Written by Tom Augustine.
Most will surely agree that there’s some magic in the Civic Theatre. It casts a gauzy spell over the films shown there, activated sometime around when the shooting star zips across the theatre’s night sky ceiling. The Civic is dramatic, gaudy, grand in a way so few of New Zealand’s venues are allowed to be any more. It’s prime cinematic real estate, made all the more special during Film Festival season by the fact that the films shown there are incredibly varied – from pulse-racing documentaries to intricate diorama worlds, gauche eccentricities and humble, small-scale dramas. The Festival is under way and so far almost every film I’ve seen I’d recommend to others, a selection of award winners and under the radar gems. There is much on the Auckland calendar to draw audiences away from the festival, not least of which the appeal of the Barbenheimer juggernaut. But the chance to watch a film with a massive crowd (or even a thin one) at the Civic, to be a part of the Festival’s peculiar energy, is a chance that only comes around once a year. As far as I’m concerned, you’d be a fool to miss out. Here’s just a few of the most notable films I’ve seen in this whirlwind first week of NZIFF ‘23.
Anatomy of a Fall (Triet, 2023) – Rating: Four stars.
The opening night of the Festival is always a tantalising proposition, usually a premiere or a hot title out of the Cannes Film Festival, which occurs very closely to the announcement of the NZIFF programme. This year was no different, with Justine Triet’s Palme D’Or winner opening up the Festival with vigour and muscularity. Triet is now just the third woman in history to win Cannes’ highest honour (after Titane’s Julia Ducournau and our own Jane Campion), with this twist-filled and deeply clever court-case drama. Fall stars Toni Erdmann actress Sandra Huller as an author whose husband falls out of a window at their alpine chalet and dies. The main question is – did he jump or was he pushed? The ensuing two plus hours are a thorough dissection of the nature of truth, offering up endless contradictions and puzzling inconsistencies to erase the very concept of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. Though the meticulous plotting of Fall can occasionally start to feel a little mechanical, a little constructed, there’s no way to deny the unsettling pallor that descended over the enormous Civic audience with Fall’s mysterious denouement.
Perfect Days (Wenders, 2023) – Rating: Four and a half stars.
Wim Wenders once had a legitimate claim to the title of ‘world’s greatest living filmmaker’, after the litany of successes between the 1970s and the 1990s that included Until the End of the World, Alice in the Cities, The American Friend, and perhaps most significantly, Wings of Desire and Paris Texas. The ensuing decades have not been as kind to the German filmmaker, but his latest, the perfectly calibrated Perfect Days represents something of a minor comeback. Starring Cure’s Koji Yakusho, Days is the story of Hirayama, an ageing toilet cleaner living in Tokyo. Patient and resolutely small-scale, Wenders unfolds his story with utmost precision and attention to establishing routine, laying out the stages of Hirayama’s days with patience and attentiveness so that when the interruptions, both good and bad, inevitably arise, we feel their presence with acute profundity. Little really happens in Perfect Days – Hirayama works, he wanders the city, he dreams, he listens to classic rock in his van – and yet Wenders observant camera slowly begins to evoke the transcendent beauty of a small, decent life, while commendably shirking notions of the ‘noble poor’. The film’s final sequence delivers a moment of genuine and flooring emotional beauty, enough to bring tears to my eyes as the credits rolled.
Saint Omer (Diop, 2022) – Rating: Four stars.
Strange, how unexpected themes and recurring images crop up at every Festival. It’s one of the many joys of such an experience – a way to reflect on what their constancy suggests about the world we currently find ourselves in. This year, that recurrence is court cases, which have been pivotal to a number of films I’ve seen in this first week, including Anatomy of a Fall, Holy Spider and, most successfully, Alice Diop’s Saint Omer. Diop’s film recounts the true story of a Senegalese immigrant living in France, who is placed on trial for infanticide. Much of the film is seen through the eyes of an author, played by Kayije Kagame, who bears witness silently from the sidelines, considering the way the experience of this woman on trial reflects her own as a young, pregnant black woman in a European country. Diop (not to be confused with Mati Diop, another great modern French diasporic filmmaker) crafts a serious, even austere picture, evoking art film cliches reminiscent of early Steve McQueen and playfully exploring the ways in which they fail to serve the narratives of people of colour. The reservedness of the film is effective in displaying the ways in which such distance is impossible when discussing the long-reaching effects of colonialism and modern racism, sometimes almost too effectively, establishing a clinical affect that can sometimes be hard to see past. As a robust, hot-button effort from a fine emerging talent, however, it feels essential.
Barbie and Oppenheimer can wait: the New Zealand International Film Festival, now in full swing, offers the best and most enriching cinema experience you can have in Aotearoa right now. A week in, a number of astonishing films have graced the Civic Theatre, with more to come – get in there while you can.
Monster (Kore-eda, 2023) – Rating: Four stars.
Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda has settled into a fruitful groove in recent years. Since earning the Palme D’Or for his brilliant social drama Shoplifters, Kore-eda has appeared liberated from expectation, willing to pursue his particular blend of quiet, gentle drama and sly social commentary. His previous effort, the underrated Broker, was a strange and kind-hearted thing, and now shares 2023 with Monster, Kore-eda’s most robust work in years. Working from a script he didn’t write – a rarity – and featuring one of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s final scores, Monster utilises classic Rashomon-style storytelling, unfolding a series of events from a range of different perspectives, until a picture of the truth starts to formulate. At the centre of Monster is a young boy, Minato, whose interactions with a schoolmate become hopelessly entangled in the misconstruals of adults around them, as Minato is accused of bullying and exhibits a litany of strange and confusing behaviour. Kore-eda’s well established talent for drawing subtle, gorgeous performances from children is on full-display here, as his trademark sensitivity to the subtleties of small-scale crises. Indeed, the Rashomon approach suits Kore-eda, working to further the characters’ humanity in ways that suggest that nothing is ever quite so black-and-white as we imagine, and never succumbing to cheapness or exploitation. After a somewhat shaky start, Monster builds to a suitably powerful conclusion – minor Kore-eda perhaps, but as is always the case with this master, never does one leave a Kore-eda film feeling less than enriched.
Holy Spider (Abbasi, 2022) – Rating: Two and a half stars.
A few years ago, Danish-Iranian filmmaker Ali Abassi was at the Festival with Border, a strange, fantastical love story that marked him as a formidable talent to watch. This year, Abassi has wandered into the realm of Fincher with his document of a real life serial killer who terrorised Iran in the early 2000s, on a mission to ‘cleanse’ its streets of sex workers and other ‘immoral’ types. Holy Spider blends the story of the serial killer (Mehdi Bejestami) with a dogged journalist (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi, who won Best Actress at Cannes for her efforts) set on exposing who he is, in spite of the heavily misogynist limitations of modern Iranian society. Abassi’s choice to parallel the story of the serial killer and the investigation, echoing distressing masterpiece The Vanishing, is both a blessing and a curse, wringing a decent amount of tension from proceedings but offering disappointingly little insight into what makes his female protagonist tick. Indeed, Abassi seems far more interested in profiling the killer, despite his being a far less interesting character, and one whose characterisation we’ve seen countless times. There’s a ‘true-crime’ feeling to Holy Spider which can’t be masked by Abassi’s obvious talent with a camera – a lurid feeling of voyeurism, the suffocating spectre of patriarchal dominance that the film evokes never quite untangling from the film’s own baser urges. Holy Spider’s ending, however, proves to be almost worth the preceding slog, when Abassi’s dissonant themes finally snap disturbingly into place.
I Like Movies (Levack, 2023) – Rating: Four stars.
Amidst the many serious, highly artistically demanding films of the Festival, one simply must make the time for a few well-made, satisfying crowd pleasers. This week, that film was the utterly lovely I Like Movies, a Linklater-esque teen dramedy from Canadian filmmaker Chandler Levack, with shades of Superbad and the films of Judd Apatow as well. Levack is one of the underexposed Candian cinema’s most exciting young talents, and I Like Movies has the distinct flavour of a rewatchable teen classic like School of Rock or The Edge of Seventeen. I am perhaps biased, as the character in I Like Movies, a socially awkward, slightly depressed teenage movie obsessive who takes up a job at a local video store echoed much of my own teenage years to a pretty uncomfortable degree. There are warm laughs throughout, mixed skillfully with moving dramatic beats as Lawrence (newcomer Isaiah Lehtinen, phenomenal in the lead role) forms a relationship with his boss, a one-time actress (Romina D’Ugo – also fantastic) and the darker elements of his working class existence come to life. I watched this soon after the grim slog of Holy Spider, and it was like a lengthy, chuckle-strewn sigh of relief. These films have immense value both within the festival and beyond, as an introduction to exciting new independent voices. Well worth seeking out.
La Chimera (Rohrwacher, 2023) – Rating: Five stars.
Alice Rohrwacher isn’t mentioned as one of the finest living filmmakers as often as she should be, despite having turned out a number of astonishing works in recent years, including Happy As Lazzaro and Le Pupille. Her latest should hopefully provide her with some crossover power, however, as La Chimera is at once Rohrwacher’s finest and most purely entertaining work. A dreamlike working class drama that plays like something a young Fellini might have made in the 2020s, the film stars Josh O’Connor as a dishevelled, grumpy English graverobber and artefact collector who, along with a merry band of crooks, attempts to pay off long standing debts by locating and raiding the tombs of ancient Europe. Generally, I have a magical realism allergy, but there’s something about the way in Rohrwacher deploys the tenets of magical realism that eschews unwelcome quirkiness, in favour of a more robust, community-focussed sense of delight and strangeness. Rohrwacher’s film is energetic but never prosaic in its plotting, keeping one foot firmly planted in the poetic and dreamy, and finding transcendence in even the grimiest and most morally unkempt of characters. It would be my favourite film of the Festival so far, if not for…
Pacifiction (Serra, 2022) – Rating: Five stars.
A holdover from 2022’s Cannes Film Festival, slow cinema maestro Albert Serra’s Pacifiction has been a long time coming, but was well worth the wait. A sweltering, hazy tropical nightmare, Pacifiction is at once a continuance of Serra’s rigorous, unflinching style, notable for its long, patient sequences and muted, observational quality; and his most accessible work yet. Set in Tahiti and filmed during the pandemic, Pacifiction follows a slippery and enigmatic government official, the greasy and aptly named De Roller (Benoît Magimel) as he travels to Tahiti to investigate allegations that French forces are restarting nuclear testing in the Pacific. De Roller, ever-clad in a colonist’s white linen suit, gladhands, misleads and generally seeks to further his power and influence, even as he finds himself caught up in something far beyond his abilities. The long shadow of colonialism hangs over the picturesque island photography of Pacifiction, which is shot through with a woozy, gauzy affect that lends its outrageous beauty an undeniable sense of dread. The scars of the Pacific easily lend themselves to questions of the apocalyptic, which makes Pacifiction’s presence at the Festival an uncannily great companion piece to Oppenheimer, as both ruthlessly unpick the hubris of white men and the monstrosity they created in nuclear weapons. Pacifiction is nothing less than visionary, its nightmarish languour warping the island paradise into a hellscape as inescapable as it is easy on the eyes. Pacifiction shows once more at the Festival, on July 29th. It feels essential.
NZIFF is screening now.
New Zealand International Film Festival - Week One
Movie title: New Zealand International Film Festival - Week One
Movie description: Barbie and Oppenheimer can wait: the New Zealand International Film Festival, now in full swing, offers the best and most enriching cinema experience you can have in Aotearoa right now. A week in, a number of astonishing films have graced the Civic Theatre, with more to come - get in there while you can.
Date published: July 27, 2023
Country: New Zealand