Four minutes into Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave, the film’s title flashes against a dark blue background, replaced by pulsing lights. This morphs into a thicket of trees seen from above, through which is visible a search party with blinking flashlights. The screening was on the sixth day of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK); for many it was the third film on that day, so some amount of fatigue would have been natural. Yet, this little trick was greeted with an audible gasp. Not for the first time that week, I felt like I’d found my people—the sort whose minds are blown by things like scene transitions.
Some of what I saw in Thiruvananthapuram was standard film festival audience behaviour. People clapped when a famous director’s name was onscreen . They applauded if the film had won a prize at, say, Cannes. But some things were unique to IFFK audiences. I’ve never seen so many stick around to complete difficult films, be it Bela Tarr’s Damnation or Ann Oren’s Piaffe. I’ve never seen a packed theatre watch a silent drama in rapt silence (F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise), laughing or applauding at the right places. This enthusiasm was matched by the organizers allowing as many as possible to watch the films, to the extent that, in many screenings, walk-ins sat in the aisles (I myself did this in Alam, my penultimate screening in a long but rewarding five-film day).
My festival began with two of the best films I’d see that week. There have been a number of fine naturalistic films about children lately—Playground, Petit Maman and Softie, all in 2021—and Close is a stunning addition. Lukas Dhont’s film won the Grand Prix at Cannes 2022, and, to my mind, deserved the Palme d’Or more than Triangle of Sadness. Two Belgian schoolboys spend all their time together, a friendship so close that their classmates wonder aloud if they’re gay. This leads to a heartbreaking separation, filmed in beautiful warm colours and anchored by the impossibly delicate performances of Eden Dambrine and Gustav de Waele.
Corsage, by Austrian director Marie Kreutzer, is in the vein of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, a historical figure viewed through palpably modern eyes. Its subject is Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who ruled Austria and Hungary in the second half of the 20th century. As played by Vicky Krieps, she’s a fascinating, contradictory figure: a reluctant monarch, prone to depression and sudden whims, dismissive of the pomposity of courtly traditions, smart and sharp-witted. Bored by her stuffy husband Franz Joseph I, she seeks diversion in trips abroad, horse-riding, and the company of her gay cousin, old lovers and friends, and a young man who’s developed a prototype for a moving picture camera. Kreutzer doesn’t adhere by historical record or shy away from anachronisms, instead creating a spiky, thoroughly modern period heroine.
There’s been some wonderful cinema coming out of the so-called Arab world in recent years. One of the best films I saw last year was George Peter Barbari's Death of a Virgin and the Sin of Not Living, from Lebanon. IFFK had three fine and very different films in Arabic. Firas Khoury’s Alam is a high-school film set in modern-day Palestine. Tamer is your average teenager, neglecting his studies, disappointing his principal father, trying to impress the new girl in class. But a plan to raise the Palestinian flag in place of the Israeli one on the school building brings with it the excitement and dangers of political engagement.
Lotfy Nathan’s Harka is a slow-burning film —inspired by an incident of self-immolation that triggered the Arab Spring—about a young Tunisian man who wants to leave the country but finds himself caring for his two younger sisters. The pick of the three films, though, is Taarik Saleh’s Boy From Heaven, a religious suspense film that plays like a story arc on Homeland. The gaze, however, is inverted, not Western and Christian but African and Muslim. Adam, the son of a fisherman, is accepted to the prestigious Al-Alzhar University in Cairo. His plans are derailed when he’s dragged into a net of political intrigue surrounding the election the new Grand Imam. Saleh’s script, which won Best Screenplay at Cannes, is unusually philosophical for a breakneck thriller, and Tawfeek Barhom is superb as the terrified but quick-thinking Adam.
Triangle of Sadness drew a large crowd, as Palme d’Or-winners always do. I thought Ruben Ostlund’s film—about a luxury cruise that’s shipwrecked—was a disappointment, blunt in its critique, shallow in its skewering of shallow people. But wow, did it work with this audience. Every broadside launched at capitalism was greeted with laughs and cheers. This was a running theme through the festival, where anything left-leaning, anti-imperialist or vaguely revolutionary was met with enthusiasm. Alam, awarded best Asian film and best debut director at IFFK, turned out to be a raucous screening, the political awakening of Palestinian teens resonating with the young audience.
Whenever Iran goes through a tough time, its cinema only seems to dig deeper. I saw two sublime Iranian films at IFFK (there was a third that I missed: Leila’s Brothers, starring Taraneh Alidoosti, arrested last week for protesting the execution of Mohsen Shekari). No Bears was Jafar Panahi’s last film before his ongoing imprisonment for alleged anti-government protests; he was earlier forbidden from directing, an order he subverted with a series of sly, metafictional films. No Bears has the self-referencing structure of those works, with Panahi in a village on the border with Turkey, directing a film about a couple illegally crossing the border. But the tone is bleaker, the delight of outmanoeuvring authoritarianism now replaced by pessimism and self-examination.
If No Bears has a heavy heart, Imagine has a sprightliness that bears comparison to Richard Linklater’s Before series. (One should remember, though, that Iranians own the conversations-in-cars genre.) A cabbie in Tehran is captivated by a passenger who scatters her brother’s ashes and proceeds to tell him her life story. This is repeated with all his subsequent passengers, all talkative women in a spot, all played by the magnetic Leila Hatami. Light on its feet, clocking in at 78 minutes, it’s a reminder that romantic comedy-dramas don’t need to be high-concept or star-driven. All you need is two appealing strangers talking the night away.