Last part of the festival coverage with films seen in its last few days plus some final observations.
Chico Rei Among Us (Joyce Prado)
Early on Chico Rei Among Us, one of the interview subjects talk about how hard it is to establish Chico Rei history with official historians because they are obsessed with documented truth. That is something that Brazilian Black history Always marginalized and erased often lacks. Joyce Prado’s documentary uses Chico Rei exactly to deal with this erasure and the many ways Brazilian official history follows a whitewashing process that systematizes this erasure of Black roles in diverse areas like their contributions to mining engineering or the origins of São Paulo neighborhood Liberdade (now known as the Japanese neighborhood but the site of the early Black quilombos). Director Prado moves with great ease between the believe on oral history, strong research and smart editing. It is a film that Works well the places of contact among religion, economy and race throughout the country’s history.
City Hall (Frederick Wiseman)
City Hall continues Frederick Wiseman recent Project, through the last decade of moving his institutional portraits towards something like the resistance of a civilized project in a time of increasing frailty (a subject I hope to return here on the blog eventually). In this case, it is a film about his home town Boston’s City Hall and the ways the state arrives for local citizens. With 4 and half hours running time it is the second longest of Wiseman’s career and still remains not enough to give the full scope of public service. This after very self-concious downplaying key áreas often associate with state that Wiseman has dedicated plenty of time before like law enforcement and education – in a more civilized place I would be adding heah, but this movie takes place in the USA. It is a film about well done public service (and there’s a stronger sense of a job well-done here than any other Wiseman film that I’ve seen), but also all the ways the state still fails its citizens (and who it does and does not functions well for). Wiseman has always been a great filmmaker of public theatre and City Hall might be his best movie on this sense with mayor Marty Walsh taking a rare leading role for a Wiseman feature, it creates a distance that allows audiences to decide whether Walsh represents a more humane politics or a figure of empty rhetoric (the reading probably says more about each member of the audience than about Walsh or City Hall), but it is certain than in the film large design his place is less the city’s main manager than as the greatest actor of the state politics (Jake Mulligan, who is from Boston, wrote some interesting things about this here). And isn’t this space between actions taken by the state and the performance of them that most local political engagement exists? It is also of Wiseman many community portraits, his third in the last half decade and here too the possible relationships with both In Jackson Heights, on a multi-cultural New York neighborhood and Monravia Indiana on a small town are very enlighten above all in how City Hall is a community portrait filtered through the self-reflexive presence of the state. The last time Wiseman filmed the government in State Legislature (2007), his gaze couldn’t be more caustic, City Hall isn’t exactly upbeat (the last act makes clear the failures), but an affirmative one about the need for a well-run community, which after four decades of the supremacy of the neoliberal destruction discourse sounds like an eloquent and necessary political message. Perhaps an imperfect image, but an essential one.
Dente por Dente (Pedro Arantes, Julio Taubkin)
Very derivative detective film if imagined with some competence. The echoes of contemporary relevance end under a lot of memories of other neonoirs about landing speculations and the labirynthic plot is far less interesting than it thinks it is. The directors go for a deliberate oppressive staging that gets tired fast, the same note repeated until it has dissolved in the genre’s usual cynicism.
Eyimofe (Arie Esiri, Chuko Esiri)
A Nigerian film with two migrant tales, well observed with a good idea the options that exist and don’t for its characters and what they mean as well as the weight of daily work and grind. The whole seems rather reiterative and the small moments register stronger than the general arc. A lot of good people seem to reacts much strongly to this than I did and given that I saw it at the last day of the festival it is possible that event exhaustion was setting in.
Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu)
I’m not sure if anyone else made this comparison before, but the film Malmkrog made me think throughout was Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, although the violence here is mostly verbal as fitting for a film about barbarism with great manners (as opposed to the American one proudly savagery). The coldness, the violent theatre, the chapter divisions, the well placed shocks by an omnipotent narrator (in both movies character are puppets of its auteur), the very symbolical political origin story. Six people having a philosophical argument and treading intellectual insults as the dark underbelly of enlightenment reveals a decadent aristocracy moving towards horror. It is formally very accomplished, like all previous Puiu features it is a big low key epic done in a very specific style that he pushes to the limit throughout the accumulation and repetition, the same gestures and techniques played until saturation. It is very easy to get lost here if one decides to engage fully with intellectual discussions, but it seems to me far more rewarding to accept Puiu is using them as a starting point whose specific words matter less than their resonance and interplay. What is said matter but how it is said and how character position themselves against each other matters more. Malmkrog is a very violent movie whose violence is consistent sublimated. As far as explorations of decadent 19th century Europe goes this is far more Sokurov than Oliveira (and you can read this observation as a negative value judgement). Indeed, the other movie Malmkrog made me think a lot was Sokurov’s equally formally impressive and conservative Russian Ark, another travelogue about 19th European horror with a similar subtext that what is been shown on screen brought in the ultimate horror that is the 20th century, the moment European history lost its way (and also that thing that happened in Russia that both filmmakers think is better not be spoken of). Like Tarantino, a lot of the tension on Puiu’s barbaric origin story comes from how much pleasure he finds in the grotesque characters he creates: It is a very 21st century ghost story that longs for its very 19th century horrors. A contradiction, an exasperation, but a fascinating political object in both how transparent and impossible it can be.
Shirley (Josephine Decker)
Less a biography of Shirley Jackson than a study in the relationship between life and creation with some good ideas about the vampirization of surroundings that double in the development of strong baroque atmosphere that mirrors in the film many of the ideals it is trying to dealing with. Decker’s direction is very successful both in the articulation of those ideas and the creation of the strong environment for them, but the film suffers from a serious imagination problem: both the scenes of Jackson’s marriage and with the young couple she is dealing with are rather poor, so the film throws everything in Elizabeth Moss’ shoulder and she respond with far too many actor ticks.
Sportin’ Life (Abel Ferrara)
It is a diary about 2020 according to Abel Ferrara and so a great film essay about how life feeds cinema. Sportin’ Life expands on na idea of sketch documentaries that Abel Ferrara has working with this past few years, filming what moves through his cameraand interests him and them trying to find a film. There isn’t major distance between Sportin’ Life and 2017’s Alive in France but this time we are in 2020, also known as the worst year in history and poor Abel Ferrara is forever stuck in the Berlim Film Festival, also known as the last normal event of the film year and where Ferrara premiered the already covered Siberia. One of the things Sportin’ Life makes clear is that there’s few things worse than attending one of those film fairs that happeb in Europe and good deal of Sportin’ Life power comes from this recurring return to Berlim in which, Ferrara, wife,daughter and Willem Dafoe travel through official events and promotional interviews and the complete disconnection between the world and the film festival (“I can’t believe Berlin is happening normally” was a recurring refrain in my timelines in February and it is worth remembering that Ferrara lives in Rome). Film Festivals are eco-systems predicted in constant feedback of ego and themselves including this one that I covered from home. There’s a little bit of everything on this chãos perfectly articulated that Ferrara makes his own: multiplex clips from his films, images of his daughter happy on the red acarpet and sad on their apartment in Rome, large television and computer coverage of the pandemic mostly from US (needless to say Ferrara isn’t happy, also worth rememberingg Donald Trump’s lawyer is the structure absent villain of everyone of Ferrara’s 1990’s masterpieces and stated one in 2001’s R’X’Mas), performances and more performances from Ferrara ‘s band exciting and boring in equal measure, Dafoe talking about the documentary they are going to make that is and isn’t this one, Dafoe riffing on acting, Dafoe playing Ferrara while also playing Pasolini, Dafoe reading The Guardian’s Siberia review about the film critic walking out on their movie, many promotional interviews as dumb in supposedly smart festivals than any other (I’m reminder of my friend Eduardo Valente who works and was in Berlin that Ferrara’s press conferences were the only festivals press conferences worth losing a movie to attend, the festival eating itself and Rome seen from Ferrara’s window, an anxious image. Ferrara’s life and art are one and same always feeding on each other, yesterday and today.
This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese)
Living at the outskirts of a process of modernization. This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection exists somewhere between a tale of résistance formatted for the tastes of contemporary festival audience and an African cinema tradition of dealing with the subject and its contradictions. Because of this the film traces parallels between community, individualism and belonging to a place to move it far beyond the movies it is likely to be associated with. The lead character is wonderful and the care with framing and lightning visible, but it interests me less from this plastic qualities than the relationship it established with the place .
Valentina (Cássio Pereira dos Santos)
A Brazilian teen trans drama about a girl trying to enroll in her new small town school with her name that moves with ease between low key daily scenes and the political symbolism of the main plot. There’s a curious tension between the opacity of some situations and the direct depiction of others. Director Cassio Pereira dos Santos ups the tone sometimes and then hit the brakes again. The scenes of complicity with the mother are great. There’s na option for keeping oppressive forces mostly outside of the frame and go all-in in a warmer tone in the moments it decides to privilege (save for one subplot and a couple of characters), what at same time risks soften some situations and help create the world the movie wants to believe.
The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (João Botelho)
Through four decades João Botelho has established a mannered project with a taste for artifice and theatrical gesture that isn’t very distant of some of his Portuguese colleagues, sometimes it mostly works (like his adaptation of Os Maias that played in the 2013 festival), sometimes it is just dull (like when he filmed Pessoa in 2010’s Disquiet). On this one he films Jose Saramago novel about Pessoa meeting his pseudonym Ricardo Reis as Europe dives into fascism and while the material is all there, the film slowly falls into self-referential series of auteur ticks that reinforces that Botelho might dream of Oliveira, but is a lifeless pale copy.
Film by film this was a strong São Paulo Film Festival. The absence of major names was made up for a consistent selection and few major disappointments. As usual at the festival an absence of a bigger curatorial eye, understood here less as a hit and miss choices, but a point of view on movies, is very felt. The São Paulo Film Festival is one of the view events I follow that seems to benefit of individual reviews because it is hard to find a larger portrait in the films screened. This feeling of a large film heap was reinforced by this online edition that allow the festival to give up on the few curatorial choices of a daily schedule needs. The cult of the curator is an evil of the market of the small cinephile world, but its absence is an ever bigger problem. This incapacity of making choices (what to expect of a festival that passes to its audience the job of deciding its competition?) is a historical problem that found on the Mostra play website maybe its perfect representation around 150 films that audience could do little to guide themselves through (there was an attempt at thematic guide that was very bureaucratic) and that was visible in reactions of cinephiles that I and friends talked to “I don’t know what to see” ad that can be noticed in how the festival successes were mostly on films in the free platforms and some safe choices like “the Clarice adaptation”, “the Golden bear winner” or in the hardcore cinephile corner films by favorite auteurs like Jia or Tsai. This online edition made the Festival even more itself than usual in what of it is good (a refusal of hype for hype’s sake like its main Rio competition, the fidelity to certain names, the trust on some less fashionable filmographies and large space for newcomers) and bad (this curatorial absence, an increasing lack of interest on repertory cinema especially unfortunate this year with the Cinemateca Brasileira crisis only countered by a small but welcome Fernando Coni Campos retro, near complete absence of experimental cinema genre films from smaller industries). It is important to reinforce the very positive democratization of access of this online edition and it was a pleasure to notice out of town friends, especially those from places underserved by such events, having an opportunity of following the festival. I hope some smaller version of this remains next year. As usual in the Festival, what remains were the films and those were quite good.