Originally published on Ink 19 on November 9, 2022
by Lily and Generoso Fierro
For the past eight years, the arrival of November has always brought us immense excitement because AFI Fest has been guaranteed to showcase an impressive program of films representing many vital approaches to cinema across the world in that moment in time. As with last year’s iteration, AFI Fest 2022 had a slightly leaner lineup than the versions in pre-COVID-19 days, but this worked to the advantage of AFI Fest’s programmers, for the slate for this year’s festival was tightly focused and featured strong and bold works from both debut and well-established directors.
This year’s festival also showcased one of the strongest lineups of features from directors returning to AFI Fest in recent memory. Over this past week, a monumental list of filmmakers ranging from Albert Serra to Joanna Hogg to Alice Diop to Hong Sang-soo came back to the TCL theater screens on Hollywood Boulevard to present their newest works, and overall, AFI Fest 2022 offered attendees 125 titles split into eight sections this time around: 7 in Red Carpet Premieres, 6 in Special Screenings, 12 in Discovery, 12 in World Cinema, 12 in Documentary, 30 in Short Film Competition, 43 in AFI Conservatory and 3 in Guest Artistic Director Selections!
Faced with such an eclectic range of choices, we — as we always have in previous years — made a plan to spend most of AFI Fest taking in all that the World Cinema section had to offer, but, in the end, the outstanding documentary curation, which had an overwhelming amount of compelling titles that veered towards the experimental, vied for a good percentage of our viewing time! Regardless of genre, if there was a consistent theme that existed throughout most of the films that we favored at this year’s AFI Fest, it would be that of identity transformation in response to environments and/or consequential events, which feels all too appropriate in our rapidly changing world.
This year’s AFI Fest programming was particularly formidable, and below are our reviews of the ten features that we consider as essential watches, beginning with our favorite.
Pacifiction / dir. Albert Serra
In the earliest scenes of Pacifiction, French Navy sailors land at a small harbor, and soon after, a disarmingly sickly, yet mesmerizing sky fills the screen. Immediately, we begin to suspect that we are somewhere in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle. But, as Pacifiction hones in on Monsieur De Roller (Benoît Magimel), a High Commissioner to French Polynesia, we start to detect echoes of Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon, setting in place the expectations of a story about a wayward colonial government representative long forgotten because of time, distance, and insignificance. However, throughout Pacifiction, Serra navigates away from any familiar narrative devices and continuously re-directs all of our attention to Monsieur De Roller, whose actions present a fascinating, morally ambiguous, and unsettlingly contemporary character. De Roller is not like the morally decrepit of the past. He’s not a hedonist. He’s not an ideologue. And, in fact, he maintains positive (though palpably fragile) relationships with most around him — so much so that he is someone that both Polynesian community leaders and French expats trust. But, De Roller is a deceptive, complex figure, and Serra allows us to study his actions and conversations to try to decipher his motivations. After we see stern, diplomatic, amiable, and pseudo-casual versions of De Roller through his interactions with others, we take notice of something consistent in his demeanor: control. Not that of a dictatorial kind, but rather control that comes from a keen understanding of the people around him and the ability to push and pull different strengths and tensions in order to maintain stability and peace for himself in his environment. De Roller’s attentive yet noticeably distant countenances in most settings reveal his lack of commitment to any particular cause, yet his words, particularly terms of negotiation, often acknowledge, address, and take some action on his conversational partner(s) concerns. De Roller doesn’t want to help people, but he does want to maintain his control over the systems he has mastered in his surroundings: positive outcomes are necessary, and acts of physical violence towards his fellow inhabitants are generally avoided because of their long-term consequences. This approach works perfectly for De Roller until an admiral (Marc Susini) arrives and continues to reappear in De Roller’s social circles while rumors of the return of nuclear testing spread, stirring up paranoia in De Roller as French military powers threaten the equilibrium he’s created for himself and remind him of his insignificance beyond the shores of French Polynesia. Pacifiction stands out as Albert Serra’s most approachable work to date, but despite the illusion of a narrative laden with images that evoke familiar motifs in fictions of the past, Pacifiction slyly uses known conventions to mislead you towards a grand ending or a climax that never happens. Instead, we enter a paradoxically hyper-real and hyper-fictionalized world that mirrors our own distortions of reality and see it through the hyperbolic, morally indifferent eyes of De Roller, who perfectly represents the collision of unsavory geopolitical histories, strategic diplomacy and conciliation, basic self-interest, and powers far beyond our grasp and perception, all of which are forces that underlie our own daily actions, even if we don’t want to be aware of them.
Mato Seco em Chamas (Dry Ground Burning) / dirs. Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós
Back in the spring of 2018, we were extremely fortunate to catch a screening of Once There Was Brasilia (Era uma Vez Brasília) at Locarno in Los Angeles. That politically urgent, low-budget science fiction film, which was awarded a Special Mention in Locarno the previous year, was the first collaboration between director Adirley Queirós and his then cinematographer, Joana Pimenta. A top ten film for us in 2018, Queirós’s feature inventively blended tropes from dystopian sci-fi and post-apocalyptic cinema to deliver a poignant statement on contemporary Brazil from a futuristic world devoid of hope. With their new feature, Dry Ground Burning, Joana Pimenta has returned as the DP and, in addition, has joined Adirley Queirós as a co-director for an ambitious docu-fiction work that brings our filmmakers back to the beleaguered district of Ceilândia, the site of their aforementioned sci-fi film.
At the center of Pimenta and Queirós’s Dry Ground Burning are half-sisters Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado) and Léa (Léa Alves da Silva), leaders of a gang who sell purloined gasoline to bikers in their Sol Nascente favela, a community that has long given up on the promises and hopes of societal enrichment from governmental investment into the Brazilian infrastructure after the extraction of untold amounts of oil found in the country during the mid-2000s. As the sisters run gasoline with their all-female crew, we learn about the pervasive history and impact of crime and incarceration in their current lives and future. Timelines pause, reverse, and skip forward in Dry Ground Burning, but the oil rig and refinery remains as the emanating point for Chitara, Léa, and their teammate Andreia (Andreia Vieira), who together provide their neighborhood with gasoline while also supporting themselves and their families before splitting apart as the surrounding police state descends on them. From its early scenes, Dry Ground Burning is intentionally framed as a neo-western mixed with shades of City of God, but, as the film progresses, Pimenta and Queirós strip away any cinematic tropes and build the film’s strength not from typical action scenes, but from raw dialogues heard between the sisters and their gang and long takes of the women working at the rig and living outside of its gates, which humanize the overall feeling of desperation and survival in Sol Nascente in a way that slickly shot gunplay could never achieve. We spoke with co-director Joana Pimenta during this year’s AFI Fest, and that interview will be available here on Ink 19 in the coming weeks.
De Humani Corporis Fabrica / dir. Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Unseen systems that generate outputs that we interact with, such as water purification or the conversion of gasoline into energy, continuously operate all around us. We understand some systems abstractly. But with others, we don’t even quite know their parts. The systems in our bodies fall into both of these categories, and for the longest time, we would only learn about them through ailments with clear, perceptible symptoms, and we rarely saw into the physiological culprits. Hospitals too are their own systems that we engage with when we need treatment for our bodies and minds, but unless we are (or intimately know) medical professionals, we rarely get to see how parts of the hospital system work and how operations are performed. In De Humani Corporis Fabrica, directors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor present images and sounds from studies of components of hospital and body systems far from perfection and provide us new, visceral, uncomfortable, and amazing views into both. In operating rooms, via laparoscopic cameras, we travel through unknown ducts and tubes to watch surgical graspers, scissors, and needles cut, repair, or remove tissues and organs. In labs, we see tumors prepared for microscopic study and the resulting psychedelic slices projected onto screens. In geriatric hallways, we see how our physical and mental faculties wear down with age. And, in the morgue, we see masses of bodies that have reached the end of their lifecycles. Mixed into these varying internal and external views of the human form, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor pipe in casual conversations throughout various hospital settings that reveal the less than ideal conditions doctors and nurses face with unsustainable case loads, staff reductions, and even surgical supply shortages. Yet, despite the feeling that everything inside the hospitals featured in De Humani Corporis Fabrica may be broken, the doctors and nurses manage to continue maintaining and fixing the human body and keeping the hospitals’ systems running, instilling in us wonder that our bodies work at all and awe in the fortitude and resilience of medical professionals who see our bodies at their lowest points every day.
Trenque Lauquen / dir. Laura Citarella
At the center of the cosmos of Laura Citarella’s Trenque Lauquen is Laura (Laura Paredes), a woman who has gone missing. A botanist sent to Trenque Lauquen for a cataloging project that could cement her success as an academic, Laura has her own pulsating, shifting orbit that intersects with those of Rafael (Rafael Spregelburd), her boyfriend and academic partner in Buenos Aires, Ezequiel (Ezequiel Pierri), her institute assigned driver turned investigative partner in Trenque Lauquen, and Elisa (Elisa Carricajo), a brusque and mysterious local doctor. In the moments she shares with each of these main players, sometimes in person, other times through phone calls and voice messages, we as the audience learn more about the transformations that led up to Laura’s disappearance. In part one of the film, Citarella primarily focuses our attention on Laura, Rafael, and Ezequiel. Rafael and Ezequiel actively search for Laura by car, and as they ask for information from various shop owners and farmers along the roads, their chances of success look slim. Rafael and Ezequiel are both discreet in what they share about their own relationships with Laura, preventing them (and us) from piecing together a complete understanding of Laura. However, as Citarella takes us back in time to learn about the evolution of Ezequiel and Laura’s relationship through Laura’s discovery and compulsive excavation of letters written in the 1960s between two lovers (Carmen, a teacher in the town, and Paolo, the father of two of her students) and Ezequiel’s contributions to the investigation to understand who the lovers were and how their relationship fell apart, we begin to better understand Laura in the period before her disappearance. Upon discovering a letter between the lovers hidden in a book by Alexandra Kollontai, Laura abandons her plant cataloging project and instead spends all of her time voraciously combing through the Martín Fierro estate’s large donation to the Trenque Lauquen library to hunt for the rest of the letters hidden inside of the collection. As she attempts to piece together the letters’ timelines and portraits of their writers, she shares the knowledge with Ezequiel, and with his own connections to the history of Trenque Lauquen, he helps Laura connect Carmen and Paolo to their positions and statuses in the town. But, despite this expanded knowledge and Laura’s success in extracting the complete series of correspondence between Carmen and Paolo, the letters point towards a surprisingly unclear resolution, for, as they progressed in time, Carmen’s location became more ambiguous and eventually unknown.
As the second part of Trenque Lauquen opens, we learn about how Laura became intertwined with Elisa, beginning with the moment when she asked Laura for a sample of a short yellow flower. This simple request pulls Laura into a local event and its fallout — the discovery and presence of a half-human, half-amphibian child in Trenque Lauquen’s lake and Elisa and her partner Romina’s roles in becoming the child’s caretakers and secret guardians. When Laura finally brings a sample of the flowers to Elisa’s home, she gains partial entry into Elisa’s life. However, little is shared about the child and Elisa’s intentions for it, even as Elisa and Romina (Verónica Llinás) ask Laura for her assistance with growing plants and finding materials for something that Laura can only assume is a simulated habitat. Though Laura never gets to see the child/creature, she nevertheless works harmoniously alongside Elisa and Romina and develops a more collaborative spirit, allowing her to open up, receive, and accept what may come, regardless of how irrational or unexplainable it may be. So, when Elisa, Romina, and the child must flee and Laura receives instructions from Elisa explaining things to collect and meet up points, Laura complies, and as she works to fulfill Elisa’s requests, she is sharply aware of everything around her and absorbs it all. Trenque Lauquen doesn’t seek a solution to a mystery. Instead, it documents the awakenings and transformations caused by and within Laura, making her whereabouts far less important than her impact on the people and places she interacted with and their influence on her. We spoke with director Laura Citarella during AFI Fest 2022, and that interview will be available here on Ink 19 very soon.
Piaffe / dir. Ann Oren
It is nearly impossible not to think of Bruce Robinson’s woefully forgotten 1989 black comedy, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, when watching Ann Oren’s debut feature, Piaffe. Arriving near the end of the single most commerce-obsessed decade in human history, Robinson’s film tells the story of Denis Bagley (Richard E. Grant), a highly successful advertising executive who develops a crisis of conscience when a pharmaceutical company tasks him with one too many boil cream campaigns. Fraught with ethical concerns, Denis feverishly proclaims his worries to his wife and friends about the inherent evil of the product he must promote and his desire to walk away from the endless barrage of adverts he’s inflicted on humanity. Unfortunately, an enormously fiendish boil, complete with eyes and a mouth, appears on Denis’s shoulder to guide him towards a different undesired outcome. In Piaffe, Eva (Simone Bucio), a reserved Foley artist charged with creating the sounds of a horse featured in an endorsement for the fittingly-named “Equili,” a mood-stabilizing medication, is the analog to Denis in How to Get Ahead in Advertising. When her early attempts at duplicating the animal’s sounds are rejected by the commercial’s director due to their perceived unnaturalness, Eva throws herself deeper into the project while also struggling to care for her non-binary sibling, Zara (Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau), who is hospitalized for an unknown condition. Now, as Eva is left with no other option but to successfully complete her Foley assignment, she visits a stable to get closer to her subject and takes that experience back into the sound studio where her uncanny embodiment of the horse’s mannerisms results in her own Denis-esque physical manifestation: a small tail, which emerges on her lower back. As Eva’s tail begins to grow longer, she draws the attention of botanist Dr. Novak (Sebastian Rudolph), who fetishizes her new appendage and seemingly integrates his research around fern roots (which he manipulates and binds) and ferns at gametophyte stage (which is of particular interest to him because it’s a time when ferns produce both sperm and eggs) into his sexual practice with Eva. The amorphous spaces between species, gender, and sexuality build and shift around Eva and disorient her as they push her in new directions. And, with each moment of transformation, we see Eva fall into a disquieting state where she has the approval and interest of people around her — something that she never had prior to her newly grown tail — but is now at their mercy more than ever before. In this hazardous territory, Eva, who was awkward, alone, and frightened at the beginning of Piaffe, becomes disaffected and aloof in an unsustainable persona that doesn’t feel like her own. With Piaffe, Oren effectively and insightfully nuances the core message of How to Get Ahead in Advertising for today’s generation, one that is equally bombarded with medicinal “cures” alongside a dizzying array of societal norms and transgressions, which together can potently convolute the concept of self.
Walk Up / dir. Hong Sang-soo
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, our relation to the physical space that we inhabit and the reflection of that space back onto our lives has taken on a greater meaning than ever before. For director Hong Sang-soo’s 28th feature, he continues his recent shift to an even more threadbare filmmaking style and inserts his avatar into a four-story, multi-purpose building that takes him through a four-part narrative that allows us to gain a deeper insight into his despairs by utilizing each floor as an affecting stage to play against the women he encounters there. Starting on the first floor, Sang-soo stand in Byung-soo (Kwon Haehyo), a well-respected film director, travels with his estranged daughter, Jeongsu (Park Miso) to our emotional edifice to introduce her to Ms. Kim (Lee Hyeyoung), the landlord of the building, who Byung-soo hopes will offer some advice to his daughter before she embarks on her career in interior design, a field in which Ms. Kim has enjoyed some success. Given that the handsome, gray-haired Byung-soo is in the thick of a successful career and Ms. Kim is enamored with his fame, she not only offers Jeongsu an internship, but also gifts Byung-soo a free rooftop apartment to use as an office if he so desires. After some time passes, we find a more fragile Byung-soo drinking again in the second floor restaurant run by Sunhee (Song Sunmi), an equally fragile, but failed artist, who adores Byung-soo’s work and engages him in an earnest but awkward conversation that leads to their eventual coupling. By the time we get to the third floor, a COVID-compromised Byung-soo is cohabitating with Sunhee and both are cracking under the claustrophobic stagnation of their living situation and their failed careers. Eventually, Byung-soo makes it up to the fourth floor, and with that final space comes another woman and an even greater reveal into the director’s true self. With Walk Up, Hong once again masterfully jars us with uncomfortable human moments interjected into casual scenes and surrounds these moments with paced build ups and deflections that altogether underscore the frailty and humanness of his flawed characters. Much of the success of Hong’s signature technique in Walk Up can be attributed to the naturalistic performances throughout the film as well as Hong’s clever decision to entrap his characters in a set space that forces us to look as closely into their actions as we looked into our own while under lockdown.
Cette Maison (This House) / dir. Miryam Charles
After the sudden loss of a loved one, there is an essential need within many of us to understand the why before we can imagine what could’ve been. For director Miryam Charles, the tragic loss of her cousin, Terra, who died under violent and mysterious circumstances at the age of fourteen in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 2008, is experienced in Cette Maison through a reconstruction, not of the crime, but of the trajectory of Terra in her real and imagined life via her family’s reactions to her passing and their connections to the physical spaces that they’ve existed in through their migrations years prior and since her passing. As an experiential process, Charles depicts the varying states of sadness, grief, and resignation through different visual motifs that recurrently pull us closer then away to emulate time against impact. When we witness the day that Terra is found dead, Charles recreates the moments as a formal stage play, complete with facades and direct lighting in a way that feels dramatic and intense but classical and familiar in appearance. Charles ages Terra through the performance of actress Schelby Jean-Baptiste, who is close to the age of Terra had she lived, and as Terra engages with her mother (Florence Blain Mbaye) in confrontational conversations, their communication evokes a bi-directional transference of spirit that manifests as a documentary of mourning, memory, and imagination which carries Terra’s spirit back and forth from Connecticut to Quebec to Haiti through her mother’s grief. These erratic shifts of location and storytelling style are juxtaposed with Charles’s use of grainy 16mm film and warm natural light, which imbue us with a sense that Terra’s death and her family’s inability to find a place of belonging are forever intertwined. We spoke with director Miryam Charles during this year’s festival, and that interview will be available here on Ink 19 soon.
Saint Omer / dir. Alice Diop
Consistently throughout her career as a documentarian, director Alice Diop, the daughter of Senegalese parents, has explored the difficulties of assimilation for people of African descent in her native France by maintaining a close proximity to her subjects that feels urgent and factual, but never clinical or detached. Such a dynamic and personal approach to a subject so close to one’s own experience carries with it a dangerous propensity to sacrifice objectiveness for empathy, and it is the investigation of that precarious balance which stands at the core of Saint Omer, Diop’s first narrative feature as a director. Based on the 2016 court case of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese immigrant and graduate student in philosophy accused of drowning her 15-month-old daughter, Diop explores the connection between subject and storyteller through Rama (Kayije Kagame), a novelist of Senaglese descent, who attends the trial of defendant Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) with the hopes of adapting Coly’s alleged crime into a modern version of Medea.
As Saint Omer begins, Diop provides us with a snapshot of Rama lecturing a class on Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour and then shifts us back to her mother’s home, where she enjoys positive discussions with her white musician husband and supportive sisters, as well as some less comfortable moments with her mother at the dinner table. Once in the courtroom, Rama observes and studies Laurence, who remains remarkably stoic while the presiding white female judge sums up the allegations that she murdered her baby Elise. When Laurence is ultimately questioned as to why she committed this heinous crime, she reservedly responds that she hopes that the trial will unearth the reasons behind her actions. Just as the first day ends, Rama meets Laurence’s mother, who provides Rama with a view into Laurence’s background, which included a strict upbringing in a home where Laurence was told to only speak perfect French and to refrain from speaking Wolof. The next day, witnesses are called, one of whom is the father of baby Elise, Luc Dumontet (Xavier Maly), an older white man who testifies of the love he had for his child while more testimony establishes that Elise was born in secret and that Dumontet had no real feelings for Laurence. With each successive revelation in the case in Saint Omer, the symmetry and discrepancies that exist between Rama’s and Laurence’s backgrounds and capabilities are illuminated, and with every epiphany, Diop adeptly mirrors the fragile relationship between an empathetic creator and subject and the more perilous hazards of adapting that real connection into fiction.
Rewind & Play / dir. Alain Gomis
It would be easy to dismiss the disastrous Thelonious Monk interview at the center of director Alain Gomis’s experimental and provocative new documentary as simply another example of an uninformed host so far out in the weeds that he embarrasses himself with every contrived, half-heartedly delivered question that inevitably falls flat. Easy indeed, except for the fact that the string of bland and clueless queries directed at one of most innovative figures in jazz history is not only being uttered by a personal acquaintance of Monk’s, but also one of France’s finest talents in the genre, Henri Renaud, a famed pianist and producer who recorded extensively with a who’s who of jazz luminaries, including artists such as Al Cohn, Zoot Simms, and Clifford Brown! Herein lies the great curiosity of Rewind & Play, but before we are allowed to witness the verbal minefield perpetrated on the set of the long-running television program, Jazz Portrait, we are lulled into a familiar music documentary setup that has Monk and his wife Nellie arriving in Paris and being whisked away into town for drinks at a cozy bar. The mood is cool in these early minutes, and in narrative terms, it feels like a safe place, but from the moment it leaves the smoke and libations and we see Monk planted piano side with searing studio spotlights bearing down on his face, we immediately sense all is not well. What follows for the remainder of the film is a barrage of awkward and inappropriate inquiries from Renaud that you would never expect to hear from a musician speaking to a fellow musician, much less a friend, and throughout these proceedings, Gomis cleverly chops together the questions and answers uttered during rehearsals into an absurd and redundant cacophony of bewildered looks and unpleasant reactions with the only salvations coming from Monk who is finally left alone to play “Round Midnight” and “Crepuscule with Nellie.” As Rewind & Play comes to a close, you have a perfectly articulated declaration of the struggles that arise from being avant-garde within a known form. If Monk’s friend, fellow musician, and jazz scholar, Henri Renaud, was genuinely puzzled as to why Monk languished in semi-obscurity for years, you can only cringe at the notion of how Monk was perceived by those of influence who existed outside of his inner circle.
Le Pupille (The Pupils) / dir. Alice Rohrwacher
During our 2018 conversation after the AFI Fest screening of her feature, Happy as Lazzaro, director Alice Rohrwacher stressed the disparity between the religions that coexisted in her film: the historical religion of the Catholic Church, which primarily served in her film as a force of suppression over a group of anachronistic sharecroppers, and a religion of innocence, or the pure belief that human beings have in other human beings.
A comparable delineation of faith and religion comes into play again in Rohrwacher’s newest creation, Le Pupille, a sumptuously shot 16mm short set during the Second World War in the days leading up to Christmas in a sparse boarding school for girls. At the helm of this school is The Mother Superior (Alba Rohrwacher), who uses Catholicism as a method of control over her group of innocent subjects for power and profit, much like Happy as Lazzaro’s Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna did. As it is the holiday season, the money-making tool in Le Pupille takes the form of a Nativity play consisting of our perfectly-costumed seraphic students suspended by wires in the church to form a devotion-inspiring Renaissance painting of sorts. This living painting then becomes a service for the townspeople who offer what little food and lira they have to get these posed innocents to pray for whatever their patrons desire. Given that it is wartime, most villagers pray for the safe return of their loved ones, but when a well-to-do woman (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) offers the ultimate symbol of royal privilege during rationing — a perfectly made Zuppa Inglese — in exchange for prayers that will bring her scoundrel of a fiancé back to her, the Zuppa Inglese becomes a symbol of rebellion for one of the girls who was unfairly maligned prior to the Christmas Day dinner. Based on a letter composed by writer Elsa Morante as a Christmas greeting to a friend, Le Pupille simultaneously functions as a playful holiday watch while cleverly expanding on Rohrwacher’s thoughts regarding the true essence of human nature over organized morality.
All films were screened at AFI Fest 2022. Many thanks and congratulations to AFI for another excellent year of cinema and conversations, and a special thanks to Johanna Calderón-Dakin, Senior Publicity Associate for AFI Fest, who made our festival coverage possible.
Featured photo courtesy of AFI