New Order

(Nuevo orden) Michel Franco, Mexico/France

The most powerful and confrontational work in competition, Michel Franco’s Grand Jury Prize winner marks an intense change of register for the Mexican director of After Lucia (2012 – see our Cannes review) and Chronic (2015).

Following a brief, telegraphic opening montage of enigmatic images, the narrative begins at a high society wedding. It then goes on to unleash a series of dramatic shocks, imagining first the beginnings of a revolution by Mexico’s have-nots, then its brutal repression – and the release of dangerous powers in the hands of authorities who become increasingly indistinguishable from criminals. Executed with a ruthless steeliness worthy of Michael Haneke, the film refuses to focus on individual sympathetic characters whose presence might reassure us – in fact, it shows one compassionate but naive figure heading towards a brutal fate that seems inexorable.

It will be fascinating to see how this highly ambivalent film is received, not least in Mexico. Should it be read as an expression of bourgeois anxiety about the end of social certainties; as a forecast of turmoil that could erupt at any time (in Mexico or indeed in any capitalist culture); or as a satirically-inflected dystopian nightmare à la J.G. Ballard? Whichever angle you approach it from, this scarily intense work is indisputably, quintessentially a film of the traumatic year 2020.

The Third War

(La triusième guerre) Giovanni Aloi, France

Somewhat overlooked in the festival, this striking drama acutely catches the nervous pulse of Paris in the post-Bataclan era. In this taut, insightful drama about surveillance and authority, compelling up-and-comer Anthony Bajon plays Léo, a young soldier assigned to a security operation, patrolling the Paris streets on the lookout for signs of terrorist activity. But watching his squad on the streets and off duty, we begin to understand the precariously suppressed turmoil behind the army’s strict façade.

This sharply written drama is driven by superb casting, including Karim Leklou as Léo’s nervy, self-deluding comrade and Leila Bekhti on top form as the squad’s sergeant.

City Hall

Frederick Wiseman, USA

Now 90, Frederick Wiseman shows no sign of slowing down, or of his acutely patient and far-sighted curiosity in any way dimming. His latest documentary is a study of the administrative organisation of Boston, but expands to take in seemingly every facet of the city, from animal shelters and waste disposal to veterans’ meetings and celebrations for the Red Sox baseball team. At the centre of it stands Democratic mayor Marty Walsh, as much a listener as a speaker, a firm believer in community and diversity whose quiet authority and compassion stand in sharp contradistinction to the inhumanity of the Trump regime.

The World to Come

Mona Fastvold, USA

Two women, played by Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby, fall in love in a harsh rural landscape in 19th-century America. Written by Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen, Mona Fastvold’s delicate drama is cinema in a very classic vein – severe and detached, all the better to highlight the rapture – occupying a stylistic register somewhere between Kelly Reichardt’s period films and the austerely emotional dramas of Terence Davies. But it proves innovative in its emphasis on the primacy of thought and writing, with Waterstone’s Abigail narrating in voiceover from her elegantly phrased diary, while Daniel Blumberg’s woodwind-steeped score strikes some memorably improv-inflected notes.

Nomadland

Chloe Zhao, USA

Chloe Zhao’s Golden Lion winner, her follow-up to The Rider (2017), again merges fiction and documentary. In a story based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book, Frances McDormand plays a Nevada woman who joins the masses of American nomads – the new dispossessed who migrate in mobile homes, eking out a living from job to job. Alongside McDormand and David Strathairn are a host of non-professionals, including Bob Wells, a guru of contemporary American nomadism. McDormand is endlessly watchable in a very open, generous performance where, with the least rhetoric, it’s clear that she’s channeling the contemporary experience of multitudes. A sober, moving film about isolation and community.

The Disciple

Chaiyatra Tamhane, India

The director of the acclaimed Court (2014) won a FIPRESCI prize with this mature, searching drama. Real-life musician Aditya Modak plays a young man striving to attain his teachers’ artistic and spiritual standards as he pursues a career performing classical ragas. The film seems to embody Indian cinema in the contemplative tradition of Satjayit Ray or Mani Kaul, but also makes room for the lurid realities of Indian TV talent shows. The hero’s lonely nocturnal scooter rides make a mesmerising visual thread, and his quest for the ideal in a commercial world makes the film as much a statement about cinema as about music.

Originally published: 15 September 2020