majestic Tibetian landscape. While the spiritual aspect always plays a big part, the small details of day-to-day conflicts are never far away.

The film centres on the actress Lhamo who wants to marry race horse owner Skalbe, who, it turns out, already married Cuoyehe four years earlier, although the two are no longer together. The registrar insists that Skalbe brings the old marriage certificate and his ex-bride, so that a new marriage can take place. And so Skalbe sets off to try and find Cuoyehe. It emerges through discussions with his sick father and mother that his marriage to Cuoyehe was one of convenience: Skalbe and his parents hoped for financial help from the bride’s family.

Meanwhile, Llamo is pressured by her mother to take the well paid role of Atak Lhamo in the epic play King of Gesar. Lhamo is very much against portraying a sinful woman, because it reminds her of her own error – as a young girl she got pregnant, and her child is being raised by relatives. She would like to take over her daughter’s upbringing but  her mother is hell bent on keeping things as they are. Eventually Skalbe does eventually find his ex-wife but the path to true love is, as usual, never straightforward., and in this case, particularly tortuous.

Book-ended by a mournful song about Lhamo, this is a passionate feature, with brilliant images by DoP Meng Wang. Particularly memorable and poetic are the long takes of Sklabe’s ride on a motorbike. Sonther Gyal avoids sentimentality working with his convincing ensemble cast to create a real gem. AS




Patrick (2019) *** San Sebastian Film Festival 2019

Dir/Wri: Goncalo Waddington | Cast: Hugo Fernandez, Teresa Sobral, Carla Maciel, Alba Bapista | Drama, Portugal 103′

Who would have thought the name ‘Patrick’ would be the title of two features this summer? The first was Belgian director Tim Mielants’ offbeat comedy that premiered in competition at Karlovy Vary. The second is this enigmatic post abduction story that fails to catch fire despite its visual allure and edgy atmosphere. Waddington’s enigmatic approach leads to a drama that drifts around uncomfortably but is easy on the eye.

Patrick works on a similar premise to The Imposter without the same gripping storyline. Waddington establishes young Patrick’s hedonistic lifestyle in the fleeting opening scenes: sullen and rather keen on himself, the 20-year old Belgian native (played by a terrifying Hugo Fernandez) is living in Paris where he takes good care of his body, despite suffering disfiguring acne. He is a violent and abusive misogynist – we see him in a nightclub asking a woman her age before moving swiftly on. Although he appears to be emotionally in control, a telephone call reveals the reverse. He shares a swanky apartment with another man who is not his boyfriend despite their physical closeness.

These frenetic opening scenes soon give way to a calmly observational second act where Patrick is being interviewed by police after a drug-fuelled incident at a party where he has apparently supplied the narcotics. It emerges that he is also running a porn site, abusing underage girls, and is in fact called Mario: Twelve years earlier he was the victim of an abduction from his home in the Portuguese countryside. The shock seems to have affected his ability to speak the language. And when Mario goes home to his mother, the film takes on an enervating stillness that seems to suit the narrative torpor, but fails to clarify the past.

His earthy mother Laura (Teresa Sobral) makes no real attempt to confront his about his crime; his kindly aunt Helena (Carla Maciel) and 17 year-old cousin Marta (Alba Bapista) just treat him as part of the woodwork – or the tile-work – it’s Portugal, after all. His violent past now seems forgotten in this placid rural idyll, as the women gently surround him with their feminine energy and peacefulness, hoping that Mario can heal if things go back to normal. He is left to go off into the  countryside with his cousin, who talks about her life in Brazil, amid a beguiling ambient score. They swim in a limpid lake and Mario cuddles an endearing baby fawn, with the haunting words “this is our dinner”. He later lashes out at Marta, while talking about a man who used to hang around during sports training, and insisted on calling him ‘Patrick’. But there is no explanation as to why his anger is exclusively directed towards women His father eventually makes an appearance (a fabulously moody Adriano Carvahlo) mumbling about having to go away again. His parents seem decent and loving, despite his father’s frequent absence.

So was ‘nature or nurture’ Waddington’s angle on Mario/Patrick’s violent condition? Seemingly the former, but we have to wait until the final scenes, by which time we really cease to care about this hostile narcissist. His abduction clearly unleashed a vicious anger that could have been a bi-product of depression due to his being abused. The finale sees him driving off into the city again where he finally gets his revenge. MT

San Sebastian FILM FESTIVAL | 18-28 SEPTEMBER 2019


The Prince | El Principe (2019) ***

Dir: Sebastián Muñoz | Cast: Juan Carlos Maldonado, Alfredo Castro, Gaston Pauls, Sebastian Ayala, Lucas Balmaceda, Cesare Serra, José Antonio Raffo |Drama,  96′, 2019)

Based on a novel by Mario Cruz, this Chilean prison drama won the Queer Lion at Venice in competition with the far superior Moffie by Oliver Hermanus.

The Prince is Chilean set designer Sebastián Muñoz’s feature debut, and as you would expect it all looks rather stylish, if that’s possible for a jail-based film. It’s 1970, just before President Allende brought his particular brand of Marxism to a liberal democracy backed by the CIA. At the time this must have seemed quite a controversial story with its scantily-clad gay men cavorting behind bars, but now it all feels rather quaint.

The story revolves around a 20 year-old called (Jaime Juan Carlos Maldonado) serving time for stabbing his best friend (Cesare Serra), possibly in flagrante delicto, in the opening scene. In flashback, we see Jaime unable to express his sexual feelings in the Chilean town of San Bernardo, but these episodes don’t successfully inform what he has now become and play out rather like stand-alone vignettes. Sharing a cell with four other guys he soon becomes close to Stallion (Castro) a sort of prison gang leader who will open him up sexually and teach him the ways of world, jail-wise. The prison is a violent place but there’s also lots of full on sex, and Jaime soon starts to enjoy himself in this permissive set-up that would be undreamed of in the outside world, back in the day, but one that provides endless playmates for Jaime’s amusement, until it all ends in tears. Quite why Munoz has decided on this rather dated minor work- given today’s permissiveness – will be beyond most people. But it will go down well with the LGBTQ crowd despite its rather threadbare narrative.

The best thing about The Prince is Alfredo Castro (Blanco en Blanco) who puts a world weary complexity into his role as the oldest male prisoner in Jaime’s four bunk cell. He has a younger lover (Sebastian Ayala) but throws him over in preference to Jaime, hence his nickname “the prince”.

Munoz wrote the screenplay with Luis Barrales but it fails to convey Mario Cruz’ tribute to his central character as a victim of his times. Jaime is certainly an antihero but not a victim here as he seems to drift along in this sweaty paradise more or less ambivalent to his position in the pecking order. Weirdly, it appears that all the other prisoners in this clink are gay, which feels rather utopian, if you’re looking at it from Jaime’s perspective. MT







The Chambermaid (2018) ****

Dir: Lila Alviles | Cartol | Drama | Mexico | 90′

The Chambermaid plays the same thematic tune as two other festival winners this Summer: Golden Lion winner Roma and In A Distant Land which won the Golden Leopard at Locarno. They highlight the isolated and lonely lives of ordinary working people, often migrants – in this case, a Mexican national whose job in the capital detaches her from her loved ones. There is a distinct chilly humour to this acutely observed feature debut from Mexican actress, filmmaker and opera director Lila Alviles. It follows the daily grind of a hotel worker in one of the Mexico City’s 5 star hotels. Cartol (La Tirisia) plays Eve with infinite grace and good humour – in one astonishing scene she stands for seemingly ages outside a lift during one of those awkward silences – catching a hotel guest’s eye several times with an expression that speaks volumes.

Pristinely executed in the zen-like interiors of this palace of interior design, the film pictures an upmarket public as they often are behind the closed door of their luxury suites: ill-mannered, demanding and crude. Bereft of their clothes they also take leave of their humanity – never mind their courtesy. This is social politics laid bare. The Chambermaid also examines the crafty interactions between the low-level workers themselves: the cunning soft sales techniques of her colleague in the laundry who is trying to supplement her low-paid job by selling hand cream and Tupperware. Or just trying to con her into sharing the latest fad – in this case, a gadget that delivers a shock to stimulate a feel-good rush of endorphin. Like a some ghastly face to face equivalent of FarmVille.

The Chambermaid is set in Mexico City’s Presidente Intercontinental. Eve is hard-working and diligent, but if she tries harder she’ll be allocated the stratospheric, newly refurbished 42nd floor with views to die for and even infinity pools. Pinning her hopes on the promotion, she improves her efficiency but to no avail. The only bonus here is in the lost property cupboard. In one of her rooms Eve has found a red dress and hopes to take it home, if the owner doesn’t claim it. But her gruelling schedule leaves no time to be with her child, let alone meet a partner. Outwardly timid, Eve shows her true colours in one scene involving a window cleaner who has taken a shine to her – along with his windows. Eve acknowledges him at a distance. Her reaction is plausible – a little light relief in a sea of sameness. But Alviles restrains herself and keeps this convincing.

Stunningly captured by Carlos Rossini’s creative camerawork, this sealed and sanitised world has a strange beauty. Loosely based on the book Hotel, by Sophie Calle, The Chambermaid is a contemplative but well-paced cinema verité piece that resonates with a powerful message from both sides of the equation. Eve’s humdrum existence is piqued by moments of insight that show her in a different light as she endure the indignities of her role with calm forbearance and subdued silence. The magnificent skyscapes are hers to see but never to enjoy in her closeted existence, locked in an eternal bubble with no respite, until the final scene where the ambient sounds of exotic birdsong replace the refrigerated buzz of musak and air-conditioning.  MT


Benjamin Naishtat interview | Marrakech Film Festival

We spoke to Benjamin Naishtat about his San Sebastian Best Director winner ROJO, a moody socio-political thriller set during Argentina’s Dirty Wars in the mid 1970s.

ROJO is now on general release via New Wave

Rojo (2018) **** Marrakech Film Festival 2018

Bergamo Film Meeting 

The Third Wife (2018) ****

Dir.: Ash Mayfair; Cast: Ngyuyen Phuong Tra My, Tran Nu Yen Khe, Thu Huong Maya, Le Vu Long, Nguyen Tranh Tam; Vietnam 2018, 83 min.

Ash Mayfair (aka Nguyen Phuongh Anh) left Vietnam at the age of thirteen to study film at RADA in London and New York. Her debut is a surprisingly mature and meticulous drama that focuses on the many-layered exploitation of the women in a feudal household in late 19th century Vietnam.

May (12 year-old Ngyuen Phuong, no relation to the the filmmaker), is married at the age of fourteen to feudal lord Hung (Long), and has to share their home with his first two wives Ha (Yen Khe) and Xuan (Huong Maya). May soon becomes pregnant and competes with Ha and Xuan to bear a son to the master. Sadly she fails and gives birth to a daughter, Ha saving her life with an impromptu caesarean carried out with a kitchen knife. Gradually May is drawn to Xuan while Hung’s son (Tanh Tam) rebels against his father and his dominating regime: he refuses to touch his child bride Tuyet during their wedding night – dishonouring her in the eyes of her family. The young girl hangs herself on a tree, overlooking the river. Gradually, May becomes accustomed to the male dominated household and closes ranks with Ha and Xuan. In spite of her youth, she is already resigned to a life with no real choices. Lien, one of Ha daughter’s, cuts off her long hair in protest – but her gesture is only symbolic.

DoP Chananun Chotrumgroj’s camerawork is sublime, impressionism dominates, particularly Monet’s paintings spring to mind in a soft haze of pink, yellow and blue; every frame a jewel box, a new adventure. The mournful piano music scored by Ton That An heightens the melancholic narrative; the souls of the women are slowly drowning in beauty. But even though The Third Wife won prizes all over the globe (Toronto, San Sebastian, Minsk, Chicago and Cairo), there is something missing. Compared with most other newcomers, Mayfair seems already to be the finished article: the main message of her feature is resignation and suffering, there is no rebellion. Somehow one does expect a little wildness from a first film – but The Third Wife, has very little spirit in its perfection. It is comfortably executed, like a minor etude, playing out without sharp edges let alone barbed wire. AS



Copyright © 2024 Filmuforia