The Directors’ Fortnight doesn’t present awards itself, but some of its sponsors do. This year, the Art Cinema Award, presented by the International Confederation of Art Cinemas, goes to Ciro Guerra‘s Embrace of the Serpent. “A visually mesmerizing exploration of man, nature and the destructive powers of colonialism, Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente) marks an impressively realized third feature,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter. “Reminiscent of Miguel Gomes’s Tabu in its recreation of colonial events through a richly nostalgic modern prism, the story (written by Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde) was inspired by the journals of two explorers who traveled through the Colombian Amazon during the last century: the German Theodor Koch-Grunberg and the American Richard Evans Schultes, here transformed into the characters Theodor (Jan Bijvoet from Borgman) and Evan (Brionne Davis). Cutting between 1909 and the 1940s, the parallel narratives chart each man’s voyage down a similar stretch of river as they search for a rare flower, the yakruna, with alleged healing powers.”
“It would be unfair to reveal Embrace’s surprises,” writes Screen‘s Tim Grierson, “but let it be said that everything from cannibalism to deranged religious cults are in the offing for Theo and Evan, and the deeper these men venture into the Amazon, the less logic has a place in their journeys. Instead, Guerra operates from intuition, incorporating a dream-like tone in which events occur almost by random—and yet, there’s a coherent escalation of anxiety, wonder and madness.”
“The making of the film, according to the director’s short preamble prior to the screening, was an arduous, drawn-out process,” notes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, but “it seems that filming in the Amazon region Fitzcarraldo-style, presented its very specific set of physical and psychological challenges. Yet none of the arduousness behind-the-scenes shows in the final film, which unfolds with a stunning directorial sureness (and this is only Guerra’s third feature) and a layered intelligence that at times lands an insight so wincingly wise and true it takes your breath away.”
Marc van de Klashorst for the International Cinephile Society: “Shot in stark, crisp black and white (except for a short sequence near the end), the cinematography fits the film like a glove, not only aesthetically but also thematically, as it takes the focus away from what our senses (in this case sight) detect, and moves it towards the relationship of the men. Sound design is strong too, sparse but very detailed, which again is important in its marriage to how important listening is for the Amazonians.”
Rhonda Richford talks with Guerra for the Hollywood Reporter.
The Europa Cinemas Label for best European film goes to Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang. For Screen‘s Tim Grierson, “what begins as a playful look at five young women’s rebellion against their strict upbringing soon becomes something far more stirring and emotional. First-time feature director Deniz Gamze Ergüven has crafted a story of female empowerment which is attuned to the buoyancy of adolescence, but she’s also deeply critical of a modern Turkish patriarchy in which women still struggle to be equal citizens. Buoyed by a cast led by appealing newcomer Güneş Nezihe Şensoy, Mustang is a deceptively simple tale bearing an urgent message.”
“School’s just out,” writes Jay Weissberg, setting it up in Variety, “and five orphan sisters join their male classmates for a boisterously innocent beachside frolic. A scandalized headscarf-wearing neighbor reports them to their grandma (Nihal Koldas), who accuses them of pleasuring themselves on the shoulders of their boy peers. The perplexed girls, barely aware of their sexual aura, are beaten by their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) for acting like whores. After subjecting them to virginity tests, Erol locks them in the house and Grandma removes anything likely to be ‘perverting’: skimpy or clinging clothing, cell phones, computers, makeup. A team of aunties come to teach the sisters domestic skills: as the superfluous voiceover says, ‘the house became a wife factory.'”
“There are mordant echoes here of the five Bennet daughters in Pride and Prejudice, whose mother’s anxiousness to get them married off is a matter of financial rather than moral urgency,” suggests David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “However, this is no comedy of manners. The more direct comparison is with the Lisbon sisters in The Virgin Suicides, but those doomed sirens become architects of their own isolation, almost as much as their overprotective parents. Erguven and her co-screenwriter Alice Winocour (whose film [Disorder] screens in Un Certain Regard) are more interested in the girls’ instinct for self-preservation as they strike back against their enforced captivity and the hurried plans being made for them.”
“One could easily graft something of a political message about Turkey’s increasing trend away from secularism in this film,” figures Jordan Hoffman in the Guardian. “However, there isn’t much that’s specific to Islam. The frustrations are as universal as Splendor in the Grass, and this isn’t a finger-pointer like, say, Jafar Panahi’s The Circle.”
Update, 5/25: “The exuberant life and liveliness that spills off the screen and the effortless sororal chemistry between these young actresses are compelling reasons to seek out Mustang, and to welcome the arrival of Ergüven as a promising new female voice in the Turkish cinema scene,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “In fact, her laudable desire to mine the specificity of the frankly repugnant cultural environment she explores here may be less impressive than her facility for capturing a universal sense of spirited girlishness. Which makes Mustang less a cultural critique, and more a bittersweet, often angry lament for childhoods ended before childhood has actually ended.”
Update, 5/28: “With its utter lack of cynicism, Mustang doesn’t hit all the right notes, but [it] is a well-crafted debut,” writes Raphael Deutsch at the Film Stage.
The SACD Award for French-language feature film, presented by the Société des auteurs et compositeurs dramatiques, goes to Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Years. Click the title for reviews.