Friday, October 11, 2013

Vancouver International Film Festival 2013: Part One

Gebo and the Shadow 

The tendency as one ages is to move into consecutively smaller spaces. A house becomes an apartment becomes a room becomes a hospital bed. Manoel de Oliveira, still spry at the age of 104, appears to be going through a similar downsizing process with his filmmaking. Gebo and the Shadow mostly confines itself to a single, lamp-lit apartment, save for a few brief location shots, but those are so spare and devoid of context that they feel more like the haunted dreams of a shut-in than any real-world place. Indeed, the entire world feels like a shadowy thing just beyond the simple lives of elderly Gebo and his impoverished family. The only hope for a break from their grinding low-rent existence is the return of the long-vanished prodigal son, and even those dreams are ultimately dashed. With graceful economy, Oliveira crafts a suffocating atmosphere of stasis and isolation—the film rarely strays from a few basic shot setups, never mind the room itself. At the end, when sunshine from the street pours into the apartment and slices through this dark tableau, the effect is shocking. This is not a world you wish to see in the harsh light of day.

A Field in England 

So now we know what happens when an English civil war re-enactment society gorges itself with mushrooms and is set loose in the woods. You get something like Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, a hallucinogenic occult freak-out spiked with droll humour and grisly violence. At times, it can be hard to shake the suspicion that the director has no more idea what he’s doing in this field than his poor confused characters, but the film’s sinister charms and sheer bravura balance its flaws. Focused on just five people wandering the countryside, the film feels at once earthy and detached, a floating psychedelic trip grounded only by the occasional nod to base bodily matters (behold the challenges of shitting in the 17th century). Dodging the war, these characters are hunting for a vaguely defined, possibly supernatural treasure, but the search is merely pretext for daffy conversations and a delirious climactic montage that essentially breaks reality. All bonds are broken; all class divisions dissolved. Society tears itself apart, and the image follows suit.

A Long and Happy Life 

Astute viewers may sense a tinge of irony in calling this High Noon rehash A Long and Happy Life (I guess calling it "Russia is a Joyful and Prosperous Land" would have been too on the nose). Sadly, the rest of the film is as thuddingly obvious as the title. Sascha, the young leader of a farming commune, is forced by the government to sell his land, but his workers urge him to fight back. Against his better instincts, he agrees, only to watch helplessly as the rest of the commune abandons the cause. From there, the descent into violence is as inexorable as it is incoherent. Bricks start flying, brains are bashed, lives are ruined, and fatalistic gloom hangs over the proceedings like a suffocating fog. Director Boris Khlebnikov clearly has something to say about the danger of clinging to a past long since faded into ruin. Too bad he has to impose a grand finale on this modest tale, and in the process crush whatever credibility he had earned with his hitherto competent naturalism. Frankly, I would have been content just to watch Sascha build a chicken coop.

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