Two years ago, Gianfranco Rosi’s refugee documentary, Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare), won the Golden Bear. This year, Swiss director Markus Imhoof premiered his refugee documentary, Eldorado, in the Competition section. In terms of the bigger picture, I must say I preferred Fire at Sea, but there’s a touching sentimentality in Imhoof’s film that gets to you, stays with you – largely because the director places events from his own life in relation to the situation today. During WWII, Imhoof’s family took in a young Italian refugee, named Giovanna. In the present day, observed by a jittery camera, an Italian naval ship off the Libyan coast takes on board 1800 boat people. The film flips back and forth between the two narratives, not just comparing but also contrasting them.
The similarities between the two situations aren’t hammered home, and neither are the differences. Giovanna arrives by train and is instantly accepted by Imhoof’s family. His mother buys black-market butter to fatten up the scrawny girl, and Markus and Giovanna become friends. “You are the reason I am making this journey,” Imhoof says at the beginning of the film, “to see what I really don’t want to see.” The last scene tells us what he means and reinforces how close they became, but even earlier, the warmth spills over. Imhoof shares letters and crayon drawings from their childhood, and he narrates how, after Giovanna was sent back to her home in Italy, his father went and got her back (albeit with the assurance that she wouldn’t stay forever). Imhoof recalls the reunion: “Our hug nearly paralysed me. I never thought of you with breasts.”
The situation today couldn’t be more different, and we keep recalling Giovanna’s story every time we cut to that of the Africans. If Giovanna came with scabies, the Africans are afflicted with diarrhea and malaria. But where Imhoof’s mother nursed Giovanna back to health, all the Africans get is a spot in a refugee camp and this matter-of-fact reassurance: “We will not promise you paradise but every day will be better.” All Giovanna asks for, after she returns home, is her toothbrush that she left in Imhoof’s home. An angry African, who’s been denied asylum, asks for a lawyer. Imhoof says his relatives came from Odessa, Japan, the Caribbean. In the present day, an African family, on a train in Switzerland, is asked to disembark and return to Italy. They are forced to find illegal means to survive — say, in agro businesses that exploit them after pocketing EU subsidies.
The crux of Imhoof’s sadness is how the world has changed. Forget being welcomed with open arms, today’s refugees are forced to stay in the land they set foot in (“whichever country draws the short straw”), and cannot apply for asylum anywhere else. The director told Variety, “As you see in the film, the discussion is from my point of view as a child, when I discovered I think of myself as ‘I’, and everyone sees themselves as ‘I’. This conflict where everybody is ‘I’, maybe all together can be ‘we’, or ‘us’.” Late in Eldorado, we meet an immigrant named Rahel, who works at an old-age home. She knows it won’t last, because her job is about to get mechanised. Imhoof delivers his argument gracefully: “Without immigrants, our population will shrivel and grow senile. I’d rather be pushed around the park by Rahel than by a robot.”
The closing days of the festival seem to be compensating for the generally underwhelming Competition selections this far. Alonso Ruizpalacios follows up his sensational Gueros (2014) with the equally sensational – though in a quieter way – Museo (Museum). The film tells the real-life story of two friends – Juan (Gael García Bernal) and Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris) – who, on Christmas night in 1985, broke into the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and stole priceless Mayan, Mixtec and Zapotec artefacts. The film begins with a wink: “This story is a replica of the original.” Hah! But the tone is respectful, even reverential. Ruizpalacios has captured not just a time and place but the mood of a nation. As Juan and Wilson take to the road with the loot (shades of Y Tu Mamá También here), we get the full picture postcard: from the majestic Mayan ruins of Palenque to the hedonistic pleasures of Acapulco.
Museo tells the real-life story of two friends – Juan (Gael García Bernal) and Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris) – who, on Christmas night in 1985, broke into the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and stole priceless Mayan, Mixtec and Zapotec artefacts.
The style is to die for. The opening credits appear over dramatic music, with the museum artifacts positioned in dramatic angles. And the heist that follows is thrilling, crafted with surgical precision. This is the part where Juan and Wilson are still in control, where they still have a plan, and the film is in sync with them – it’s focused and alive. When they return home and find that the robbery is being described as an attack on the nation, they panic and flee – and this time, there’s no real plan. At least, the planning is strictly amateur level – and the film begins to seem a little aimless, just like the boys. The initial energy peters out. There are forays into history, metaphysics, even the philosophy of plundering. A painting Juan observes closely at the beginning of the film now becomes a sight in front of his eyes. Life imitating art? A bit of wish fulfilment?
The rhythms are so attuned to the psychology that we are practically inside Juan’s head. (He’s the mastermind. Wilson’s the sheep.) In a breathtaking stretch by the beach, after Juan has snorted coke, we feel his relief at finally letting go. What we don’t understand, though, is why he did it. Because he’s a junkie, who worked at the museum simply to pay for his pot? Because he is tired of being made fun of as “shorty,” and wants to do something… big? Because he’s antisocial? Because he’s just mad, the kind of man who, just like that, turns off his car lights at night in the middle of a freeway? The answer is that there’s no answer. Wilson, in a voiceover at the opening, tells us that Juan doesn’t believe in history. For who knew what Hernán Cortés or Alexander the Great thought? The only people who know are the people themselves, and sometimes not even them. That’s the non-answer, and it sounds just right.
In the opening scene of Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not, a very slow camera pans past a nude man’s body, all the way from the hair on his legs to the curled-up penis to a nipple filmed so close, it looks like a small planet. All of which is arthouse code for: Serious Handling of Sexual Themes Lie Ahead. Sure enough, a female impersonator (or maybe a pre-op transsexual) named Hannah reveals that he has named his breasts: the more sensitive one is Gusti, and the other one is Lilo. All this is being revealed to Laura (Laura Benson), who cannot bear to be touched, and sets off on a journey meeting other people in search of intimacy. The press notes called the film “an emotional expedition to illuminate the many different facets of sexuality beyond all taboos.” That movie does exist, and it’s called Shortbus. This one could just be called Whatever!