Martial-arts extravaganzas and avant-garde poetry—and folks back home ask why I love festivals! And I absolutely concur with your allusion to the pleasures of mysterious art. Case in point: Marco Bellocchio’s Blood of My Blood, an enigmatically bifurcated tale I thoroughly relished even as much of its precise meaning escaped me. A characteristically searching image (a heavy wooden door opening into sunlight, then closing) launches the film’s first half, which takes place in the director’s hometown of Bobbio in the 17th century, with the Italian Inquisition in full swing. A soldier (Pier Giorgio Bellocchio) steps into a convent to inquire about his twin brother, a monk who’s been buried in a donkey graveyard after having committed suicide. Locked behind cloistered walls is the reason for the man’s death, a young nun (Lidiya Liberman) who supposedly bewitched him and is now undergoing medieval trials in order to be forced into a confession of some satanic pact. Her hair close-cropped and her manner insinuatingly silent, she quickly slinks her way into the psyche of the visitor, who simmers in bed with a pair of funny virginal sisters who look like worn Raphaelite models. A gorgeous moment (Liberman at the bottom of a stream, weighted down by chains yet curiously at peace) suggests a mystical undercurrent to the film’s dark-toned naturalism, yet little prepares you for its sudden shift into… otherworldly comedy?
To borrow a famous Buñuelian verdict, Blood of My Blood is two films glued at the belly. Following the pale-flame severity of the story up to now, the often zany, supernatural tenor of the second half beguiles as much as it perplexes. A cut to present day finds the convent in moldy condition, now a dilapidated prison occupied by a wizened, elegantly irritable gentleman who just happens to be a vampire. (Roberto Herlitzka drolly plays him as half Nosferatu, half grouchy pensioner.) With a Russian billionaire determined to buy his sanctuary and turn into a high-class rehab clinic, the Count grouses about current times with a dentist chum: “The internet is what killed us… Now everybody wants receipts!” Then a glimpse of a lovely coed at a restaurant gets the old man’s attention, and oblique links to previous sequences become gradually clearer. A mirror structure? A fable told twice? Pushing 80 and still the most radical living figure in Italian cinema, Bellocchio choreographs these disparate elements (nuns and ghouls, monks and crazies, bursts of slapstick and a children’s choir cover of a certain Metallica ballad) with the tranquil, playful sureness of a master. Concluding with a vision of what Godard might have termed fatale beauté, this is rich, uncanny, and moving in ways that are difficult to pin down, which often are the most stimulating ways.
Another unclassifiable work: Anomalisa, about which I knew very little other than it was a Charlie Kaufman project—whose distinct artistic voice has in the past generally struck me like a dull, throbbing toothache—and that it used of stop-motion animation. These strange elements promptly fused as soon as a mock-airplane materializes in a mock-sky and a middle-aged puppet gazes out the window, feeling the sting of disillusion, the torment of broken relationships, and, basically, the weight of the world. The protagonist, voiced by David Thewlis, is a British business author in Cincinnati for a conference, and passes from airport to taxi cab to hotel room as if in a daze, literally hearing the same voice (Tom Noonan) and seeing the same face in everybody in his path. The existential monotony is abruptly splintered when he hears a new sound, a woman’s voice belong to a painfully shy hotel guest (Jennifer Jason Leigh in a splendid vocal performance) with a dented temple and a yen for Cyndi Lauper lyrics. The fumbling encounter that ensues, basically paced in real time for maximum awkwardness and tenderness, shivers with wondrous discovery and unease. In his first directorial effort since Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman (co-directing with Duke Johnson) posits human existence itself as an enormous dollhouse inhabited by hapless creatures with wooden bodies and painfully expressive eyes. Evoking an Ionesco play staged by Henry Selick, it’s mordantly funny and sort of terrifying and as absolutely naked a view of loneliness and yearning as any I can recall. Curious about what you made of it, Danny.
There’s more graphic invention in any moment of Anomalisa (say, a close-up of Leigh’s withdrawn heroine aglow with intoxication in an elevator, lolling the word “mojito” in her mouth like a three-syllable moan) than in all of Spotlight, but that’s expected. Tom McCarthy’s account of the 2001 system-quaking discoveries of the Boston Globe investigative team is Hollywood filmmaking at its most self-effacing, grounding its real-life narrative in the details of journalistic process back when paper trails were still made of paper. (Stacks of folders, newspaper clippings and microfilm spools lend the otherwise nondescript textures a pleasingly analog tangibility.) Following a group of muckrakers as they take on the Church’s decades-long cover-up of child abuse and exhume a widening network of ecclesiastical predators, the film has the crisp linearity of efficient reportage. (The ubiquitous comparisons to All the President’s Men ultimately only go so far, however, as McCarthy’s straightforward flatness is the very opposite of Alan J. Pakula’s excitement for geometric, nearly Germanic cinematic form.) A smart and tidy film, Spotlight owes its enjoyment in no small amount to its actors, particularly Michael Keaton in a beautifully engineered portrait of mayhem peeking from under a surface of natural authority and ferret-like tenacity. When we get asked—and we will get asked, Danny—about which festival titles are headed to the Oscars, here’s an answer, with all the virtues and limitations that entails.
Over to you, my friend.