Continental divide - Argentina’s best get retro’d at TIFF Cinematheque (Eye Weekly)

BY Jason Anderson and Adam Nayman

Given how tricked out and tapped out the medium can feel here in cinema’s second century, it’s no small thing whenever an exciting new voice is detected. Of all the filmmakers great and small to emerge in the last 10 years, two Argentinian directors may have cut through the noise most starkly.

That’s why the latest edition of TIFF Cinematheque’s “Film Now” series seems especially urgent. Lisandro Alonso and Lucrecia Martel share the spotlight for a combined retrospective of the six (or seven, counting Alonso’s hour-long Fantasma) remarkable features they’ve made since 2001. As different as their sensibilities may be — Alonso favours portraits of hard-luck, lone-wolf figures travelling through formidable landscapes while Martel is a master of bustling domestic vignettes that revolve around women on the verge of collapse — it’s easy to see why they’ve rapidly ascended the ranks of international auteurs. Here are more reasons why you should pay attention:

Ride Lonesome:
The Films Of Lisandro Alonso

Of all the directors who might be said to be definitive of the aughts, Lisandro Alonso is certainly the most unassuming. Where comparable (and more widely heralded) figures like Jia Zhangke, the Dardenne brothers and Alonso’s countrywoman Lucrecia Martel (see below) have beaten a path to the centre of contemporary film culture, Alonso’s works feel like isolated gestures in which the filmmaker’s closely guarded sense of privacy gets transubstantiated into grandeur via his preternaturally confident technique.

Alonso was only 26 years old when he made La Libertad (****; Nov 30, 8:45pm), a patient, observational account of a rural woodcutter, which he achieved through close collaboration with the “star,” Misael Saavedra. Despite its quite conscious play with duration, to slander La Libertad as minimalism would be to ignore Alonso’s exquisite eye — and ear — for natural textures. And while it’s easy enough to classify the film as a hymn to routine — a lot of wood gets chopped, in real time — its key feature is Alonso’s humble willingness to subordinate rhythmic control to his subject.

Los Muertos (*****; Dec 1, 8:45pm) is at once a chancier and more controlled piece of work. Chancier, because it represents the director’s first experimentation with narrative, which finds a taciturn, fiftysomething parolee (Argentino Vargas) taking a boat upriver to reunite with his estranged family; controlled, because of Alonso’s refusal to provide much in the way of exposition, although the astonishing, single-take “overture” passage casts the story’s Conradian trajectory in an even darker shade. At the time of the film’s release, much of the attention it got focused on an extended passage in which Vargas slaughters and then neatly disembowels a goat (no FX work here), but what makes the scene, and the film, so remarkable is the absence of look-at-me provocation: the sequence is as matter-of-fact as the scenes in La Libertad of Misael taking his saws to tree trunks, and feels similarly of a piece with both the character (Vargas is also “playing himself”) and his surrounding environment.

Leaving aside the misstep of Fantasma (**; Nov 30, 8:45pm), a fussy, precious homage to Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn set in a cavernous Buenos Aires movie theatre, Alonso’s remarkable streak continued last year with Liverpool (*****; Nov 27, 7pm & Nov 29, 6pm), in which a sailor’s shore leave becomes a gruelling trek into Martial mountains. In the abstract, this may sound self-parodic — another silent wanderer in the Argentinian wastelands? — yet, by gradually shifting the focus from a lone rider to a community, Alonso seems to be taking a step forward. That step, however, is unlikely to lead him towards the mainstream. AN

Holy Girls And Headless Women:
The Films Of Lucrecia Martel

To be honest, I initially reacted to Lucrecia Martel’s third and most lavishly praised feature with no small measure of befuddlement. Part of that had to do with my expectations, seeing as The Headless Woman (****) — which belatedly receives its Toronto premiere with a limited run Nov. 27 to Dec. 3 — arrived at Cannes in 2008 with the imprimatur of co-producer Pedro Almodóvar (surely a sign of a burgeoning commercial sensibility) and a premise that promised a thriller of sorts. A wealthy woman driving near her home takes her eyes off the road and runs over… something. Was it a dog? Or a boy? As she tries to reconstruct events through the haze of her concussion and the condescending reassurances of her loved ones, she wonders whether anything happened at all.

If made elsewhere, the storyline might’ve yielded thriller of the “psychological” variety, with Sandra Bullock as the confused heroine. Instead, Martel uses it as the basis for a haunting study of a woman who shatters into pieces after a chance event rattles the bars of her gilded cage, one created and maintained by the privileges of her class and the well-meaning but solipsistic men who surround her.

In its treatment of the tensions between bourgeois characters and the quite literally disposable members of the country’s Indian underclass, The Headless Woman shares much with La Ciénaga (****; Nov 28, 8:45pm). But Martel takes a crueller tack in her debut feature, which peers into the hornet’s nest of conflicting desires that binds an unruly family of declining means. Likewise, her second film, The Holy Girl (****; Dec 4, 7pm), is somewhat more diffuse as Martel trains her ruthless eye on a wide variety of pained and perplexed figures, most notably a teenaged girl who develops a curiously spiritual fixation on an older man visiting the hotel where her mother works.

Regarded separately, Martel’s films can feel chilly and austere — I certainly felt that way after seeing The Headless Woman the first time. Yet when seen together, they not only improve each other, they develop greater warmth and strength. One thing that becomes apparent is the filmmaker’s painstaking attention to her characters’ bodies and their placement within the frame. That air of unflinching precision carries through to her somewhat ruthless editing style. As a result, characters frequently seem to find themselves moving in opposition to the contours and rhythms of the films themselves. No wonder their attempts to achieve some kind of connection with the people around them can feel so desperate and so doomed. JA

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