A benefit of seeing so many mediocre movies at the Chicago International Film Festival (as I predicted in my festival overview, I’ve seen almost a dozen this year) is that they tend to be mediocre in similar ways, and therefore revealing of problems in current cinema on the whole. I noted yesterday a problem that might be described as arbitrary mystery, in which art films deliberately withhold key narrative information to create a sense of ambiguity. Ambiguity is indeed a hallmark of modern art movies—with Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura being the Citizen Kane of this sort of thing—but too many recent films remind us it isn’t an end in itself.
I’ll grant this to the South African film Of Good Report, which screens at CIFF tonight at 6:10 PM and on Saturday at 4:15 PM (and in a special off-site screening at the Logan Theatre on Sunday at 6:30 PM): it has a lot more fun with arbitrary mystery than any other film I’ve seen at the festival. Lead actor Mothusi Magano doesn’t speak once in the entire movie, even though his character’s an English teacher and presumably he talks sometimes (moreover, no one makes reference to him being mute). Writer-director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka shows us only those moments in which Magano communicates through body language—this is supposed to make him seem enigmatic, but the decision’s effective mainly because it allows the spectator to linger on the actor’s memorable physique. His puffy gums make him look as though he just got his wisdom teeth pulled—he seems vulnerable, like an overgrown child.
These associations add nuance to an otherwise blunt and sensationalistic portrait of a teacher’s sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student. The South African government banned the film in July, calling it child pornography. That’s a ludicrous charge, since Petronella Tshuma, who plays the student, is 23; but the movie feels so calculated to shock that I’m not surprised that the censors responded as they did. In classic exploitation movie fashion, Of Good Report gives us plenty of graphic sex and violence, then concludes with a few empty moralizing gestures. It’s indicative of Qubeka’s pile driver approach that he shows Magano literally sprouting devil horns near the end of the film. In an even more pretentious shot, he has Magano check out a copy of Lolita from the school library (you’d think he’d have read it already).
I’ll also grant this to Of Good Report: it’s not a mediocre film. It is a bad one. In Qubeka’s kamikaze mission to get a rise out of his audience, he works in unfunny drug jokes (with a stoner-handyman character who seems to have wandered in from an Adam Sandler comedy) and overwrought dream imagery that suggest misguided homages to David Lynch. This might work as a midnight show, but I’m not sure how forgiving the audiences will be in the early evening, when CIFF has scheduled the screenings.
Back on the mediocre front, the Greek drama Wild Duck (which screens again tomorrow at 3:30 PM) often cuts away from a fairly interesting story of a telecom expert uncovering corporate abuses of power with unnecessary shots of said expert in his remote hometown, walking through beautiful locations and looking glum. Another cliche of festival movies is the use of natural imagery as a substitute for visual style. You can find it in the CIFF entries The Invisible Collection (from Brazil), Lasting (a Spanish-Polish co-production), Melaza (from Cuba), and, outside of the festival, Jim Mickle’s misbegotten remake of We Are What We Are, essentially a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie with a festival-film gloss. Some art filmmakers, like Andrei Tarkovsky or Apichatpong Weerasethakul, convey a genuine awe of nature, making natural locations seem like sentient beings. Lacking that awe, filmmakers run the risk of imparting nothing more profound than, “This is pretty, isn’t it?” Worse yet, seeing films from so many different countries employ nature for the exact same purpose has the unfortunate effect of making very different topographies seem the same. To invoke another influential filmmaker (or whichever employee of his dreamed up the theme park attraction), is it a small world after all?