Two films currently screening in Toronto premiered in competition in Venice, where both drew extreme and often opposing reactions from critics. László Nemes’s Sunset won the top award from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) but was ignored by Guillermo del Toro’s jury. Carlos Reygadas’s Our Time has left Venice with nothing, not even a nod from some collateral award-giving entity less prestigious than FIPRESCI. Both directors, the Hungarian and the Mexican, have been critical darlings in the past, and what’s especially interesting this year is that, in terms of both form and content, their new films adhere to and depart from their previous work in ways that are now splitting the critics.
Few feature debuts have caused as great a sensation as Nemes’s Son of Saul did in 2015. Throughout its 107-minute running time, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s camera sticks suffocatingly close to a prisoner in Auschwitz working as a member of the Sonderkommando, while all around him, the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust are clearly heard but barely seen. Nemes’s strategy, never mind his decision to depict the Holocaust at all, sparked debates that roiled on for months, even as the film racked up an impressive number of awards, including the Grand Prix in Cannes and the Oscar for best foreign language film.
Erdély mans the camera again in Sunset, and what’s baffling some reviewers while thrilling others is that his approach is the same. Again, the head of the protagonist anchors nearly every composition, only this time around the film is about half an hour longer. While the idea in Son of Saul was presumably to avoid showing the unshowable, the meticulously outfitted sets, the bustling streets of Budapest in 1913, and the elaborate hats and costumes of the new film cry out to be seen. And in a sense, they are, but primarily as they’re perceived by Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a young woman returning from Trieste to the twin capital (with Vienna) of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eve of the First World War. Entering her late parents’ hat shop, she discovers not only that she has a brother she didn’t know about but also that he’s in hiding. Her search begins.
Dispatching to Filmmaker,Giovanni Marchini Camia argues that Sunset is “genuinely great,” and he isolates a single scene that encapsulates the dizzying experience of watching the film. “Irisz simply walks into a duchess’s palace uninvited, witnesses a murder literally the second she steps through the door, and in the next moment a torch-wielding mob storms the property, perfectly framed through the window Irisz happens to be standing next to. It’s an amazing spectacle, just not a very likely one, especially when virtually every scene involves such elaborate construction and choreography. Actually, the film doesn’t at all intend to be realistic.”
Jonathan Romney agrees, adding in his review for Film Comment that “Sunset is historical fiction as phantasmagoria—a whirlwind of incident, involving conspiracy and criminal actions in society high and low.” It’s also “possibly the most disorienting and obscure—make that ‘exhilaratingly obscure’—narrative film since Alexei German’s Khrustalyov, My Car!, and the comparison lies partly in the way that Nemes saturates the screen with movement and detail, but often makes it impossible to read what he’s showing us.” And he means that in a good way.
Writing in the Notebook, Yaron Dahan sees in Sunset “a foreboding, if not a warning for the future. It is no accident that this second film begins at the moment just prior to Europe’s lurch into bloodied chaos, so alike to today’s Europe, pregnant with anger and uncertainty.” Others, though, like Jessica Kiang, reviewing Sunset for Sight & Sound, find the film “lavish, luxurious, and completely ludicrous”; it’s an “unforgivably overlong, maddeningly self-serious opus.” Noting that Nemes has said that he’s looked to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) for inspiration, Variety’s Jay Weissberg writes that F. W. Murnau’s silent classic “was grounded in human emotions buffeted by modernity, whereas Nemes jettisons all but a simulacrum of humanity in favor of a questionable subjectivity.” And writing for Cinema Scope, Dominik Kamalzadeh finds that Sunset is “so sparse on information that its dramaturgy of a deferred uncovering soon seems more like mannerism.”
In Our Time, Reygadas and his wife, editor Natalia López, play Juan and Ester, a couple who decide to open up their marriage. But when Ester strikes up an affair with another man, Juan cannot handle it. As Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov points out, “the premise isn’t a huge change of pace: for all its Dreyer trappings, Silent Light is an adulterous love triangle, and Reygadas’s manic peak Post Tenebras Lux made one of its self-contained set pieces a visit to a swingers’ retreat. The man’s work is nothing if not sexually, let’s say, adventurous.” But Rizov’s problem is primarily the formal rut the filmmaker’s fallen into. As he sees it, “five features in, Reygadas appears to have settled on an aesthetic toolbox with a set number of shot possibilities.” In a word, for Rizov, Our Time is simply “annoying.”
For Leonardo Goi, writing in the Notebook, Our Time, which runs just short of three hours, by the way, “is a film whose individual parts function better than the whole. There is plenty of room to criticize it as an endurance test, but glossing over the wonders nestled inside it would be a myopic disservice.” So far, Our Time’s most enthusiastic champion is Giovanni Marchini Camia. Writing for Sight & Sound, he calls it a “soul-searching work of scorching honesty that functions both as an anatomy of love and marriage, and as an evisceration of masculinity.” Yes, it can be “a relentless, harrowing viewing experience but also, ultimately, a cathartic one. As such, Reygadas and López’s willingness to lay themselves bare in this manner, without embellishment or facile absolution, represents a deeply generous gesture.”
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