Legally speaking, I wasn’t sure if the trip would amount to trouble. I’d read the news, and made a few calls, and checked online. The website of the Italian embassy in Vienna said the border between the two countries was still open, but on my way to the Alps, eyes glued to the first snow-capped mountaintops of the year, my ears were strained to catch the whispers susurrating inside the carriage. There were rumours of people turned back at the border, Austrian authorities taking tests just as you stepped onto the platform, documents, certificates, a whole array of bureaucratic paraphernalia I’d never heard of. Would the train ever get to Vienna? And even if it did, would we be able to get back?
The 58th Viennale took place at the end of October last year, in what felt like an anachronistic reverie. That it could exist as a physical, offline event – with socially-distanced screenings scattered all through the capital – is nothing short of miraculous. But the place I walked through during my four-day stay looked less like a city than a post-apocalyptic no man’s land (here’s some footage of my strolls, for posterity). Deserted streets, empty parks, shops closed and blinds shut. It was early autumn still, but rumours of new lockdowns had long circulated all across Europe, and Vienna, frozen in a premature hibernation, seemed to have taken them as an ineluctable fact.
Coincidence or not, of all the films I saw in my first ever trip to the Viennale, the three I still carry with me all spoke to the anxieties the city seemed suffused in, as if the festival was in synch with the ominous hum that caromed across the empty cobbled alleys – a feeling that things would soon fall apart again.
Fittingly, my Viennale began with Camilo Restrepo’s Los Conductos. A Berlinale prize-winner (where it nabbed the GWFF Best First Feature award), Restrepo’s debut is freely inspired by the life of its lead actor, Luis Felipe Lozano, aka “Pinky”, who’d already appeared in Restrepo’s 2014 short Like Shadows Growing as the Sun Goes Down. That film homed in on the life of Medellin’s street kids, to which Los Conductos offers something of a companion piece. Hair unkempt and spirited eyes, Pinky was once part of an underground sect (true story), a proto-religious group helmed by a man known only as “The Father,” on behalf of whom the lad and fellow acolytes committed all sorts of crimes. Los Conductos offers Lozano a chance at vengeance and redemption. As we first meet him, Pinky is on his way to kill the Father, which Restrepo films in the least spectacular fashion – eliding the body falling under the bullets to focus instead on Pinky’s face, barely blinking as he empties his gun on the man. Unsurprisingly, for this is not a revenge tale, and having dealt with the manipulative cult leader at its outset, the film becomes the story of an outcast struggling to find his way back into society. To no avail.
All through Los Conductos’s breezy 70 minutes, Pinky remains a creature lurking in the shadows, a pariah among pariahs. We see him make ends meet through all sorts of menial (and more or less illegal) jobs: one minute he’s patrolling a derelict building in the dead of night, the other he’s toiling in a T-shirt factory, screen-printing counterfeit Adidas merchandise. Interactions with other outcasts are scarce, and the random encounters are tinged in bilious anger, a legacy of the hatred which, Pinky reminds us in voiceover, was the primary force that drew the sect together.
The Oedipean murder that kicks off the proceedings injects Los Conductos with its most fascinating tension. Pinky’s re-birth begins with the Father’s death, but in Restrepo’s hands, the lad’s struggle is woven into the country’s history. Midway through, Pinky tells us of a real-life bandit who terrorised Colombia in the 1950s, “Desquite” (“Revenge”). Restrepo borrows from Gonzalo Arango’s account of the outlaw, “Elegía a Desquite”, which echoes as a prophetic warning: if Colombia won’t create a future for her children, Revenge will return, and blood will be spilled. Whether or not Pinky may be read as a reincarnation of Desquite, society has certainly failed him, and the world it has pushed him into is a liminal wasteland of empty tunnels, alleys, and rubble – a Medellin closer to one of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” than any real-life urban turf.
And yet, even the rubble emanates a certain perturbing beauty. In an eye-opening chat with Devika Girish at Film Comment, Restrepo says he wanted his aesthetic to run counter to the tragic realism with which poverty is traditionally captured in contemporary world cinema. Shot in 16mm by Guillaume Mazloum, the film has an eye for details that throb with mysterious, almost dangerous allure: a scene where sheets of cloth painted in flames billow inside Pinky’s factory may be its most stunning and disquieting. Watching Los Conductos, I was jolted back to a film made over 40 years prior, Agarrando Pueblo (The Vampires of Poverty, 1977), and the manifesto co-directors Carlos Mayolo and Luis Ospina signed in its aftermath, a screed against the pornomiseria (“poverty porn”) that so many Colombian cineastes had slipped into while documenting the country’s downtrodden. Confounding and hypnotic, Los Conductos swells from a character study into a far larger foray into the country’s history of violence, and all the beauty it shimmers with carries a subversive, rebellious zing.
I was still grappling with Restrepo’s film when I walked into Vienna’s Le Studio to catch up with another Berlinale title – and, curiously, another film that played with colour to entrancing effects: Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella. All through the 2010s, Piñeiro has birthed a most singular series of present-day Shakespeare riffs. His “Shakespeareads”, as he calls them, venture into the Bard’s comedies to bring their female characters into the present. After Rosalinda (which took on As You Like It), Viola (The Twelfth Night), The Princess of France (Love’s Labour’s Lost) and Hermia & Helena (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), along comes Isabella, inspired by Measure for Measure. Inspired, not adapted, for Piñeiro has often objected to the word when discussing his series, and indeed, here as elsewhere, Shakespeare’s work only loosely informs the film. Measure for Measure is a tale of uncertainty, hinging on someone who’s struggling to decide on a course of action. Likewise, Isabella is a story of self-doubt, a mesmerising chronicle of an emotional and artistic awakening.
Watching Piñeiro’s films, the question of what they are about often strikes me as superfluous. It’s not that they don’t have a plot – in fact, in Isabella, as in his earlier Shakespeareads, the narrative is labyrinthine, a crazy-quilt of jumbled chronologies. It’s that what lingers isn’t so much the memory of this or that storyline as the feeling of being beckoned into a porous universe, a realm designed to leave your senses agog. Writing these words a few weeks after that Viennale screening, I realise that what stuns me about Piñeiro’s sixth feature has much less to do with its diegesis than the tension between the dilemmas characters face, and how these play out in their behaviour – in this case, in the chronic hesitation faced by an artist before her calling.
So what exactly happens in Isabella? Plainly stated, the film sees two actresses vie for the same part in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Piñeiro’s aficionados will recognise familiar faces: María Villar plays Mariel, a thespian struggling to catch a break, and Agustina Muñoz plays Luciana, a more accomplished actress who once turned down the same part Mariel is now hoping to get. They bump into each other outside a swimming pool, and Luciana convinces Mariel to leave Buenos Aires to find refuge in the countryside, where she’ll help her prepare for the audition. We’re told that Luciana is sleeping with Mariel’s married brother, who’s also, coincidentally, the director of the play. Whether or not the help Luciana offers Mariel comes from a feeling of guilt Piñeiro doesn’t really specify, but the relationship between the two women grows increasingly complex, in tandem with the film’s scaffolding. We watch them hike up and down the hills and rehearse their lines, only to be brought back to the city, and cartwheel through different timelines, in which Mariel is/isn’t pregnant, and eventually, in what appears to be a brighter future, puts on a James Turrell-esque installation featuring stones and frames of purple light.
Acting is a work of repetition, and with its tendency to double back on itself, its insistence on near identical shots of characters walking around Buenos Aires, Isabella echoes, in structure and aura, the struggles its heroines submit to. Piñeiro is unmistakably fascinated with the idea of capturing acting as sheer labour, warts and all, which explains the emphasis placed on the rehearsals, the tong-twisters, and the nail-biting angst the two women (Mariel especially) undergo as they wrestle with their ambitions. And yet, even as the film’s peripatetic structure may make reality feel slippery, the characters’ dilemmas are grounded in physical objects, and the film finds its most interesting conflict in the clash between the somewhat abstract nature of the characters’ worries, and the material world they turn to in search their answers. Isabella begins with a shot of the sea at sunrise, and a ritual involving twelve stones, each of them representing a doubt. Throw them in the water one after the other; whether you end up holding on to some or hurl them all away, a decision has been made, and action taken. Like Mariel, who winds up finding refuge and affirmation in the warm colour fields and cardboard frames of her installation, Isabella ends by suggesting art can offer solace to those in need, and its kaleidoscope of colours and timelines morphs into an entrancing, uplifting tale of healing.
A case of pure festival serendipity, the last film I saw in a Viennese theatre made for a perfect double bill with Piñeiro’s. Like Isabella, Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo’s Slow Machine unfurls as a matryoshka doll, a sinewy maze of overlapping timelines and plots. The pitch: disillusioned actress Stephanie (Stephanie Hayes) meets and falls for Gerard (Scott Shepherd), a NYPD counter-terrorism agent who just so happens to be a fan of experimental theatre. But the fling ends tragically, forcing Stephanie to flee to the upstate home of musician Eleanor Friedberger (playing herself), only to realise the plan is less of an escape than she hoped.
Slow Machine starts off as a thriller (better yet, a “screwball thriller,” as per Felten and DeNardo) only to be debunked and reassembled into something far more singular and sui generis, an amalgam of different genre tropes and art forms. Take Stephanie and Gerard: the girl on the run and the elusive spy are two archetypes, adding a dash of neo-noir to the proceedings. But Slow Machine never feels overly bleak, and through its nimble 72 minutes, the film maintains a playful, lilting tone. Humour teems with an omnipresent feeling of danger, and though characters talk almost incessantly, the exchanges never feel stilted or artificially quirky. If anything, they sponge up something of the neurotic and crammed lingo of Philip Larkin’s verses, whose poem “The Life with the Hole in It” lends Slow Machine its title.
Life’s “unbeatable slow machine” Larkin wrote, “brings what you’ll get,” and what we get here is a world dotted with psychically damaged drifters fumbling after some illusion of stability – emotional and creative. The New York Stephanie walks through is closer to the lived-in, real-life city portrayed in Dan Sallitt’s films than your conventional sightseer’s travelogue. There is nothing touristy or romantic about her surroundings, as the metropolis is essentially reduced to a windowless, bunker-like room (Gerard’s hideout) where Stephanie awakes early on, and much of the gingerly flirting between cop and actress takes place. This unflinching, matter-of-fact quality extends from the mise-en-scene to the treatment of the creative industry Stephanie navigates. As Felten and DeNardo see it, the indie bubble she’s part of is a cut-throat jungle regulated by the strictest caste system. Stephanie hails from the hustling creative class, and in what’s possibly the film’s most indelible scene, she listens in complete rapture as a more successful actress (Chloë Sevigny, playing herself) describes a surreal, life-changing audition that saw her perform before masked figures somewhere in the NYC docks.
As Stephanie, Hayes saunters through Slow Machine in a cloud of angst, but her anxieties percolate through the film’s fabric. Speaking with Michelle Carey here on Senses, Felten says he was interested in the soft power of the American surveillance state, and how that may manifest itself if it was personified. Gerard is the obvious answer: a neurotic, schizoid man spitting all sorts of vague, Illuminati-like conspiracies. But the ecosystem he and Stephanie live in crackles with the same tics and paranoias – a world paved with mysterious figures and theories that only amplify Slow Machine’s conspiratorial mystique (you may argue that even its grainy, 16mm aesthetic – courtesy of DeNardo – is of a piece with the guerrilla-esque allure).
In a film so rooted in the role of performances, what assures us that Stephanie, Gerard, and the myriad other eccentrics they meet along the way aren’t lying about their identities and intentions? Nothing whatsoever, and the realisation comes with a surprisingly liberating aftertaste. To be watching Slow Machine is to be ushered into a bewitching, shapeshifting realm, one that seesaws between truth, inventions, and pranks. Tension keeps simmering, but never really detonates, which accounts for the peculiar edge-of-the-seat electricity that lingers all through film. Does it matter whether it all really happened, or whether Stephanie and co dreamed it up? Slow Machine thrives on that ambiguity, on that unanswered and ultimately irrelevant question. It is paradoxical, bringing together minimalism and metropolitan buzz. Replete with stories. Capriciously elusive.
22 October – 1 November 2020
Festival website: https://www.viennale.at/