- The Mexican art film La Tirisia screens three times next week at the Chicago International Film Festival.
The other day, I wrote about the thrill of watching filmmakers fail spectacularly—a post inspired by the recent revival of Nagisa Oshima’s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, as well as the half-dozen unspectacular failures I’ve previewed for this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. Thinking about Oshima made me feel so good that I refrained from writing about the latter category, which would have reminded me of the disappointment I’d been trying to shake for the past couple weeks. As I’ve written before, CIFF has always been a grab bag, with many of the films arriving here with little fanfare and returning to obscurity once the festival ends. That programming strategy might have yielded eye-opening discoveries in past, when there were more discrete national filmmaking movements. But today the festival film is practically a genre unto itself, and movies on the international festival circuit tend to resemble each other as often (if not more so) than they resemble other movies from their native countries.
As such, each year at CIFF one now finds South American movies that feel like Middle Eastern movies and western European films that feel like eastern European films. They all seem to draw on the same pool of internationally respected auteurs (Kiarostami, Hou, Haneke, Pedro Costa, et cetera), combining them into something like Esperanto. (Of the six films we recommend in the first week of this year’s festival, it’s worth noting that four of them are by established auteurs.) I find it hard to hate most of these movies—they lack the courage to truly offend, and they tend to feature enough pretty images of nature or modernist architecture to palliate my disinterest. (For the record, the films that inspired these observations this year have been Artico from Spain, August Winds from Brazil, Force Majeure from Sweden, Next to Her from Israel, and La Tirisia from Mexico.)
Along with unambitious, static long takes (which suggest a gross simplification of Bazinian realism), pretty nature imagery is probably the most consistent element of the contemporary “festival film.” The makers of these films tend to present nature as virtually autonomous, commanding respect while resisting explanation. This perspective tends to carry over to the films’ depiction of life in remote places, as the filmmakers often cast actual inhabitants of these places in the name of some unvarnished naturalism. Unfortunately these inexperienced performers tend to be flat screen presences (though who can blame them?), and they tend to be upstaged by the surrounding mountains, deserts, or rain forest. One might accuse these festival films of catering to a politically correct form of exoticism, which grants so much “respectful” distance to the subjects that one leaves the theater without any significant gain in understanding.
So far I’ve seen lots of mountains in this year’s CIFF selections—so many, in fact, that I’m starting to find mountains dull. This points to a crucial lesson in cinematic art: no subject is inherently meaningful. A filmmaker cannot simply document a landscape, a building, or a face—he or she must apply some distinctive sensibility to it, so that meaning is created. In Thy Womb, one recent successful art movie, director Brillante Mendoza often cuts between landscape shots and medium-shots of his actors, suggesting a continuity between the dynamism of the environment and that of his characters. Olivier Assayas does something similar in Clouds of Sils Maria, one of the few must-see features I’ve encountered so far at CIFF this year, when he uses the Swiss Alps to reflect the characters’ vast, unpredictable psychologies. Both of these films court failure in their volatile mixes of naturalism, social commentary, and classic melodrama—love them or hate them, they stay with you.