NZIFF: Birds of Passage, First Reformed, Disobedience, 3 Faces

Our elite squad of critics binge set out on a cinematic binge at the NZ International Film Festival 2018

Birds of Passage

Opening night at NZIFF should be spectacular, accessible and memorable, and Birds of Passage delivers, with a drug trade parable told within an indigenous setting. Every grasshopper and bird has the weight of an omen on the desert-like peninsula in northern Colombia, where the Wayuu appear to have retained their traditional way of life with only slight inroads from Spanish culture. When a young man seizes on selling marijuana to the gringos as a shortcut to paying the dowry to marry the daughter of a highly respected matriarch, it sets in motion changes that the Wayuu mediation systems will struggle to cope with. There’s an inevitability to the rise and fall that follows, with rising material expectations, individual foibles, outsider misconceptions, a power hungry elder and the demon drink all combining in a story that is both Greek tragedy and Wayuu cautionary tale. – Aquila

First Reformed

Harrowing, provocative, as patient as it is intense with tonal shifts to burn, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed turned out to be so much more than I was expecting (and I was expecting excellence). The film owes a significant debt to Bresson/Bernanos’s Journal d’un Curé De Campagne (Bresson’s filmmaking is central to Schrader’s thesis of ‘Transcendental Style’). First Reformed’s Reverend Toller is like a modern, North-American incarnation of le Curé d’Ambricourt, each with his desire for honest self-reflection, struggles with prayer, self-flagellatory attitude, and degenerative stomach complaints. Indeed, the primary narrative engagement of First Reformed is via Toller’s voiceover of the diary entries he is writing. To this Schrader appends a character arc that plays like a re-examination of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. Toller (Ethan Hawke in exemplary form) attempts to bring peace to a disturbed environmental activist couple, with whose philosophies around earth-care he connects, but the Reverend can find no peace for himself.

The film will likely be a bitter pill for many, but for those who revel in formal filmmaking rigour and patient thematic exploration, this is sure to be a treat worth savouring on the biggest of screens. Alexander Dynan’s cinematography is so strikingly assured that I had to go back and rewatch the trailer for batshit Cage/Dafoe crime thriller Dog Eat Dog to see if there were similarities. There were. Dynan’s command of light and shade are evident in both films. Long takes, starkly composed locked-off shots, and slow, deliberate camera movement work effectively to draw you into Toller’s slowly deteriorating state. Then at intervals Schrader and co. cut tension by taking a completely unexpected turn, forcing you to resituate your thinking. Upon exiting The Civic my mind was ecstatically adrift. – Jacob Powell

Disobedience

Watching Disobedience I felt like there was nothing here that I hadn’t seen or read before. An apostate returns to a tight-knit, conservative religious group for the funeral of a parent. Their childhood friends have married. They are welcomed but shamed for leaving. The reasons they left slowly emerge. Disobedience’s strength is that it doesn’t over-dramatise the community reactions, even as both direct and indirect pressure are brought to bear on Ronit and Esti. And it is obvious that a lot of care has been taken to get community details correct. An awkward dinner party is particularly good. As an exploration of the pull between religious observance and individual freedom it is effective, but I think 2012’s Fill the Void was better. – Aquila

3 Faces

Director Jafar Panahi drives an actress into the mountains in north Iran to search for an aspiring performer who has sent them a troubling plea for help. 3 Faces isn’t a documentary, or the unplotted travelogue it might seem to be – every camera angle and roadside vignette has been carefully planned out – but the rural setting and cast with their aphorisms and impassioned speeches may well be shot straight from life. Reducing the film to its major theme of women’s autonomy and the treatment of actresses in Iran fails to recognise the delightful, genre-poking amuse-bouche that this drive along the edge of surrealism is. Panahi can create a film from nothing (as he proved with This Is Not A Film, made while under house arrest); here there is so much happening that I wanted to sit and watch it again as soon as the credits rolled. – Aquila

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