Sunday, October 14, 2012

"No" and "Leviathan" (New York Film Festival)

I've never seen Pablo Larrain's dour-sounding "Tony Manero" or "Post Mortem," but it seems as if his new film "No" is something of a departure. Both of the other films, I read, were set in the 70's, in Pinochet's rule and at the transition into it, respectively. "No" tells of how Chile took up the dictator's offer to overthrow him and ended up doing so with the help of some well-thought-out advertising. It's a fascinating subject that offers Larrain the chance to examine both the creative process (especially under pressure) and the idea of how to sell something in a respectable way. But "No" would be a much weaker film if it allotted screen time only to the side opposing Pinochet. Its greatest strength is a willingness to look at all sides of situation, and to see that these advertising opponents were much more connected than one would've liked to believe.

Gael Garcia Bernal's Rene Saavedra, the man whose audience-friendly ideas ultimately fueled the NO campaign, is also valuably not portrayed as a beacon. He's a cool, careful, cynical man whose family life is a bit of a shambles and who is nervous about risking his job to work with "Communists," especially when his boss Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro) is big-time Pinochet supporter. The relationship between these characters epitomizes the film's evenhandedness, and Bernal and Castro both deliver strong, complex performances. The film itself is an intricate venture, that looks honestly at motives (Saavedra wants to win this particular standoff, not necessary completely change Chile) and what it takes to appeal to everyone. Most importantly, this is a film that earns its celebratory close by looking at the pain that's been born and how much of a relief it is to try something different. Larrain's idiosyncratic choice to shoot the film on U-matic video (the same format as the ads Saavedra worked on) and edit as if he's directing one of those commercials is both inspired and a distraction, but it ends up feeling like a good move once the film settles in. B+

"Leviathan" by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel (two highly-regarded young documentarians) is not a film you can describe easily. It's a movie that must be watched to be understood. That's not necessarily true of the talky and historic "No," or seemingly many of the other films at this festival ("Life of Pi" seems to be an exception, despite it being an adaptation). "Leviathan" is magnificent and monotonous, a focused work of sound and image that makes you aware of the fisherman, the fish, the boat, the bird, and the sea. It's so good, it may make you seasick. It contains some remarkable footage, both above and underwater, of the systematic catching, cutting, and disposing of various types of sea life off New Bedford, MA. There's also a focus on the wear that such a job puts on the fishermen, manifested in an unrelentingly long take of the captain slowly falling asleep. 

I can see why this film only was scheduled one time in the festival. It's more hardcore and stripped-down than even Frederick Wiseman would usually go (to be sure, he usually shot on land and in workspaces). The only audible speech is an ad played on the radio. As I mentioned before, it possibly could cause motion sickness. And it's as devoted to its style as Bela Tarr was on his similarly textured "Turin Horse." But I feel, even if it could have been slightly cut down from its sparing 87 minute runtime, that "Leviathan" is an example of true, pure cinema: an experience that can't be reproduced in any way other than actually going out on a boat. A-

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