A cinematic X-ray of the planet (I)

More stylish than previous editions, the jubilee edition of Transylvania International Film Festival is back to the time-honoured tradition of the “golden triplet”, presenting last year’s winners of the world’s three major art film festivals. Even if it didn’t win this year’s Palme d’or, the winner of the Best Screenplay Award in Cannes is in the league of masterpieces. “Poetry”, signed by South Korean director Lee Chang-Dong, is a finely-woven web of contradictory existences in a subtly hypocritical world, a world where the only “poetic” chords are tragic. A grandma suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer seeks to protect her grandson, guilty of a repeated gang rape on a classmate who ended up killing herself. The old woman does not shrink from sleeping with the half-paralyzed man she looks after so as to blackmail him and get the money she needs to buy off the suicide’s mother, but, at the same time, she is the only one who can empathize with the dead girl’s suffering. It is precisely the nature of Alzheimer that allows the film plot to play on ambiguity and tiny breakdowns of meaning. In fact, the senile erotic episode-itself is wavering, ambivalently, between blackmail and empathy with the drama of disability and the impotence of old age. Finally, the ending, which superimposes the old woman’s destiny with that of the girl, associates two suicides, a real one and one that is, at the very least, symbolic. Dramas are always concealed under the mask of inexorable hypocrisy and slippage between contradictory states of mind undercuts responsibility. In such a world, contaminated by insidious dementia, “poetry” lost its voice. The old woman’s ridiculous enrolment into a poetry creation class is the pretext for an attempt to transform this disfigured reality. The more so as it deals with a peculiarly Eastern type of poetry, with a minute, jeweler’s-like, work of refinement, with a certain distance to the epiphanies of everyday life.

The Golden Bear brought back to the public’s attention a revelation of Iranian cinema. After his brilliant participation in TIFF two years ago, with “About Elly” (a Silver Lion in Venice), Ashgar Farhadi is back in Cluj, with the grand prize in Berlin. “Nader and Simin, A Separation” uncovers the muted reality of a divorce. The film focuses on something else, a trial for attempted murder, following a miscarriage produced by physical abuse. However, the dramatic confrontation between the man about to get a divorce, facing a prison sentence, and the husband of the woman who miscarried, seeking revenge at all costs, sheds light on the deeper motives of a divorce that seemed poorly motivated. The more so as the central character turns out to be the two spouses’ teenage daughter, wavering between her parents, as the extra-marital drama unfolds, trying to save a marriage at the crossroads. The film is free of any moral simplification, but it does operate with complementary pairs. The two couples in question belong to different environments – one intellectual, the other “proletarian”. The character of the woman who gets a job as a housekeeper with the divorcing couple of intellectuals introduces the theme of religious exigencies and moral conflicts that come with this. The woman seeks assistance from a “specialist”, asking whether it is a sin to change the underwear of a senile old man, that is, to see him naked. She refuses the lie that she initially resorted to, lest her husband should get angry, not telling him that she was employed by a, de facto, single man (as his wife had already moved out during the divorce). In fact, the problem of the lie is admirably sketched by this conflict facing characters with unavoidable slippages. The very dynamic shots, with several changes of direction and a frenzied pace, reflect very vividly a highly troubled inner life. The ending, showing the girl unable to tell straight to the judge which of the parents she chooses to stay with, places the drama of separation even more firmly on the orbit of ineffable destruction, lying deeper than any rational motivations.

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