The 59th New York Film Festival
New York Film Festival selections include Prayers for the Stolen, A Chiara, C'mon C'mon, The Power of the Dog, Passing, and The Tragedy of Macbeth.
September 24–October 10, 2021
In early September, the New York Film Festival (NYFF) announced Kara Walker’s poster design for their 59th event, which took place in late September and early October.
Walker is a controversial figure in contemporary art, famous for her eerie silhouettes that critique the legacy of American racism and race- and gender-based violence. She often works with violent scenes made all the more disturbing because her chosen media doesn't always make it clear what is happening until you look more closely. Her NYFF poster works in a similar way.
Walker’s poster shows silhouettes of two women in the foreground. One woman fans out from the right holding out her phone. On the phone, the silhouette of a man jumps out against a white, red, and tan background—the only colors in the poster.
It at first seems a bit ironic to choose a poster design advertising the way many people perhaps watch movies (on their phones) for a festival all about showcasing film on the big screen. At the same time, however, the poster insists on democratizing film in a way that confronts the selectivity and eliteness of an event such as NYFF.
Walker describes her poster design:
The many events we are witness to, both absurd and horrifying, grand and quotidian, that are shared on small screens, resonated as a counterpoint to the legacy of cinema and the history of the New York Film Festival. What to make of the amateur filmmakers equipped with just cell phones and a critical eye?
Certainly made with a critical eye, Prayers for the Stolen (2021), directed by Tatiana Huezo, aims to make visible the lives of a mother and daughter living in a rural Mexican village. Drug lords frequently terrorize the village, where most inhabitants either work in a mine or in the poppy fields. As the daughter and her friends grow into adolescence, their parents try to cut their hair and dress them in boyish clothing to protect them from human trafficking.
Although the film starts slow, its pacing and exposition set up the tension and an intense plot. We’re witnessing the dawn of understanding upon these little girls as they grow up, and we get to experience this dawning of understanding along with them for ourselves. The film follows the perspective of the daughter and begins with many close-up shots, especially of the natural environment. Combined, these elements initially slowed the momentum of the film. As the girls age and learn more about the human trafficking, the pace picks up. Tensions increase, the stakes spike, and the film becomes riveting.
A film interested in exposing such dark subject matter could easily fall into the trap of making the village life seem depressing and nothing else. However, the film maintains a balance between tenderness and pain, joy and terror. In one scene, the girl is so fascinated by her teacher’s lesson that she whispers, face glowing, that she wants to be a teacher too. In another, she dances with her crush at a party after the rodeo. The action of the film is well-balanced: The scenes of the girls playing games are as engaging as the scenes of drug lords driving through the town firing guns.
Director Jonas Carpignano’s third film in his triptych, A Chiara (2021), also uses the perspective of a child and a twisted version of coming-of-age to reveal corruption—in this case, corruption in Calabria, Italy among economic hardship and organized crime. The film gets off to a slow start, but ultimately, comes full circle in a way that is moving and successful.
The film follows Chiara (Swamy Rotolo), a typical and content teenager who is close to her loving family. When Chiara discovers her father is a fugitive who works for the mafia, she begins to act out in an attempt to understand her family’s ties to the mafia. Social services steps in to have her adopted by a new family far away in Urbino, which they explain is Italy’s tactic for breaking up the mafia—breaking up the family. Filmed in shaky, close-up shots, A Chiara often feels visually claustrophobic and misses out on the opportunity to use landscape shots to establish Calabria and how the region contrasts with the northern city of Urbino.
Mafia stories may be an expansive genre, but A Chiara is contemporary, fresh, and urgent. Toward the end of the film, one scene in particular excelled at highlighting the emotionally moving complexity of the story. Chiara and her cousin are driving with her father hidden in the trunk of the car. The cousin begins telling Chiara fun facts about the city of Urbino as they find a new police road block with each turn.
One of the last films I saw, C’mon C’mon (2021), engages the perspective of children as well, but from the view of an adult trying to understand and appreciate the value of how children see the world. The film follows a radio journalist, Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), as he travels the country interviewing children about the future. While his sister takes care of her mentally-ill ex-husband, Johnny takes care of his young nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), and learns to appreciate family, the challenges of motherhood, and talking about emotions and mental well-being.
Filmed in black and white, the camera often relishes in cityscapes from Los Angeles to New York to New Orleans. The acting feels very naturalistic and Johnny’s interviews seem strikingly real, which gives the film the feeling of being a documentary or travelogue. The black and white also makes the film feel more like a documentation, stripping shots down to light and dark contrast rather than color, forcing the attention of the camera onto the relationships and recorded stories.
By interlacing interviews with a more personal storyline, the film posits an interesting thesis on the relationship between motherhood, mental illness, and American politics. The film honors the work of mothers and ties together politics and how our children are raised, but it's also a call to action: Recognize and share the burden of emotional labor mothers experience. As Johnny learns to listen to and respect his nephew, his interviews seem less like a gimmick for a show and more like an urgent need to hear out some of our youngest citizens. C’mon C’mon is ultimately humourous, bittersweet, and moving.
The Power of the Dog (2021) begins with voice-over narration from the son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) of the widowed Rose (Kirsten Dunst) about what he believes he had to do to protect his mother in order to be a man. Writer/director Jane Campion only includes one brief voice-over in the very beginning of the film, but it’s exactly what we need to interpret the story she unfolds. The film grapples with various forms of masculinity and sexuality through the Western, a genre that typically reinforces some of America’s fascination with unhealthy ideals of what it means to be a man as well as issues of repressed sexuality. Rose’s son, husband George (Jesse Plemons), and his brother, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) all represent clashing ideas of what it means to be a man.
Campion wanted a female director of photography in order to balance out the masculinity of the storyline. It’s not surprising cinematographer Ari Wegner and Campion started looking for the perfect place to shoot this beautiful film a year in advance. The sublime and austere valley surrounded by mountains enfolds us into the film’s world. The set is sometimes evocative of the whimsical Victorian houses in the rural west of Terrence Malick films. The austerity and isolation similarly evokes Edward Hopper paintings. The strongest Westerns are filmed on location and take time to revel in the natural landscape through expansive shots. Wegner’s keen visual eye lives up to the genre’s highest standards.
At NYFF, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst emphasized the work that went into becoming their characters. Cumberbatch described staying in character so much so that coming back to the modern real world was jarring at times. Dunst did “dream work,” which she described as therapy between an actor and their character. Indeed, the film peels back layers of characterization in fascinating ways, but the cast also succeeds at suggesting that even more complexity drives these characters then we’ll ever know in the space of the film.
Pedro Almodóvar’s latest feature, Parallel Mothers (2021), is a story of a grave and of two births, of inheritance and political memory. The film follows Janis (Penélope Cruz), a photographer desperate to hire a forensic anthropologist to open up a Spanish Civil War mass grave where she believes her great-grandfather is buried. She ends up having the anthropologist’s baby and strikes up a connection with another single mother sharing her room in the hospital. The film then follows Janis’s experience of motherhood, her work-life balance, and her aim to solve the mystery of the men who disappeared from her village.
The film could have easily felt like a soap opera where the women's only concerns were babies, motherhood, men, and male-gaze-induced lesbian sex scenes, but Almodóvar skillfully navigates the film away from that terrority. Indulgent scenes of Janis at work on photography shoots balance out the conflicts in her personal affairs. In terms of the relationships between all of the characters, Almodóvar said he sees them as a new type of family bound by love. He is not interested in labels and categories, but just letting characters who love each other form a family however makes sense to them.
The film masters a refreshing balance between high drama, witty humor, dark tragedy, and every emotion and human experience in between. Almodóvar uses humorous editing, like abruptly cutting from Janis heavily breathing during sex with the anthropologist to Janis heavily breathing in another scene—the camera pans out to reveal that she's in labor.
While the narrative is compelling, the more interesting historical and political story of the grave could have been better woven into the story of the mothers to make a stronger thesis. Bookending the film with the grave makes it feel almost forgotten in the middle. Then again, at NYFF, Almodóvar spoke about how, historically, many people could not speak about such atrocities for many years, but that did not mean they forgot. The story of the grave goes silent in the film but is never forgotten.
Passing (2021) directed by Rebecca Hall is based on the 1929 Nella Larson novel of the same name, a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. It follows Irene (Tessa Thompson), a seemingly content doctor’s wife and mother of two children who also actively volunteers and participates in artistic circles. While attempting to pass for white in order to more easily run errands, she runs into a childhood friend, Clare (Ruth Negga), whose husband doesn’t know she is black. Clare inserts and weaves herself into Irene’s life, unsettling Irene and her organized world, as the narrative spirals with her.
Filmed in black and white, the sets and costumes all capture the glitz and glamor of the Roaring Twenties. The cast is captivating, and Ruth Negga delivers a performance that so fully embodies her character and showcases her range as an actor, while Tessa Thompson captures the subtlety of a character who tries to remain composed while her world unravels.
The writing is the star of the film. The sharp script is well-written and well-balanced. It maneuvers the subtly shifting social dynamics and complex feelings Irene and Clare share.
Lastly, The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021). When I first saw Macbeth on the list, I have to admit, I wondered if more Shakespeare was really worthwhile. However, director Joel Coen’s approach—a complete departure from the films he made with his brother—is fresh, artistic, and innovative.
Coen makes some unusual choices: Filmed in a near-square format in black and white and with an extremely austere set, the film delivers a unique aesthetic.
While many Shakespeare adaptations feel stuffy or forced into a new context, this film makes only the most necessary and minimal gestures to the historical context of the play. The costumes are loosely medieval, but minimal. The natural landscape is barren and each shot only focuses on what elements are essential to the scene. For example, the first time the witches appear is on a beach in front of a pool. Only one witch appears, the other two figures flicker in the reflection of the pool. Macbeth’s castle is unornamented. Stone walls create almost abstract planes, and in the final fight of the film, the walls of the throne room dissolve into the woods where the army has been marching to battle just outside. In this way, the film occupies a sort of mystical, uncanny space that feels like a historical dreamscape. Coen described the film’s aesthetic as “sculptural,” and claims, “It was about taking things away,” which allowed the dialogue to shine. The minimal sets with the stark contrast and lighting combine the best of film and theater and show how elements of these art forms can complement each other.
Plus, I cannot imagine a better Macbeth and Lady Macbeth than Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. In reference to Roman Polanski’s claim that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth should be played by actors young enough to still be ambitious, Washington and McDormand adamantly disagreed. They are most certainly not too old for ambition. At NYFF, McDormand described the pressure and urgency of the Macbeths “last chance at ambition.”
While Macbeth and Parallel Mothers focus on legacy and inheritance, an interesting trend of the other films is the emphasis on children's perspectives as they learn about corruption. As we wrestle with a pandemic that is deeply entrenched in world politics and has been in the making for a long time, perhaps telling stories through the eyes of children allows us to re-sensitize ourselves to pressing issues. Now is certainly a moment to question legacy and inheritance.