Three for Three

Perhaps it’s simply the inevitable result of paring down my schedule from 44 films in 2005 (only 35 of which I actually saw) to “only” 33 this year, but my sense while researching and planning over the past weeks was that TIFF’s lineup is stronger, top to bottom, this time around than in previous years. I’m a bid disappointed that neither of my favorite filmmakers, Claire Denis and Hou Hsiao-hsien, has a new film here, but, otherwise, I feel good about all of my picks. None was chosen simply to fill a hole or out of convenience. None feels like a risk. And so far, three films in, my excitement over the quality of this year’s lineup has been confirmed.

After spending two weeks meticulously filling in my TIFF spreadsheet, I was surprised to find Climates, the latest film by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, at the top of the heap — surprised, mostly, because I’d never seen any of his previous work. I rented Distant (2002) last week and was completely captivated by it. Even before reaching the scenes that make explicit reference to Tarkovsky, I was smiling at the more subtle allusions — the clanging wind chimes, the mothers and sons, the struggling, alienated artists. How could I not love a film that was so obviously an homage to my all-time favorite, Mirror?

Climates didn’t move me quite so powerfully, but it’s a very good film nonetheless. Ceylan and his wife (Ebru Ceylan) play the starring roles, a couple in the final throes of a failing relationship. He is older, a university professor struggling to finish his thesis; she is an art designer working to establish a career in television and film production. The film opens as they’re breaking up and then follows him over the next few months, as he attempts to begin the next — and hopefully more satisfying — phase of his life.

Climates includes three or four key scenes — a daydream at the beach, a night in a hotel, and a brilliant sex scene — that will certainly be among my favorite moments of any film I see this year. Often employing incredibly shallow focus, Ceylan taps into that transcendent Tarkovsky “magic” by shattering his images into abstraction and, in doing so, offering shards of subjective emotion. At times, I was reminded of Denis’s sex scenes in Friday Night, but I haven’t decided yet if she and Ceylan are working toward similar ends. After I get home, I hope to give more thought and time to Climates, which, like Atom Egoyan’s Calendar, also uses photography and ancient religious architecture to raise questions about memory and national identity. (That last phrase is such an art film cliche [or maybe an art film criticism cliche], but I’m confident it’s true in this case, and it will make this film fun to write about and discuss.)

12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu) is set on December 22, 2005, the sixteenth anniversary of the overthrow of communism in Romania. A small town news anchor celebrates the event by inviting two men to join him for a live, on-camera discussion of their experiences in 1989, and he frames the chat with this central question: “Was there or was there not an actual revolution in their home town?” (That question, actually, is a more accurate and literal translation of the film’s original title.) Did anyone participate, locally, in the dangerous rebellion against authority, or did they simply join the national celebration after the revolution was complete?

12:08 East of Bucharest is neatly divided into two acts. In the first we meet the three main characters: a drunken school teacher, a retired principal, and the television “journalist.” The film works so well largely due to the lead performances, each of which is sympathetic and often hilarious. Porumboiu, an efficient storyteller, gives us snapshots of each man’s life and of life, in general, in 21st century Romania, begging the larger, more important question: what is the legacy of the revolution, and who, if anyone, benefited from it the most? When the three characters finally come together for the shooting of the TV program, the film shifts gears, and the final 45 minutes or so play more or less in real time. Their discussion, including the comments of call-in viewers, is pointed and at times even touching. It is also really, really funny. 12:08 East of Bucharest lends itself to over-simplified discussions of postmodernism and history, establishing “facts” before quickly dismantling them again as distorted and subjective memories. For every history of the revolution there is a counter-history, but Porumboiu, I think, finally comes down on the side of “the people,” in a liberal, humanist, and barely-political-at-all sense. For that reason — along with the laugh-out-loud comedy — I can see this becoming one of those films that, if properly marketed, is the foreign language film talked up by Americans who see only one or two foreign language films a year.

Judging by the snores, giggles, and sighs of frustration I heard around me in the theatre, I’m likely among the minority when I call Hamaca Paraguaya (Paz Encina) a stunning piece of filmmaking. It is the prototype of the “boring art film.” By my count, in fact, there are only fourteen camera setups in the entire movie, and they’re employed with an almost geometric rigor. By the fourth sequence in the film, its rhythms become obvious — they’re observable and dissectable. I’m tempted even to plot out the film’s form on graph paper. But the strict construction is only so interesting and effective because Encina maintains a constant tension between it and what really drives her film: the mysterious grief and love shared by the main characters, an aging couple who await the return of their son from war.

I use the word “mysterious” not because the couple’s love and grief are unmotivated. The plot, spare as it is, explains their son’s reasoning for going to war and it informs us that the man and woman have been together for decades. Rather, the “mystery” of the film is the mystery that haunts and shapes so much of human experience. It’s our strange tendency to deflect grief by talking about anything — anything — other than that which grieves us. It’s the rituals of intimacy. It’s the pendulum swings between hope and despair. I have a lot more to say about this film, and look forward to doing so when I have more time.