When was the last time you had fun watching a Peter Greenaway movie? For me—and, going by the applause that rose up as the credits rolled, for many others as well—it was just this afternoon. The first few minutes of Eisenstein in Guanajuato aren’t terribly promising. Greenaway threatens to overload the screen with too many digital doodads and it looks as if subpar acting is going to be given a pass. But then Greenaway loosens his tight grip just a bit and allows his story to take off.
And that story is surprisingly not really about the prematurely aborted making of ¡Que viva México! in 1931, but instead about Sergei Eisenstein‘s fascination with the country whose socialist revolution predated Russia’s by half a decade, about a series of initiations, sexual and otherwise, and about falling in love. Throughout, Greenaway will flash vintage photos of the real-life luminaries Eisenstein meets—Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo right off the bat, for example—alongside the actors portraying them, in part to show that he’s going for the gist of each personality rather than verisimilitude, or of the many, many historical figures Eisenstein talks about meeting or working with in paragraph-long monologues delivered with rapid-fire élan.
As the “ultimate father figure of world cinema,” Elmer Bäck thoroughly convinces us that, when it comes to Eisenstein, too much is just right. Whether railing at his financiers or admonishing his penis, Bäck exudes an almost child-like petulance one rarely associates with the director of Battleship Potemkin (1925) or Strike (1925), but here, too, when Greenaway inserts the photos of the filmmaker you’ve seen over and again, there’s a glint of boisterous playfulness in those eyes that you might not have perceived before.
Almost none of the other actors measure up, but there’s such a lively spirit to the whole enterprise, it hardly matters. I thought of the No Wave Cinema of the late 70s and early 80s in which the amateurishness of the performances is part and parcel of those films’ charm. Luis Alberti as Eisenstein’s Mexican guide Palomino Cañedo is a bit better. Even though he hasn’t yet learned how to laugh naturally, he nails a speech about the ways in which New World is actually the Old World (I’ll leave the details for you to savor), delivered as he takes Eisenstein’s virginity. And the glow of satisfaction on Bäck’s face as he draws parallels between this particular evening and the anniversary of the Russian revolution is contagious.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
“A virtuoso tracking shot around the first floor of a lavishly columned lobby is especially noteworthy because it occasionally includes more than one shot of the actors, as if several possibilities of the scene coexisted at the same time,” notes Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter. “A backlit view from beneath the glass and wrought-iron floor of Eisenstein’s bedroom, with regular cinematographer Reinier van Brummelen’s camera looking upwards and almost literally seeming to X-Ray the bodies of those rolling on the ground above it, is a potent visual suggestion of the idea Greenaway is trying to see beyond Eisenstein as a physical being to unlock something of his soul. An unexpectedly touching scene between Eisenstein and Palomino’s wife (Maya Zapata) even manages to suggest something about the power of being transformed by love for both of them.”
Updates, 2/15: “Though it’s true that the 72-year-old director has been banging on about the same ideas for decades now—the tyranny of the rectangular frame, movies as illustrated text, cinema is dead, blah blah blah—one can’t deny that he’s persistent in following his lasting intellectual, philosophical and artistic queries with experimental rigor,” writes Michael Pattison for RogerEbert.com. “On the one hand, Eisenstein is comparatively pared-down in wake of the director’s short contribution to the portmanteau triptych 3x3D, but on the other there are the usual ingredients: a restlessly episodic narrative, Brechtian distanciation, frames within frames, reflections and repetitions, genital vulgarities, a matter-of-fact treatment of depravity, a sense of humor that’s at once juvenile and highbrow, and so on.”
Eisenstein is Greenaway’s “most enjoyable film in nearly thirty years,” declares Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage. “Elmer Bäck’s performance as Eisenstein is exceptional, his manic energy somehow able to match that of the film’s visuals and achieving a synergy of exuberance.”
“Determined to breathe fresh life into a medium he insists has scarcely evolved in the 90 years since Sergei Eisenstein made Strike, Greenaway has wrought an outrageously unconventional and deliriously profane biopic that could take decades to be duly appreciated,” writes Variety‘s Peter Debruge.
Update, 2/21: “The veteran director does seem to have regained some of his old showman’s sparkle from the days of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” finds Sight & Sound editor Nick James. “And yet it’s arguable that Eisenstein is the least Greenaway-like film he has yet made, in that it’s primarily a kind of psychosexual portrait of one individual’s artistic crisis that is at times reminiscent of such Ken Russell extravaganzas as The Music Lovers and Savage Messiah. Of course, formally it’s rather different…. Infuriating as Greenaway’s films are in their desire to pummel points home, Eisenstein in Guanajuato was thrilling in its sense of pedagogical adventure.”
That trailer up there suggests a somewhat more light-hearted film that the one that premieres this evening in Competition. Radu Jude’s road movie, Aferim!—the title’s derived from an interjection in Turkish, “Well done!”—is set in the early 19th century in Wallachia, a region between the Danube to the south and the Carpathian Mountains to the north that would eventually unite with Moldavia to form Romania a few decades later. For the time being, the people here are caught between the “Ivans and the Turks,” as the constable Costandin (Teodor Corban) puts it to his son, Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu).
The two riders are off in search of a gypsy runaway slave, Carfin (Cuzin Toma), accused of bonking the boyar’s wife. Along the way, they cross paths with many an eccentric, most memorably a priest who, once comfortable with his fellow travelers, unleashes a speech about all that’s wrong with all the other peoples in the world (“The Italians lie a lot, the Germans smoke a lot, the English think a lot…”), a condensed encyclopedia of bigotry, with such feisty fury that, at the press screening drawing journalists from around the globe, he drew laughter and applause from different corners of the theater with each line.
For all the comedy in Aferim!, much of it derived from the endless stream of aphorisms the constable offers his son at every twist in the road, this is a fascinating portrait of a Central European crossroads in which the land and its people seem at times not to have yet changed all that much since the Dark Ages. A few years ago, the filmmakers unwittingly gathered under the umbrella term “Berliner Schule” began venturing into genre—fruitfully, too. With Aferim!, it’s refreshing to see one of the filmmakers pegged as a promising figure of the Romanian New Wave leave the confined spaces and variations on gray of the years immediately following the fall of Ceaușescu. Which reminds me to mention that Jude has opted for black and white in Aferim!; there was something off about the digital projection this morning but not so off that one couldn’t make out the beauty of cinematographer Marius Panduru‘s work.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
“Like quite a few of the Eastern bloc countries, Romania churned out a number of horse operas in the Soviet era, closely based on their American counterparts and using the hilly landscape in similar ways,” writes Jay Weissberg in Variety. “Jude resurrects the genre with a far sharper edge, since his goal is to trace elements he derides in contemporary society to their 19th-century ancestors. With his shockingly obscene mouth, blithe bullying and tendency toward self-pity, the constable could easily be a character in either The Happiest Girl in the World or Everybody in Our Family.”
Update: “Contemporary anti-Roma racism in Eastern Europe has inspired a crop of powerful movies in recent years,” notes Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter. “But Aferim! digs deeper into the historical roots of this timely subject as Jude and his co-writer, novelist Florin Lazarescu, draw on real accounts of gypsy slavery for inspiration. Crucially, they also manage to make this grim topic both funny and personal, not a dour social-realist sermon.”
Writing at RogerEbert.com, Michael Pattison notes that “the Romany population still faces terrible social prejudices today that are further enabled by political castigation, in Romania and throughout Europe. But what I do think Aferim! does very well is to undercut the highly conservative values upheld by the propertied classes in the film. ‘The world will stay on as it is. You can’t change it, try as you might.’ Try as we did and try as we might! This—whose cinematography, by the way, somehow possesses a vibrant color despite the whole thing being in black-and-white—is a profitable departure for Romanian filmmakers in its turn to a point in that nation’s history more remote than its recent past. History never did end.”
Updates, 2/21: “So intricately textured, well observed and meticulously researched are the incidents,” writes Sight & Sound editor Nick James, “that the film seems to combine the best pleasures of historical romp, road movie and western…. Everything is authentic in feel and look but it’s never presented as chocolate-box spectacle.”
BFI programmer Geoff Andrew: “An extraordinarily vivid recreation of the past, with a credibly archaic (and frequently very funny) script illuminating the beliefs, ideas, values and aspirations of the time, it depicts how the rich and powerful of the Ottoman Empire treated the poor and disenfranchised with appalling cruelty and violence—and hints, in passing, at how little, appearances notwithstanding, may have changed in the world at large.”
“The current of informed anger, directed at those who stand by while injustice and bigotry flourish, is unmistakable and turns the whole film into a kind of clever folk fable-cum-protest song,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “But really, what makes Aferim! such a unique cinephile experience is that you get to say, truthfully, that you’ve seen a black and white, period Romanian art-house movie that intelligently dissects and contextualizes the historical roots of racism, and no one need ever know you’ve just had a blast.”