“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” – the line spoken by Marcellus in Shakespeare’s celebrated 1603 play Hamlet, as he surveys the chaos, corruption and commotion at the heart of state – might have been at the forefront of the minds of the Spanish and Latin American directors whose works feature in this year’s festival.
These films are rooted in a disembodied world, a society in violent flux, with individuals confronting loss and/or guilt. They capture the sense of an ecosphere – whether private or public – that’s profoundly ‘out of joint’ (to steal another line from Hamlet). These films may, with the exception of Pedro Almodóvar’s The Human Voice, have been filmed pre-COVID, but they eerily capture the zeitgeist of a year when containment and revolt have confronted an unjust and profoundly unequal body politic.
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The inequities of societies built on polar extremes of wealth are brutally exposed in both Francisco Márquez’s eerie psychological thriller A Common Crime (Un crimen común) and Michel Franco’s dystopian allegory New Order (Nuevo orden).
In the former, an economics lecturer (the compelling Elisa Carricajo) is haunted by a crime she was in a position to prevent. Márquez reworks the psychological thriller to offer a blistering critique of a society where denial is a way of life. In the latter, an uprising on the streets of Mexico City invades a society wedding with terrifying consequences.
These are both searingly political films. The contemporary Buenos Aires landscape of A Common Crime has chilling echoes of the disappeared of Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship where to scratch at the surface reveals a series of crimes bubbling beneath. The exploding carnage of New Order is a horrific manifestation of a world where bribes and illicit deals are a way of life, protecting the interests of those determined to preserve their privilege at all costs. Márquez’s film has a calm, cool exterior; Franco’s unleashes a savagery of epic proportions. These are films that urge the viewer to sit up, take note and move towards change.
Like A Common Crime, Natalie Meta’s The Intruder (El prófugo) is another Argentine film that revolves around what it means to live with ghosts. Erica Rivas – the deranged bride from Wild Tales (2014) – plays Inés, a soprano and dubbing actor, who experiences problems with her voice following a traumatic holiday with her partner. When a veteran actress with a steely stare diagnoses that intruders have taken control of her vocal chords, Inés tries to expel them through a range of ever more bizarre experiments.
Lucrecia Martel’s regular sound designer Guido Berenblum expertly creates the sense of a paranormal world where the troubled Inés cannot easily shake off the spectres she carries with her. The theme of how we come to terms with the legacy of the past and make reparations has rarely seemed more relevant.
All these films, crucially, have women at the centre of the narrative – from the kindly Marianne in New Order to the grieving mother Magdalena in Fernanda Valadez’s Identifying Features (Sin señas particulares), desperately seeking information on what happened to her son who left their rural Mexican home for a new life in the USA. Franco provides an ‘in-yer-face’ rage in New Order while Valadez opts for a quiet minimalism, as her camera follows the persistent Magdalena on a journey where the horrors of forced disappearance, abuse and murder, all remain murkily in the distance. If Franco’s New Order gives us an open battleground, Identifying Features relies on suggestion and mystery. Both allude to the devastation wrought by the drug cartels (and the authorities that protect them) on the most vulnerable elements of Mexico’s civilian population.
Making his English-language debut, Almodóvar returns to Cocteau’s The Human Voice, a play referenced in both Law of Desire (1987) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), which has loss, desperation and pain at its core. Life is a waiting game for Tilda Swinton’s unnamed woman as she anticipates the call of an ex-lover, pacing and prowling around a gorgeous designer apartment that becomes its own kind of prison.
Almodóvar may have planned the film before COVID-19 struck – its filming was postponed from April to July following the imposition of lockdown in Madrid – but it resonates, as a space where isolation has to be negotiated and managed, where the past is mourned and where the need to adapt becomes the name of the game.
He creates moments where, as viewers, we are able to step out of this doll’s house, while at others we are positioned firmly in the apartment alongside Swinton, sharing her disorientation and frustration as the home she once shared, where love letters are safely stored in a stylish Chanel bag, becomes a shell bereft of the companionship and love she now craves. The Human Voice allows the art works in the home – from Artemisia Gentileschi’s Venus and Cupid (c.1626) to Alberto Vargas’s Memories of Olive (1920) – to slyly comment on the shifting sentiments of the film’s protagonist.
Indeed, art, as all these films demonstrate, becomes a way of articulating both the tangible and the intangible, that which is sensed and feared as much as that which is experienced. The emotional landscape of our times is laid bare in A Common Crime, New Order, The Intruder, Identifying Features and The Human Voice, and it makes for deeply resonant cinema that isn’t afraid to ask searching questions.
Originally published: 1 October 2020