Now that the 50th installment of New Directors / New Films is over I can finally resume reviewing. Having missed all of last year’s due to the pandemic (and many of the movies making their debut have not even made it to the initial stages of distribution) I didn’t want a repeat, So, to compensate, out of the 27 feature-length movies that came out, I managed to capture a little over half of them (while still seeing both recent virtual cinema releases and the foray into classics which I have yet to write about, so my apologies).
To understand a movie like Nino Martinez Sosa’s Liborio you would need to have read extensively and/or studied Dominican history. Yours truly lived for almost two decades in the Dominican Republic and while I can recall most events that transpired in the country’s 500-plus year life, the life of Olivorio Mateo Ledesma, better known as Papa Liborio, was not one of them. I don’t know why; perhaps my Dominican History teacher opted to graze the chapter. In short, the life of Papa Liborio, today, has become somewhat obscured to the point that it’s mostly a curiosity known to only the old guard and a few erudite.
(His)story goes that Liborio (Vicente Santos), a simple man of the fields, disappears in a hurricane in 1908. When he returns several years later, he is a markedly changed man. His return, seen in itself as a miracle, now sees Liborio speaking in prophetic terms, performing miracles, and carrying within and around him the glowing, magnetic aura of a new Messiah. Word of his abilities as a shaman and spiritual leader makes its way around the country. Followers in search of meaning and enlightenment arrive. Eventually, during the US occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1916, Of course, as it happens with many fringe cults — because Martinez Sosa never shies from presenting Liborio’s compound as anything but a cult run by a shyster with no actual powers — they become a target of American interest, with disastrous results.
A difficult topic to touch because of its inscrutability, Liborio comes across a bit of history lesson speckled with a lens into a time when the Dominican Republic was emerging from its former Haitian occupation and becoming its own country. All of its action takes place in an isolated portion of the country — San Jose de las Matas, with its gorgeous scenery — so in many ways, the people of Liborio are a community lost in time and faith and innocence of the outside world. Martinez Sosa displays much respect for his take on Papa Liborio but never turns his film into a hagiography. Quite the contrary, while his community truly believes (to this day) that Liborio was a holy man, the movie winks at us by letting us in on the secret that he’s really just another clever man able to sway the masses and turn rabbit tricks that look like miracles.
In another continent and time, women are succumbing to reveries and locked in a state of suspended femininity in Ainhoa Rodriguez’s Destello Bravio (Mighty Flash) The first shot gives us two women, one of them the movie’s central character Cita, drunk in euphoria, high from a wedding. The camera never intrudes but lets this moment of drunken bliss play itself out. Cita, one of the women, embraces the other, unnamed, and both fall to the ground, laughing. Later on, Cita will play a recorded message in an old cassette recorder to remind herself that one day soon she will see a mighty flash that will quite frankly, obliterate everything from existence.
That mighty flash never arrives, but that’s not the case. The women of Ainhoa Rodriguez are stuck in what seems to be a forgotten place in Spain where nothing happens. Extremadura stands in for this sense of isolation, which Rodriguez films in mostly muted colors. The entire look of the movie conveys a sense of the very essence of life sucked out of its few remaining residents, and of these, a strong divide appears between the women and the men. The men are mostly non-entities who simply exist as ghosts of their former selves.
The women, however, still behave as if they were in pageantry and it was the 19th century. Female churchgoers criticize Cita for not coming to church in a glittery gold dress she wore to a wedding. Another expresses her fear of her dead husband. An early gathering yields to vaguely threatening noises that not everyone hears. Later on, another gathering of women peaks in early arguments that dissolve into a state of sexual reverie, and the lingering question is, what exactly is going on here? I would simply point at a place that has lost its sense of purpose. When all you have is frustration, despair, and passions that have been unresolved, you get the sexually and emotionally starved female ghosts of Ainhoa Rodriguez’s intriguing movie pregnant with desire.
The women in Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta are in a similar state of despair, but Ulman, instead of having their fabric of reality melt into a living nightmare of stasis and unfulfilled lives, prefers to take the route of a comedy of manners with a hint of something rotten underneath. That something reveals its ugly head but gradually. Ulman tells her story with enormous patience and a keen eye that observes its two leads, herself and her mother Ale Ulman.
The start of El Planeta posits Maria (Amalia Ulman) and Leonor (Ale Ulman) as women trapped by their own inability to be self-sufficient, depending on the kindness of unseen others. Maria is a make-up artist trying to land a good job, but her financial situation doesn’t allow her to travel outside Gijon where she lives with Leonor. An early scene has her finagling the price of sexual favors, which sets up the stage for something unsaid.
Meanwhile, she and her mother go on spending sprees, living the high life, acting as if they have it all when in fact, Leonor has been left destitute following a bitter divorce. Ulman slowly reveals the vapidity behind the appearance of glamor, and I kept being reminded of a much softer version of Midnight Cowboy without the extreme grittiness. Where the two men in that movie lived in squalor and followed a pipe dream that was already collapsing at the seams and turning into a living nightmare, El Planeta remains serene, almost as light as a bubble, until Ulman rips the rug from under our feet and we are left not just with an abrupt ending, but a sense that Leonor, the true narcissist in the movie, may have snapped.
In another movie, Madalena would be a mystery and being a mystery, it would have to get solved. Madiano Marchetti takes an oblique approach and focuses not on the main character itself, but on the people who either knew her or came upon her lifeless body dressed in white in a soy field. It is a novel take, but during the three semi-connected stories we get next to no information on who Madalena was as a trans woman and how did she end up murdered. The first story concerns a club patron whose only concern is to procure money that Madalena owes her so she can use that money to pay for her Vespa. The second story delves into the son of the owner of the soy farm where Madalena’s body was found. Fearful that a discovery like this could derail his mother’s political career, he spends the entire portion of his storyline trying to find the spot where Madalena was killed… only to never see her again. The final story comes with a hint of bittersweet resolution. Madalena’s trans friends, led by Bianca (Pamela Yule), come to her home to collect her belongings. Some reminiscing happens, but not enough to establish a sense of loss, so we transition towards an outing that places the three transwomen in a space of safety.
Watching Madalena I got the feeling that I was revisiting some of the banalities observed/listened in Bobbi Gentry’s 1967 song Ode to Billy Joe. While nothing in Marchetti’s movie comes even close to the Southern Gothic of Gentry’s song, the tone of reducing Madalena’s murder to a blip in time barely touching those who knew and didn’t know her seems to be the point here. We listen to the briefest of mentions of women murdered in unfortunate circumstances and it doesn’t quite touch us; all we can do is shake our head and go, “That poor woman,” if at that. Madalena, then, becomes a reveal of how society reacts to a trans woman’s disappearance: for one, she’s an inconvenience, for another, a threat of scandal, and for her very own sisters, just another day in paradise.
For Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione), the private banker in Andreas Fontana’s Azor, the gradual realization that he may be in over his head might not as a surprise. After all, he is replacing a missing banker with a rather ominous reputation. Simply put, the very mention of the former banker’s name is enough to raise eyebrows and darken a room. Considering that de Wiel’s former colleague seems to have vanished overnight, it begs to question if he had a hand in mishandling certain securities he was entrusted to. There is an obscene amount of money and financial securities being moved from here to there, and with Argentina, in the middle of its Dirty War period in which many who didn’t walk a fine line or were even suspect met a grisly end, de Wiel seems to be the object of intense scrutiny. If these people are to place their trust in someone, they better abide by their rules.
Fontana’s movie is elegant and filmed with a mainly brown palette. He fills every scene with hints of a greater evil just hiding in plain sight. Conversations are always filled with portent, and while it’s clear that something is foul in Denmark, no one gives as much as veiled explanations and narratives that leave a sense of dread pregnant in the air. Azor, for Argentineans, means “silence”, so during the story, it will be up to de Wiel that he sees nothing, hears nothing, and says nothing. In essence, there is a lot of Benjamin Naishtat’s 2018 Rojo which also dealt with the darker part of Argentinean history. Here we never see but the aftermath of the atrocities: homes and possessions repossessed, in line for the highest bidder. We get that these items belonged to “the disappeared” and now, are simply commodities. It is a horrific sequence because of how banal it looks. Judging from the way de Wiel reacts during the final sequence, it becomes clear that he has literally sold his soul for a life of comfort and protection.
Lastly, there is All the Light We Can See. Pablo Escoto has made a movie that will no doubt play well in film festivals and art galleries alike. Commercial, left of indie, it is not, with a story that isn’t as much a narrative as much as an exposition in the style of the Greek tragedy of a love affair gone wrong between two couples. While the movie is truly gorgeous to look at, at two hours, it is cumbersome to watch because of how stilted its language is, how mannered its performances are, and how much in ideologies he attempts to cram into what is essentially a fable of love.