STEVE GARDEN highlights some of the best unreleased films to screen at the New Zealand International Film Festivals this year, including Lance Hammer’s Ballast, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Banishment, and José Luis Torres Leiva’s The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain.

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On the strength of his assured debut feature, Ballast, American filmmaker Lance Hammer could be well worth keeping an eye or two on. Although the influences aren’t overt, it seems to me that Hammer has more than a passing familiarity with such serious heavyweights as Bruno Dumont, the Dardennes, Gaspar Noe and the like, and he may even have a goodly dollop of admiration for Soderbergh’s equally fine but more contentious Bubble. Ballast may not be as rigorous or uncompromising as some of the films by Hammer’s European contemporaries, but the comparison indicates the direction he could be heading. The film starts with the most dramatic events and gradually moves towards one of the most understated resolutions of any film in the festival. The sense of order and balance conveyed in the seemingly nondescript final scene (in which the three main characters are arranged in telling relationship to each other, travelling in the same direction within the hermetically sealed interior of their car) expresses the sort of hope that staunchly unsentimental realist cinema rarely embraces.

The film’s subtle darkness-to-light structure vaguely recalls Noe’s Irreversible, in as much as its formal strategy similarly denies the kind of cathartic pleasure violent resolution often provides (as well as avoiding the implicit confirmation of racial and social stereotypes). Because the (unseen) violence occurs at the beginning, we have no preconceived (or preconditioned) context for it, so the film becomes the story of a struggle towards equilibrium, dignity and hope. Intelligent, cine-literate and very finely crafted, it was one of the surprise highlights of the festival for me. An online blogger from the USA put it nicely when he said, “This film was everything I had been arguing for in American cinema: its angelic patience, reverence for faces, silences and subjective experience could teach American audiences how to look and listen again” (a comment that can apply equally to non-American audiences too, of course). As solemn as Ballast may seem, for Hammer it’s a testament to the beauty and honour of human survival. Taking his cue from Bresson (as have the Dardenne’s and Dumont), he stayed well clear of the kind of filmic practices that could so easily have turned the film into yet another run-of-the-mill flick. “If a scene needed music in order to work,” he said, “...it had to be cut.” Comparisons (even soft ones) with esteemed directors are no overstatement considering the quiet quasi-spiritual elevation Hammer achieves. That’s not to suggest that Ballast has religious overtones or is primarily concerned with metaphysics, but that it realises a humanist poetry not unlike that found in the work of filmmakers of this calibre – among whom I would definitely include Mexican enfant-terrible, Carlos Reygadas.

Reygadas is no stranger to the high highs and low lows of critical attention. He also doesn’t shy away from referencing his cinematic heroes: Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Buñuel for starters, and in his new film, Silent Light, none other than Carl Dreyer. In this instance it’s more than a reference – it constitutes the fundamental heart of the film, in which he updates Dreyer’s 1954 masterpiece, Ordet. For those who don’t know Dreyer’s film, it’s ultimately about a faith strong enough to bring someone back from the dead. It’s the sort of subject matter few filmmakers would have the gumption to tackle in these defiantly irreligious times, but Reygadas obviously has no fear of setting the bar as high as he can possibly reach, and in my view it hasn’t done him any harm: his films just keep getting better. Silent Light is the tale of a simple family man struggling with the deeply conflicting misfortune of finding his soul mate in another woman. Torn between love for her and a sincere, though less elemental love for the mother of his children, this committed Mennonite and genuine man of the earth is caught in a battle between his conscience and his feelings. The impact on his wife, however, is tragic. Silent Light embraces the limitations and contradictions of religious faith, but it also transcends them. Reygadas tacitly accepts the existence of something invisible and profoundly powerful: it could be spiritual; it could be the power of human love; or it could be cinema. With Dreyer as his guiding (silent) light, he fearlessly delves into the realm of miracles, mystery, redemption and transcendence to create vibrant and deeply affecting cinema with its roots firmly planted in the earth.

If nothing else, Reygadas knows a thing or two about how to tap into our capacity for emotional elation, but not everyone buys it. Some people find his work meretricious, while others (and I count myself among them) find it intellectually, aesthetically and emotionally satisfying. For Reygadas, cinema is about “…creating your own world and taking all the liberties you want.” He has an acute eye for landscapes and faces, and a great instinct for dramatic evocation, enabling him to invest an extraordinary depth of feeling and meaning into his remarkably cinematic images. For his detractors, it’s all about sincerity: is Reygadas genuine or merely a clever magician? Personally, I don’t think it matters – all filmmakers are magicians to some degree (suspension of disbelief and all that). Reygadas will surely continue to grow (and more importantly, settle) as a filmmaker, and I expect his cinema will deepen. For me, Silent Light is (at the very least) a very worthy homage to its inspiration, and one of the standouts of this year’s festival.

One of the biggest revelations of the festival was the discovery of a new auteur from Chile, José Luis Torres Leiva. His film, The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain, is cinema at its most rarefied. With a formal rigour that beautifully underpins its poetic and contemplative qualities, Sky, Earth, Rain quietly took my breath away. It’s the kind of film that requires the full engagement of one’s intuition and perception. Those who sit and wait for answers are likely to be perplexed and disappointed, and judging by the bemused reactions as the lights came up, it might be a common response to this deeply empathetic, quietly angry film. For Torres Leiva, his film was an attempt to “free the audience from the usual rational approach to films, and accept that they should let themselves go, carried along by the sounds and images.” It’s an approach that has parallels with the work of filmmakers such as Lisandro Alonso, Albert Serra, Pedro Costa, Sharunas Bartas and (to a lesser extent) Bela Tarr, Bruno Dumont, Carlos Reygadas and the like, filmmakers who have been influenced in one way or another by Bresson, Antonioni and Tarkovsky. Torres Leiva shares with these filmmakers an ability to fashion a compelling and evocative unity between narrative, theme and form. Sky, Earth, Rain is an impressive example of advanced visual storytelling, less reliant on traditional conventions and expectations (clearly defined narrative arcs; exposition through dialogue; etc), but giving greater emphasis to mise-en-scène, atmosphere, nuance, sub-text, and to the role of the viewer as a participant in the process of ‘setting’ or completing the work. One’s appreciation of this ‘poetic’ approach is very dependent on what one brings to the film.

There is little overt exposition in the film, and the narrative (what there is of it) loosely concerns the lives of a handful of detached individuals: a young woman looking after her bedridden mother; her girlfriend and her disturbed sister; and an emotionally reserved orchardist. Emotional reserve, solitude, isolation and silence are all key elements in the film. The sound design is equally pivotal (it’s the sound of agitated birds that brings the film to its subtle, deeply felt conclusion), but above all, this is a film about dislocation and connection: the relationship between human beings and their environment (wherein the landscape parallels, comments on, and reflects the character’s inner states); an expression of our shared aloneness, and of being isolated within perpetual subjectivity; it conveys the natural power of unforced connections between people, the unspoken dialogue that passes between us, sometimes without our full awareness; and it also speaks to the destructive potential of estrangement, and the responsibility we share in each other’s struggle. Mind you, the person next to me might have thought it was about a young woman getting sacked from a job in a corner store and getting a new one in an orchard – the end. There’s no accounting for subjectivity, and no filmmaker expresses this more than the great Alexandr Sokurov.

Being a bit of a fan of the man’s work, I wish I could wax lyrical about how great Alexandr Sokurov’s new film, Alexandra is, but the fact is I need to see it again (and maybe again – and then again!) before I feel qualified to comment on this apparently contradictory work: expressing pacifism on one hand, and an acceptance of imperialist expansionism on the other. I can see that the film is fundamentally a plea for peace, but the character of Alexandra Nikolaevna (an obvious stand-in for Alexandr Nikolaevich Sokurov) as played by Galina Vishnevskaya (a famous Russian soprano who was married to Rostropovich) expressed the kind of ‘noble determination of the common folk’ that harks back to the heroics of an earlier, more overtly propagandist period in Russian cinema. I wasn’t able to reconcile this somewhat sassy, feisty-willed (though physically frail) portrayal of Mother Russia mixing-it-up with Russian soldiers (“Grandmother and Sons” perhaps?) and Chechen townsfolk alike, moving through the military base and Chechen marketplace with a sagacious air of superiority and studied compassion. Her meeting with a local Chechen woman (slightly younger, but a grandmother too) came perilously close to cliché. Another hard to digest moment was when a Chechen boy says to her, “I know you have nothing to do with it, but please, give us our freedom.” “If only it were that simple,” she says. “An old Japanese woman once said, you should first ask God for intelligence. Strength doesn’t lie in weapons…” Uttered without a hint of irony, the implicit arrogance was too uncomfortable for me. Despite the intriguing notion of art (the opera singer Vishnevskaya) being dropped like a cultural bomb into a combat zone (touching on a Sokurovian theme in which physical frailty and strength rhyme against one another in an intriguingly elusive, never-ending tag-match), the film’s contradictions are a little too difficult for this die-hard Sokurovian to come to terms with just yet.

I’m prepared to admit that I’ve probably missed the essential substance of Alexandra. Watching an average of four films a day over two weeks, there will be casualties. I need to see the film again and think about it more, but despite my reservations I can at least recommend the film on an aesthetic level. Sokurov is one of the most visually and aurally expressive masters of contemporary cinema. His painterly images speak for themselves, and his intimate, beautifully textural, subtly layered sound designs are miraculously evocative. The rhythms of Sokurov’s films (including his documentaries, which [interestingly] there are more of than fiction films) have always been distinctly musical, and many of them express a passionate appreciation of the arts in which music features very highly. In the first part of his five-part series Spiritual Voices (1994, a film set among soldiers on the Afghan border), Sokurov discusses some of his favourite composers over an extremely long (45-minutes!) shot of a tree-lined ridge, during which the landscape gradually shifts in mood and tonality. There is a possible correlation between Voices and Alexandra (and quite possibly Father and Son, 2003), but without seeing them again I’m reluctant to speculate further. For the moment I am content to say that Alexandra is nothing if not sumptuous to look at and listen to.

Li Yang’s Blind Mountain has more in common with 5th generation Chinese filmmaking than 6th in terms of its traditional formal choices (particularly narrative and performance styles), but compared to most 5th generation films it is considerably more restrained. While it doesn’t live in the same aesthetic world as Jia Zhang-ke, the film could have pandered to mainstream sensibilities much more than it does (the director stayed mercifully clear of Zhang Yimou style audience pleasing). But given the potency of the film’s subject matter, I imagine that reaching a fairly broad Chinese (and global?) audience was very much what the director had in mind. Tightly directed, very well paced and plotted, politically and emotionally sincere, this very fine film is sure to make an impression on anyone who sees it. Blind Mountain is an engaging and worthwhile 90-minutes, and I would happily recommend it to anyone, but because of its relatively straightforward storyline and clear-cut formal and aesthetic properties, I’m unlikely to return to it a second time.

It’s a shame that Hana Makhmalbaf’s impressive debut, Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame, was a digital projection. The film itself may have been shot digitally, but the quality of the images should have been given the 35mm presentation they deserve. The digital glare of digibeta only cheapened the look and feel of this attractive and thoughtful film. Cinema obviously runs in the blood of the Makhmalbaf clan. Hana is every bit as talented as her sister Samira and father Mohsen, and just as intelligent and compassionate a filmmaker. Her acute social conscience informs every frame of this morally and ethically focused film. The film begins and ends with the destruction of the 2000 year old Buddhas of Bamyan Valley, and is set in the actual town where the Taliban destroyed these treasures in 2001. As a bookend it not only contextualises the film, but opens and closes it with a palpable sense of anger. The film is pointedly anti-war, anti-fundamentalist and anti-imperialist, and the non-professional cast (mostly children) emphasises the vulnerability of the ultimate victims of aggression and oppression. Through children’s games and the typically blunt way children speak to each other, Makhmalbaf exposes the cruelty and hatred of religious and political intransigence. Shot in a naturalistic style with little overt artfulness, the film is made up of unadorned, clean and honest images that quietly offer a formal equivalent to Makhmalbaf’s clearly focused moral and political intentions. An excellent debut from a very fine new filmmaker, Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame is well worth a look.

The titular enigma (whether Christopher Columbus was Portuguese or Genoan) of Manoel de Oliveira’s Christopher Columbus: The Enigma is only one of many potential enigmas in this playful and charming film. One possible enigma could stem from de Oliveira’s proclivity for leg pulling. An amusing premise in The Convent (1995, one of his most witty but critically savaged films) was that William Shakespeare was a Spanish Jew called Jacques Peres. In Columbus, the historic figure in question is purported to have been Spanish explorer, Cristóbal Colón. If it wasn’t for the fact that this has been a very serious academic pursuit for the real Dr. Manuel de Silva and his wife (the two central protagonists in Columbus, who have spent their lives researching Colón/Columbus), one could easily surmise that Cristóbal’s last name was in fact a hint that de Oliveira was once again pulling legs. There is no certainty that de Oliveira goes along with the central notion, but what is certain is his respect for Dr. Silva and his wife. Casting himself and his wife Maria Isabel as the elder De Silva couple, De Oliveira portrays their search for the glory of Portugal’s past as a romantic celebration of marital glory – extolling the virtues of fidelity, companionship and mutual reverence. Like his earlier Talking Picture (2003), Columbus is rich with a genuine passion for history. One can’t escape the thought that for 99-year old de Oliveira, the past has a lot to tell us about the future, and the present. His cinema is as much about considering ‘now’ and reflecting on ‘soon’ as it is about contemplating ‘then’. But the richest aspect of the film is de Oliveira’s cinematic intelligence, elegance and elegiac wit and wisdom. His films are slowly getting the recognition they deserve, but for years he was a virtual unknown among even the most dedicated cinephiles. In fact, de Oliveira himself could be a subtly enigmatic element in this quietly joyful and engaging movie. It’s a film for cine-gourmands who like their cinema rare.

The posthumous debut feature of the late Christian Nemescu (a young Romanian filmmaker who died in a car crash at only 28), California Dreamin’ (Endless) is not (in my view) one of the better examples of the Romanian New Wave. That’s not to say that it’s a bad film, in fact by the end of its rather long 155-minutes, Dreamin’ voices some very pertinent criticisms about America that, frankly, made the preceding couple of hours worth the effort – almost. I’m not sure exactly what the ‘Endless’ part of the title refers to, but if it has anything to do with the length of this particular cut, I can believe it. I’m no stranger to long films (hell, I’ve sat through Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Satantango in rapt attention four times), but this character-driven satire barely had enough meat on its bones to justify its generous running time. As an allegory its intentions were honourable and obviously deeply felt, but they were as heavy-handed as the plot was overtly crowd-pleasing. The rather personable and amusing set up pits local townsfolk against the might of the US Army (no less), with plenty of colourful shenanigans and mildly sexy bits of business to keep the punters happy. As agreeable as it is, Dreamin’ simply isn’t in the same league as other examples of New Romanian Cinema, such as Lucian Pintilie’s The Oak (1992), his very fine Tertium non datur (2005), and (judging by the reviews) his earlier The Re-enactment (1968, banned under the communist regime until 1990); Christi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005); Corneliu Porumboiu’s Liviu’s Dream (2004) and 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006); and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007). But to be fair, Nemescu was only 28, and he definitely had talent. I guess we’ll never know how great a loss to world cinema his tragic death was.

Woo Ming Jin’s The Elephant and the Sea was another impressive surprise this year. Prior to seeing the film I knew nothing about the filmmaker, or the fact that there is a burgeoning Malaysian cinema of which Woo is one of the major figures. Bill Gosden subtly hinted at potential parallels with Apichatpong Weerasethakul when he wrote in the festival booklet, “Tropical malaise is dramatised with dry absurdist wit and a wicked eye for the surreal in (this) absorbing, virtually wordless drama”. He was dead on. This beautifully observed minimalist gem may not revel quite so much in the cryptic metaphysics typical of Weerasethakul’s deliciously enigmatic puzzle-pieces, but it is nevertheless a film of great subtlety and complexity. Elephant reminded me of last year’s The Forsaken Land (2005, directed by Sri Lankan born Vimukthi Jayasundara), another quietly affecting film that slowly revealed its mysteries to patient and willing viewers, and also to the work of the great Taiwanese filmmaker, Tsai Ming-liang, particularly his recent I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2005). Elephant is an understated study of two men: an older fisherman (The Sea?) suffering the loss of his wife to a plague that threatens to engulf the entire area, and who is striving to find reasons for living; and a younger man (The Elephant?) hoping to find something to improve his hopeless prospects – firstly by faith in a supposedly lucky fish, then by attempting to sell his girlfriend into prostitution. The two never meet, but Woo parallels their stories to subtly emphasise the crushingly limiting options available to the rural poor on the western coast of Malaysia – and yet both men experience the ordinary miracle of self-realisation, the rebirth that each of them were unknowingly seeking. Compassionate, cine-literate and contemplative, The Elephant and the Sea signals the arrival of a strong new voice in Asian cinema.

Can any more be said about Michael Haneke’s Funny Games? Haneke obviously thought so, and it looks as though he was right. Funny Games (2007), the American ‘cover-version’ of his 1997 Austrian film, has had plenty of critical attention from professionals and punters alike – a lot of it reactive if not reactionary (just what Haneke had hoped for, no doubt). For those familiar with the original, the shot-for-shot replica is of interest mostly as a game of ‘spot-the-difference’, but also to pick up on the subtle variations of nuance between the European and American casts. It’s also interesting from the point of view that it has an identical look and feel to the original, which is a testament to Haneke’s exacting directorial control. Given that Hollywood apologists often pooh-pooh the notion of directors as auteurs, one only need look at the striking similarity between the two versions to see what an authorial artistic vision looks like. This in itself adds weight to the complexity of Haneke’s thematic intentions, particularly in terms of the sub-textual theme of art, authorship, morality and ethics. Whatever one makes of Haneke’s films, one thing is certain – he takes his artistic responsibilities very seriously. As a result, he is forever in the firing line from critics who are all-too-keen to take a swipe at him, but I’m of the opinion that this is exactly what Haneke wants. His films are essentially Trojan-horses, in that they lure critics, commentators and the public alike into exposing themselves by their comments. As such, Haneke’s films function as barometers of social and political guilt, fear, denial, apathy, or what have you. This alone is enough to get the dander up of those who see this as evidence of Haneke’s supposedly pompous if not supercilious grandstanding, unaware that their reaction betrays them in exactly the way Haneke relishes. The worst thing one can do to Haneke is to ignore him, but this would be akin to sticking one’s head in the sand. Like them or loathe them, Haneke’s films demand serious consideration, and frankly I enjoy the guilty pleasure of reading the rants and ravings of the anti-Hanekes – almost as much as those by the anti-Dumonts, but that’s another story.

Following his Tarkovsky-influenced debut, The Return (2003), Andrei Zvyagintsev’s second feature, The Banishment, is equally splendid. The influence of Andrei Tarkovsky is still present, particularly in one glorious tracking shot that recalls (and is almost as impressive as) the slow signature movement up a shallow stream strewn with pre-apocalyptic debris (money, religious iconography, abandoned technology, etc) in Stalker (1979). Apart from Tarkovsky and Chekhov, Strindberg and Bergman pay a visit, especially in the admittedly clunky late flashback where all is revealed – kind of, and many of the sumptuous images recall early Terrence Malick. But where Tarkovsky was resolutely concerned with spirituality and metaphysics, Zvyagintsev’s sub-textual intent appears to be political, albeit liberally furnished with religious embellishments. The banishment of the title could be read in various ways, although the notion of The Fall of Man and subsequent expulsion from The Garden under punishment of death (the consequence of sin) is the obvious starting point for what is presumably a broader political allegory. A friend of mine pointed out that the central protagonist’s wife was always decked out in dresses that were either white, blue or red: the colours of the Russian flag. Indeed, her character does represent something that the central character ought to honour and cherish, but ultimately squanders. The sense of allegory that surrounds everything and everyone may cause some to feel that there isn’t enough flesh-and-blood substance to The Banishment, which one can empathise with. All of the actors verge on being just a little too photogenic, although to be fair to Zvyagintsev, this is (after all) a film about paradise lost. As much as I enjoyed it, the more I reflect on the film the more my instincts tell me that Zvyagintsev has yet to find his stride as a filmmaker. As impressive as it is, it’s only his second film. In time I expect he will exorcise his more overt influences and, with any luck, settle into his own unique voice. In the meantime I’m quite happy to spend a couple hours in the company of this very fine filmmaker, relishing the exceptional qualities of his work.