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.