to Fidel, until forever…
A sense of self-referential irrelevance may assail the consummate festival-goer inhabiting a world of films few outside the festival circuit will ever even hear of. The opposite felt true at this year’s edition of the Festival Internacional de Cine de Mar del Plata where virtually every screening was packed with rapt audiences whose varied members ranged from university students to senior citizens. A very accessible admission price (way cheaper than a regular ticket) and a palpable interest in the festival offerings often resulted in lively Q&As and a general atmosphere where cinema and the spectators it belongs to eclipsed its slimy apparatchiks. Now in its 31st edition the festival was founded 62 years ago under the auspices of the then-president of Argentina Juan Domingo Perón, but following a coup d’état in 1966 the festival fell on hard times and was eventually cancelled only to resume in 1996. Despite its vast program and mass appeal the festival felt both accessible and exploratory in a program that caters in equal measures to the general audience as well as the more discerning cinephile. A festival to catch up on what’s been shown so far on the festival circuit, but also a place of exclusive discoveries. One such discovery was Belle dormant by Adolfo Arrieta, a luminary of the Spanish underground, poet of experimental cinema whose early works date back to the mid ‘60s.
The fine and subjective line dividing transfiguration from prefiguration, illusion from delusion, imaginary from real, mediocrity from poetry traces back to the very genesis of cinema. There is a sensitive gap between escapism and the flight to freedom of a jailbreak, and it’s the same difference running between La Belle Dormant and the myriad other films that exist in a privileged vacuum and nothing else. In La Belle Dormant poetry is not an abstraction from the earthly misery of “the real world” but a lyrical sabotage of its unimaginative lexicon that can’t even conceive of beauty, let alone represent it. Arrieta’s film exists in an effortless dimension where things simply are and do not try to be, a phantasmagoric realm that has magically survived the ethical bankruptcy upon which the film industry rests. Selflessly, the Spanish director has hand-painted a fairytale the same way only a child perhaps could, defying trends and the aesthetic corruption that comes with them. While the average “festival film” is burdened by a graceless and inward attempt to look original, La Belle Dormant welcomes the spectator into its gaseous meanders in a state of prolonged, post-orgasmic ecstasy. By retelling an old fairytale, the director flashes out the very fibre of imagination that has been long placed under the stranglehold of what the late Mark Fisher called capitalist realism. The painful sterility of our social imagination is overcome in Arrieta’s film by a timeless outburst of subliminal creativity, of colour in a time of darkness.
Composed entirely of archive footage hand-picked from Italian television archives and documentaries of the time, Assalto al cielo (Storming Heaven) by Francesco Munzi chronicles the many faces and stances of the extra-parliamentary movement that shook Italian society in the ‘70s. Unlike other western European countries where the flames of May ’68 were swiftly extinguished by the welfare state and other concurrent factors, in Italy the level of conflict escalated (or, depending on your point of view, degenerated) into a full decade of relentless political struggle. The absence of a voiceover and of newly filmed material make this documentary a sort of retroactive newscast bringing the past back up as if it was unfolding again in front of our eyes. There is no intention on the director’s side to give an exhaustive picture of that decade or to investigate the historical roots of a period that came to be known as “years of lead” (in reference to the bullets that were fired, on both sides of the barricade). Instead of the leaden atmosphere of fear and terror that the media particularly tried to superimpose onto those years, the director prefers to show the militant joy that not only dared to dream of a better society but soldiered on towards the impossible. In Italy the fabled synergy between students and workers morphed, not without difficulties, from a slogan into a flammable reality that gave birth to a radical workers militancy the likes of which hadn’t been seen in the West since the Wobblies.
As the footage in Storming Heaven shows, what made the Italian experience so unique was the revolutionary fission between the theoretical audacity of the student movement and the lethal potential of working class disobedience. An interesting aspect of Munzi’s documentary is the refusal to divide the different components of the movement into “good” and “bad.” Instead, Storming Heaven offers an organic overview of a composite movement within which different factions even clashed but were ultimately part of the same golden horde that almost toppled the established order. The multiple and protean leaders of the Italian extra-parliamentary left are not featured in the documentary, the uncontested protagonist of Munzi’s film is the faceless, desiring multitude. That anti-oedipal being that Deleuze & Guattari had conjured in their philosophy, a political action freed from all unitary and totalising paranoia: joy at its most dangerous.
Whereas arthouse flicks are for the most part autistic quests for a pointless originality as far removed as possible from the spectators’ guts, the circus solicits a pre-linguistic response of sheer amazement. While pseudo-intellectual posing has become just another alibi for having nothing left to say, the language of the circus is one of spectacular immediacy that can in fact do without literacy. Hardly a fashionable trait among cinephiles, human empathy runs through the work of Tizza Covi and Reiner Frimmel constituting the artistic backbone of their idea of cinema. Their previous film, Der Glanz des Tages, contemplated the moral superiority of “low” art compared to the petty existentialism of “high” art respectively impersonated by a circus bear fighter and a theatre actor. It was through an act of disinterested solidarity that the two protagonists were able to find a common ground, reinstating the centrality of fraternity in the act of artistic creation. Covi’s and Frimmel’s cinema is a desperately needed antidote to the empty and craven films of directors unable to engage with any reality that is not the self-referential and claustrophobic world of consumer cinephilia. Their latest film Mister Universo is an invigorating reminder of what a life dedicated to the tribulations of art looks and, most importantly, feels like. Instead of narcissistically inscribing their own story onto their subjects, the filmmakers create a dramatic space where the story comes into being through the emphatic interaction between actors and directors. It is this genuine absence of any form of sociological condescension and vain aestheticism that elevates this film from the myriad others that merely use “the other” as prop. This ability and willingness to interact as peers with who and what is in front of the camera leads in turn to a process of mutual discovery and artistic enrichment. A process that is increasingly harder to come by as the self-absorption many filmmakers cannot seem to get rid of prevent them from looking with curious and inquisitive eyes at what is right in front of them.
Covi and Frimmel’s is a cinematic practice that refuses not only the illusory distinction between fiction and documentary but most vitally that between life and art. An attitude that is in fact shared by and reflected in the characters we meet, whose circus craft and lifestyle are indistinguishable yet neither romanticised nor pitied. Tairo’s trip from central to northern Italy in search of the mythical Arthur Robin, the first black man to win the Mister Universe title in 1957, is also a rare opportunity to meet the marginal humanity that is systematically written out of “respectable” narratives when not portrayed in xenophobic tones. We get to meet the aristocratic underdogs of a vanishing art world whose veracious features, especially if measured against the clean-faced arrogance of “artists,” seem to belong to the world of fairytales. In a world where the objectives of art and careerism seamlessly match, the characters in Mister Universo acquire an almost heroic status, survivors of a time it is hard to believe even existed. But there is no room for nostalgia in this film which, on the contrary, never strays from the present tense, too involved in its own story to speculate on the supposed idyll of the past. And so is the spectator, finally freed from the preposterous burden of interpretation. When we finally get to the film’s final destination the awe and wide-mouthed stupor the young Tairo must have felt when Arthur Robin first gave him his amulet is the exact same we feel in front of the screen. For once we can abandon ourselves to the images in front of us and suspend our disbelief, certain that all we see on screen, if not entirely true, is authentic and truthful enough.
Not exactly authentic, let alone truthful, felt Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, a bourgeois pulp fiction chronicling the supposedly anti-capitalist exploits of a band of good-looking Parisian kids. Bored with a system of which they are the main beneficiaries, our young and beautiful (anti?) heroes decide to blow up the places of (economic) power and take a few innocent souls along with them. Which is what both the Interpol and the Oxford dictionary would call terrorism, and rightly so we may add. Both the director and the majority of critics rushed to point out that the film doesn’t take sides (not a fashionable thing these days…), yet the very fact that in the second decade of the 21st century the concept of impartiality (in cinema) is considered plausible is cause of concern. It should go without saying that every decision in the making of a movie represents a point of view, and as far as this one writer is concerned there is no mistaking the congenital sympathy with which the protagonists of Nocturama are depicted. Take any other film that stages an act of terrorism carried out by brown people and see the difference for yourself. Even when it comes to senseless acts of violence, being white and middle class does make you a “better” terrorist, exempt from the moral judgement that is routinely doled out to those of a different colour or religion. Revolutionary violence, whose illustrious and noble history in modern France alone goes from La Bande à Bonnot to the casseurs de rue of the Banlieus, is such when it emerges from a social milieu of active solidarity, of fraternal militancy. It is the fuse of popular movements that are forced into violence by the very repression they face, not a trendy and spectacular choice of attention-seeking dandies. Tellingly enough, the protagonists of Bonello’s film are alienated and perfectly integrated members of the Parisian stereotype, their inside job in fact can only reinforce the legitimacy of the system they naively believe to attack. They do not represent nor incarnate an alternative to the hand that feeds them, hardly any trace of political consciousness can be detected in their dialogues, let alone in their actions. In this respect the film reaches a sort of fruitful ambiguity in its second half when our clean-faced terrorists take refuge in a high-end shopping mall and seem to finally be in their natural element, way more at ease than when handling explosives from ex-Yugoslavia. In the maternal womb of the luxury department store the wannabe revolutionaries fall in a state of amniotic inertia, roaming the aisles of the supermarket their life ultimately is. A supermarket so generous and well-stocked that even its destruction is on sale, for those who can afford it ça va sans dire.
Festival Internacional de Cine de Mar del Plata
18-27 November 2016
Festival website: http://www.mardelplatafilmfest.com/en/