For Calum Marsh, writing in the Voice, Albert Serra’s Història de la meva mort (Story of My Death) “is a singular achievement and, perhaps, something of an esoteric masterpiece. As in Serra’s earlier work, the subject is a historical figure: Casanova (Vicenç Altaió), the world libertine, in whose seemingly endless indulgences we’re left to delight for the better part of an hour. Conflict arrives with the appearance of none other than Dracula (Eliseu Huertas), conspiring to partake of a more fatal indulgence, and before long gothic fantasy threatens to eclipse the period piece to which we’d grown fondly accustomed. Serra’s approach to this material is one of violent defamiliarization. He writes, shoots, and edits in a manner entirely his own, and the result is a film whose greatness seems both obvious and elusive.”
“Split into relatively discrete halves, each possessing its own distinct style,” writes Jesse Cataldo in Slant, Story of My Death “slips from a bawdy, jovial tale of rumpled courtesans and layabout poets to one fixated fully on doom, immured in shadow-clogged compositions within the ancient, chilly darkness of the Carpathians. These halves may appear at odds with one another, but there’s nothing jagged in their coupling. It’s merely the latest funky pairing of opposites for Serra, a merry prankster whose seemingly facetious structural choices actually disguise the wealth of challenging contemplation going on beneath them.”
Bert Rebhandl has a fine piece on the Catalan director’s oeuvre in the new issue of frieze, addressing not only the features but also the 14-episode television series Els noms de Crist (2010) and the 101-hour project Three Little Pigs (2012). “Serra’s trademark mode of storytelling is, at first glance, opposed to narration: he prefers long, seemingly directionless scenes in which very little action occurs. He appears consciously to strip away the plot and substitute mood—think ‘mumblecore’ in period costume.”
“Filming in spare settings dominated by velvety light and hidden sounds—wind and birdsong, footfalls and the crunch of chewed food—Serra creates poised, highly pressurized images on the verge of shattering with the force of mystery and desire,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody of Story of My Death. But in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis focuses on “Serra’s grave self-seriousness and his embrace of so many familiar art film strategies, from nonprofessional actors to long takes, cryptic aperçus and silences. The movie’s high jinks, deadpan humor (inadvertent or not) and uneven production values suggest Ed Wood by way of Alexander Sokurov.”
Update, 3/29: Ángel Quintana talks with Serra for Film Comment.
“Lodged somewhere between a dream and a nightmare, Iranian filmmaker Shahram Mokri’s Fish & Cat invites scrutiny by design,” writes Steve MacFarlane in Slant. “The film is constructed in a single, roving take that encompasses its entire runtime. Opening with a text preamble (based on a real-life case) about a restaurant that secretly served meat made from humans, the film establishes a latent suspense that one would assume has to climax at some point. But instead, Mokri, ably assisted by cinematographer Mahmud Kalari, creates hallucinatory, meandering scenelets, sometimes ratcheting up tension, but more often obfuscating it entirely.”
Fish & Cat “outlines, in one painstaking stroke, an afternoon amidst the lakeside hinterlands where a threat of impending danger encircles a group of kite-flying college kids,” writes Jordan Cronk here in Keyframe. But the film “fails to live up to its gruesome premise by consistently switching perspectives from its backwoods barbecuers (and most interesting characters) to the alternately forlorn, dimwitted and pretentious pack of students.”
“It’s a tour de force,” finds the NYT‘s Manohla Dargis, “and as quietly political as it is brazenly cinematic.”
“I believe a case can be made for the film to be categorized as non-fiction within a fiction or fiction within a fiction,” writes Howard Feinstein at Filmmaker. “Make your choice. Fiction within a fiction: stories within stories, first-person voiceovers spoken in the third person, appearances out of nowhere by non-diegetic entertainers, the masterful use of such conventions of the suspense genre as visual maguffins, narrative red herrings, loud non-diegetic bird and animal sounds, and brief, nervous percussive and violin fragments. Non-fiction within a fiction: documentary feel, bits of evidence that back up earlier suppositions, odd folks who are merely eccentric, not dramatically exaggerated or otherworldy.”
Update, 3/29: Erik Luers passes along a few thoughts from Mokri.
“Gay coming-of-age stories in cinema often lean toward linear odes to the resilience of white men who, if it weren’t for their sexual proclivities, wouldn’t ever have had to deal with lack of privilege,” begins Diego Costa at Slant. “Salvation Army, the directorial debut of acclaimed Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa, and based on his own autobiographical novel, refuses the usual attempts at heroic reparation and redemption associated with the genre. It approaches the subject with the strange and unbearable melancholy that queer boyhood actually involves. It’s a quiet thud of a film, which embraces, with grace and precision, the nastiness of growing up with desire stuck in one’s throat like a muffled scream.”
Jordan Cronk: “Shot by the great Agnès Godard and utilizing but a modicum of stylistic gestures—with unadorned set-ups and precisely demarcated cuts instilling an acute sense of vulnerability in viewer and character alike—Salvation Army moves quickly but carefully between moments of adolescent discovery, a period of development when the briefest of encounters (here of both the intimate and interpersonal variety) can elicit the most lasting impressions.”
“15-year-old Abdellah (Said Mrini) has a mad crush on his apparently oblivious older brother, Slimane (Amine Ennaji),” writes Howard Feinstein. “The film jumps 10 years, by which time Abdellah (now the seductive, slightly androgynous Karim Ait M’hand) has just relocated to Geneva, ostensibly to begin studies at the university but penniless; hence the bed-providing charity of the title.” Abdellah’s “grown-up self is an expressionless mannequin, as cold as ice…. Let’s just say Taia honors the titular organization for its part in a modicum of personal evolution.”
Steven Mears for Film Comment: “Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child [ND/NF] proffers a sterling example of the character lead: Jenny Slate’s Donna, a twentysomething would-be comic and aspiring adult…. SNL alum Slate is too quirky to conform to a traditional mold. With her penchant for unfiltered pronouncements and gesticulating, she’s more in line with a Patsy Kelly or Pert Kelton than, say, a Carole Lombard. The film tracks her journey through getting dumped, losing her job at Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books, becoming pregnant from a one-night stand and deciding to have an abortion on Valentine’s Day, with scatological free-association her preferred coping device.”
At Slant, Steve Macfarlane finds that “as a study in the clash of spoonfed immaturity and frigid reality, it signals clear-eyed compassion, which is usually, in turn, undercut by another poop-and-piss joke from Donna, highlighting that accumulating wisdom is always going to be a messy process.”
Earlier: Reviews from Sundance and Rotterdam.
Update, 3/29: Tiffany Vazquez posts a few thoughts from Robespierre.