Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Friday, October 9, 2009
Posted from Morelia, Mexico
“We are conquered by Hollywood cinema,” assert Anamaria Marinca, the Romanian actress who starred in Christian Mungiu’s breakout film, Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days (Romania, 2007), which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes.
In her white t-shirt, khaki cargo pants, and clipped short hair (she had long blond hair in Four Months), Marinca looked more like a casually dressed graduate student festival goer than an international cinema sensation. We had just watched a Romanian film she had starred in, Boogie (Radu Muntean, Romania, 2008), a film about a mother on vacation with her young child and furniture manufacturing husband at a Romanian sea resort. She suffers through her husband ‘s night of debauchery with his friends from high school.
She explained that in Romania, people do not watch Romanian films— considered a major new wave movement in international cinema. They watch Hollywood.
Marinca reminds me a bit of Jean Seberg in Jean Luc Godard’s A Bout De Souffle (France 1960). She has an insouciance and sharpness mixed with a deep intellectuality and ethics that differs considerably from American Hollywood acting styles, where women are fetish objects of sexuality, action stars with hard bodies, or femme fatales.
I asked her about her acting style. I was intrigued by its complexity, its details, its creating a texture of daily life that is not about fetishes, spectacle or sexual display. Marinca said she was never trained in an acting style, instead, she was driven by “staying in touch with life, and staying in touch with people.” She explained that her choices in her acting and in the projects she works on are always political and social subjects that ask: Who are we? Why are we here? Her major influences? Painting, music, and the films of Russian director Andrew Tarkovsky.
This year, the Morelia International Film Festival is showcasing a selection of Romanian features, documentaries and shorts curated by Romanian film director Christian Mungiu and presented by Marinca and other film directors.
At a breakfast sponsored by Mujeres en el Cine y la Television on Monday morning hosted by Catherine Bloch, its president, about 30 women from the US and Mexico were seated at tables joined together to form a large square. Helen de Michiel and I sat with Daniela Michel, director general of the festival, and Carmen Landa y de Aguiar from the US Embassy in Mexico City. We asked them about the connection between Romanian cinema and Mexican cinema.
Daniela had recently returned from Romania, where she met with Mungiu and other filmmakers to prepare the program. She said that Romania and Mexico shared a similar history of many decades of a dictatorship of one party. The Romanians, she observed, were warm, gracious and dedicated to hospitality to guests, for her, a key way to understand Mexico beyond narcos, swine flu and immigration.
Both countries have spawned explosive, riveting new wave cinemas bursting with social realism, violence, intimately observed details of daily life, sexuality, and an emphasis on close ups and medium shots in interiors. Both cinemas drive into the contradictions involved in surviving on a day to day basis through melodrama, where private life becomes the landscape where the suffocating press of larger social, economic and political issues etch themselves on bodies. Both countries confront emigration as a economic survival.
These realist styles of filmmaking forego elaborate lighting, make-up, costuming, and completely amputate the classical Hollywood linear three act structure for something much more nuanced, human scaled and complex. Characters and their interactions with each other in the intimate spaces of kitchens, bedrooms, bars, and restaurants emerge as microterritories and unexplored frontiers. The films forego action scenes or spectacle. These are cinemas of small moments enfolded in struggles and contradictions spoken through bodies in tight spaces.
Yesterday, I watched La Cuerda Floja, a documentary about a small family owned Mexican circus struggling to survive as they traveled with their tents and animals around the Mexican countryside. The film barely focused on the spectacle of the trapeze acts, the jugglers, the clowns, the rope acrobats: many scenes took place in the family’s camper where they were eating together, cooking, putting on costumes and makeup, other scenes focused on the mother and father talking about their failing business, or their daughter and her boyfriend trying to figure out if they should leave the circus for a better life as they watched a DVD of Cirque du Soleil. Most of the time, the family performed to audiences of only ten or twelve people.
As we finished our omelettes and deep, rich Mexican coffee, I asked Daniela and Carmen about the reception Four Months Three Weeks Two Days in Mexico. Daniela had helped to bring the film to Mexico City, with Mungiu. She felt the screening was electric, intense. Mungiu had wanted to screen his film in Mexico. Carmen then reminded us that abortion in Mexico is only legal in Mexico City.
It’s not fashionable in intellectual circles of the global north, particularly in film studies, to find resonances and echoes among different national cinemas. Or to admire an actress like Anamarie Marinca who believes acting offers a way to enter into and to understand history and politics.
The claim in film studies is that specificity is lost in parallels, false congruencies, a formalist approach vacating ideologies and social relations.
But here at the Morelia International Film Festival, where I’ve been very blessed to see Romanian and Mexican films I would never have access to easily in Ithaca (full disclosure: I’ve seen four to five films a day), I’ve been wondering if that position is just another form of isolationism that preserves borders imposed and then refuses messy, complicated exchanges.
And I’ve noticed that in these ferocious and bold cinemas of Romania and Mexico, whether narrative or documentary or genres yet to be imagined, I am left with a renewed sense that cinema can matter, can speak to the world, and then...upset it.