By Peg Aloi
The selection of foreign films offered at the BFI London Film Festival was of very high quality.
As promised, here is part two of my coverage of the BFI London Film Festival. (First episode available here.) I hope I can cover this festival again, and do so after the pandemic subsides (if so, ha ha, sob – no no, I’m fine). Because there is no substitute for seeing films in person and, in truth, digital access for critics during this festival left a lot to be desired. I think Sundance did it very well, allowing digital access to anyone who purchased a ticket. Yes, some of these online screenings have “sold out” in advance, but that’s no different than in-person screenings. Indeed, I decided not to brave the crowds in London to try to see Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven’s crazy orgiastic nun movie) on my last day there, because I most likely knew I would have been left out – I heard that many critics had been turned away at screenings in anybody. To add to the already chaotic atmosphere of a big city film festival, London had relaxed public mask mandates days before I arrived: despite signs on the Tube saying all passengers must wear masks at stations and on trains only about 70% of passengers seemed to do so. So I may have missed a few films, but I was safe and at home in my little shepherd’s hut converted into a B&B in the countryside.
The selection of foreign films offered at this festival was of very high quality. I found the Russian movie Petrov flu be fascinating in its use of visual art. Director Kirill Serebrennikov (The student) has crafted an intriguing hybrid look that straddles realism and fantasy. The film begins by looking like a truth-style slice-of-life of a comic book artist who accompanies a friend on an outing into town. Petrov isn’t feeling well: his whole family is suffering from the flu during a pandemic (a concept that surely everyone in the audience can relate to) and he’s getting sicker and sicker as the day goes on. The film’s realistic narrative gradually gives way to one that weaves memory, dream and fantasy in a subtle and compelling way, thanks to the excellent cinematography of Vladislav Opelyants (who also worked with the director on The student and Leto). Much like its titular protagonist, Petrov flu has a gritty exterior that gradually reveals a soulful heart. I found it very bewitching and beautiful.
I was intrigued by Bergman Island first of all; actress-turned-filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve has made some great films, including things to come with Isabelle Huppert. In this location-dependent story, a famous filmmaker named Tony (Tim Roth) takes his partner Chris (Vicky Krieps) to a writing retreat where they both work on their projects. The retreat location is the Scandinavian island where Ingmar Bergman wrote Scenes from a wedding and other work: there are daily tours, even a “Bergman Safari”, and the place seems to be teeming with film buffs and budding directors. Chris leaves Tony to work and walks with another visitor, Jonas (Joel Spira), and the two share an idyllic, almost romantic day of exploring and drinking wine. The core of the film seems to be a dramatization of Chris’s storyline idea, portrayed for Chris by Tony and played by Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielson Lie, paired with a passionate connection and an unresolved past. But the narrative seems to end rather weakly, despite the best efforts of an excellent cast, and I didn’t quite understand what the point was. If it was meant to be Bergmanian, it certainly could have been much more so.
wild indian by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. tells the story of two Native American boys who cover up an act of violence and then carry their shameful secret into adulthood. M’kwa (Michel Greyeyes) and Teddo (Chaske Spencer) become very different men: M’kwa leads a life of wealth and pleasure, while Teddo struggles with poverty and incarceration. I found myself thinking that the adult actors who played the adult versions of these two boys should have played the opposite role. Additionally, the protagonists have been drawn a little heavy, despite sensitive portrayals of the actors that mostly transcend the sometimes clunky dialogue. Yet there was something intriguing about this dramatization of how cycles of abuse and cruelty continue through generations. I would have liked to see the story explore in more depth the ongoing struggles between Native Americans. The film strives to convey a moral message: depravity masked by worldly success is the ultimate destroyer of lives.
Stay tuned for the third and final installment of my London Film Festival 2021 coverage!
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for boston phoenix and Fellow of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes about film, television and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Restlessness, microphone, Orlando Weekly, twisted marquee, and Bloody disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.