On September 14–21, Message to Man film festival will showcase in St Petersburg the best examples of auteur cinema from all over the world, bringing filmmakers together. The programme is huge, with 130 viewings, 10 venues and a catalogue with several hundred pages that will take several weeks to read. If you are not just ready for such feats, we’ve got good news for you. Special programme Superreal Cinema offers the feature films that have already passed rigorous selection at major international film festivals. Furthermore, most of these films will not be released in Russia soon, and some of them may never be released at all. Russian film critics have studied the programme for you and selected FIVE films that are worth visiting the Northern Capital of Russia.
GOD EXISTS, HER NAME IS PETRUNIJA
by Teona Strugar Mitevska
St Petersburg première
The film by Teona Strugar Mitevska answers the theological question of “What if God is a woman?” with its very title. The protagonist finds herself in the middle of a religious scandal: she wins in a men-only competition that traditionally takes place every year during the holiday of the Epiphany. Such total disregard of the tradition quickly becomes the talk of the small Macedonian town. Members of all social institutions rise up against the girl and call on her to step down, admit her guilt and give up her hard-won trophy.
Mitevska’s protagonists live the lives of doleful meekness: 32-year-old jobless Petrunija for years cannot find a suitable job as a historian; a female reporter complains about the wage gap; garment factory workers habitually tolerate their director’s harassment.
Mitevska’s film shows gender inequality permeating both social and spiritual domains as something tragicomic. By demonstrating the absurdity of patriarchal views of characters and their reasons in their argument with Petrunija, the filmmaker derides the backwardness of the society that does not live up to today’s idea of a secular European state. The tragedy is already in the fact that unyielding Petrunija cannot change the attitude towards centuries-old values, and probably nobody can.
SORRY WE MISSED YOU
by Ken Loach
The works of Ken Loach, a British social realism genius, demonstrate how you can be hitting one spot year after year to learn to hit it spot-on after a mere decade or so. Sorry We Missed You may seem mockingly simple: two parents go to work, come back home and raise their kids, day in, day out (the father has just one day off, both parents are very busy, so the kids get out of hand). Yet it is still an attention grabber: you watch and worry about how these blue-collar workers will get through (he is a delivery worker who had to buy a van and who is now paying back the franchise; she is an in-home carer for the elderly), when corporations rob them every step of the way in the class-divided UK.
Unlike other socialists, Loach does not populate his films with superficial allusions and does not imitate Greek tragedies, instead showing the pragmatic and harsh truth of modern survival (for it cannot be called life). Children turn into cruel misfits, just like their parents (father sports time-faded tattoos underneath the sleeves of his delivery uniform), and there is not way out to be seen from this archaic non-liberalizeable system of world capital that rules over people.
The Wild Goose Lake
by Diao Yinan
In this city, the nights are alive with the sound of engines. Gangs of scooter thieves are waging turf wars for the best pieces of land. Zhou, a gang leader, accidentally kills a cop during a scooter theft that goes sideways. Now the wounded Zhou is the most wanted criminal and the whole city looks for him: his allies want to help him, his enemies, to finish him, while cops want to take revenge for his insolence.
Five years ago, Diao Yinan won the Berlinale’s Golden Bear with his Black Coal, Thin Ice. This year, his new film, The Wild Goose Lake, was selected for the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival, yet this patchwork-type thriller could have been a crown jewel in any programme, from genre to experimental. The Lake… is called a Chinese noire. The tensely wound main plot springs are a sign of a classic Hitchcockian suspense, yet its intensive neon pauses can be compared to the transcendental stare of Nicolas Winding Refn and its romantic non-meetings of characters, with the films of Wong Kar-wai. If you wind back time a bit, key signs of French poetic realism transpire: a set scene and uneasy flow of minutes before the date with Destiny.
But even if you do not identify this kinship, The Wild Goose Lake is still captivating. Diao Yinan makes time stop before a leap, as if it, just like that scooter in the film, can shift gears. And the viewers, too, intermittently freeze and pant, losing themselves in Diao Yinan’s multilayered world that is indifferent to its characters.
by Marco Bellocchio
In his new film The Traitor, political cinema veteran Marco Bellocchio continues to address the topic of corruptness of Italian elites, having chosen the 1986 Maxi trial as a backdrop for this courtroom drama that pretends to be a true gangster movie like Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
Tommaso Buscetta (portayed by the brilliant Pierfrancesco Favino), a high-ranking member of the Cosa Nostra, having faced the possibility of a life sentence, agreed to cooperate with the authorities. Based on his testimonial evidence, several hundreds of Sicilian gangsters were arrested and received long prison sentences. Slow-burning The Traitor in its culmination part – open court hearings – is melodramatic to such a degree that it resembles an opera by Verdi, such as Simon Boccanegra, for instance. Each of the defendants is performing a lyrical aria, and Bellocchio does not shy away from blatant dramatics. Yet the banality of death (and The Traitor’s body count is rising by the minute) is in good contrast with verbose crescendos of all these caricature mafiosi, because theatrics is in their genes.
All these colourful details, however, do not push the main idea into the background. In the sleepy and archaic Italy, especially its southern part, the past and the present are one, with church and omerta standing in the way of democracy. Violence is not an answer; according to Bellocchio, his country needs an education reform. This is what Buschetta and Giovanni Falcone, a famous judge who had been murdered during the trial, talk about at great lengths. Traditions replace laws and corporate ethics replace morality. The mafia has long been gone from the streets, but it is still in people’s heads.
I WAS AT HOME, BUT
by Angela Schanelec
Astrid’s son is gone. A week after, the teenager comes back home without giving any explanations. Both the mother and his teachers suspect that it can have something to do with the fact that he has lost his father. Very slowly, life goes back to normal.
Angela Schanelec’s film looks into children, adults and animals, comparing either their situations (a careful viewer will find similarities), or the ways to exist on-screen. To this end, Schanelec chooses to lay bare her filmmaking and to compose the film not just with what has been given, but with lacunae and omissions, keeping only a static camera for herself and giving the characters only a minimum set of lines and gestures in which actors could hide from her unwavering gaze. In the central monologue about a play in which terminal patients share the stage with actors, Astrid will speak out on fundamental differences between performance and reality. Can an animal lie? Can an actor offer more that their interpretation of a character? What is the role of the viewers themselves in the “actor/viewer” dichotomy?
Despite the nature of these questions, I Was at Home, But is a sensual film, even though its emotion is often hidden underneath its formal coldness. Schanelec shows how the family tragedy affects the son and Astrid herself; she conveys the mother’s desperation who realizes that her son is growing up, but cannot cope with it.
Nikita Smirnov’s review for SNOB magazine is available at https://snob.ru/entry/182399/