International Films Edition: Bardo, Beautiful Beings and Under the Fig Trees
Three Academy Awards Contenders In A Rich International Field
Every year I try to watch more and more of the films in the Academy Awards’ Best International field. Last year, I managed to see 25 films. This year, I’m likely to surpass that number soon. My goal, currently, is to watch half of the field before the Oscars. Attending Karlovy Film Festival in the Czech Republic, TIFF, and Chicago International Film Festival made the prospect easier. And so has Virginia Film Festival, where I ticked a few more titles off my list.
For the first half this post, I’ll go through a rundown of what I watched at VAFF (this will be available to all subscribers. And for the second half, I’ll go deeper into what films in the field are sticking out to me (this will be for paid subscribers). Enjoy!
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s much-maligned, surrealist, semi-autobiographical film touched me in unexpected ways. It follows a documentary filmmaker and journalist, Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) on the verge of accepting a prestigious American award. Silverio, however, played with hangdog nerves, and a writerly curmudgeoness, has other concerns on his mind: The deceased child that he and his wife (Griselda Siciliani) still mourn, the weight of assimilation, the responsibility to speak for one’s people, the love for your former home and new home, and the rejection from both place — all still crowd his mind.
Bardo is at once an uniquely Mexican story — leaning on historic areas in Mexico City and Los Angeles to populate the film’s myriad expansive sets — but it’s also a narrative made for people of color, particularly creatives, who are always stuck between being too-much this, and not-enough that. It features a wry sense of humor, an interrogation of colonialist history, the exploitation by artists of vulnerable communities (which is cruelly ironic in a film accused of committing that very sin) and is sprawling, majestic, existential, heartbreaking, and delicately rendered. It could be accused of being self-important and vain, but cinema is filled with these very same films made by white creators. In any case, this is certainly Iñárritu’s most personal film — and his very best.
Iceland’s submission to the Academy Awards, Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s Beautiful Beings, a harrowing coming of age story with brutal emotions and even harsher outcomes, begins with so much promise, yet quickly unravels. It initially chronicles the life of Balli (Áskell Einar Pálmason), a routinely bullied teenager living in a broken family, subsisting in a dilapidated home. After a vicious attack by a gang of teens lands him in a hospital, Balli befriends Addi (Birgir Dagur Bjarkason). We don’t know why Addi takes such an interest in Balli: They’re from two different sides of the track (his mother is a psychic) and they have two contrasting temperaments. Addi, in fact, on the surface, is a bit of a goon: His friends include Siggi (Snorri Rafn Frímannsson), a malicious slacker, and Konni (Viktor Benóný Benediktsson) whose reputation for violence is so well-known that people call him the “animal.”
All four kids have difficult home lives, and when Beautiful Beings outlines their inner lives and their obstacles and their foibles (particularly their penchant for destruction) the film is sturdy. But in the second hour, the narrative becomes needlessly supernatural for reasons I still cannot discern. These scenes totally take the viewer out of the lived-in experience of these teenagers’ lives in lieu of trippy, nightmare imagery and instances of clairvoyance. I wish I liked this film more because much of it spoke to my childhood living on the West Side of Chicago. But it just loses the plot.
Under the Fig Trees
I wrote a bit about Under the Fig Trees, the empathetic slice of life film from Erige Sehiri, for IndieWire’s “Memo to Distributors.” I first watched this unique narrative at TIFF, where I fell in love with it, and was lucky enough to catch the film again at Virginia Film Festival.
Under the Fig Tress simply follow a group of pickers, mostly women, who every morning, board their boss’ pickup truck to a grove of fig trees. There they partake in idle gossip, make eyes between the branches, grow romance and distrust, and offer each other sturdy support. Though the vantage point jumps from character to character, we see this world primarily from the perspective of Fidé (Fidé Fdhili), a young outspoken woman in a scarf tied loosely around her hair. In a film filled with first-time actors, Fdhili sticks out. She is electric, and displays a deft sense for knowing how to play to the camera, and the ways it can heighten and soften a scene.
Sehiri is equally as sharp, allowing her lens to smoothly oscillate between vérité and fiction, and sometimes forcing those boundaries to dissolve. Evocative shots dappled in sun, thoughtful compositions and a brisk pace compose a rich piece that delves into gender, religion, betrayal and simmering beefs. The higher you climb in its narrative, the more truths Under the Fig Trees reveal.