The 53rd Thessaloniki International Film Festival
by Jared Rapfogel

João Rui Guerra da Mata’s  The Last Time I Saw Macao

João Rui Guerra da Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao

This year’s Thessaloniki International Film Festival, the fifty-third edition of a venerable event that each fall brings some of the finest international cinema to Greece’s vibrant, historically fascinating, and (in common with the rest of the country) economically battered second city, was blessed with numerous highlights, reflecting what was in general a rich and bountiful year for cinéastes. 2012 found many of the world’s most respected filmmakers, long-established as well as newly ascendant, working at the height of their powers, and the festival’s lineup was studded with many of these gems: Leos Carax’s Holy Motors; Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love (and to a lesser extent,Paradise: Faith); Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills; Miguel Gomes’s Tabu; João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao; Darezhan Omirbayev’s Student; Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love; and Pablo Larraín’s No, among others. It was also a year that saw the untimely death of perhaps the greatest contemporary Greek filmmaker, Theo Angelopoulos (killed in a highway accident while shooting a film in January), whose work was honored with screenings of a handful of his films, and whose sudden passing hung heavy over the festival.

Thessaloniki’s International Festival (the city also plays host to a documentary film festival every spring) combines an International Competition with sections devoted to vanguard world cinema (Open Horizons), Greek cinema, and Balkan cinema, as well as extensive tributes to individual filmmakers (the focus this year was on Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki, Germany’s Andreas Dresen, and Iran’s Bahman Ghobadi). Open Horizons, as has been true in the past, had the most to offer (including almost all of the new films mentioned above). But the focus on Balkan cinema is perhaps the festival’s most distinctive feature, and this year’s section had much to recommend it, including new films by long-respected filmmakers Goran Paskaljevic (Serbia) and Zeki Demirkubuz (Turkey), promising works by newer filmmakers (Emin Alper’s Beyond the Hilland Paul Negoescu’s A Month in Thailand), and above all a retrospective of the work of the Romanian auteur, Cristian Mungiu, who burst onto the world cinema scene in 2007 with his grueling abortion-themed drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and whose newest feature, the more expansive and epic but equally intense Beyond the Hills(not to be confused with Emin Alper’s above-mentioned Beyond the Hill, singular) was one of the clear highlights of the festival overall.

The isolated setting of the religious order at the center of Cristian Mungiu's  Beyond the Hills

The isolated setting of the religious order at the center of Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills

Mungiu is a strange case insofar as the mastery, maturity, and gravity demonstrated by 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills is conspicuously absent from his earlier work. As deeply impressed as I was with Beyond the Hills, both this film and 4 Months seem to have been made by a profoundly different filmmaker than the one responsible for the earlier works I was able to see at the festival: a program of short films made between 1997–2000, which with one exception (the exquisite Mariana, Mungiu’s first short) were gimmicky, heavyhanded, and insufferably clever; and his first feature Occident, a film whose nearly unbearable cartoonishness and contrivance, not to mention its highly dubious treatment of race, make it the antithesis of Mungiu’s later work. (I wasn’t able to see the twenty-minute short Turkey Girl, made in 2000, or the omnibus feature Tales from the Golden Age, only part of which Mungiu directed himself, but whose production he initiated and oversaw.)

In any case, Beyond the Hills is a magnificent accomplishment, an exploration of the uses and abuses of faith that exerts a viselike grip every bit as relentless and harrowing as 4 Months, but somehow sustains the effect through a full two and a half hours and in an ostensibly far less claustrophobic setting—in place of the nondescript Bucharest exteriors and grubby hotel room of 4 MonthsBeyond the Hills features stunningly photographed landscapes, the isolated setting of a small religious order’s headquarters. The film traces the fissures and tensions that appear in the closed world of this religious order upon the appearance of Alina, come to visit her longtime friend Voichita, with whom she grew up in an orphanage and for whom she is revealed to harbor a deep emotional dependency. Alina is a profoundly damaged soul, an orphan whose neediness, fear of abandonment, and distrust of strangers is so extreme that she’s rendered incapable of forming healthy relationships. Voichita, in contrast, has found a measure of peace and emotional stability in her newfound religious community. When Alina attempts to woo her friend away from the order, Voichita counters by arguing for Alina to join her instead, an idea doomed to failure thanks to Alina’s emotional turbulence, as well as, perhaps, her inability to accept the isolation or to swallow the illusions that are part and parcel of life in the order. Though Alina’s lack of true devotion is amply apparent, she makes the strategic decision to remain with Voichita, and soon her mental disorder and lack of faith disturb the order’s existence so profoundly that the community deems her a case of demonic possession, setting into motion a tragic chain of events.

The genius of Beyond the Hills lies in its nuanced yet precise exploration of the morass of emotional needs, psychological delusions, religious sentiments, and misjudgments that Voichita’s presence brings to light, and in Mungiu’s breathtaking command of pacing, as he ever so patiently but relentlessly brings the film to a boiling point. Perhaps even more impressive is the film’s finely shaded portrait of Voichita, whose faith is both sincere and clearly composed of more than a small measure of practical consideration, a depiction immeasurably aided by the astounding, preternaturally composed, profoundly cinematic performance of the nonprofessional Cosmina Stratan. Stratan invests Voichita with an uncanny calm and composure, and suggests, with sublime subtlety, that Voichita is fully devoted to the order and its cause and yet that on some existential level she reserves her true inner life for herself.

Beyond the Hills’ theme—the allure as well as the potential destructiveness of religious faith—is very much at the heart of another one of the more remarkable films to screen at Thessaloniki: controversial Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith, the middle film in a trilogy portraying the vacations taken by three Austrian women (the first, Paradise: Love, was also at the festival, while the final film, Paradise: Hope, premieres at the Berlinale in February). Paradise: Faith is a portrait of Anna Maria, a middle-aged medical technician who has devoted her personal life to the service of her faith, and whose approach to her religion is a grim cocktail of masochistic self-denial at home and aggressive, moralistic, self-righteous proselytizing abroad. The first half of Faith reveals Anna Maria’s rabidly dogmatic brand of faith, one that is profoundly intolerant, both of her own drives and desires and of others’ philosophies and ways of life. Depicting the character in Seidl’s typically unflinching, clinical, sometimes almost unbearably over-the-top manner, the film at first appears to be a straightforward portrait of a religious fanatic. The picture is complicated though (and the drama amplified) upon the appearance of Anna Maria’s long-absent husband Nabil, a wheelchair-bound, Egyptian-born Muslim man, who returns out of the blue, much to Anna Maria’s chagrin. The second half of the film details the increasingly pitched battle between the two of them, Nabil expecting what he sees as his conjugal due, and Anna Maria presenting an impenetrable wall of religiosity.

Anna Maria (Maria Hofstatter) preparing to indulge in self-flagellation in Ulrich Seidl's  Paradise: Faith

Anna Maria (Maria Hofstatter) preparing to indulge in self-flagellation in Ulrich Seidl's Paradise: Faith

Seidl belongs to an informal group of contemporary filmmakers whose mastery is unimpeachable even as their sensibility is often deeply problematic, suffused with an adolescent desire to shock and a toxic revulsion towards their characters and their society (Michael Haneke is perhaps his closest relative in this sense, though Haneke lacks the outrageous, cruel, yet nevertheless enlivening sense of humor that pervades Seidl’s work). Seidl is very difficult to pin down in this regard, the balance between lofty, unself-critical contempt, and measured, always distanced, yet genuine sympathy for his characters, fluctuating dramatically from film to film. At his worst (for instance,Models), the films seem suffused with a hatred and a sense of superiority that is as problematic as anything depicted within the work. At their best (above all the extraordinary Import/Export), Seidl achieves a fully mature vision, one in which his depiction of the individual characters’ failings is deepened by an understanding of how these failings result, at least in part, from larger social and economic forces. Seidl is, to say the least, in no danger of succumbing to bleeding-heart liberal sentimentality, but its absence makes a film like Import/Export all the more powerful a depiction of the corruption and spiritual impoverishment of twenty-first-century capitalist society.

Paradise: Faith finds Seidl straying from the relative magnanimousness of Import/Export—Anna Maria’s fanaticism is so extreme and the relationship between her and Nabil so toxic that the film rarely rises above the sort of in-your-face grotesquerie that Seidl is clearly drawn to, but also capable of transcending. Faith is at its best when Seidl films Anna Maria’s interactions with outsiders, from a middle-aged unmarried couple who take issue with Anna Maria’s conviction that they are living in sin, to a dangerously drunk Russian prostitute from whose apartment Anna Maria seems lucky to escape alive. Clearly unscripted and allowed to stretch on beyond their functional necessity, these scenes demonstrate Seidl’s documentary-inflected approach, his interest in the texture of a scene rather than simply its narrative purpose. But overall, Faithis more deadening than shocking, an endurance test rather than a work of perception or enlightenment.

The first part of the trilogy, however—Paradise: Love—is a far superior film. It’s every bit as uncompromising as Faith, but surveys a much broader spectrum of emotions, ideas, and dramatic possibilities, and delves into much more complex issues of cultural collision, exploitation, desire, and need. Love focuses on the phenomenon of sex tourism in Africa by depicting the vacation taken by Anna Maria’s sister, Teresa (whose daughter is reportedly the protagonist of the forthcoming Paradise: Hope), to Kenya, in the company of a friend who is a seasoned sex tourist. In Kenya, Teresa inhabits a bizarre world, a swanky, European-tourist-filled resort that’s carefully removed (indeed, literally roped off from) the society around it, but ringed at its edges by locals poised to feed economically off the tourists, by catering to their need for souvenirs or much more.

The strength of Love—what gives it the multidimensionality that Faith perhaps lacks—is its sensitivity not only to the (mutual) exploitation defining the relationship between Teresa (and her ilk) and the Kenyans with whom she comes into (intimate) contact, but also to the loneliness, desire, and longing for sensual pleasure motivating Teresa (who is, after all, middle-aged and not in peak physical condition). Far be it from Seidl to give too much weight to Teresa’s emotional state or to steer the character anywhere near redemption (especially as she becomes increasingly dominant, cruel, and exploitative as she grows accustomed to the life of a sex tourist in Africa). But his acknowledgment of this dimension adds a level of nuance that brings the film back from the brink of the purely grotesque or nihilistic.

Above all, Paradise: Love amply demonstrates the potentially revelatory power of Seidl’s narrative approach, his preference for staging encounters between nonprofessional actors and filming the results with a documentarist’s curiosity, patience, and disregard for conventional dramatic pacing. Especially during the passages dramatizing Teresa’s first intimate encounter, Seidl lets the scenes develop organically, leaving a remarkable amount of space for us to register the multitude of different dimensions and dynamics involved in their relationship. The passages in which Seidl depicts Teresa and her Kenyan lover’s meeting, seduction, and eventual sexual encounter are genuinely difficult to watch, but the difficulty in this case is not simply because of how graphic (both emotionally and sexually) the depiction is, but also how challenging it is to process the complex, tangled web of cultural, psychological, and moral factors Seidl reveals.

The gifted Kazakh filmmaker Darezhan Omirbayev’s sensibility is very different from Seidl’s, but Omirbayev too is finely attuned to the moral, ethical, and emotional toll taken by twenty-first-century capitalism, a phenomenon he’s clearly well placed to comment on, given the profound transformations that the free-market economy has wreaked on the societies of Kazakhstan and the other former Soviet countries of Central Asia. The newest feature by Omirbayev (who was responsible for some of the finest films of the 1990s, including KairatCardiogram, and Killer), Student is a loose adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, transposing the story to present-day Kazakhstan’s capital, Almaty, a world of brutal, unrestrained economic competition and corruption. We first meet the film’s protagonist, the philosophy student Ali, as he participates on a film shoot, and before long he’s being beaten by thugs for spilling coffee on the lead actress, the trophy girlfriend of a Mercedes-driving, bodyguard-flanked banker. Later in the film, Ali attends a lecture from a professor who unrestrainedly sings the praises of social Darwinism. It’s in the context of this spiritually-impoverished, status-obsessed culture that Ali commits a seemingly senseless murder, shooting the proprietor of a local corner store, as well as an innocent bystander who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. Having earlier observed that “If competition is the principle of life, then logically we come to the conclusion that it’s alright to kill your competitor,” Ali’s act is presented as a symptom of a society whose values have become profoundly twisted. As in Dostoyevsky’s novel, it’s only following this act that Ali’s conscience is wakened and, ultimately, through his attachment to a poor, young deaf woman, he is redeemed. Filmed in Omirbayev’s customarily deadpan, uninflected, minimalist style, Student may not quite reach the heights of his best work, but it’s a powerful film, artfully fitting Dostoyevsky’s time-honored narrative to the grim realities of present-day Kazakhstan.

I mostly neglected the Greek section of the festival, which in my experience, and according to the testimony of fellow festivalgoers, is generally the weakest of the several components. On the other hand, the International Competition section included two Greek films, one of which—Ektoras Ligizos’s Boy Eating the Bird’s Food—garnered praise from many quarters. The other, Ilias Yannakakis’s Joy (the Greek title takes its name from its protagonist, Hara), was a curiosity, if ultimately not a fully successful one. Focusing initially on a woman and infant who appear to be mother and daughter, the film soon reveals that Hara is not the child’s natural mother but has in fact abducted her, for reasons that remain mysterious. Despite (or perhaps precisely because of) her dubious relationship to the child, she is deeply attentive and fiercely attached to her. When she’s apprehended and prosecuted, she lapses into a total and highly enigmatic silence, even as Yannakakis films the trial by focusing entirely on Hara, letting us hear but never see the questioning judges. Joy is an intriguing piece of work, with an eye-catching premise and an impressive, deeply committed central performance by Amalia Moutoussi. But it’s a film whose concepts and formal strategies are more clever than effective: Hara’s muteness seems overdetermined and gimmicky, and Yannakakis’s strategies—the withholding of information, the attempt to straddle realism and contrived plotting, the decision to keep the judges off-screen—call too much attention to themselves. Nevertheless, Joy is a striking, mysterious, and confidently constructed work.

Aside from the contemporary films, this year’s Greek section was graced with the tribute to Angelopoulos, which featured his masterpiece The Traveling Players (1975),Voyage to Cythera (1984), and the terrific 1988 film, Landscape in the Mist. Narrating the poignant voyage taken by two young siblings in search of the father they’ve never met (they base their search on their mother’s likely invented claim that he is away working in Berlin), Landscape in the Mist finds their travels culminating on the same Thessaloniki pier that is now home to the festival itself. Watching the film in a theater located just yards away from where these scenes were shot conjured a quality of ghostliness that was strangely appropriate to a memorial tribute, and beautifully tied together the festival’s programming, the work of Greece’s most famous and now sadly departed filmmaker, and the beautiful, energetic, resilient city of Thessaloniki itself.

Jared Rapfogel is a film programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York and a member of the Cineaste Editorial Board.

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Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2