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KVIFF: Loveable, Tiny Lights, Windless

As I was writing up this second dispatch from Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, I couldn't help but think that this is probably the best collection of titles I’ve had this year in one of these write-ups. The three films here are about the death of families, of marriages, and of the places they occupy. They are sharp stabs at the heart intended to wound, if only to heal.

From Thomas Robsahm (the producer behind "The Worst Person in the World"), Lilja Ingolfsdottir’s feature directorial debut “Loveable” is a nimble Norwegian portrait of regrets. Maria (Helga Guran) was ready to move on when she spotted Sigmund (Oddgeir Thune) at a party. She had recently separated from her husband, leaving her with two children from that marriage. Built, charming, and blessed with a 100-watt smile, the blond Sigmund isn’t initially interested in Maria. In fact, he doesn’t even notice her. Rather she spends days pursuing him: tracking Sigmund to bars, coffee shops, and any other gatherings where she might “happen” to bump into him. Luck strikes when they share a car together. Unblinkingly, she offers a coy smile. They soon become married and have two children of their own. Maria narrates much of this action, leading us to seven years later when the flame has clearly died. 

In Maria, Ingolfsdottir crafts a woman with clear anger management issues. After being away for weeks on a recording session, Sigmund can barely get a word in before Maria explodes. More blows up occur regarding their shared time looking after the kids—why does Maria always have to put her job on hold only for Sigmund to leave whenever he wants? It’s a necessary question, one that Maria uses a verbal blowtorch to deliver. When we see Maria overreact to her teenage daughter Alma (Maja Tothammer-Hruza), it’s not difficult to see Maria as the obvious problem, until it’s not. 

The brilliance of Ingolfsdottir’s debut is how she volleys between these two partners—particularly in their shared therapy sessions—to show that not only does Maria need help, there’s also plenty of blame to be shared. Maria’s search for self-discovery is arresting to watch, as she occupies coldly lit compositions and is often reflected in mirrors in ways that demonstrate her tenuous mental state. Thune is equally brilliant taking a nuanced script and finding further cracks to crawl into. But it’s Guran as Maria who is wholly on another level giving life to such a broken, stoic, and initially unlikable person. In the film’s best scenes the director trusts her actress to deliver big emotional swings, allowing the camera and light to travel across her face—particularly in one scene where Maria recounts one of the couple's big fights, slowed to take notice of each perceptible emotion entering the fray. In the film’s worst moment, a cathartic look in the mirror by Maria is practically undone by a heavy-handed music queue. That slip up by a first time director, however, isn’t enough to erase the preceding brilliance. “Loveable” is simply too lovely to be ignored.

Another film involving a dissolving marriage is writer/director Beata Parkanová’s modest Czech slice of life “Tiny Lights.” Shot mostly from a child’s eye level, this unassuming work follows six-year-old Amálka (Mia Bankó) witnessing the separation of her mother (Elizaveta Maximová) and father (Marek Geisberg). Amálka doesn’t often acknowledge the fracturing happening around her. Rather she quietly observes, making her displeasure known through her spoiled wants and her desire for attention from the adults around her. 

Through her eyes and ears, in the film’s opening scene, we witness mom and dad engaged in a fight so big it’s dragged in Amálka’s grandmother (Veronika Zilková) and grandpa (Martin Finger). As Amálka’s mother tries to share her unhappiness with her parents—only to be rebuffed by her mother—Amálka looks on behind a frosted window pane, taking in the obvious ways even those who love her will ultimately ignore her. Eventually, Amálka’s mother and father leave for separate trips, leaving her in the care of her grandparents. They spend the day hiking in the woods, swimming in a pond, and building rock castles. Once again, not much is said by Amálka, but everything is heard. 

Despite Amálka being around, her grandparents don’t mind critiquing her parents in front of her. At one point her grandmother says Amálka’s parents should’ve gotten a pet before they had a child. Bankó as Amálka is the movie. Her searching eyes, her mischievous grin, and her perceptible hurt provide nuanced emotional beats to a story that is mostly happening out of frame. This is one of those few child performances that doesn’t feel rehearsed to death or trite. It’s thoughtfully conceived, aching, and relatable—allowing the tender heart at the center of  “Tiny Lights” to shine bright. 

I am admittedly an easy mark for a story about a son parsing his relationship with his dead dad, but Pavel G Vesnakov’s “Windless” is an exceptional piece of filmmaking. It sees Kaloyan (his friends call him Koko) returning home to his tiny Bulgarian town after living for years in Spain. He is there to sell his deceased father’s former apartment. That story among the townspeople isn’t necessarily unique. The new mayor is buying up properties that’ll be torn down and redeveloped into a casino, a resort, and other high-end flats that he claims will revitalize the area. It sounds good to many people still living in what’s quickly becoming a ghost town due to the older population not only dying but their children, like Koko (Ognyan “FYRE” Pavlov), moving overseas or to Western Europe. Everywhere Koko turns he is reminded of his decision to leave, and of his father—who everyone says was a good, honorable man. For what it’s worth, he seems less well regarded by Koko. 

Situated in the Proxima competition, “Windless” is a meditative character study that demands the viewer to listen. It does so through its vertical aspect ratio made even smaller by Koko often being framed in doorways and window frames. These tiny compositions also point to the initial myopia Koko displays—he wants to leave as quickly as possible, to the point of not wanting to settle the reburial of his relatives whose cemetery is about to be turned into a spa—and to the kind of snapshots of a place that may not exist in a hundred years. 

Koko meets various people along the way: an uncle who imparts a “Pulp Fiction”-like story involving a wallet and other family friends—who tell him how amazing and how lonely his father was. Pavlov as Koko is exceptional at charting the emotional journey of a son beginning to confront his reasons for leaving his father and the wake he left behind. There is a longing under the many facial tattoos Koko sports, a depth of heartache that is only revealed in the many late-night zoom conversations he engages in with his mother and in his very act of quiet listening. By the end, “Windless” depicts how much has truly been lost: memories, pictures, furniture, heirlooms, cultural artifacts, and the very buildings that still hold the souls of loved ones. And yet, but so much is gained. When Koko says “I am here to care for my father,” it is a grasp to regain the time, the place, and the people who have slipped by and been demolished. It's every regret you've ever had with a parent put into a movie, making for a beautiful reckoning. 


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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