At a time of international pandemic, accelerating climate change, mass public protest frequently escalating into tragic violence, manufactured disinformation and ‘culture wars’ designed to further entrench divisions and political polarisation, it can be tempting to view films as a straightforward means of escapism. Who after all, at this time, wants to be reminded of the worst of the world by cinema?

Films of every genre that affirm our belief in basic human decency, romance and optimism – not to mention the power of representation and the possibility of progress and harmony – can be a remarkable tonic in these dark times. And I should stress that the 2020 LFF line-up is not short of these. 

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However, as always, but perhaps especially now, there is a different kind of progressive catharsis to be found in cinema that shifts its focus onto the darker, more unseemly side of human nature and the world at large. Whether exposing us to a structuring absence of empathy, optimism or good will or confronting us with the radical shock of feeling strong emotions like fear, disgust and powerlessness, a selection of violent, disturbing and extreme films rightly feature in this year’s programme to healthily shake us up.

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New Order (2020)

In Michel Franco’s Venice jury prize-winning New Order, we’re confronted with a violently nihilistic dystopia in which a nameless city descends into hell as the poor rise up to murder and loot from the rich. It’s a film full of images familiar from the contemporary world, in which the bedlam of uprising quickly morphs into chaotically organised cruelty, mass extortion, rape and murder. But this is not so much a reactionary nightmare of what the world would look like after order breaks down. Rather it’s an expression of retort, of logical consequence to the film’s early scenes in which the decadent ruling classes go about celebrating a lavish wedding, entirely oblivious to the plight of the destitute outside and their own impending doom.

Echoing the formal rigour and minimalism of his earlier films (After Lucia, 2012; Chronic, 2015), Franco’s camera, slightly more mobile and frenetic this time, still remains the neutral, almost sarcastic observer of the enormous cruelty unfolding. We’re dared to look away from prolonged scenes of sadism and despair, the film imploring us to think of alternatives to the status quo

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Notturno (2020)

Franco’s bleak, angry vision finds its interesting real-world mirror in Gianfranco Rosi’s heartbreaking documentary Notturno in which the acclaimed documentarian observes a handful of real lives lived on the frontlines of the worst recent conflicts in the Middle East, along the borders of Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Lebanon. This beautifully assembled film, visually similar to Rosi’s last effort, Golden Bear winner Fire at Sea (2016), is composed of striking, frequently static compositions situating its human subjects against the backdrop of beautiful landscapes, bombed out urban sprawl and ancient buildings.

At times it’s the toughest of viewing experiences, as we hear from the survivors of Isis terror, young and old, as they graphically describe memories of their traumas, and reckon with their own uncertain future. It’s a harrowing but necessary watch. If Michel Franco’s film imagines a descent into bloodthirsty madness and brutality on a mass scale, then Rosi’s film explores what might be left for the survivors in the aftermath of exactly such a conflict.  

While these two films take their socio-political commentary to a large scale, looking for the roots of cruelty in a kind of collective delusion, two vital films elsewhere in the line-up turn more inward, locating hypocrisy and horror within the claustrophobically contained unit of that age old bastion of harmony and love, the nuclear family.

In the D’Innocenzo brothers’ profoundly unnerving, disturbing and frequently hilarious film Bad Tales, an Italian suburb full of young families is examined in brutal detail. In almost hyper-Lynchian, exaggerated fashion, the individual perversions, desires and cruelties of these people, parents and children alike, are slowly exposed. It’s a film full of shocking tableaux, scenes taken to disturbing extremes and an acute feel for the casual cruelty of everyday life.

 

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Bad Tales (2020)

A film this bleak, this cynical and this funny demands to be viewed, albeit at times through the fingers. And if we need a reminder of where so much social cruelty and hypocrisy in the world comes from, here’s a film that reminds us the family is where it all begins.

Natalie Erika James’ striking horror debut Relic appears – at least at first – to share this same unsentimental perspective on the hell of family and parenthood. When her elderly mother disappears, Kay (Emily Mortimer) is forced reluctantly to return to her broken down childhood home in the countryside, her own sullen daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) in tow. Once all 3 women are reunited, it becomes obvious that a demonic presence haunts the house, endangering them all.

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Relic (2020)

It remains unclear almost until the film’s end whether the discord, disharmony and resentment that exists between these women finds its expression in the form of this malevolent presence, or whether it is in fact the key to their reuniting. It’s this that provides the film’s real novelty, beyond its impeccable, expertly handled twists on terrifying genre tropes and handling of tension, atmosphere and mood. 

Such refreshing ambiguity gels with the film’s unusually frank handling of the issue of elderly dementia and the toll it takes on sufferers and their carers alike. Here is a horror film that situates its terrors as much within the mandatory duties prescribed by the closed off unit of the family as it does in its inevitable flirtations with the supernatural. It can be an unusually uncomfortable watch, but one which pays off spectacularly in a moving conclusion, quite far removed from Bad Tales’ despair and cynicism.  

Finally, one of the year’s most shockingly brutal, queasy and edgy exercises in on-screen extremity and genre panache is to be found in Brandon Cronenberg’s deliriously violent sci-fi Possessor, which utilises on-screen brutality to more entertaining ends. 

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Possessor (2020)

The less known about the film’s twists and turns going in the better. Suffice it to say that the film’s many pleasures lie in the melding of Philip K. Dick-esque high-concept paranoia with extremely stylish production design, terrifically deadpan performances and a thematically rich exploration of bodily control and surveillance. But perhaps what is truly subversive about the film is its ultimate take on its protagonist and her motivations. It’s a film with questions that are hard to shake off: what exactly is the lead character becoming and are we ready to accept it?

All these titles in different ways may act as a counter to escapism and a rude prompt out of apathy into thought and action. The surface negativity of their content conceals a positive outcome in their potential to provoke, to challenge and to alter perceptions and ideas. What, after all, is the purpose of cinema if not to challenge rather than affirm our world views and preconceptions? 

Originally published: 19 September 2020