At the New York Film Festival, the spotlight is often on those calling the shots behind the camera. If directors come with stars, it’s a nice bonus, but actors are not the only reason people queue up early for a good seat here. This year, people are doing so for filmmakers like Yorgos Lanthimos, Sofia Coppola, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Justine Triet, Richard Linklater, Wim Wenders, and Fredrick Wiseman, just to name a few. The festival is a place for discovering new, exciting directors and established masters with their latest films like these.
Todd Haynes’ complicated melodrama “May December” opened the 61st edition of the New York Film Festival with much fanfare. Although the event was missing its signature stars Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, Haynes held court at the press conference, explained the influences of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” on his latest film and how he incorporated a portion of composer Michel Legrand’s score for Joseph Losey’s “The Go-Between” into the fabric of “May December,” mixing in a touch of old school cinema sensibility with Haynes’ fresh perspective.
“May December” follows actress Elizabeth Berry (Portman) as she visits Gracie Atherton-Yoo (Moore) to learn more about her ahead of portraying her in an upcoming movie about Gracie’s life. Twenty years ago, Gracie found infamy with her younger husband, Joe Yoo (Charles Melton), after an illicit affair when Joe was just a teenager at the pet shop where they worked. Now, they’re the parents of three children who tried to move on from their tabloid past, but Elizabeth’s visit and probing questions soon unearth unspoken doubts, secrets, and lasting heartache from the scandal’s fallout.
Co-written by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik, “May December” finds a dark sense of humor without sacrificing its story’s more tragic elements. Haynes zooms in as Elizabeth evolves into Gracie, copying her mannerisms right down to her lisp and her facial tics. Elizabeth’s visit soon affects those around Gracie, including Joe and their children, revealing further unresolved issues. It’s “Persona” by way of “Kate Plays Christine,” using an actor’s method of stepping into a role to examine a complicated life and question the ethics of Elizabeth’s process of “getting into character.” It’s a marvelous showcase of Moore, Portman, and Haynes’ mastery of their crafts.
Marco Bellocchio’s “Kidnapped” is a much more straightforward historical drama, yet its emotions run deep as a political and religious struggle tears a family apart. Immersing its viewers in 1800s Italy, Bellocchio revisits a volatile time in his country’s history, sometimes with a cheeky sense of visual styling, like including a scene of priests and nuns running around a palatial room in a choreographed panic, but mostly with a solemn reverence for the pain this shameful chapter in history caused a family and his country.
“Kidnapped” recounts the true story of Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish boy in Bologna, Italy, who was abducted by the Pope’s soldiers in 1858. His parents, father Salomone "Momolo" and mother Marianna Mortara, desperately plead for their son’s return to the press and fellow concerned citizens. But because the Catholic Church used papal law and a secret baptism as reason enough to take the boy from his Jewish family, the Mortara family, and their allies suffered for years against the stubborn religious ruler. All the while, Edgardo slips further into a faith different from the one he was born into.
Bellocchio follows the agonizing journey over the years with attentive detail, recreating historic moments both major—like how the case helped stoke Bologna’s independence from the Church—and interpersonal—like how Edgardo’s saga was viewed by his heartbroken family, the Church officials who took him, and the Pope, who comes to view his promising young star pupil as something of a son. Bellocchio sometimes ventures too far into the fanciful, like a brief segment animating political cartoons or visualizing a nightmare sequence where the Pope thinks he will be circumcised by rabbis, which feels silly compared to the tone of the rest of the movie. However, since most of the drama is centered on the boy and his family, they are only brief distractions from the compelling saga of the Mortara family.
Spanish director Víctor Erice has only a few feature films to his name, but each one is an expertly measured exercise of the medium. His latest, “Close Your Eyes,” is both a tribute to cinema and a reckoning with lost time and relationships. Like his politically charged classic “The Spirit of the Beehive,” released 50 years ago, “Close Your Eyes” is still in awe of the power of cinema but finds its limitations in a decaying state. The industry and the world around it has changed. Revered names and famous faces fade from the public’s memory, and the only ones who seem to remember them are those who knew them as friends, lovers, or parents. In the movies, those memories come alive again, and briefly, we are reunited with the past.
In “Close Your Eyes,” former film director Miguel Garay (Manolo Solo) collaborates with a sensationalist TV show to share the mystery of his star and longtime friend, Julio Arenas (José Coronado), who disappeared before wrapping the movie they were shooting, walking out without explanation. For years, Miguel’s unfinished period piece sat on a dusty shelf, but now Miguel broadcasts a portion of it to see if anyone in Spain will recognize his long-lost friend. His search brings him to reconnect with his former editor and friend Max (Mario Pardo), a former flame he shared with Julio, Lola (Soledad Villamil), and Julio’s now-grown daughter, Ana (Ana Torrent).
From the outset, “Close Your Eyes” holds extra meaning for the filmmaker. The movie is a reunion for Erice and the child star of “The Spirit of the Beehive,” Ana Torrent (again playing a role named Ana), and in this film, movies are a way to reconnect with people of the director’s past and relive a chapter in one’s life. Movies are souvenirs of memories, snapshots of a particular place and time that can never truly be revisited—after all, even if Miguel does find Julio, they can never go back to finish their old project. Erice’s “Close Your Eyes” is a bittersweet homage to how movies can bring us together and remind us of the past but never bring us back to the people we once were.