Locarno Critic’s Notebook #2: The Dreamed Path, The Sun, The Sun Blinded Me and The Human Surge
Angela Schanelec’s continued lack of recognition, at least outside of Germany, is genuinely baffling. Judging from the dismissive-to-hostile reactions that followed the premiere of her eighth feature at the Locarno Film Festival, this regrettable state of affairs is unlikely to change. And yet, out of the competition entries I managed to see, The Dreamed Path is the only one I feel deserves to be called a masterpiece.
The Dreamed Path is a demanding film, even more so than Schanelec’s previous work, but the challenge is legitimated by being commensurate with her thematic ambition: to dissect the torturous dialectic between the universal human need for connection and the invisible forces that inhibit its fulfillment. The narrative, which begins in the 1980s before shifting to the present about halfway through, is split between two couples, one young and one middle-aged. Schanelec deliberately keeps the particulars of the relationships and their ill-fated trajectories familiar and largely unexceptional in order to zero in on the underlying existential dimension. This strategy is elaborated through her choice of a 4:3 frame and by having the actors, for the most part non-professionals, deliver all their lines with Bressonian impassivity. The film’s mise en scène is constructed with the utmost precision, each element in every frame evincing purposeful intention. As with fellow Bresson disciple Pedro Costa, Schanelec’s rigorously austere aesthetic has the effect that any departure – a music cue, an aberrant camera movement, a single tear bursting through a face’s stony façade – is amplified to earth-shattering proportions and the sparing deployment of such moments engenders an expression of empathy that is as vigorous as it is unembellished.
Schanelec’s detractors often accuse her films of stasis. A more fitting description, certainly for The Dreamed Path, would be that they’re preoccupied with permanence. Although the film makes big chronological and geographical jumps, these are not signaled immediately but take place within ellipses and only become apparent through subtle clues, usually anachronisms introduced sometime after the fact. Through this tactic, along with the ironic background incorporation of historical developments promising a closer union amongst societies – e.g. Greece’s entry into the European Union, or German reunification – Schanelec frames the isolation afflicting her characters as an essential and immutable characteristic of the human condition. In this regard, it’s appropriate that she should invite comparison to Kafka by at one point showing a character with a collection of his stories. Although she doesn’t share the great author’s overt absurdism, her film evokes an analogous sense of entrapment and ineluctability. The Dreamed Path is not a cheerful film, no, but like Kafka’s writing, Schanelec’s cinema is not one of defeat. If it were, surrender would be a choice both understandable and inevitable, whereas it is unambiguously presented as the ultimate tragedy.
Over in the sidebar Signs of Life, which showcases films with a more experimental slant, married directing duo Anka and Wilhelm Sasnal premiered The Sun, the Sun Blinded Me. Highly effective both as an adaptation of Camus’ The Stranger and as a social critique, the film is set in Poland and replaces the Algerian War with the ongoing refugee crisis to express a vehement indictment of contemporary Polish society and of the broader discourse around the European response to the crisis. The alienation of the protagonist, Rafał Mularz, is depicted as a product of the stifling conservatism and revolting racism that surrounds him and the encounter with the Arab on the beach, here a refugee on the run from the authorities, triggers a confrontation with his own morality representative of the Europe-wide dilemma between altruism and egocentrism.
Compact and meticulously designed, The Sun, the Sun is a stellar example of a low-budget film that transcends its limited means. The Sasnals do an expert job of conveying Mularz’s mounting disaffection through editing and sound design, as in a dinner party scene shot from behind his back. With the camera primarily framing his shoulder and nape in shallow focus, the casual racism of the indistinct other guests escalates into a disembodied chorus of slurs and viciousness, the frenetic editing transferring Mularz’s internal agitation to the viewer without ever showing his face. Similarly, his trial for murdering the refugee is entirely composed of facial close-ups, effecting an increasingly oppressive rotation through Mularz’s various accusers as they take turns in denouncing him as a callous monster. That the courtroom is never even glimpsed doesn’t at all diminish either the scene’s strength or its verisimilitude.
The most impressive discovery all festival was Eduardo Williams’ debut The Human Surge. Although slotted in Concorso Cineasti del Presente, the sidebar reserved for first and second features, it could easily have stood its own in the main competition. An innovative take on observational ethnofiction, the film is a triptych portrait of lower class youth in countries across the globe – Argentina, Mozambique and the Philippines – each part taking up a rough third of the film’s running time.
Williams’ assertive directorial flair is immediately signaled through the film’s gritty 16mm handheld cinematography. Following the protagonist of the Argentine segment as he navigates his environment, working a supermarket job or meeting friends amongst the popular housing towers of Buenos Aires’ periphery, the camera subverts the by-now cliché shaky-cam of so many films aspiring to social realism. In a rejection of self-effacing immediacy, the characters are usually framed from a distance in lengthy and languid takes that emphasize each one of the cameraman’s steps, resulting in a POV that constantly reminds the viewer of an external observer’s presence. Williams thus foregrounds his as well as our own voyeurism vis-à-vis the characters’ realities, which can often be unpleasant, as when they prostitute themselves via webcam to strangers across the internet. That these scenes don’t wallow in squalor represents another important subversion. Instead, in a remarkable balancing act that never slips into trivialization, the boys perform in front of the computer as a group, laughing and joking and mocking their virtual johns’ requests.
The webcam is also used to connect the Argentine and Mozambican segments. When the Buenos Aires protagonist enters a chatroom and watches a group of boys exhibiting themselves as his friends did earlier, the computer screen becomes one with the cinema screen. After a few minutes the camera zooms out and we realize we’re no longer watching the online feed but are actually in the room with the boys and have therefore relocated to another country. More than simply an ingenious cinematic trick, this transition is integral to the film’s critique of globalization, as is the fact that we have no way of knowing we’re in Mozambique – the boys are black and speak Portuguese, but it could just as well be Brazil or Angola or Guinea-Bissau or a number of other countries that were once under Portuguese rule. In turn, this disorientation brings in a postcolonial dimension, which will be further elaborated in the Philippine chapter, where the characters work in factories that produce electronics for transnational corporations. That Williams, who was born in 1987, is able to cogently incorporate such weighty, complex themes into a staggeringly accomplished first feature seems to indicate the arrival of a prodigious new talent in international cinema.