Indie Rocks

Aaron Cutler on the 14th Indie Festival in Brazil

Albert Serra, Story of My Death, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 148 minutes.

ALBERT SERRA’S STORY OF MY DEATH (2013) animates the past with glinting life. Serra, a thirty-nine-year-old Catalonian, focuses on a corpulent, decaying, half-mad Casanova (Vicenç Altaió) who spends his waning days in a Swiss castle admiring himself—and younger women. He leads a group of followers on a trip to a sunlit pastoral setting where no less forbidding a figure than Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) awaits them. The group succumbs to vampirism within a film whose nighttime images often hover on the precipice of visibility. We witness the spectacle of an older world burning out like a candle on its way to being replaced by times that could prove even darker.

Story of My Death won the Golden Leopard at last year’s Locarno International Film Festival and will begin its US theatrical premiere run November 20 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Story also recently headlined a Serra retrospective at the fourteenth edition of Brazil’s Indie Festival, an exciting program of contemporary film offered to audiences both in São Paulo and in Belo Horizonte. We observed the honing of Serra’s methods prior to Story, in works like Quixotic/Honor de Cavalleria (2006) and Birdsong (2008). Serra typically adapts canonical source material (Don Quixote, the Bible) into low-budget, largely improvised films with nonprofessional actors wandering across vivid landscapes, lost within a fragile present.

At first glance, Serra’s films seemed strikingly different from those of this year’s other Indie retrospective recipient, the sixty-seven-year-old, US-born and France-naturalized Eugène Green. While Serra transforms literary characters, Green depicts contemporary people seeking texts by which to live. In fiction films such as Le Pont des Arts (2004) and The Portuguese Nun (2009), the longtime writer and theater director presents ensembles of aspiring and established actors, artists, authors, and musicians who engage one another with the hopes of filling empty spiritual lives, and who choose to do so in the most controlled ways that they can. A typical Green scene alternates between two people, each in his or her own fixed frame, each formally and precisely reciting his or her thoughts to the other and to the film’s viewers.

Green’s latest, La Sapienza (2014)—which premiered at this year’s edition of Locarno and will be released in the US early next year—offers many such moments. The film’s four main characters form mirrored pairs, with two middle-aged, malaise-stricken French spouses seeing reflections of themselves in younger Italian counterparts they meet abroad. All four seek other people’s histories to stand in for their own. The two men together devote themselves to studying architecture, and the Frenchman (Fabrizio Rongione) turns his attention toward the work of Francesco Borromini, whose Baroque edifices express a designed perfection that he desires for his own inner life.

Green, like Serra, finds beauty in human mortality. Something similar could be said of two other filmmakers represented in the Indie program, both with works that function as moving, sensorial autobiography. The first is twenty-seven-year-old Argentine Eduardo “Teddy” Williams, a brilliant crafter of lively, semistaged short films in which young male friends joyfully explore towns and cities together. I Forgot! (2014) catches a bantering group of youth whose members race around Hanoi roads and streets that appear in fleeting, pleasurably unfamiliar ways, as though all the young men—including Williams—were savoring these grounds for the very first time.

Eighty-one-year-old New Yorker Ken Jacobs knows the Brooklyn Bridge well but finds new ways to render it in A Primer in Sky Socialism (2013), a silent 3-D revisitation of his earlier film The Sky Socialist (1964) that uses a succession of stills to render the bridge as he and his wife Flo see it on New Year’s Eve. For more than fifty years, Jacobs has sought new ways to depict human figures. Here, warm reds and greens surround streams of celebrants, who appear as happy blurs of light.

The fourteenth Indie Festival ran September 3–10 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and September 17–October 1 in São Paulo.