“Did you ever imagine yourself in a world where there is nothing at all?” In some ways this is the essential query of “Leones,” to the extent that the film even has a definable essence. Jazmín López’s debut feature is as enigmatic as it is bold, forging new cinematic ideas from the vastness of the natural world and brief flirtations with character and philosophy. López is interested in the “in-between,” exploring the often hazy landscape amid life and death and the gaps of time itself. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen.
Yet at the same time, it is only one of a mighty handful of films at this year’s installment of New Directors / New Films to deal with borders and borderlessness, the spaces in between. Like many current film festivals, ND/NF is awash with international productions that explore human migration and the pores that have grown between nations. “Die Welt” is a particularly strong example, a debut feature from Alex Pitstra that looks into the life of a young man coming of age in Tunisia. Northern European tourists and American films filter in and out of Abdallah’s life in Tunis, until he finally decides to make the leap out into the world. Its narrative style is choppy but occasionally insightful.
Even a number of the shorts build from a similarly international context, taking single locations and giving them cross-border dimensions. Sofia Babulani’s “What Can I Wish You Before the Fight?” is a snapshot into the life of a French farmer and his adopted daughter, an Eastern European girl who remains mute despite years of therapy. An intrusion from a new outsider causes a sudden eruption of the family dynamic, and seems to argue for a Europe that is hardly settled within its borders. The French farm, historically crucial piece of that nation’s national definition, is here presented as node of European migration.
Both Babulani’s film and Jordi Wijnalda’s “Southwest” succeed in large part due to their willingness to remain vague, to only scratch the surface of vast human movement. The latter takes place on the Aegean coast of Turkey, where a middle-aged Dutch woman helps travelers sneak across the sea and enter Greece (and thus the European Union). Again, the past is only hinted at with the arrival of her son, while the complexity of the present takes a backseat to the prosaic Turkish landscape and the minutia of a treacherous and illegal arrangement. The presence of the “in-between,” the line between developed Europe and its fringes and the ominous continental implication therein, weighs over the proceedings with such import that to do more than even suggest it might come across as pandering.
These border spaces are the territory of relativity, legal and moral. Daniel Hoesl’s “Soldate Jeannette” doesn’t exist on a physical, international frontier but rather concerns itself with gleefully breaking down the barriers of moneyed European society. Fanni (Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg) is a wealthy socialite in Vienna who is running out of cash, mostly through her own lack of care. She purchases and immediately tosses away extravagantly expensive clothing, ignores her financial commitments with a head-in-the-clouds lack of concern (including rent) and seems to enjoy the thrill of theft. As she is driven out of Vienna by her creditors, she makes her way to the idyllic countryside, a change of circumstance rather than character. Fanni is unbound by the borders of society, without even an emotional attachment to the wealthy circles from which she hails. The anarchic spirit of Hoesl’s film (introduced as “A European Film Conspiracy”) is driven by the thumping rhythms of Bettina Köster and Orsini-Rosenberg’s unadorned, idiosyncratically ruthless performance.
From physical and social boundaries, the ND/NF selection turns to cosmological margins. “Emperor Visits the Hell” is a contemporary retelling of the Chinese classic “Journey to the West,” with Emperor Li Shimin as a high-ranking bureaucrat. The story necessitates a trip to Hell, as the title of the film suggests, when the Emperor dies suddenly of a combination of illness and guilt. His return to life can only be arranged through a corrupt manipulation of paperwork, perhaps a less-than-subtle critique of current Chinese governing practices. Yet director Luo Li doesn’t rely on the standard stylistic rendition of the fires of Hell, choosing rather to avoid differentiation altogether. The magic of the original narrative is effortlessly combined with the trappings of 21st century bureaucracy, and no effort is put into making the underworld look much different. This cosmological and religious borderlessness is the most audacious element of the film, an unadorned refusal to separate the corruption of the living and the lost souls of the dead.
When speaking of spaces in between, one has to mention the sole Italian film in the festival, Leonardo di Costanzo’s “L’intervallo.” The title, which literally translates to “The Interval,” is the simplest of these films. A timid teenaged ice-cream vendor (Alessio Gallo) is ordered by a local mob boss to guard a young girl (Francesca Riso), awaiting punishment for romantic involvement with a member of a rival gang. Both kids are about fifteen, quite literally in the adolescent interval of their lives. As they spend the day together they begin to understand each other, and this Neapolitan crime film begins to resemble “Before Sunset” much more than “Gomorrah.” Riso plays her character’s inherent frankness with shaky confidence while Gallo’s quiet uncertainty serves as a perfect counterpoint. With his open and calmly expressive face, the boy is a dead ringer for Falconetti. These two performances and their devotion to an unhurried script are in tune with Isabel’s query in “Leones”; for a brief hour, it seems that “L’intervallo” has found a “world where there is nothing at all” in the loud and violent context of Naples.
And that brings us back to López and “Leones.” This Argentine debut feature is easily the most intriguing film on the ND/NF program, and arguably the best. The plot is simple, at least as it opens. A group of teenagers are hiking through a breathtaking forest of epic proportions, ostensibly on a short vacation. The camera follows them from behind, building stunning long takes that wind through the trees with an almost cosmic patience. As we slowly learn more, López’s vision becomes progressively bolder up until what is easily the most stunning final shot of the last few years. The substance of the film? These characters are wandering through the in-between, a forest of metaphysical portent. They play word-games that open up the symbolic implications of the film with the brief audacity of Ernest Hemingway. Their youth is central, López understanding its inherent freedom. This is aspirational filmmaking at its best, a new director driving her art forward into an ill-defined frontier.