Feathers Tops Critics’ Week

Omar El Zohairy’s Feathers (2021)

Egyptian director Omar El Zohairy has won the top prize at Critics’ Week in Cannes for his debut feature, Feathers, the story of a magic trick gone wrong. An authoritarian but rather comically incompetent head of a dirt-poor family in a dusty nowhere town in Egypt allows himself to be turned into a chicken at his son’s fourth birthday party. But the magician can’t reverse the trick. It’s left to his timid wife to put bread on the table, raise three children, and search high and low for a way to bring her husband back.

Aki Kaurismäki comes to the minds of both Kaleem Aftab at Cineuropa and Allan Hunter in Screen, who calls Feathers “a film of biting social satire, wry chuckles, and unsettling oddity.” El Zohairy, whose 2014 short The Aftermath of the Inauguration of the Public Toilet at Kilometer 375 was the first Egyptian film selected for the Cinéfondation competition in Cannes, tells Alex Ritman in the Hollywood Reporter that “in cinema you need to show the audience something that they’ve never seen before in their life, but they need to see it through you. I think sometimes being funny or absurd is something that can grab the audience’s attention.”

The jury, presided over by Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, evidently agrees. Past winners of the Nespresso Grand Prize include Jeff Nichols for Take Shelter (2011), Oliver Laxe for Mimosas (2016), and Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt for Diamantino (2018). As this sixtieth-anniversary edition of Critics’ Week wraps, the jury has also presented the Louis Roederer Foundation Rising Star Award to Sandra Melissa Torres. In Simón Mesa Soto’s Amparo, the nonprofessional actor plays a mother fighting to retrieve her son, who has essentially been kidnapped into the army during Colombia’s civil war in the late 1990s.

Torres delivers a “magnetic performance” in a “lean picture” that “brings into focus the toxicity of a culture permeated by power plays and corruption,” writes Wendy Ide in Screen. Mesa Soto tells Emiliano Granada in Variety that he and his cinematographer, Juan Sarmiento G., “came with a very detailed shot list but everything relies heavily on the actress’s work. Sandra led the camera in a way and often this meant very long choreographed shots where she had to maintain her energy and rhythm right across.”

Critics’ Week, the annual showcase of emerging talent organized by the French Union of Film Critics, has a good number of partners, and three of them present awards each year. The Gan Foundation Award for Distribution goes to Condor, the French distributor of Julie Lecoustre and Emmanuel Marre’s Zero Fucks Given, starring Adèle Exarchopoulos as Cassandre, a twenty-six-year-old flight attendant working for a low-cost airline. “Zero Fucks Given is about inhuman systems built by human beings to service profit,” writes Catherine Bray. “It’s also about grief and ennui, but it is most striking when it is exploring, via a fictional low-budget airline called Wing (very obviously Ryanair, right down to the yellow and blue), the world of jobs that companies would happily replace with robots if it were cheaper to do so.”

For Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter, Zero Fucks Given “often feels closer to a work of contemporary photography or video art, capturing the haunting, prosaic beauty of globalized commerce and the twenty-four-hour service industry. Despite its title and wayward protagonist, the film actually cares quite a lot about portraying the world that Cassandre, and most of the rest of us, now live in, but rarely look at so carefully.”

The SACD Award, presented by the Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers, goes to Olga director Elie Grappe and his cowriter, Raphaëlle Desplechin. The story centers on a fifteen-year-old Ukrainian gymnast (Anastasia Budiashkina) training in Switzerland. The year is 2013, and back at home, while protestors flood the streets of Kyiv, her mother, a journalist investigating corruption at the highest levels of government, is being threatened. At Cineuropa, Fabien Lemercier finds that Olga “captures, with an excellent sense of atmosphere, the paradoxes of adolescents perfecting a total control over their emotions even as they are boiling inside them.” In his review of this “compelling character study,” Stephen Saito writes that “Olga would never dare shed tears for herself, but Grappe is more than likely to wring a few from audiences as she reconciles her individual pursuit with a far larger struggle and as calls to ‘Free Ukraine’ ring out around the world.”

Two short films complete the list of Critics’ Week 2021 award winners. Mungiu’s jury has presented the Leitz Cine Discovery Prize to Zou Jing for her first film, Lili Alone, the story of a young mother who leaves her home in a remote region in Sichuan for the city, where she hopes to earn enough money to save her dying father. And the French television broadcaster Canal+ has selected Brutalia, Days of Labour, in which Greek director Manolis Mavris asks, “What would happen if we replaced bees with humans?”

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