From Midi Z to blooming competition: The Palace on the Sea, Stations of the Cross and Sorrow and Joy.

The Palace on the Sea (2014)

And on the 6th day competition starts to bloom.

Pushed back to the weekdays – not just in my personal schedule but in the festival’s own – competition overlays during the week or is even screened only after the Awards Ceremony in an arrangement that I find really puzzling. With the week starting I could finally get a glimpse of the picture of what the International Competition has to offer at EIFF 2014. I added Stations of the Cross (dir. Dietrich Bruggemann) and Sorrow and Joy (dir. Nils Malmros) to Ice Poison, the only entry on the group I’d seen till now and watched two films very distinct from each other, both dealing with delicate and so often avoided themes.

Yet before, there was time for City and Wilderness, another shorts session. This one under the influence of cityscape and landscape on individuals.

It started with Within and Without (dir. Joelle Desjardins Paquette) of which I can’t find that much to say. Everything is in its place, some nice static shots that describe us the mood and geography of the space the character inhabits, a good performance by the lead kid, and that’s it. Everything else about the way the story (an apathetic mother and her son, living secretly in a big storage facility, where he takes care of her and tries to put her back on track) is told seems forced or over highlighted with nothing out of the ordinary, despite the idiosyncratic characters that pop in for no apparent reason than to give the film a “colourful tone”.

Then, with Little Black Fish (dir. Azra Deniz Okyay ) we got a less polished work but far more interesting even if a bit schematic. It was clear from the beginning what was the subject (that there was a specific subject, an issue) and which was the way the film would roll, but the performances of the actresses and the structure of the narrative with its almost concealed flashback shifts placed as layers, turned it into a much more surprising and enjoyable film, with a lightness that made the issue (illegal immigration / free will to inhabit your place of choice) less rigid and one dimensional.

In the third film of the session I was (gladly) back to Midi Z, who once again impressed me, with a very different film from his others that were screened in the festival (Ice Poison and Burial Clothes). The Palace on the Sea is a breathtaking film where every shot and every element feels precise and irreplaceable and it’s (formally) as different from Ice Poison as Taiwan is from Burma, respectively. In this film we meet the same character, Sanmei, before she goes back to her Burmese hometown. The film starts with a wandering floating camera following Samnei (she wears what seems to be a traditional dress and only the golden make up on the cheeks links her looks in both worlds) through the tall buildings and paved streets of Taiwan. She looks confused and the camera is empathic; she’s not confused, she wants to go home. Right away the film makes a statement on how dangerous this decision is – women in the street warning her, and us, about it – and if you saw Ice Poison you know the extent of that danger but from then on – and after she finds a big abandoned floating building, her desire proves to be, even more than a necessity, an evident part of her body, something pressing her ribs or inside her throat. In one of the most beautiful and moving scenes of the film, the camera is close to her face, she quietly cries repeating to no one: I want to go home / I need to go home / Let me go home; like a mantra. A voice, hovering over the town and in the same obsessive way (how many times are needed, how many times till it’s soaked) will prove she’s not alone answering in the form of blessing: May all beings living to the West / All beings of the universe / They all be free.

In the end she crawls back, in a dreamy and dark reverse shot, to the place from where she came out (but we didn’t see her coming from there) in a stunningly mysterious sequence. She crawls back into a garage while the door closes down on her. She’s stored, as furniture or something. It’s still getting inside me, I’m still trying to put it all together and I’ll definitely come back to it later. Stay close.

Stations of the Cross (2014)

Dietrich Bruggemann’s Stations of the Cross was a great surprise. It is an impressively balanced film that doesn’t allow its strong formal structure to constrain or stiffen the action and the visual composition. The film is an episodic chronicle of the last days of a young girl trying to cope with the mundanity in her spiritual life and the way that spirituality is killed through means of oppression and turned into a calvary, setting her apart from both the joys of the spiritual and the mundane. Even though the director’s use of chapters (the biblical 14 stations of the cross) to build the narrative is not surprising, the way he works those individual chapters, locating them in restricted spaces (a church room, in the first station, is the perfect tableau as, later in another station, the living room is mirroring it too) and the use of a single shot for each one, draws our attention for the extrictly essential – in a story much about essence. Bruggemann has also the ability to compose and tell us as much about the characters, through the use of those bounded places – their movements, their relation with each other and with the elements in the frame – as through the use of dialogue (one of those locations is a car, which gives the characters a sense of movement but the audience, a sense of imprisonment). With a sober and quiet cinematography, fairly following the descent of the character to isolation – that insidious white in the church anticipating the exploding horrific white in the clinic – precise and gripping dialogue and a superb performance by the actress that plays Maria, the lead girl (Lea van Acken) and the actor Florian Stetter, who sets all the bases for the film’s launching with his amazing performance as a benign and charmingly perverse priest, Stations of the Cross feels like a strong contender.

Sorrow and Joy (2013)

The same I wouldn’t unfortunately say about my next and final session of the day, Sorrow and Joy (dir. Nils Malmros). Unfortunately solely because I got the feeling that such a degree of exposure and catharsis should translate into a much more exciting, or at least interesting, filmic vision which was, I dare to say, absent throughout the entire time of the screening. I can’t say that there is something (cinematically) terribly wrong with this (true, the director’s own) story about a couple in which the wife, suffering from severe depression, kills their baby daughter and then overcomes the tragedy with the help of her husband – the script enough is so horribly striking and close to the heart that the best would always be to tone it down – but there is also nothing right, nothing extrictly cinematic, even. To be clear, essential, objective or fair is not really the same as to be anodyne, dull or perspectiveless. The actors weren’t bad, cinematography ok, and the story (mostly told through flashbacks) is in itself interesting but I left the room with the strong feeling that I could have read it in a book or a magazine, listen to it on the radio, watch a tv series, a documentary or a journalistic piece about it and I would get the same, all of them having the same value, as the medium would be a mere support with no specificities whatsoever.

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