“Claustrophobia in nature caused by war” was the
theme of the day in Venice. Not surprisingly, it also caused the most walkouts
I’ve seen thus far.
First up was Amos Gitai’s “Tsili,” set in a Ukraine forest
during the last days of WWII. The prolonged solo dance by the film’s lead over
the credits kind of forecasted something different, and Gitai didn’t really
disappoint in that regard. A young Jewish woman, Tsili, having avoided or
escaped from a concentration camp, is living in the woods. She’s played by two
very different looking actresses, Sara Adler and Meshi Olinski, and voiced by a third, Leah Koenig. Not a lot
happens: she forages for berries and nesting materials. We watch her do this in
very long, static takes. I don’t know why, but we do. In the background, the
sounds of warfare are constant, loud.
Eventually, she’s discovered by a young man, Marek (Adam Tsekhman), also
Jewish, also hiding. He joins her in the nest she’s built up around her. He
talks, she doesn’t, mostly. One day, he tells her he desires her, and forces
himself on her. The next day – or week, or two – they are sleeping together.
One day he leaves. One day the sounds of bombs have gone, the war is over, and
she is in a refugee camp.
Survivors are walking and walking, again in very long takes,
toward Palestine. A violinist steps into the frame in front of the people
walking, and plays a very beautiful, haunting piece of music. Then Tsili is in
a building with a lot of other people, some walking, most sitting. The camera
is static. A voice-over begins, Leah Koenig reading the words presumably of
novelist Aharon Appelfeld, upon whose book the film is based. This goes on for
some time, while a lot of audience members get up and leave. Finally, the scene
is over and the film ends on archival footage of lots of Jewish children from
the period having fun, playing around, smiling, looking cute. Over this, the
violin concertos continue. It’s heartbreaking, and all that comes before
suddenly somehow makes sense. “Tsili” plays out like experimental theater, without
an intermission, and it needs to be considered that way, too.
If Gitai’s film is dark in theme, Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s “Fires
on the Plain” gets right down into the blood and guts of warfare. Set in the
war- and disease-ravaged Philippines after the Japanese have basically lost it,
the film centers on Private Tamura, who as the film begins is being sent to a
field hospital because of his TB. He’s already in bad shape, coughing and
basically starving, but he’s the image of health compared to the men in the
hospital, so the doctor sends him back to his squad. This happens several times
until his commander tells him to kill himself with his grenade if the doctor
doesn’t accept him.
Private Tamura is under just a little pressure, then, but
things are about to get a whole lot worse, when an American plane bombs the
field hospital and its guns blow the doctor’s head off. Meanwhile, everyone in
his squad is killed, too. Tamura heads into the jungle, and so begins his
terrible quest for survival. He faces many challenges, not the least of which
is the U.S. Army, advanced and advancing. In one horrifying scene, shot at
night as what’s left of the Japanese army tries to escape, the Americans turn
on huge white lights to illuminate what becomes a massive killing field. The
ensuing massacre is as brutal and graphic as any such battle you’ve ever seen.
This is how bad it was, Tsukamoto seems to be saying, just so you know. And if
Tamura and his fellow soldiers manage to survive the American onslaught, which only
a few do, they then have to deal with cannibals within their own ranks – and
how exactly do you deal with cannibals?
Based on the Shohai Ooka novel previously filmed by Kon
Ichikawa in 1959, Tsukamoto’s “Fires on the Plain” is a harrowing, deeply
intense and intimate journey into the heart of darkness; it’s a visceral,
seething, crawling, stinking nightmare of a movie. And it’s a very good one, lush
and beautiful and very well acted by Tsukamoto himself as Tamura, who battles
and battles and battles until he finally succumbs to the only thing left to him
– madness. But take heart: Ooka’s book is autobiographical, which suggests a
certain light at the end of Tamura’s tunnel.
The light at the end of my tunnel was “A Pigeon Sat on a
Branch Reflecting on Existence,” a truly delightful film from Swedish director
Roy Andersson. Not that it doesn’t fit right in with this dark and depressing
Venice Film Festival, for Andersson starts right off with three “meetings with
death.” These short tableaux had the audience in stitches, and they set up what
was to come: many other tableaux, mini-films that are like paintings coming to
Andersson is an artist of the Wes Anderson ilk by way of
Jacques Tati: He clearly has thought out each detail, the production design as
much as the writing. Each set or location has been painted in pale earth tones –
this is not the comedy of Goya or Van Gogh but of Giorgio Morandi. And the film
is simply a series of these tableaux, some related – such as an ongoing gag
about two sad-sack Beckettian characters “in the entertainment business” of
selling novelty items such as vampire teeth, the classic laughing bag, and a
rubber Uncle One-Tooth mask. Needless to say, they don’t do all that well, and
one in particular suffers from an acute case of sadness over just about
Mysteriously funny things occur. One of the bars they go
into jumps to 1943, when it was run by a woman called Limping Lotte, who offers
sailors drinks in returns for kisses and everyone breaks into song like a
musical. A cafe they enter is suddenly invaded by the King of Sweden and his
cavalry on horseback, kicking all the women out before the king offers a place
in his tent to the handsome young man behind the bar. A tall older man in
uniform carrying a briefcase keeps trying to meet someone at a restaurant, but
the person never shows up. Several people are caught speaking into the
telephone, “Well, I’m glad to hear that you’re doing well.” A tango instructor
keeps feeling up her male lead.
All of these things, Andersson assures us, are simply trying
to show what it’s like to be human. I found the film wonderful, but also a
little slow at times, even tedious. The repeated gag about the gag salesmen
gets old. Also, tableaux sap your energy, and there have been a few too many
here in Venice. But these are quibbles over a marvelous comic vision and a
beautifully realized manifestation.
After the screening, I took a vaporetto over to the Giardini
for the architecture biennale. Inside the French pavilion were sketches and a
full model of the house in Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle.” There you go.