Festival Focus: London Film Festival 2016 – Moonlight, Mimosas, Sieranevada

Posted October 14th, 2016 by Matt Turner

Arriving fresh from TIFF, Barry Jenkins’ three act identity tale Moonlight comes eight years after his feature debut Medicine for Melancholy. Other than being about relationships and the complicating factors that distance people from each other, this new film bares little resemblance to that mumblecore debut, especially stylistically. The style of Moonlight however, may be more familiar to those who have seen some of the shorts Jenkin made in the period between the two features. In particular, two commercial commissions (Tall Enough made in 2010 for Bloomingdales, and Chlorophyl for Borscht in 2011) are both vibrant, bold short films about relationships – one fractured and the other extremely harmonious – that show a penchant for striking use of colour that Jenkins builds upon in Moonlight.

A film of rambunctious, overflowing colours and spiky punches of sound, as synaesthetic and sensorially satisfying as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, Moonlight surges through it’s story weighting key emotional moments with well chosen soundtrack cues and flashes of bold, vital primaries – most notably those various hues of blue that tug and pull at the emotions on some unknowable primal level. Jenkin’s camera, often moving in roaming shallow-focus is continually intimate yet graceful, highlighting the gestures and actions within relationships, the looks and touches that come to make a difference over time.

Aesthetically then, Moonlight hits the mark, showing a director with astounding tonal control and a developing ability to impose emotion onto an image. Narratively, it’s a little more troublesome. Over three clearly divided acts (and three well-cast lead actors), Jenkins paints a picture of Chiron, a young black man with an evolving, burgeoning sense of self that runs in opposition with his circumstances and lifestyle. A delicate film, Jenkins dials up and down emotional registers across his duration, operating in cycles of release and control that build towards an emotional explosiveness without ever quite delivering it. These flourishes, as resonant as they feel, somehow stand in the way of a more genuine connection, and the rapidity with which Jenkins’ narrative advances leaves minimal room for character development, a flaw made most obvious in the thinly drawn, often archetypical supporting characters strung in alongside Chiron, the main focus.

Moonlight explores the intersection of various types of identities – racial, sexual and cultural, and how the coming together of these things can complicate the already turbulent experience of adolescence. “Who is you, Chiron?” the lead character is asked midway through. Moonlight shows not just how difficult it can be to answer that question, but also the immeasurable value of edging closer towards finding out.

Also a second feature that has been met with no small acclaim, Spanish filmmaker Oliver Laxes’ Mimosas is his Cannes prize-winning follow up to well regarded 2010 hybrid doc You Are All Captains, and contains similar elements of bounding blurring, if leaning more towards the fictitious than with that first film. A meandering journeyman film of a type that has become increasingly popular in ‘slow cinema’ over the last ten years, Laxe leans heavily on Lisandro Alonso with Mimosas, particularly Alonso’s most recent film Jauja, of which this seems to take direct inspiration. Also present is Ben Rivers, whose role as inspiration stretches more towards collaborator, Rivers using the filming ofMimosas as a source for two of his recent projects, feature The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers and accompanying Artangel exhibition piece A Distant Episode, which documents a kind of making of Mimosas, if not in any traditional, comprehensible sense.

Merging elements of ethnography with more traditional arthouse trappings in the way that Rivers has established his name by doing, Laxe’s Mimosas is as abstruse and elusive as Rivers’ recent films, though not without potency or intrigue. Split into several acts, Mimosas follows a group of travellers on a doomed quest to bury a sheikh in the place of his choosing, a holy site almost impossible to find amidst the endless stretches of indefinable desert and mountain landscapes they find themselves stumbling through. Some kind of examination into the idea of faith, Laxe subdivides his chapters into different positions of prayer (bowing, standing then prostrating), though how these divisions relate to the non-linear, loose narrative remains unclear as the imagery darts between past and present, employing a documentary mode sporadically that muddles the more straightforwardly fictitious approach employed for the most part.

As his travellers wander further into disarray, their commitment to fulfilling the wishes of their sheikh falters as the immensity of the task becomes increasingly clear. Building a humourously despairing tone, the films of Albert Serra also come to mind throughout Mimosas, specifically Birdsong, also a traveller film about men (magi) of wavering faith. At the centre is the conflict between two of the travellers, Ahmed (Ahmed Hammoud) and Shakib (Shakib Ben Omar). Ahmed’s wavering commitment to their task rubs up against Shakib’s dedication to it, powered by his insistence upon the revelatory power of prayer, and the two engage in near constant bickering, willing each other into continuation through their mutual stubbornness.

A kind of neo-western, Laxe’s travellers walk and talk through a unforgiving landscape, silhouettes set against the open expanse, the indefiniteness and expansiveness of their journey apparent as much to them as the audience. Mimosas is very pretty, containing colourful 16mm photography and varying attractive landscapes, but also so detached and aloof, so wilfully cryptic, that finding a point of connection within its sprawling cinematic terrain proves difficult. Trying to do so is something of a reward in itself though.

If Mimosas is a film defined by its expansiveness, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada is inversely contained. In a claustrophobic, exhausting film that takes place almost entirely within the confines of a single Bucharest apartment, Puiu spins a masterful nexus of conversations, contradictions and conspiracies that occur between a family forced into proximity with each other to honour the death of the extended unit’s patriarch. Waiting listlessly for the arrival of a priest to commence the commemorative ritual, the family, increasingly hungry and hostile, lay into each other endlessly, initial civility dissolving into a barrage of micro-aggressions, personal slights and charged debate on all manner of topics personal and political.

Puiu’s first two films, The Death of Mister Lazarescu and Aurora, both conveyed a director with an accomplished, if varying, sense of control. This one, falling somewhere in between the style of those two films – as verbose and anxious as the former, and as claustrophobic and despairing as the latter – shows the same mastery of restraint. Imperceptibly and delicately orchestrated, it’s a carefully choreographed study in familial confrontation that plays out through the most straightforward of means – wherein eavesdropping becomes a cinematic act.

Employing the camera almost as a Michael Snow style shifting apparatus, most of Puiu’s film consists of a mounted camera pivoting across several, cramped rooms of the apartment. Each dispassionate, rigid spiral serves to detach, taking any weight off the performative aspect of the camera in motion and allowing for the emotional flux of the film to fall upon the dialogues and the performance of them. Puiu’s ensemble rise to the occasion, acting out a lengthy series of exchanges over topics as diverse in thematic content as they are in emotional tenor with skill and tenacity. Though many of these are charged, fraught collisions that transform into full on verbal battles between family members with wildly contrasting opinions and value systems, much of Sieranevada is comic, if often caustically so. Indeed, after nearly three hours of agonising, captivating conflict, those who remain active in Puiu’s ensemble begin to laugh. Relief, for both those on the screen and those sat in front of it, comes in fits of laughter – as much at the absurdity as the futility of it all.

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