There are cinematic treasures on offer throughout this year’s New York Film Festival, but the scheduling is uneven. In this year’s edition (which begins Friday and runs through October 13th), and for no apparent reason, most of the best movies I’ve seen will screen in the later weeks—though Martin Scorsese’s new film, “The Irishman,” is the opening-day offering (and I won’t be seeing it until then—will report back). Some of the programming choices are also dubious. I’m disinclined to speak ill of specific films during a festival and before their theatrical release, but, in any case, I have seen some new films—at other festivals, special events, and private screenings—that I find far better than many of the offerings that I’ve seen in this year’s Main Slate. Which is to say that critics inclined either to wring their hands about crises in the realm of filmmaking—or to make excuses for mediocrities of the art-house consensus as a counterweight to Hollywood blockbusters—should rather be looking harder both at the festival’s selections and, above all, at the grievous state of theatrical release, which is keeping many of the best recent movies out of wider circulation.
One of the best movies in the festival’s first days, “Synonyms” (September 29th and October 1st), by the Israeli director Nadav Lapid, will be released in theatres October 25th, and I’ll go into more detail about it then. For now, it’s worth noting that it is a work in a peculiar form: faux realism. It’s the story of a young Israeli Jewish man named Yoav (played by Tom Mercier, in his first movie role), who arrives in Paris, soon after completing his mandatory military service, with the intention of undoing himself of his Israeli identity, both outer and inner. He’s a luxury vagrant who nearly dies of cold in an empty but fancy apartment; he’s rescued by a young French couple who become his friends and benefactors; and he inserts himself into French culture (and vice versa) with an abstract fury—studying a French dictionary, which gives the movie its title, and concentrating on avoiding the city’s aesthetic blandishments so that he can dig deep into its spirit and into his soul to replant his very roots with some version of Frenchness.
Yoav’s adventures, a modern-day version of nineteenth-century solitary romantic furor (I was reminded, above all, of Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger”), range through sex and politics, personal and familial betrayals, in explicit repudiations and mockeries of what he rejects as official Israeli militarism, belligerence, violence, and martial vanity. The tale may be chronological, and its events may be realistic, but its episodes are, above all, symbolic—the movie feels like a collection of Lapid’s own phantasms and furies, its drama only scantly concealing the eruptive power of his repressed rant. Yet what’s most original in the film is Mercier’s scathing and self-scourging performance (and there’s no gainsaying the importance of Yoav’s outfit, a collarless saffron-yellow coat). As evidenced in a recent interview in Cahiers du Cinéma, Lapid is a fascinating talker; one of the most captivating aspects of “Synonyms” is the palpable conflict between his desire to express his ideas and his quest to put them into cinematic form.
Bárbara Colen in a still from “Bacurau.”
Photograph Courtesy Film Society of Lincoln Center
The Brazilian film “Bacurau” (October 1st and 2nd), by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, is a political fantasy set in the near future and built on a meticulously and unflinchingly imagined social order. It’s set in western Pernambuco, Brazil, where a river has been dammed up by industrial interests working together with the government, depriving the village of Bacurau of water, which, instead, is brought in by tanker trucks. The village is riven by personal and political conflict. An elderly woman dies, and another woman, the town’s doctor, named Domingas (Sônia Braga), vents her differences with the deceased in a scandalous tirade amid the town’s funerary pageantry. The residents’ mockery of a campaigning politician in the pocket of business gives rise to a state of siege: Bacurau, which has been newly erased from digital maps, has its surrounding roads blocked, keeping the deliveries of water and other supplies from getting in. (A futuristic, flying-saucer-like drone is involved.) Then a band of paramilitaries, led by a German man (Udo Kier) and including American and Brazilian mercenaries, launch a killing spree. The townspeople put aside their differences and grudges and, with the help of the late woman’s granddaughter (Bárbara Colen) and a local outlaw (Thomas Aquino), set up a low-tech surveillance network and, digging deep into the town’s own revolutionary history, an effective network of armed resistance. Mendonça and Dornelles look closely at the terrifying paramilitary order and the bloodshed that it brings. They also delight in the meandering details of village life—its music, its traditions, and its rituals—and in observing the power of the villagers’ deep and rough-edged bond as they fuse into a principled and capable fighting force. The overall effect is to reclaim the very notion of populism in the name of progress.
A still from Nanni Moretti’s "Santiago, Italia."
Photograph Courtesy Sacher Film
“Santiago, Italia” (September 30th and October 2nd) is a documentary by Nanni Moretti, the Italian director who’s best known for his extravagant autofictions (such as “Palombella Rossa” and “Caro Diario”), in which he performs, puckishly and confrontationally, with a sharp edge of sociopolitical critique. In “Santiago, Italia,” Moretti starts from the end of a remarkable story: after the 1973 military coup that removed the Chilean President Salvador Allende and replaced him with a junta headed by Augusto Pinochet, Allende’s sympathizers, who were subject to arrest, torture, and execution, were given safe haven by one embassy in Santiago—the Italian embassy. Moretti approaches the story with a refined sense of political morality: he doesn’t foreground the Italian diplomats behind this rescue mission but, rather, Chileans themselves, who were allies of Allende’s and who, in interviews with Moretti, reconstruct the jubilation and liberation of Allende’s rise to power and also the tragic political conflicts that led to the coup. They speak to Moretti of their thwarted dreams of a fair, just, and democratic Chile and unsparingly reveal their experiences of incarceration and torture. Moretti’s interview, camera, and editing styles are clear, plain, and frank; the movie is as much a matter of personal encounters as of overarching politics—and the two come together in a dramatic twist when Moretti, the autofictioneer, comes out from behind the curtain while interviewing one of Pinochet’s convicted henchmen.