It was just my luck that I saw almost nothing that won awards at KVIFF. You make compromises all over the place at every festival. An interview opportunity comes up, so you miss two films. A friend you haven’t seen in ages is there suddenly and wants to see something you hadn’t planned on seeing. Or they don’t want to see anything, they want to go get dinner. Frankly there isn’t a bad way to spend your time in Karlovy Vary. At bottom you’ll see something interesting you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Best case you have an uncanny and beautiful once-in-a-lifetime sort of experience. Sometimes it's about enjoying dinner in a hidden restaurant you would never have otherwise found, and then strolling along the canals watching ducks swim by feeling, all after a week of non-stop galas and films and talks and crowded banquet halls and theatres. A sort of calm. It’s been an unforgettable experience. I’m ready to come home.
The big winner this year was “As Far as I Can Walk” by Serbian Stefan Arsenijević, which was gifted the Crystal Globe and the Ecumenical Jury Prize. Its cinematographer Jelena Stanković was singled out for a Jury commendation, and its lead actor Ibrahim Koma was given the Best Actor prize. Best Actress went to Éléonore Loiselle for her work in the Canadian film “Wars,” which I confess I found rather stultifying. Her performance was obviously fantastic, but the movie was "Beau Travail" with a female protagonist and not directed by Claire Denis. To which I have to say: what’s the point? Czech film “Every Single Minute” won the Special Jury Prize, and the German filmmaker Dietrich Brüggemann won Best Director for his film “Nö.” The jury also singled out Vinette Robinson for her role in the film “Boiling Point” and the movie “The Staffroom” by Sonja Tarokić, which they all agreed was superlative but couldn’t take home top honors. The Právo audience award went to opening night film “Zátopek.” In the East of the West section, the jury awarded Russian film “Nuuccha” by Vladimir Munkuev the Grand Prix, and “Sisterhood” by Dina Duma won the jury prize. The International Federation of Film Critics or FIPRESCI gave their prize this year to “Exam” by Shawkat Amin Korki.
I was lucky regardless because despite missing a goodly sum of these films, I did get more than my fair share of excellent viewing in. The sidebar section dedicated to The Film Foundation, Martin Scorsese’s world cinema restoration project, was showing about a dozen classics and some interesting curious as well. I’ve already mentioned “A Brighter Summer Day,” Edward Yang’s towering work of social realism, one of the great films full stop, but they also played Timité Bassori’s neurotic odyssey “Woman with a Knife.” It’s a film from the Côte d'Ivoire and it shares fixations with another Film Foundation find: Djibril Diop Mambéty’s “Touki Bouki.” Both are about the corrosive influence of French society on sub-Saharan Africa, and both lean heavily into the language of dreams. Fernando de Fuentes’ “Fantasma Del Convento” played (to derisive laughter from the audience with whom I watched it, which bummed me out a little) as well. At its best there’s a slight Murnau quality to its images of a haunted old monastery and the zombie monks who keep guard over it, the music by Max Urban and the luminous photography by American Ross Fisher combining to form a haunting other-worldliness. Unfortunately the pace kills it, which was a recurring issue with a lot of '30s horror. If the film were a half hour long it would likely be considered a forgotten masterpiece.
Michael Curtiz’s lithe and practically feline “The Breaking Point” played in a restored print and I could have lived in its world of lost sailors and suspicious women for days and days. Scorsese favorite Ahmed El Maanouni’s debut feature “Alyam, alyam” was shown as well and felt practically from the future, despite its study of Moroccan provincial life being very evidently of its time. El Maanouni’s technique is stunning, his square frame containing variously tableaux of bustling crowds right out of a Jean-Jacques Scherrer canvas and sunsets and wide shots of country life redolent of Gaston de la Touche. Breath-taking work from a place that had been written off by its colonizers. It would be heard and without anyone’s permission.
I was thinking a lot about “Alyam, alyam” during “Mariner of the Mountains” by Brazilian born Karim Aïnouz. It’s a deeply personal travelogue documenting his first journey to Algeria to see his father’s birthplace. It moves at the speed of thought, with the teeming montage finding an image for every thought and half-sentence that needs elucidation. Stunning work, honest to a fault, and never less than heart-rending. Both it and “Alyam” show people who live tucked away from the wider world. Some want out, some want in, and everyone feels cut off.
Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong’s new film “Come Here” is similarly about dislocation, though it takes a more abstract approach. It follows four people on a sort of pilgrimage and then recreates little moments of their journey later in a film studio. That’s a very simple description of a non-linear work of longing and unrest, you should just experience it yourself as soon as possible. Its elegiac and velvety monochrome images haven’t yet left me.
I watched two films by a couple of old hellraisers in the form of Gaspar Noé’s "Vortex" and Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta.” One is perhaps the best fiction film of the year. The other is Gaspar Noé’s “Vortex." "Vortex" is a claustrophobic study of two people dying, and it’s about as exciting as that sounds. Noé has imagined that by draining his usual neon out of the movie, he’ll prove he’s matured. He has not. Dario Argento, one of the great filmmakers, plays one of the leads and unfortunately I was too attached to it to walk out of the movie, so I was bludgeoned by two hours of misanthropy and misery. “Benedetta,” about a cloister suddenly overcome by madness when one of their ranks experiences stigmata, is a netherhair shy of the standard set by Ken Russell’s final word on nunsploitation, “The Devils.” However, not being quite as good as one of the best films of all time isn’t really a criticism. This movie must be seen. It’s absurd and beautiful, a semi-sequel to his 1985 opus “Flesh + Blood” and it’s every bit as bracing, violent, sensuous and depraved.
With a new classic fresh in my system it was time to go home, but I asked the driver to drop me in Prague for a few hours first. I wanted to just walk around and it seemed absurd to have traveled this far and not see some of it for myself. I walked slowly along the gray cobblestones beneath the gray sky and just let the week’s excitement and chaos drift off into the Vltava river. It’s not everyday you get to see these things, hear these sounds, meet and reconnect with people who love art the way you do. I’m happy to be back, but I’ll be disappointed for a while that every morning I wake up and can’t look out my window and see Karlovy Vary.