Ramón Salazar’s La enfermedad del domingo (Sunday’s Illness) is the story of two women, one absurdly privileged, the other a sort of castaway. Their introduction scenes are telling. Chiara (Bárbara Lennie) is seen in a forest, making her way to a strangely shaped tree, right out of a grim fairy tale. Anabel (Susi Sánchez), on the other hand, is glimpsed at her palatial home, getting ready for a party she is throwing. The lighting of the two scenes — cold vs warm — is another pointer to the difference in their worlds, which will soon collide when Chiara and Anabel end up spending ten days together in that forest. You can see the story from a mile away, but Salazar and his actors brush away the cobwebs and make the characters’ pain really hurt.

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Sunday’s Illness plays like a companion piece to Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta. Though Chiara’s reason for asking Anabel to stay isn’t instantly revealed, you catch glimpses of it in what she does to a wounded bird, and how she immerses a dog in muck to make a point about abandonment. This latter scene is a chilling reminder of how the hurt we cause others never goes away. A lesser filmmaker may have used the costumes (Anabel’s elegant couture wear, Chiara’s casually thrown-on jeans and leather jackets) to incite us, but Salazar doesn’t judge. This isn’t about right and wrong, or even paying for mistakes of the past. It’s about acceptance, transcendence. Sometimes, poking a finger into an open wound may be the only way to heal.

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What kind of hicksville is Małgorzata Szumowska’s Polish drama, Twarz (Mug), set in? The film opens with an Underwear Stampede Christmas Sale, where people strip down and make a grab for discounted products. Oh, and they are ultra-religious. They go to church regularly, confess regularly, believe in exorcisms, and a giant statue of Jesus (bigger than the one in Rio!) is being built in the village. But are these people really Christian? That’s the subject of this mild (too mild, really, for a Competition entry) farce that gets going when Jacek (Mateusz Kościukiewicz) is disfigured in an accident, and everyone from his mother to his girlfriend finds themselves unable to love this man whose face looks different now, like a “space alien.” Is this a sly commentary on today’s Poland? It’s hard to say. The film feels so light, it practically floats off the screen.

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Marysia Nikitiuk is hailed in the press notes as “the wild new hope of Ukrainian cinema,” and her feature film debut, Koly padayut dereva (When the Trees Fall), does live up to a bit of the hype. The opening shot is of three couples cavorting in a spot so sylvan, you half-expect Pan to provide the background score. The three couples proceed to make love, but it’s dark and you don’t see the faces clearly. One man, though, is singled out by the ring he wears on a chain around the neck. Nikitiuk’s images unfold with a dreamy, painterly quality. The man is a criminal named Scar (Maksym Samchyk), and the story is about his girlfriend, the wildly romantic Larysa (Anastasia Pustovit).

Larysa wants love, which also represents her generation’s desire to break free from social strictures. They live in a little town, and her grandmother thinks she’s just sleeping around and calls her a slut. Her mother, who’s just been widowed, says she can’t look at her neighbours in the eye, thanks to Larysa’s behaviour and the ensuing reputation. But Larysa wants to run away with Scar, live in a cave by the sea, where she will run around naked, and they’ll eat figs. When she repeats this wish, later on, to the man her mother chooses for her, he says, “Why won’t you just marry me and we’ll live like normal people.” Even if Larysa’s head recognises the (conventional) wisdom in these words, her heart throbs for something else.

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Nikitiuk sometimes overdoes the imagery. A white horse becomes desire, a transport to a place where you can be who you really want to be. The patriarchal society around Larysa becomes a circle of writhing, naked men dragging her down into a swamp. Death becomes an escape into the sky. The freedom Larysa yearns for is personified by Roma gypsies, who don’t live by rules. The film never loses sight of the fact that what’s at stake is not just Larysa’s happiness, but also the future of her young daughter, Vitka (Sofia Khalaimova). The depiction of a family solely through its female members may seem a tad programmatic, but the near-absence of men throws the plight of these women in starker relief — men may not be around, but their rules still are. This story could have been set in a village in India.

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Milko Lazarov’s Ága sounded to me like a family drama. A reindeer hunter in icy north-eastern Russia. His arduous life. His dying wife. And an unresolved conflict with their daughter, Ága. But the film skirts these issues and paints a stunning portrait of life in these near-uninhabitable climes. In other words, the ads for Ága could just say: “If you haven’t seen Nanook of the North…” As in Robert J Flaherty’s silent documentary from 1922, which observed the strange and remarkable (to us) experiences of an Inuit family as they lead their everyday (for them) lives, we watch what it’s like to live here. What it’s like to spear a hole in the permafrost to catch fish. What it’s like to weather a snowstorm that threatens to collapse the yurt. After a point, I forgot it was cinema. It was ethnography. The closure-providing drama in the final scenes came off like an intrusion. When the whole screen is filled with ice and a dog pulls a sled from the right corner to the left, that’s all the “narrative journey” that’s needed.

 

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