On The Ground At Rotterdam 2014: Part 2

Read Laya's first dispatch from Rotterdam

I was done with my first three days at Rotterdam without having remotely liked a single thing I had seen. The onus was on the fourth day to hopefully turn things around, and luckily, it did so in style.


DAY 4: January 25

Until now, I had been seeing mostly Rotterdam premieres and that...had not turned out well. I decided to forgo the temptation to be the first to catch something and instead caught up with the British festival darling, Clio Bernard’s "The Selfish Giant." The film tells the tale of a raucous young teenager and his best friend, who are kicked out of school and start an ill-advised career in scrap metal. There is a lot to like here, with Conner Chapman’s performance as the lead Arbor a particular highlight. The film is engaging throughout, and reveals darker and more troubling layers as it moves on. Yet, the end left me unsatisfied and even irritated. My perception of the characters based on the film was at odds with the film’s portrayal of them, and while it treated Arbor as an antihero at best, I saw him more as a villain. The film passes off guilt as atonement and the resulting pardon meted out all around left me frustrated. Still, much better than whatever else I had seen!


Pawel Pawlikowski’s "Ida" was the winner of the FIPRESCI Special Presentations Award at last year’s TIFF, and so going in I was hopeful. This atmospheric drama, set post-WWII, follows the journey of nun-to-be named Ida, who is advised to discover her family roots before taking her vows. When she meets her aunt Wanda, the dark secrets she unravels muddy and challenge her aspirations. There’s little new here, as the plot treads fairly well-trod territory. Yet, the film’s harsh black-and-white photography ends up giving it a humane glow, and a brilliantly wry sense of humor bathes the grim proceedings in knowing perspective. Agata Kulesza’s performance as Aunt Wanda is excellent, and she infuses life into the film whenever she is on screen. It was the first film at the festival I unabashedly liked, and would recommend.

My high was to be merely ephemeral, as I followed up "Ida" with Elise Durant’s "Edén." This is the story of a young woman who goes back to the town of her childhood in order to revisit and understand the past she spent with her art historian father before things went awry. A drama so startlingly mediocre and morose it disappears up its own arse, "Edén" is remarkable in how there is literally nothing remarkable about it. The memories of the film vanished in a puff of smoke about 5 minutes after I saw it.

Maybe this cleanse of my palate was necessary, as my next film was the Russian auteur Alexei Germain’s "Hard To Be A God." An epic in every sense of the word, this film was finished by Germain’s wife and son (who gets an amusing “thanks”in the opening credits). It is less about plot and more about incident, an immersion into its extraordinarily insular universe so one can wallow in its filth. I am not sure what to make of "Hard To Be A God" yet, but I can’t deny how several images from it have stayed in my mind. As one colleague remarked, seeing ten minutes from any section of the film would have about as much impact as the entire 179-minute length. For a much more learned and eloquent take on the film, I recommend you read Neil Young’s writeup.

There was no way another film could withstand being under the shadow of "Hard To Be A God, and thus I ended Day 4 on that note.

DAY 5: January 26


It was one of my primary motives before coming to the festival to catch up with Alexander Payne’s "Nebraska," and after the four days prior, it was a much needed detoxification. As someone who couldn’t stand "The Descendants," I thought "Nebraska" was a confident and understated return to form for Payne. Being from a small town myself, I felt the film captured accurately the jaw-dropping lack of activity in a place with no life of its own. Bruce Dern and June Squibb form my favorite onscreen couple from last year; the moment when Squibb’s Kate adjusts the hair of the resting Woody (Dern) summed up the joy and peace that must come with a long life lived together, and lived well.

I didn’t see anything after that until Jeremy Saunier’s "Blue Ruin" late into the night, which was a great way to end the day. Hours after watching the film, I was still cackling at how a revenge thriller that bizarre was ironically the most realistic I had seen yet. Macon Blair, playing the lead Dwight, subsumed himself into the role in such a way that every tic and gesture seemed ingrained and organic. His eyes convey every emotion his character experiences in such magisterial fashion that he manages to evoke our sympathy despite being a doofus who is way out of his depths. "Blue Ruin" will be released in the States on April 25, and it is definitely worth a nice evening out. It plays wonderfully with a crowd.

First (and, so far, only) day of the festival where I had a perfect track record, and none of the films I saw was a Rotterdam premiere. In fact, both of them were award winners at Cannes.

DAY 6: January 27


This was another light day, as I could only manage to squeeze in two movies.

I began my viewing session with "Arwad," made by Samer Najari and Dominique Chila. Set in Syria and Canada, this was a story about a Syrian man who returns to his hometown after the death of his mother. After his death (accident or murder is unclear), the lives of his wife and his mistress are turned upside down. "Arwad" plays out in three chapters, and feels overstructured to a fault. In an attempt to make the film’s universe feel “lived-in”, we have scenes of small talk or banter that go on forever. Instead of blending in (as they would in real life), they end up sticking out as sore thumbs. The film not only fails to evoke any emotions or investment in its characters, but it in fact engenders resentment at its lead character for being such an unpleasant person to follow and be around. The film’s use of digital photography is distracting to the extreme, as the mild connection one may have with the drama is broken when the contours and pores of the actors’ faces almost take over the entire screen.

After this, I walked into Spanish director Sergio Caballero’s "La Distancia." A heist film with the MacGuffin hidden in the very title, "Distancia" follows three Russian telepathic dwarves (surely the action figures would be a huge hit) on a mission to steal ... something ... from a Siberian power station. Heretofore ignorant of Caballero’s artistic sensibilities and work, I was not prepared for the absurdist comedy on display here. I found the film intriguing and fascinating, and burst out laughing at some gags (a masturbation scene is a comedic tour de force) even though the film’s humor is decidedly not “laugh-out-loud” funny. However, I confess I must spend some more time viewing Caballero’s oeuvre ("Finisterrae" is now high on my to-watch list) before I can pass off an informed opinion on any entry in it.

At this point, I was more than halfway through the festival and my track record had significantly improved. The secret? Seeing films that had been deemed worthy by curators of other festivals. Will I have learned my lesson and have a much better second half of the 43rd IFFR? Only time will tell. (*)

(*) As will my next dispatch.