Among the standouts in this year’s World Dramatic Competition section at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, four remarkable films center on female leads that find themselves on high-stakes, life-altering (and in one case, life-or-death) crossroads.
Set within the laid-back, casual cadences of a small town in Italian countryside, Jacek Borcuch’s elegant drama “Dolce Fine Giornata” navigates an aging female artist’s renewed values and (ever so subtly) sexuality against the backdrop of a grand political canvas. We are in the picturesque Tuscany, following Maria Linde (Krystyna Janda); a Polish Nobel Prize winner for literature, leading the kind of life that would gently fall somewhere between a swoon-worthy Luca Gudagnino film and a Paolo Sorrentino satire on the rich and the privileged. Amid dinner parties where bountiful wine and brainy (yet slightly out of touch) conversations freely flow, Maria finds herself at a lonely junction where her family life with her husband and daughter, as well as her friendships, start to inexplicably fade away. Her dissatisfaction intensifies when she finds herself drawn towards a young, hardworking and curious-minded immigrant named Nazeer (Lorenzo De Moor), who seems to fulfill Maria’s humanistic hunger, unattended by her close circle.
Through the story of Maria and Nazeer, two emotionally charged individuals who unite around their shared views of art and civilization despite coming from different backgrounds, co-writers Borcuch and Szczepan Twardoch investigate timely topics around immigration—among them is the irrational fears that plague not only Europe, but also the entire world. (Look no further than our own administration’s border wall fantasy to see our version of that illogical panic.) The sober script successfully builds Maria Linde as a believable famous poet struggling to reconcile with her fortunate existence in life and gives her apt opportunities to ruffle some feathers. Maria often dissents everyday double standards that we all turn a blind eye to. In that, an interview with a pretentious journalist that quickly turns hostile and a scene where Maria delivers a heated speech to reject her Nobel Prize on the heels of a wide-scale terrorist attack especially leave a mark. I wish “Dolce Fine Giornata” explored Nazeer’s world with a bit more depth and engaged with the immigrant side of the town’s community a little closer. Still, Borcuch’s film asks the right questions about the dangerously escalating xenophobia and leaves a lasting impression with its final metaphoric shot.
Dystopian tales are often clear, transparent renderings of our worst societal fears around justice and liberty. Where your moral alignment should be while watching “The Handmaid’s Tale”, for instance, is hardly ambiguous. “Neon Bull” director Gabriel Mascaro’s near-future dystopia “Divine Love” operates on a slightly trickier foundation. In the Brazil of 2027, an extremely conservative power structure with Evangelical values seems to have answered a deeply religious character’s prayers. She is Joana (Dira Paes), a married woman who exploits her role in a notary’s office to sneakily prevent divorce between consenting couples. Spending her days waiting for a connective sign from God and desperately wanting to conceive a child, Joana resorts to unconventional methods with her husband to have a baby by any means necessary. The couple’s alternative fertility route brings them to a cult-like religious support organization called Divine Love, where passionate, reproductively challenged couples exchange sexual partners during intercourse to achieve a much-desired pregnancy while ignoring the scientific unlikelihood.
Mascaro interprets the world of “Divine Love” through a heated, feverish lens, favoring vibrant colors and soft sensuality while controversially blending the joys of religiousness and eroticism. Underscoring the deep hypocrisies of conservatism that fail to address basic human needs and desires, Mascaro weaves together a complex, nonjudgmental thesis around Joana, bringing forward her ambivalent position as a woman who submits both her spirit and body entirely to God. When Joana finally receives the holy sign she had always dreamed of (even if it’s more than she had bargained for), we sympathize with her struggle as the very system she supports abandons her at the altar. “Divine Love” might be a thoughtful critique of Brazil’s rising conservatism, but its global relevancy is also undeniable. This is a shocking, wonderfully acted and surprisingly erotic film that leaves one with more questions than answers, like any good film that dares to tackle the vastness of faith should.
Part allegory for Columbia’s never-ending political unrest, part a darkly twisted, reality-pushing fairy tale, Alejandro Landes’ “Monos” drops the audience right in the midst of an undefined Latin American locale and time. Taking place entirely in remote mountains and jungles where eight teenage commandos with guns and code names like Smurf, Bigfoot and Rambo watch over a milk cow and a female hostage they call Doctora (Julianne Nicholson) for a collective named The Organization, “Monos” is an unwavering visual and psychological dare that illustrates the surreal nature of war seen mostly through the eyes of the woman prisoner in her survival battle. Landes first establishes the group’s unruly yet methodical livelihood in the way they engage with one another. Relentless and unforgiving, the company only starts to crumble when its members find themselves deeper in the hostile conditions of the jungle after escaping an attack.
This is when Doctora, biding her time until then, takes advantage of the band’s disturbed balance and manipulates her captors with the same emotional (and sometimes suggestively physical) cruelty that she’s been thus far subjected to. Examining the cost of violence and war in the way it erodes human empathy and compassion, “Monos” steers itself to an exceedingly brutal place where logical lines blur and desperate measures take over in desperate times. Nicholson delivers a stunning performance in the demanding shoes of Doctora, playing up her strength, vulnerability and femininity as necessary during her escape. Scored by Mica Levi (“Under The Skin”) with otherworldly sounds (sometimes, obtained by blowing into empty bottles by the composer), “Monos” is a monumentally cinematic experience of lush wilderness and raw emotions.
Perhaps the most controversial film of the bunch, “Queen of Hearts”, directed by May el Toukhy, is poised to become a much debated over title in Sundance. Written by Maren Louise Käehne, “Queen of Hearts” is all about abuse of power and unremorsefully going down the deep end to preserve it when threatened with its loss. In Toukhy’s sensational drama that morphs into a thriller in its final act, Trine Dyrholm plays Anne; a successful lawyer who looks after abuse cases of children and young people. Living an idyllic, affluent life with her husband Peter (Magnus Krepper) in their tasteful contemporary home, Anne seems to have it all until Peter’s troubled son Gustav (Gustav Lindh) turns up to live with them. Bored by the everyday dullness and blinded by a forbidden desire, Anne oversteps an unimaginable legal and moral boundary, seduces her stepson and consequently transforms him into the kind of young victim she’d normally defend.
A much grimmer “Notes on a Scandal” that seeks punishment not in obvious confrontations to plunge one into guilt, but in fatal outcomes and an irreversibly crumbled conscious, “Queen of Hearts” sleekly lures the audience into Anne’s seemingly balanced existence before pulling the rug from under them. Dyrholm gives a brave and shockingly bare performance as a prosperous yet jaded woman and a seductress who’d do anything at all costs to preserve the life she’s accustomed to. Toukhy’s film, mostly set around the minimalist family home and the sun-dappled woods that surround it, is stylishly composed and puts on display a surprising level of sexual frankness. This makes “Queen of Hearts” a challenging sit, especially when Anne’s actions shift from ethically bankrupt to outright despicable, making her one of the most complicated female villains of recent memory.