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KVIFF 2024: All We Imagine As Light, Panopticon, Three Days of Fish

It didn’t take long for me to find three worthy films at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival to write about. That’s not always the case at every festival. But it’s never too difficult to find more than a few gems at KVIFF. These are works about people who are trying to defy the emotional expectations society has set for them, particularly how masculinity and womanhood is expressed. They also come from directors who are either on their debut or second film. One, in fact, even this early in their career, might have a masterpiece. 

Sometimes a film just has to find you. I left Cannes on the day Indian writer/director Payal Kapadia’s “All We Imagine As Light” premiered. I kicked myself for my dreadful planning for the entirety of my long trip back home to Chicago. When the film won the festival’s Grand Prix, I sank even lower. Thankfully, KVIFF programmed the film in its Horizon section. It was worth the wait. Payal’s “All We Imagine As Light” is a romantic, sumptuous and culturally complex character study of three women across three different generations searching for autonomy in a country that governs their bodies, marriages, careers, and homes. 

Prahba (Kani Kusruti), a senior nurse in a Mumbai hospital, is our primary window into this world. Years ago her husband left the country to find work in Germany. His many phone calls have since dwindled to none. Prahba, in fact, hasn’t heard his voice in well over a year. She attempts to remain faithful to him as a gentle doctor at the hospital seeks to comfort her. Prahba’s young roommate and fellow nurse Anu (Divya Prabha), meanwhile, is presently in a not-so-secret relationship with a young Muslim man named Shiaz (Hridhu Haroon) that has the entire nursing staff gossiping. Prahba often scolds Anu’s romantic life, applying the same stringent gender politics to her colleague previously applied to her. 

Mostly “All We Imagine As Light” concerns Prahba unlearning the debilitating expectations hoisted upon her by a patriarchal society. Her older, widowed co-worker Parvaty (Chhaya Kadam) is immeasurable in that regard. Unable to prove her residency in her apartment against conniving developers due to the recent death of husband, Parvaty has decided to leave nursing and Mumbai behind and return home back to her tranquil seaside village. Anu and Prahba accompany her on a journey that offers them the kind of freedom previously unavailable to them.   

In “All We Imagine As Light,” all three actresses are simply superb—especially Kusruti. It’s so difficult to play a person who is bent but not quite broken. Kusruti does so with aplomb, showing the cracks and fissures underneath the stern exterior her character projects. With that in mind, this is also a sexually open film—there is a sex scene here filled with so much eros it could easily fog up the lens. This is a visually transportive work too, vibrantly capturing the streets of Mumbai and the verdant tangle of the jungle with equal care. These are all daring and bold choices. For Kapadia, the courageousness of “All We Imagine As Light” doesn’t feel like a second film. It already stands as an early majestic masterwork, told with incredible control and uncommon force of will.

In the Georgian coming-of-age tale “Panopticon,” Sandro (Data Chachua) is a quiet 18-year-old loner. Like most teenage boys, he is also horny without any constructive outlet to share these feelings—tellingly, in the film’s opening scene, Sandro uses his proximity to a girl sitting on the bus to feel her up. Later he cops a feel on girls’ butts in packed crowds. These creepy, immature dalliances are made worse because of Sandro’s environment: his father (Malkhaz Abuladze) has left home for a monastery, his mother lives in America awaiting papers that may never come, an obsession with religion demands that Sandro suppress his sexual urges, and societal misogyny has taught him to presume women must be chaste. 

Though Sandro has a girlfriend (Salome Gelenidze)—who is underwritten because he barely sees her for her—he ultimately falls for the older Natalia (Iamze Sukhitashvili), the mother of his best friend and soccer teammate Lasha (an affecting Vakhtang Kedeladze).  

The film’s writer/director George Sikharulidze, in his directorial debut, which often plays like an invigorating combination of “The 400 Blows” and “Mean Streets,” carefully plots out Sandro’s lustful desires. Smartly, Sikharulidze positions Natalia as a hairdresser. When Natalia combs her fingers through Sandro's wavy hair before washing it, you can sense this is the first time Sandro has ever been touched by any woman. Sandro and Lasha eventually grow closer too, falling into the kind of dangerous xenophobic nationalist politics that has them hunting Arab people on the street. In these charged scenes, particularly one based around a riot, “Panopticon” can become rushed and melodramatic. 

Rather the film is best when it’s austere. This is a complicated story of teenagers navigating their bodies and wants in a society that doesn't see their sense of introspection as worthwhile, in fact, it often labels it demonic. Sikharulidze eloquently expresses these obstacles through a visual language that plays as strict and classical, relying on his actors to fill the emotion of the scenes. In his debut performance, Chachua is up to the task. There is something brittle about the actor, a kind of vulnerability lurking behind a stoicism that makes you believe that one warm hug might cause him to crumble. “Panopticon” ends on such a collapse, intentionally composed to be a kind of revelation under the shadow of young adulthood for a poignant, knotty debut that manages to both challenge and startle the viewer.      

Dutch writer/director Peter Hoogendoorn’s “Three Days of Fish” is a stirring picture of male vulnerability. While the director's debut feature “Between 10 And 12” was inspired by the tragic death of his sister, this film was influenced by the director’s fear of losing his father. In it, Gerrie (Ton Kas) is returning to the Netherlands from Portugal for his annual check-up. The 65-year-old Gerrie is battling COPD and is staying with his stepdaughter as he looks to switch over his doctor and dentist to ones based in Portugal where his second wife lives. His son, the quiet, unassuming Dick (Guido Pollemans), however, desperately wants to be with him. 

Gerrie and Dick are two reserved men who find it difficult to communicate what they want from the other. It’s clear Dick wants some affection from Gerrie. He’s just too afraid to ask. Instead Dick aims to do mundane tasks with his dad—visit the doctor and dentist, and say ‘hello’ to an old work buddy—just to be around him for any length of time. The only specific activity Dick wants to do is visit his deceased grandmother’s former home, a request the busy Gerrie initially balks at. 

Shot in gorgeous black and white, the kind that fully translates the gray feelings father and son have for each other—"Three Days of Fish" can sometimes come off as slight. The only world that exists is the one between these two men, leaving Gerrie’s stepdaughter and her family severely underwritten. Still, the sturdy performances by Kas and Pollemans land the subtle, purposefully awkward grace notes that compose their characters’ hushed relationship. By the final shot, which takes the romantic train station adieu and flips it on its head, the tacit acknowledgement that father and son want to embrace one another is enough to make you want to immediately call your dad or your child—rendering "Three Days of Fish" a nourishing familial meal. 

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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