Pebbles Tops the Rotterdam 2021 Awards

Vinothraj P. S.’s Pebbles (2021)

The first half of this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam wrapped last night with the presentation of its first round of awards. Sixteen debut features have premiered in the main competition, and the Tiger Award goes to Indian director Vinothraj P. S.’s Pebbles. The jury stated that, while there were “many admirable and ambitious works” in the running, they were “blown away by a seemingly simple and humble film we fell in love with instantly.”

Pebbles is a road movie, a journey through a sunbaked swath of southern India ravaged by drought, and as Daniel Kasman writes in the Notebook, this is “a story of that perennial of cinematic duos: a quick-tempered and ill-kempt man paired with a doleful, sweet-natured boy.” The man is a drinker, a furious chain-smoker whose wife has left him, and he drags the boy, his son, to her family’s village to find her. He’s so nasty to his in-laws that the boy tears up their bus fare and the two of them have to walk the eight miles back home on the hottest day of the year.

Kasman finds that there’s “a specificity of setting and people” in Pebbles “that allows it to be at once archetypal and exact. Throughout, the film’s style shifts carefully to complexify the simple tale—narrative digressions, the long take, clever perspective changes—and add details that accrue potent meaning: a sister’s toys, the father’s matches and cigarette, rat catchers, a mirror found on the road, jugs of precious water in a barren land.” At the Film Stage, Tim Brinkhof writes that “every sequence feels as though it is part of a living, breathing ecosystem.”

Two more first features have won special jury awards. With I Comete – A Corsican Summer, actor Pascal Tagnati has written, directed, and edited “a work whose great atmospheric charm is composed of individual cards which, when laid on the table, come to form a straight flush,” writes Fabien Lemercier at Cineuropa. A series of loosely connected sequences, all but one of them shot with a static camera, conjures a group portrait of the inhabitants of a village on the Mediterranean island. “For a brief moment we are reminded perhaps of the frozen tableaux of Roy Andersson,” suggests Thierry Méranger, an editor at Cahiers du cinéma, in a brief appreciation for the festival, “but eventually it is really the work of Michelangelo Frammartino that springs to mind: a recreated naturalism that knows how to play with chronology, sculpting and auscultating the universality of reality.”

In another village, this one in Kosovo, a teenager yearns to break out and have a little fun. Director Norika Sefa and cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga “appear incapable of crafting a dull or unimaginative composition,” writes Neil Young in his review of Looking for Venera for Screen. “Allied to the uniformly convincing performances from a large cast that includes many nonprofessionals, the results convey the idea that we’re eavesdropping on actual events occurring in a volatile environment of suffocating intensity, fizzingly wayward youthful energy, and inescapable hazard.”

2021 is the ninth year in which “an audience jury composed of five film lovers” selects the winner of the VPRO Big Screen Award, which is then broadcast on Dutch television and in any other year would screen in theaters as well. From a lineup of thirteen contenders, the jury has chosen The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, the sixth feature from Argentinian director Ana Katz. When it premiered at Sundance last week, Jessica Kiang, writing for Variety, called Dog “a tiny, monochrome miracle of a movie that gives you years of life and change and mystery in seventy-three calm minutes.”

Working with five different cinematographers over a period of several years, Katz has pieced together a portrait of Sebastian, an illustrator played by her brother, Daniel Katz. “Connective tissue is excluded, whole chapters untold, and the two most extreme events in the low-key action are explained via drawings,” notes Sheri Linden in the Hollywood Reporter. Writing for photogénie, Alonso Aguilar suggests that Sebastian is “closer to an avatar for millennial dissociation than an actual protagonist; the hectic vignettes in which he finds himself create an assortment of disappointments that closely mirror modern young adulthood, and imbue Ana Katz’s feature with an immersive atmosphere of normalized doom.”

This year’s audience award goes to Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo vadis, Aida?, which premiered last fall in Venice, screened in Toronto, and has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Set in 1995 as the Bosnian Serb Army takes command of Srebrenica, Žbanić’s story focuses on Aida, an interpreter for the UN fighting to save her family. “Although the film has moments of stillness and delicately skirts pathos,” writes Tim Hayes for Sight & Sound, “it becomes all about Aida in motion, rushing from office to office attempting to locate the logic in a situation that has little of it for her to work with.”

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