The festival might be over but the write-ups continue for now. Today: two films about colonialism and one about gentrification.
Gold Coast (dir. Daniel Dencik)
There's a lot to unpack with this film.
1836, not so long after Denmark became the first European country to ban the slave trade (in 1792). Wulff (Jakob Oftebro) leaves his fiancé to head a coffee plantation in Guinea only to find that colonialism and isolation continue to breed corruption. This isn't inherently a bad idea or a wrong perspective on history, but in the dearth of black characters or black perspective Gold Coast becomes a "white man learns racism is bad" type story. This is not without its own value, especially as the film manages to depict how winning the legal battle against slavery didn't immediately improve the situation, but it doesn't successfully convey the empathy Wulff presumably has for those working under him that causes him to act so selflessly to help them. He does suffer deeply for this crisis of conscience, even being treated like a slave (not a spoiler - the film opens with a gratuitous scene of his two captors pissing on him). But again, the narrow perspective is a little suspicious.
Not much is made of the villains (white and black) of the film and their motivations; this is a problem in historical films, where the writer, director and actors have difficulty making the losing side of history (who were once in the majority) believable. No-one wants to occupy that kind of head-space, to really dive into their own psyche and the white supremacy still ingrained in our society. We'd prefer to be the white martyr seen in this film, to think that we would have fought against slavery, against HItler, against insert historical tyranny here. But for the most part that's fundamentally dishonest, and it should be an artist's responsibility when telling this kind of story to acknowledge the dishonesty in the stories we tell ourselves.
In a sequence that's downright Malickian, Wulf pontificates on the beauty and intricacy of nature, specifically the spiral, accompanied by a montage of said spirals. In isolation this sequence is great, but Malick's use of nature tends to have a deeper, spiritual and religious resonance; here the idea of natural design is never quite tied together with the other themes of the film. On the Malick comparison still, he shoots an insane amount of footage and crafts his film out of it, even if it means jettisoning plots, characters and stars. By doing this he also exorcises the kind of clichés that sneak into Gold Coast. Handheld camerawork is overused, especially early on before anything harrowing has happened; two protracted deathbed scenes in a row tell the protagonist to do the right thing; and there's some lazy shock value (the aforementioned peeing, later on people get shot, their blood splattering everywhere while the emotional weight of their deaths is passed over).
The final word has to go to Angelo Badalamenti. Although the film as a whole doesn't quite hang together, there are individual moments and scenes of striking beauty which are elevated by Badalamenti's anachronistic, pulsing synth score.
Embrace of the Serpent (dir. Ciro Guerra)
Embrace of the Serpent also has a European perspective but that's unavoidable - as the closing title cards explain, our only knowledge of some of the Amazonian tribes in this film come from travel diaries written by Europeans. This film is based on two such diaries but fictionalises them, skilfully using its historical leeway to extend its story of dual journeys down the river into powerful allegory.
Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), led by Shaman and last of his people Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), searches for an elusive flower that he hopes will save him from death. Forty years later botanist Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis), having read Theodor's journal, enlists Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) to find the same flower. This structure eliminates one kind of tension for the film - from the outset we know how the earlier journey will ultimately end - but is overall beneficial to the film. The lingering trauma of colonialism is most strongly felt in the two sequences set at a mission. Priest Gaspar (Luigi Sciamanna), the last alive of his missionary group, has taken in (or abducted) orphans of the rubber trade, teaching them to sing hymns and beating the "pagan" language and religion out of them. Returning to this area decades later to see what's happened after the Priest's death is harrowing, insane and the best part of the film.
Given the plot, comparisons with Herzog are inevitable. There are some moments of awe here but on the whole it's far quieter visually, shot in 'scope black and white and preferring to tease out its themes in the interactions and relationships between characters. The last few scenes do aim for some kind of trippy, spiritual transcendence, falling considerably short, but this doesn't hurt the staying power of this impressive film.
Nasty Baby (dir. Sebastián Silva)
Nasty Baby was perfectly situated in the Debate strand of the festival. It has an ostensibly inoffensive premise (inoffensive to good liberal-minded metropolitan audiences, at least): gay couple Freddy (Sebastián Silva) and Mo (Tunde Adebimpe) are trying to have a baby with Polly (Kristen Wiig) and failing; Freddy is also trying to get his filmed performance art installation accepted to a gallery. It's witty and fun in a genial, indie way with character drama and a whimsical hipster Brooklyn milieu (Wiig even rides a child's scooter).
But underneath, and by the time this film makes it back into the world after its festival run the details might have been spoiled for everyone, lurks a much sharper, savage satire about race and gentrification in America. Did you really expect the Chilean Silva, who directed the moving, unexpected and class-conscious The Maid, to roll over and deliver another faux-Baumbach dramedy? The title does mean something in the context of the film but by itself it's vaguely grotesque and disturbing. What is a (or the) Nasty Baby? You'll have to watch the film to find out.