Sundance serves as a launching pad not just for American indie darlings, but also for emerging talent from across the globe. Among the first films screened in this year’s World Dramatic slate were Brazilian writer/director Gabriel Martins’ delicate family drama “Marte Um (Mars One),” László Csuja and Anna Nemes bodybuilding romance “Szelíd (Gentle)” which will represent Hungary for the first time, and Ukraine’s first feature film in the competition, Maryna Er Gorbach’s war drama “Клондайк (Klondike).”
“It’s beautiful. A beautiful dream,” Eunice (Camilla Damião) tells her younger brother Deivinho (Cícero Lucas) after he shares his dream to take part in Mars One mission set to colonize Mars in 2030. Writer/director Gabriel Martins’ “Marte Um (Mars One)” is filled many such tender moments. As the film begins, fireworks burst in the sky celebrating the election of right-wing president Bolsonaro. This political upheaval simmers in the background while a lower middle class Black family who live on the outskirts of an unnamed Brazilian slowly begin to feel its wake. As the political polarization of their nation rises, so does the tension for this tight knit family.
Obsessed with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Deivinho dreams of Mars while his father Wellington (Carlos Francisco) schemes to get him a tryout to join a major soccer association. University-age Eunice still shares a bunk bed with her brother, but when she meets and falls in love with the free spirited Joana (Ana Hilario) she craves independence for the first time. Meanwhile when their mother Tércia (Rejane Faria) survives a bombing that turns out to be a TV prank, she begins to believe she’s cursed.
This is a true four-hander, with equal time spent following the lives of this family as they exist in the world as individuals and as a family unit. However, it’s Camilla Damião who is the beating heart of this cast. This should be a star-making performance. Damião imbues Eunice with such strong empathy for those around her, crafting distinct chemistry with both her brother and her lover, and even while rebelling against their wishes the love she has for her parents is never far from the surface.
While certain beats may feel overly familiar for the genre, the hopeful vibe and warmth with which Martins tells his story and the strong bond of the four actors at its center cement the film as a real crowd-pleaser. If you don’t tear up a bit during the final scene you might want to check in on your heart.
With a similarly soft approach, Hungarian co-writer/directors Anna Eszter Nemes and László Csuja shine a light on the world of competitive bodybuilding with their melancholic romance “Gentle.” When we first meet Edina (played with a dreamy stoicism by real life world champion bodybuilder Eszter Csonka), cinematographer Zágon Nagy frames her from the chest up. Her buff, tanned body contrasted with her iridescent pink bikini top, thick eye makeup, and long blonde ponytail. This contrast is pushed further as we see her posing her full, muscular body in competition as soft ballad plays in the background.
“This sport is about proportions. Balance,” her trainer and boyfriend Ádám (György Turós, a real-life coach of five world champions) tells a fan after Edina wins a place to compete in the world championship. He means balance of strength between the upper and lower body, but the line suggests a greater metaphor between the balance of physical and emotional strength needed to get through life unscathed.
Lacking a sponsor to pay for training, the couple look for alternative means. Ádám’s nerves get to him during an audition for a strip club, so Edina turns to selling her body to men, not necessarily for intercourse but for fetish purposes. Here she finds an unexpected emotional connection that throws her off this much sought out balance. Csaba Krisztik is wonderful as her lover Krisztián, though his professional acting style sometimes feels incongruous with Csonka’s naturalism.
Similar to last year’s adult film drama “Pleasure,” co-directors Nemes and Csuja are almost clinical in their depiction of the physicality of bodybuilding. Training sessions are peppered throughout, with Csonka’s body straining and contorting amongst the metal workout equipment, the camera fixated on her bulging muscles and labored breathing. These are contrasted with shots of a more serene Edina in nature, finding a peace she lacks in her professional life. A shot of her head laying amongst hundreds of baby chicks could easily feel cheesy, but Csonka’s beguiling tranquility makes it transcendent.
Although beats of the film sometimes veer a little too close to Darren Aronofsky’s "The Wrestler,” the filmmakers’ reverence for what makes bodybuilding a unique sport and Csonka’s captivating performance keep “Gentle” on its own distinct path.
Conversely, writer/director Maryna Er Gorbach’s Ukrainian drama “Клондайк (Klondike)” starts not with a whimper, but with a bang. Set in the early days of the Donbas war and inspired by the true crash of flight MH17 on July 17, 2014, in which 280 passengers and 15 crew members were killed, the life of an expectant couple changes irrevocably as the war creeps literally into their living room.
Living in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, a disputed territory near the Russian border, Tolik (Sergey Shadrin) attempts to convince his pregnant wife Irka (Oxana Cherkashyna) to go to the hospital in the middle of the night when an explosion occurs ripping a hole in their home. Hearing news of the crash the next day while irrationally trying to clean her home, Irka slowly begins to realize how deeply rooted her husband’s separatist politics really are.
An end screen states the film is “dedicated to woman” and indeed this is a showcase for actress Oxana Cherkashyna. Still reeling from the destruction of her home, she shouts “They bombed my stroller! Where will I put my baby,” with such a perfect absurdist tone. Gorbach expertly balances levity in the midst of all this trauma, with Cherkashyna’s comic timing the glue.
This is not a comedy however, and as the tension rises between Tolik and Irka’s nationalist brother Yaryk (Oleg Shcherbina), and Irka ventures beyond her household to observe the rising occupation, Gorbach deftly weaves the effects of war from the personal to community level.
The last 30 minutes in particular include two striking set pieces, showcasing Sviatoslav Bulakovskyi’s stunning cinematography and Cherkashyna’s dramatic range. Using a tracking shot, we follow as she flees guards at the occupied border, eventually letting out a primal scream. In the other, a controlled shot slowly moves tighter on Irka as occupied forces surround her home while ignoring her labor pains. She writhes and moans, birthing the future, yet unable to control anything else around her. “Klondike” sees her strength, and the irony inherent in her situation, but leaves us with no solutions.