Before every screening at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, a black and white skit plays starring a past winner of their Crystal Globe (which honors a film creative’s contribution to cinema, with this year recipient being Geoffrey Rush). Often the skits lampoon the festival’s award—the slender trophy of a man holding up a globe—as a mere trinket. It’s a sign of a festival that doesn’t take itself too seriously but is conscious of what came before.
Many of the films for this last dispatch touch on the latter: With the exception of one film, three of them concern the problematic heirlooms we receive from our parents, and the ways those uncouth traditions permeate. Ironically, all of these films are self-serious. And certainly remind viewers of the value for levity. But each left a mark (in the best and worst of ways).
The more I’ve thought about “EO,” the cinematic donkey essay from 84-year-old Polish auteur Jerzy Skolimowski, the more disappointed I am in its lack of conviction. Taking more than a few obvious parallels from Robert Bresson’s powerful and bleak tale “Au Hasard Balthazar,” “EO” follows the titular donkey from a loved circus animal to a mistreated burro. Similar to Bresson’s work it reveals the maliciousness of humans towards animals, and imbues this animal with real personality and loss. But Skolimowski’s film doesn’t hold the same resolve as Bresson. It too often leaves the donkey’s perspective without revealing enough about him.
For Eo, it all begins tumbling away when animal activists protesting against the carnival spree him. Eo seemingly lived a decent life as circus entertainment, namely because a performer, Kassandra (Sandra Drzymalska), loved him. Skolimowski is careful not to show her love as infinite: If activists didn’t free Eo today, circumstances, namely her biker boyfriend, may have just as easily pulled Kassandra away from her donkey later, leaving the animal equally worse off.
The donkey is shipped to a show-horse ranch; later he’s taken to a donkey sanctuary that doubles as a petting zoo. But his love for Kassandra is too deep to keep him in one place. He often escapes in search of her. On its face, we know his pursuit is a long shot, which makes his encounters with the vile, abusive humans he meets, all the more stomach churning. The red lighting, which can alter to infrared, when mixed with Pawel Mykietyn’s arresting, otherworldly score, furthers the sense of dread.
And Skolimowski’s moralistic drama could reach the heights of Bresson, if he didn’t do an about face in two pointless scenes, one featuring Isabelle Huppert essentially playing her star persona (a side note: Huppert has tremendous range and it’s been frustrating, lately, to see her play a version of the same role over and over again) and the other trading in an ugly xenophobic stereotype. While Skolimowski and DP Michał Dymek do utilize some gauzy point-of-view shots, “EO” is never wholly interested in the perspective of its central character. It’s too engaged with being feckless shock treatment to thoughtfully reflect the viewer’s own actions back at them.
Conversely, a film that never seems to capitulate, thankfully, is Iranian director Dornaz Hajiha’s taut family drama “Like a Fish on the Moon.” It concerns Haleh (Sepidar Tari) and Amir (Shahdiyar Shabika) grappling with the sudden mutism of their young son Ilya (Ali Ahmadi). Despite finding a child psychologist, they can’t find the cause of their son’s condition. The situation causes a rupture between the two parents by unearthing the fissures in their marriage. Because Haleh and Amir don’t have equal roles in their son’s life: Haleh works too much and Amir takes on too much of the housework, causing her to become obsessive over Ilya.
What’s impactful about Hajiha’s well-calibrated script is its sparseness. As the pressures of Ilya’s mutism weighs on them—forcing the couple into petty arguments and borderline abusive behavior—the couple, much like their son, begins to talk less and less. The subtle maneuver contrasts greatly from Hajiha’s shooting of the psychologist sessions, which plays the situation too cheeky by not showing him, and the opulent, classical score that can play too big in this intimate piece.
Nevertheless, she pulls wonderful performances from the trio of actors: Ahmadi’s curious eye, his ambiguous smile obscures whether this kid could be pranking or experiencing a traumatic episode, which only heightens the pressure to find the cause. Ahmadi is equally captivating as the fierce mother, and Shabika—who in a post screening Q&A through a Perisian, English and Czech interpreter (the magic of an International film festival) explained he’s not an actor but an architect—never overplays any scene. The first-time actor is simply incredible, and a testament to Hajiha’s skill as an actor’s director.
“Like a Fish on the Moon” could easily regress toward trite ends: These parents could find some peace. We could learn more about the son (maybe by giving him an ugly backstory). But the script never makes that move. It is resolved to giving no easy answers, no simple quarters. Hajiha’s “Like a Fish on the Moon” is a transfixing and brooding, unafraid film where there are no winners. But there are truths to be had.
Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s “The Eight Mountains,” on the other hand, similarly wants to interrogate the impact parents have on their children. But it does so to far more maudlin ends.
Adapted from Paolo Cognetti’s novel “Le Otto Montagne” The 147-minute meditation on friendship begins with some verve: Pietro (Lupo Barbiero), a lonely boy from Milan, arrives with his family to Italy’s mountainous Aosta Valley for the summer. There he meets local boy, Bruno (Cristiano Sassella), who unlike the middle-class Pietro, hails from a farming family. The two boys quickly bond: They run through the lush verdant fields and the thrumming streams while the songs of Swedish singer-songwriter Daniel Norgren (who features heavily, oftentimes too heavily on this soundtrack) accompanies their frollicking.
While the first half “The Eight Mountains” features the visual acumen of Terrence Malick mixed with whimsy of Wes Anderson, the second half, which jumps into the future, first capturing the boys’ teenage years, then their wandering adult years, lags in pacing and interest. A slacker, Pietro allowed his father to die while the two were estranged. Now he’s returned to the mountain, meeting up with Bruno again to complete a house his mountain climbing father always wanted as his summer home.
Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi portray the adult Pietro and Bruno, respectively, and the two great actors move heaven and earth to give this film some kind of meaning. But Groeningen and Vandermeersch have crafted a banal picture too afraid to act on its queer subtext, too vast to give any of the women rich inner lives, and too congenial to imbue any drama between Pietro and Bruno. Instead, it’s a really nice friendship between two men on display who feel as though they’re caught in liminal spaces, between being mountain men and cityfolks, but never elevating that theme to a deep emotional space.
Sometimes a movie can be uncomplicated, but it at least needs to be interesting. “The Eight Mountains,” especially in its hackneyed conclusion, is an epic, long, slow bore without any desire to explore the human soul lurking beneath the words left unsaid.
Rwandan director Kivu Ruhorahoza fourth feature film, “Father’s Day,” patiently and artfully wades through the waters of patriarchal power and generational trauma to offer a sprawling narrative that somehow never loses its deft sense of intimacy.
There are three main storylines, featuring six leading characters who lightly intersect: A vicious, abusive thief named Karara (Yves Kijyana)—one of his hustles is selling stolen purebred dogs to passing drivers—submits his young son to tortuous lessons as he schools him in crime. A grieving masseuse who recently lost her son, Zaninka (Médiatrice Kayitesi) rebels against her financially illiterate husband’s harebrained schemes. And Mukobwa (Aline Amike) simmers with rage as she decides whether to be an organ donor for her murderous father who took part in the 1994 genocide.
The placid temperament of the film’s first half belies the gripping emotions swirling internally in each actor. At first you might mistake each performer as staid or apathetic. Ruhorahoza, for his part, isn’t afraid to wait for these characters to slowly unfold, revealing the pains that drive them. Kayitesi, especially, is teeming with a pathos, somehow keeping the deeper waters of Zaninka close to the surface without ever crossing over toward maudlin.
Ruhorahoza’s aesthetics are also enchanting: His exquisite compositions evocatively render these characters’ lives not so much through their physical spaces. But the mood and tone of their respective burdens. The impressionistic editing similarly enshrines their feelings of resilience emerging out of despair. Ruhorahoza accomplishes all of this through an omnipresent pandemic which he collaborates not for treacly ends. Instead, as a touchstone unearthing the faults that long existed in their lives.
The film weaves through the multivariate facets of Karara, Zaninka, and Mukobwa without haste. Ruhorahoza wants to tell a story, fully and completely. And the acutely empathic “Father’s Day,” a potent and assured drama, is among the best African pictures of the year.