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Six Recommendations from the 2024 New Directors/New Films Festival


The 53rd annual edition of New Directors/New Films kicks off tonight and continues through April 14. Jointly presented by Film at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, New Directors showcases work from emerging filmmakers, largely culled from festivals such as Berlin, Cannes, Karlovy Vary, Locarno, Rotterdam and Sundance. The “New Directors” part of the name shouldn’t be taken too literally — in past years, selections were limited to first and second features, but that seems to no longer be the case: one director spotlighted below, Stephan Komanderev, is in his late 50s, with six features under his belt. But it’s fair to say that these are all filmmakers largely unknown to New York audiences. And ND/NF has earned the right to brag about its talent-spotting capabilities, claiming among its alumni Chantal Akerman, Pedro Almodóvar, Charles Burnett, Souleymane Cissé, Lee Chang-dong, Spike Lee, Kelly Reichardt, Guillermo del Toro and Wong Kar-wai. From this year’s slate of 25 features, I’ve chosen six favorites to write about, in the order in which they’ll screen at the festival. Go here for information about scheduling and ticketing.

Omen. Co-writer/director Baloji is a musician born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and raised in Belgium, and his dual cultural heritage informs his arresting debut feature. Koffi (Marc Zinga) was sent away to Belgium as an infant because a birthmark on his face was regarded as a mark of the devil. Now Koffi returns to his home village in Congo accompanied by his pregnant Belgian wife Alice (Lucie Debay). But his homecoming proves to be a seriocomic disaster: already triply alienated by his childhood “curse,” his foreign upbringing, and his white wife, he is cast out once again when he gets a nosebleed while holding his newborn nephew — his family thinks he’s trying to steal the baby’s soul. Baloji has a keen eye for color and design, a cheerful disregard for point-A-to-point-B narrative clarity, and a gift for crafting startling poetic images, as when a group of mourning women cry until their tears flood the room waist-deep with water. But Omen is strongest in its more naturalistic scenes, as its characters struggle to reconcile their hunger for freedom and self-definition with the bonds of family and tradition.

Explanation for Everything. The prospective viewer may recoil, as I did at first, from this Hungarian drama’s 152-minute running time. But Gábor Reisz’s film, while slow to get started, gradually builds to a steady trot and justifies its length with its intricate interweaving of multiple perspectives. A high-school senior fails his college placement exam and, fearing the wrath of his conservative father, claims his liberal history teacher flunked him because he disliked the boy’s politics. The father is outraged, a right-wing journalist on the come-up turns the story into front-page news, and a fresh skirmish in the culture war begins. Explanation for Everything is firmly grounded in the particulars of Orban’s Hungary, but audiences in the U.S. and all too many other places will find its depiction of a country riven by political polarization discomfitingly relatable. The film gives equal time to all viewpoints, illuminating each character’s beliefs and motivations, but is unsparing in showing how those beliefs curdle into dogma, distrust, and hatred.

Blaga’s Lessons. The title character of this Bulgarian thriller is a 70-year-old retired schoolteacher (played by Eli Skorcheva), recently widowed. A woman who has followed the rules all her life, Blaga falls victim to a telephone scam that robs her of the money she needs to pay for her husband’s burial. After a series of increasingly desperate attempts to make the money back, she realizes that the only way out of the hole is to join up with the scammers. Stephan Komandarev directs with expert efficiency, his handheld camera pushing in on the characters in cramped pensioners’ apartments and dingy police houses. There are kind souls in this world — a fellow retiree and scam victim, a young immigrant taking language lessons from Blaga — but they, like her, are overmatched by the corruption and criminality swirling around them. As a thriller, Blaga’s Lessonsis utterly absorbing from start to finish; as a portrait of moral rot eating away at a society and its people, it’s haunting and hard to shake.

Malu. While Explanation for Everything and Blaga’s Lessons are brilliantly constructed plots that put their characters through their paces, Pedro Freire’s Malu feels like its protagonist came first, and then a loose storyline was built up around her. Malu (Yara de Novaes) is a middle-aged actress living in Rio de Janeiro favela, a single mother, a free spirit, a force of nature, and a pain in the ass. Broke, stoned, full of ideas for a nonprofit theater that will never come to fruition, and almost certainly mentally unstable, she’s a character so vividly defined and richly imagined that it came as no surprise to learn that Freire based her on his own late mother, down to giving her the same name, Malu Rocha. Malu lives with her devoutly religious mother and is visited by her grown daughter, who loves Malu but has to keep her distance in order to preserve her own sense of self. The audience has no such option, and we’re by Malu’s side as she confronts the consequences of her careless life choices, and as encroaching age and illness threaten to snuff out her once-formidable energy. Malu exhausts and exasperates everyone around her, and one suspects that was also true of the real-life Malu. But Malu is a delight.

Intercepted. Oksana Karpovych’s documentary combines audio and video from separate but related sources. The audio is selected from thousands of phone calls Russian soldiers made in the early months of the invasion of Ukraine, which were intercepted by the Ukrainian security forces. The video consists of footage of battleground cities and towns recovering from the invasion. We hear soldiers speaking to their wives, girlfriends, and (most frequently) mothers about the war, and we see the destruction those soldiers have wrought: images of bombed-out kitchens and living rooms, abandoned office buildings, ruined tanks rotting beside empty roads. As the movie progresses, signs of life start to appear: men cleaning up wreckage, boys playing volleyball, neighbors greeting each other in the street, Ukrainian flags flying. But the audio provides no comparable relief. The phone calls are unrelentingly horrific: the horror of war, compounded by the horror of wartime propaganda. Soldiers boast about the “Nazis” and “fascists” they tortured and killed, as their mothers egg them on while muttering darkly about how the U.S. is intentionally spreading Covid in Russia. Karpovich employs a distanced, static, long-take camera style and edits at a glacial pace, holding the shots for much longer than she does the sounds. The images are powerful in their own right, but the detached visual approach seemed to me sometimes at odds with the raw emotion and feverish intensity of the phone conversations. (Perhaps the intention is to provide us with breathing room to think about what we’re hearing.) But this is a minor objection. Intercepted is essential viewing, a necessary confrontation with the worst that human beings are capable of.

Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry. The third feature from the Georgian director Elene Naveriani, adapted from a novel by Tamta Melashvili, is an enjoyably low-key comedy with undercurrents of melancholy. Etero (Eka Chavleishvili) is a 48-year-old shopkeeper, a loner by temperament and circumstance, and a virgin. A passionate encounter with a married delivery driver opens her up to the world of sex, awakening her to all that she has missed in life. “Do you realize how much beauty is around us?” she asks her friend. But Etero isn’t the type to throw everything away for love — she remains stubbornly independent, living for herself only, and this story of middle-aged romance becomes a feminist anti-fairy tale. The action unfolds in mellow long takes that emphasize the stillness and deliberation of the actors’ movements, but like Etero, underneath the film’s stolid surface it’s bursting with heat and sensuality. And color as well: Naveriani and her cinematographer Agnesh Pakozdi saturate the frame with cherry reds, mustard greens, and princely purples. At the center of it all is Chavleishvili; her unblinking Peter Lorre eyes take in everything, while her stout frame and ample flesh seem to glow as if lit from within. It’s a remarkable performance that lifts this superb film into the stratosphere.

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