Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Jeonju Indie Visions 2

Faouzi Bensaïdi's WWW: What a Wonderful World (2006) is both a surprise and a pleasure: it's a James Bond pastiche directed by a genuine visual talent, with nothing seemingly more on his mind than the desire to give us luxurious confections that will stick to the teeth (think Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1981 Diva).

That said, there's a memorable streak of deadpan melancholy in the film, embodied by Bensaïdi's own expressionless performance as Kamel, the assassin at the center of the film's plot. He's perfectly matched by Nezra Rahile's Kenza, a traffic enforcer standing on her lonely concrete isle, guiding passing cars as if they were sheep (in her spare time she rents out her cellphone to walk-by customers). The two lonelyhearts' eyes meet, and WHAM!--instant fatal attraction. Negligible confection, perhaps, but a tasty one, nevertheless.

Zacharias Kunuk & Norman Cohn's The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006)bases its story on the eponymous diaries of the real-life explorer, but the film's true focus is on Awa (Pakak Innukshuk)--in 1922, the last remaining shaman--and his attempt to hold on to the spirits that give him authority and power. Christianity has crept in and taken root amongst the Inuit people, and they regard Awa and his followers as little better than devil-worhippers.

It's a theme that, sadly, holds relevance even in the world today, where people insist on playing the conflict between religions as a zero-sum game, and words like 'tolerance' and 'compromise' aren't even considered to be in the vocabulary.

Kunuk and Cohn are interested in telling more than just Awa's story; in at least two lengthy shots, they meticulously record his spiritual history--how he came to be, and what his belief in spirits is all about. It's as if given the opportunity to listen, Rasmussen and his partner point a video camera at the man and record his words for posterity, and to hell with the audience if they find themselves falling asleep as a consequence.

Kunuk and Cohn record other things as well: the harsh beauty of the frozen landscape; Awa's daughter Apak (a real looker) and her sexual fantasies (fellow Inuit say she's making love with the dead); the claustrophobic ambience of an igloo's cramped quarters. The film--especially its finale--has a primitive yet haunting power, arising as much from its imagery as from the tragedy of its central character.

Stefano Odoardi's Una Ballata Bianca (The White Ballad, 2006) is a beautiful enigma of a film, about an elderly couple living together in a house; the woman is dying, and the two must come to terms with their eventual separation.

Odoardi films the couple entirely without dialogue, preferring instead to wallpaper the film with near-nonstop interior monologue; he eschews natural acting in favor of carefully arranged poses, in different positions throughout the rooms. Along with this couple he includes a pair of playing children, and a mysterious young woman.

The whole could easily be called pretentious; I like to think it reveals something of what a clogged and clotted thing a longstanding marriage can be, with bitter grudges, festering resentments, years of habitual self-absorption blocking the way to free and honest communication between a husband and his wife (the children are Odoardi's way of contrasting the directness of youth (the children simply come together and play) with the couples' emotional inertness). Of the more experimental efforts, this might be my favorite.

Ron Havilio's Potosi, le temps du voyage (Potosi, the Journey, 2007) is a family's epic journey across South America, recreating the parents' honeymoon odyssey over thirty years before. The trip brings them to Potosi, whose silver mines once financed the Spanish empire. Havilio and his wife Jacqueline scrupulously took snapshots of the people they encountered; years later, Havilio and his wife--accompanied by their three now-grown daughters--pore through these photos, trying to rediscover their real-life models.

Part travelogue, part recollection, part revelation of a Jewish family's inner workings, part testament of the endless fascination found in a single photograph, part chronicle of the sufferings both past and present of Potosi's silver miners (a persistent theme--it would be cruel to call it a running joke--in the film is that Havilo can come, go, raise three daughters, return, but the miners are still overworked and underpaid), the film is a rich tapestry of memories and relationships spanning continents and decades both. At four hours, it's a touch too ambitious--after leaving Potosi, Havilio insists on recording in detail the relatively eventless latter end of the journey--but in the context of the power of what had followed, that's a minor complaint. An impressive, poignant achievement.

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