Some more films I've seen so far at the London Film Festival!
Truman (dir. Cesc Gay)
How can a film about death feel so life-affirming? Truman makes a lot of this contradiction, setting its story of two friends, reunited for four days as one is dying of cancer, in warm sunny Madrid and the architectural beauty of Amsterdam. Truman is Julian's (Ricardo Darín) dog, one he's trying to rehome before he dies. Tomás (Javier Cámara) is his friend, persuaded by his wife and Julian's cousin Paula (Dolores Fonzi) to visit, with the not-so-ulterior motive of persuading Julian to continue treatment (or at least, that's what they want him to do). Truman himself - old, not cute but still loveable in his own way - reflects the film's tone, which easily sidesteps both sentimentality and cynicism to present a believable friendship. It's unvarnished but not "warts and all", witty but not arch or self-conscious; above all, it feels true.
Cesc Gay's direction is especially mature, not just in its subject matter but in its style. There's not a single flashy camera movement in the film. Instead Gay favours coverage, simply but well shot, edited at a relaxed pace, with the occasional wide slowly and imperceptibly creeping in on the characters. He has absolute confidence in his two leads and gives them space to grow into a scene, and it could not have paid off better. The structure could easily feel episodic, or overly talky - almost each scene is a new encounter - but this consistency creates a quiet emotional power that builds over the film as the veneers of each character, of the people each character are playing at being, are stripped away. For example - Julian and Tomás have a meal with Julian's son and his girlfriend, both university students, about halfway through the film. It's all in the subtext and what isn't said - the sense of a lifelong history between these people is palpable, a history that has led them right to this moment and their relationship in it. It's painfully relatable, simultaneously funny, awkward, touching, and devastating.
Truman doesn't quite stick the landing. Paula, until the third act an off screen voice on a phone, turns up and changes the dynamic between them considerably. But the film has built up enough good will by then that this minor flaw is entirely forgiveable, a charitable reading even being that goodbyes of this sort (final goodbyes, adieu not au revoir) are always going to be complicated and messy. And yet, you (or at least me) leave with a sad smile, contemplating mortality but mostly thankful for your life and the people and animals in it.
Lucifer (dir. Gust Van den Berghe)
There's no way to get around it (hah): would this film honestly have the attention it has received had it not been shot in a circle? This kind of question is understandable, but it misses the point. Any kind of innovation or deviation from the norm is going to be latched on to as a gimmick as it benefits both the audience for this kind of film, who get an easy formal talking point afterwards without having to contemplate the actual story, characters or themes, and the distributors, because hey, that film is in a circle and I've gotta see that / put that in my festival. But really the circle is emblematic of the main struggle of the film, between an austere social realism and a fashionable, showboating auteurism.
Rossellini is mentioned in the credits (I also thought of Pasolini's naive realism), but then I was also reminded of Carlos Reygadas who also uses non-actors as well as style to, at his worst (Battle in Heaven), in my opinion, mask the fact that he has nothing to say. (Although I wouldn't entirely agree I could see this criticism applying to Mommy as well, Lucifer's most recent antecedent in the playing with aspect ratio game, which has a thick layer of artifice between us and the characters.) Fortunately, again at least in my opinion of what the film is about, if this is not too much of a stretch, you could also draw this struggle in terms of the characters' lived experiences of poverty and their religious encounters, their passage from life into death.
A stranger, the fallen angel Lucifer (Gabino Rodríguez), passes through a small Mexican town, changing the lives especially of Grandmother Lupita (María Acosta), her brother Emmanuel (Jeronimo Soto Bravo), and granddaughter Maria (Norma Pablo). Limited to wides and closeups with little in between, the film's grammar calls to mind iconography and other religious art (and if there was any doubt, Hieronymus Bosch is also in the credits as an influence). It feels like talking eloquently and effectively about this film really requires significant knowledge in the area. It manages to evoke the same feelings you might have looking at a Bosch painting but through filmic techniques. There's one awe inspiring shot in particular, a close-up of Maria, where the circle begins to rotate, only it's not the circle but the camera which then rises over her face looking to heaven. Used sparingly but effectively is a lens that creates a single globe out of a panorama, sky and clouds enclosed by land, the people walking by severely distorted. The use of music and montage also results in some incredible sequences.
And so inevitably we return to the circle. It's restrictive, an enclosure for the characters and their homes that separates them from each other and them from the loudspeaker that announces news. It's also transcendent, of the limitations of the rectangular frame, of known morality, and of human understanding. What does Lucifer actually mean? Does it mean anything all? I'm not sure on those questions, but I know I'll be thinking about it for a long time to come.