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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (31/12/2022)

(An overdue overview of some of the films that screened at the 66th BFI London Film Festival)

Another London Film Festival has been and gone. The 66th edition seemed to pass in a flash, but the event is much slimmer these days than it was a decade ago. Here are a few thoughts on some of the features on the 2022 programme.

Leonora Addio - Ninety year-old Paolo Taviani returns to film-making for the first time since the 2018 death of his co-director brother, Vittorio, with this rhapsodic monochrome requiem following the remains of Nobel laureate Luigi Pirandello on their last journey from the grandeur of Fascist Rome to the rural Sicilian town of Agrigento where the author was born. Having decided against flying after the other passengers on a US Army plane refuse to travel with an urnful of ashes, an escort (Fabrizio Ferracane) takes a microcosmic train south, only to lose his companion in the baggage car. His problems don't end there, however, as he still has to negotiate with an intransigent bishop (Claudio Bigagli) and make do with a child's coffin because there's a shortage following a flu epidemic.

Following a sequence showing Pirandello bidding farewell to his children (who age before his eyes, as they cross the room to his bed), the scene cuts to Brooklyn for a dramatisation of `The Nail' (written 20 days before Pirandello's death in 1936), which shows how singing Sicilian busboy Bastianeddu (Matteo Pittiruti) wanders away from the family restaurant to murder (`on purpose') a red-haired girl named Betty (Dania Marino) with a nail fallen from a cart, after she had been involved in a fierce fight on a piece of wasteland. Filled with remorse, he vows to visit her grave annually after his release from prison.

Feeling like an outtake from Kaos, the Tavianis' 1984 anthology of five Pirandello stories, this colour vignette reinforces the themes of loss, the swift passage of time, the randomness and fragility of existence; and the relationship between representation and interpretation. For all its poignancy, it feels a little tacked on pales by comparison with the clips from Roberto Rossellini, Alberto Lattuada, Aldo Vergano, Gillo Pontecorvo, Nino Manfredi, Carlo Lizzani, and Michelangelo Antonioni that Taviani and editor Robert Perpignano expertly use to punctuate the Sicilian odyssey (there's even a homage to Stanley Kubrick). Yet it echoes Pirandello's words after the Nobel ceremony: `I've never felt so alone and so sad. The sweetness of the glory cannot compensate for the bitterness of how much it cost.'

Very much a fraternal tribute and a reflection on the Italian cinema to which the Tavianis had contributed with such distinction, this realisation of a project that dates back four decades can also be read as a treatise on reputation and legacy in a time of cancel culture. Paolo Carnera and Simone Zampagni's photography and Nicola Piovani's orchestral score capture this bittersweetness, while production designer Emita Frigato references Pirandellian theatricality. If this mosaic of moods, styles, and forms is to be Paolo Taviani's farewell, he departs on a note of nostalgic affection and resilient grace.

Ashkal - The Tunisian Revolution was sparked in 2011 by the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. Consequently, the discovery of charred corpses in the abandoned Gardens of Carthage compound in Tunis risks having an emotive effect upon the population and detectives Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) and Batal (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa) are ordered to wrap the case up as speedily as possible. However, clues are hard to come by, while the truth commission being chaired by Fatma's father impacts upon her relationship with Batal, who worked for the toppled regime.

Making atmospheric use of the totemic setting, cinematographer Hazem Berrabah casts a noirish pall over proceedings that creep between the conspiratorial and the supernatural. The leads also ably convey the strain of dealing with the issues facing Fatma (misogyny and nepotism) and Batal (guilt and trepidation). Yet, for all the intrigue, sophomore director Youssef Chebbi and co-scenarist François-Michel Allegrini struggle to weave the disparate elements into a cogent mystery, particularly during a consciously unresolved, but over-hasty denouement.

Fragments of Paradise - Few directors can be more fortunate than KD Davison in having so much material from which to fashion a documentary. Having fled his native Lithuania after a chequered response to the events and ethea of the Second World War, Jonas Mekas arrived in New York with his brother Adolfas. Armed with a Bolex 16mm camera, he started to chronicle his life as a poet and critic. Committed to avant-garde cinema, he championed such provocative film-makers as Jack Smith, Marie Menken and the members of the Fluxus group, including Yoko Ono. He persuaded Andy Warhol to make films and worked tireless in preserving and screening avant-garde titles through the Anthology Film Archive.

During his 96 years, he also made such landmarks as The Brig (1964), Walden (aka Diaries, Notes and Sketches, 1969), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), and As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000). Yet, while he is feted here by the likes of Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, and Marina Abramovic, ex-wife Hollis Melton reveals another side of Mekas that comes across in the largely unseen footage that Davison has selected to explore the private torments and flaws of a generous benefactor, a skilled communicator, a tireless networker, and a committed artist. In the depths of one sleepless night spent wondering whether his life had mattered, he posed the question, `Who Am I?'. This fine centenary profile goes someway to providing a fraction of the answers.

Mini-Zlatan and Uncle Darling - Vague echoes of Bo Widerberg's Fimpen (1974) can be felt in Christian Lo's adaptation of a popular Swedish children's book by Pija Lindenbaum. Ella (Agnes Colliander) is football mad and wears a yellow No.10 shirt when having a kick around. She also adores her hairdresser uncle, Tommy (Simon J. Berger), and is most put out when her parents set off on holiday and billet her with grandma (Inger Nilsson) and her sons, Ville, Valle and Viktor (Mikael, Patrik and Robin Wadenholt).

Wangling a sleepover with Uncle Tommy, Ella decides to stay the week and is displeased when Tommy welcomes a visitor from Holland. Steve (Tibor Lukács) tries to win Ella's favour with an Ajax football and seems so inseparable from Uncle Tommy that he tags along on a day trip to a monster theme park.

Classmate Otto (Danyar Zeydanlioglu) lends Ella his pet rats, Eva and Kerstin, to drive Steve away. But he seals them in a cupboard and they escape. Indeed, all Ella's schemes backfire, including putting salt in the sugar shaker, sending flowers with mysterious notes, and coaxing Steve into cooking Tommy's most hated pork fritter dish.

Just as she's about to give up, however, Steve cuts his losses and heads for the airport. The only trouble is, her uncle is heartbroken on the night of a big runaway show and Ella has to enlist the help of the triplets in order to save the day with a curling shot through the frame of the departure gate.

Scandinavian cinema has always been good at exploring social issues from a child's perspective. Ella not only learns how to share in this engaging saga, but she also gets to understand same-sex relationships and how tough life has been for her best friend since his father walked out on his florist mother.

Curiously, we don't get to discuss Ella's peculiar relationship with her parents or find out which one is Tommy's sibling. The role of Majsan, the trans or cross-dressing salon assistant, is also left hanging, while the casting of YouTuber-comedianWilliam Spetz feels misjudged. Nevertheless, this entertains and enlightens and the art lesson discussions between Agnes Colliander and Danyar Zeydanioglu are a delight.

Our Lady of the Chinese Shop - A member of the experimental Geração 80 audiovisual collective, Ery Claver makes a solid start to his directorial career with this allegorical snapshot of life in the Angolan capital, Luanda. The plastic statues of the title are imported by a Chinese shopkeeper (Meili Li), who serves as the narrator, as we learn the effects that they have on Domingas (Cláudia Púcuta), a mother grieving for her daughter, who has a shiftless husband and a leak in her roof; Pelle (David Caracol), a barber with ambitions to establish a cult of personality; and Zoyo (Willi Ribeiro), a youth searching for his lost dog.

Photographed by Eduardo Kropotkine with a jarring mix of classicism and kineticism, the storylines criss-cross in a meandering manner, as Claver contrasts Angola's colonial past with the growing influence of China. Crucial to this is an extended sequence at the sports stadium, in which a banquet is held for a visiting dignitary and a political hopeful is humiliated when he fails to secure a promised sinecure. The merchant sits in the stands, surrounded by hanging jerseys flapping in the wind, smoking and smiling wryly, as he witnesses this failure of power in action. But Claver ends with a backlash blaze that suggests Angolans aren't ready to surrender meekly for a second time. More visually striking than thematically dense, this haunting treatise on cultural hybridity may not delve deeply beneath the surface and sometimes seems cumbersome, but it more than atones with its vibrancy, poignancy, and potency.

Palm Tree and Power Lines - An air of inevitability pervades Jamie Dack's feature bow, which she has expanded from an award-winning 2018 short of the same name. Tired of being nagged by estate agent mother Sandra (Gretchen Moll) and bored of hanging out with best friend Amber (Quinn Frankel) and a gaggle of exploitative boys, 17 year-old Lea (debutant Lily McInerny) allows herself to be seduced by Tom (Jonathan Tucker) after he rescues her from an incident at a small-town diner. She knows to be wary of strangers, especially when they offer her a lift in their pick-up truck and are twice her age. But not only is Tom charming, mature, he also seems to understand Lea and how she views the world.

Alarm bells will be ringing for most long before Lea ventures into Tom's motel room. But she remains oblivious to his grooming and manipulation right up until the moment he pimps her out during a trip out of town. By presenting the action from Lea's perspective, Dack, co-writer Audrey Findlay, and cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj trap the audience in a state of helpless despair that is somewhat dissipated by what is intended to be a shocking conclusion. Nevertheless, thanks to Dack's meticulous pacing and the performances of the achingly vulnerable Lily McInerny and the chillingly convincing Jonathan Tucker, this leaves a sullyingly sobering impression.

Piaffe - Following in the hoofprints of Ivan Tverdovsky's Zoology (2016), visual artist Ann Oren's feature bow is a treatise on gender fluidity, sexual desire, creativity, and control also demonstrates a familiarity with Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio (2012). At its heart is Eva (Simone Bucio), a Berlin Foley artist who is concerned by the sudden and mysterious hospitalisation of her sister, Zara (Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau), after she is commissioned to do a rush job on an equine commercial for a mood-stablising drug.

Unable to please her director (Josef Ostendorf) or appease her sibling's nurse (Lea Draeger), Eva becomes so obsessed with her task that she starts to grow her own tail. She consults a specialist, but is taught to accept her new appendage by Dr Novak (Sebastian Rudolph), a botanist who avers that ferns have much to teach humans when it comes to

sexual identity.

Taking its title from a dressage move, this arresting picture should be seen with its sequel short, Passage, in which Paetau gets to create the sound effects. Whether champing on a gold chain to reproduce the noise of a bridle or dancing wildly in a nightclub, Simone Bucio is as transfixing as she was in Amat Escalante's equally provocative, The Untamed (2016). But it's the precision of Oren's visuals that make this so fascinating, as she, co-writer Thais Guisasola and cinematographer Carlos Vasquez take cues from such distinctive film-makers as Bette Gordon, Lucille Hadzhihalillovic, and Amalia Ulman to expand upon themes broached with less audacity and edginess in Patricia Mazuy's Of Women and Horses (2011) and Monika Treut's Of Girls and Horses (2014).

Unrest - Echoes of Guy Maddin can be detected beneath the ticking of the timepieces in Cyril Schäublin's follow-up to his acclaimed debut, Those Who Are Fine. Despite being dominated by a watch factory, the town of St Imier in the Jura Mountains runs according to factory, municipal, telegraph time, and railway time - none of which coincide. It's 1872 and Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (Alexei Evstratov) has arrived ostensibly to conduct a cartographical survey. However, he is distracted from his dual purpose by Josephine Gräbli (Clara Gostynski), who fits unrest wheels in the factory owned by Roulet (Valentin Merz), who has threatened to dismiss anyone espousing left-leaning causes.

Gendarme Payard (Laurent Ferrero) adopts a genial approach to keeping law and order and there are no scenes of confrontation or violence, in spite of the seething sense of injustice that drives the workforce and prompts them to purchase postcards of anarcho-communist celebrities like would-be assassin August Reinsdorf from Photographer Clément (Mayo Irion). Indeed, it would appear that little out of the ordinary goes on in this secluded burgh. Yet Schäublin keeps us fascinated in the mundane doings that are paced and composed with an off-kilter long-take precision that recalls the distanciating formalism of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Production designer Sara B. Weingart, cinematographer Silvan Hillman, and sound designer-editor Roland Widmer all make notable contributions to a disarmingly mischievous egalitarian saga that is exceptionally played by a non-professional cast and should put Schäublin (who hails from a watchmaking family) on the map.

The Woman in the White Car - Careful attention is required to negotiate the twists and turns that Christine Ko packs into this cine-literate mystery that riffs on everything from Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), and Joel and Ethan Coen's Fargo (1996). At its heart of the confused flashbacks and contradictory testimonies is small-town cop, Hyun-ju (Lee Jung-eun), who is summoned to a hospital where the wounded Do-kyung ((Jung Ryeo-won) is fretting over the sister who has been stabbed by her abusive partner. This proves not to be the whole story, however, and Hyun-ju and her rookie partner are tasked with finding out the real identities of those involved in a farmhouse showdown and who did what to whom.

Struggling with a poor self-image as a result of her drunken father's cruelty, Hyun-ju (a superb Lee Jung-eun) is far more interesting than Do-Kyung and her ever-shifting recollections and revelations. But screenwriter Seo Ja-Yeun is less concerned with character than with exploiting the plot possibilities of having an unreliable narrator. Ko makes neat use of aspect ratios and shifts in colour tone to differentiate between scenarios. But she's over-reliant on the zooms and slo-mo that serve to highlight the artificiality of the conceit rather than generate any suspense or unease.

The Woodcutter Story - Having co-scripted Juho Kuosmanen's The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki (2016), Finnish poet Mikko Myllylahti reunites with its star, Jarkko Lahti, for his directorial debut, The Woodcutter Story. Owing much to the lugubrious wit of compatriot Aki Kaurismäki, this two-chapter dramedy starts promisingly before veering off into some miscalulatedly calculating eccentricity.

While Pepe (Lahti) celebrates his birthday with his pals at a remote sawmill, a woman in a mountain-top cabin is forced to sign a document closing the plant in favour of a mine by a dour man who has trudged through the snow. We never see the pair again, but their meeting has a devastating impact on the townsfolk. Best friend Tuomas (Hannu-Pekka Björkman) becomes convinced his wife is having an affair with the local hairdresser and puts an axe in his head, despite discovering that he's actually sleeping with just about every woman in town, including Pepe's spouse, Kaisa (Katja Küttner).

When their house burns down, Pepe and son Pikku-Tuomas (Iivo Tuuri), move into the workers' dorm at the mine. As they no longer have time for ice fishing, Pikku-Tuomas devotes his time to a crush on Alissa (Ellen Herler), the new hairdresser. Indeed, he follows her to the hall where singing mystic Jaakko (Marc Gassot) casts such a spell that Pikku-Tuomas moves in with him and starts dwelling on the meaning of existence.

Until now, Pepe has taken each new setback with good grace, including the death of his mother, Imell (Ulla Tapaninen), after an encounter at the church with a hairy monster. But Pikku-Tuomas's defection proves the last straw and Pepe goads himself into action and challenges Jaakko during one of his well-attended meetings.

It's not easy to detect that a film that has been so remorselessly deadpan has actually ended on a downbeat. But Myllylahti seems to lose his way after Jaakko enters midway through this modern reworking of The Book of Job. Based on a woodcutter hired to chop a tree in Myllylahti's garden, Pepe remains an empathetic everyman who tries to make the best of the worst times. But, as the fates gang up to conspire against him, the occurrence of burning cars, balls of light and talking fish tip the muted unpredictability beyond the conscious evocation of the surrealism of Luis Buñuel and David Lynch.

Jarkko Lahti's impassive performance remain droll, as does Milja Aho's production design, even as Arsen Sarkisiants's widescreen camerawork and Dane Jonas Struck's score hint at more sombre undercurrents. The influence of Kaurismäki and Roy Andersson are clear, but Myllylahti has also cited Robert Bresson as an inspiration on the shooting style and the pacing of Jussi Rautaniemi's editing. Following on from the admired short, The Tiger (2018), this is destined to become a cult favourite.

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