AFI Fest 2023
Los Angeles, California • October 25-29, 2023
by Lily and Generoso Fierro
The American Film Institute Festival, the longest-running international film festival in Los Angeles, is brilliantly positioned towards the end of the year. It recently concluded on October 29th, and each year, it has had the unique advantage of premiering films that will stick in the minds of Academy Award voters the following year. But, most importantly for us, it has been in the position to choose strong and intriguing titles from the numerous essential global cinema showcases. For the last nine years, it has been our distinct honor to review the best that AFI Fest has to offer, and this year’s programming provided us with an exceptional array of films again.
AFI Fest 2023 featured an expanded lineup of almost 140 films in numerous categories. There was a ton to watch during the five days at the iconic TCL Chinese Theatre in the center of Hollywood, with everything from Red Carpet premieres to a rich Discovery section that offered an eclectic mix of features from new voices in contemporary cinema to a Luminaries section that gave us the latest offerings from such internationally renowned directors as Aki Kaurismäki and Hong Sang-soo.
A schedule this size, as you could imagine, would cause some conflicts between the choices that we had circled on our programs, and we regret not being able to catch features from Alice Rohrwacher, Bas Devos, and Catherine Breillat. Nevertheless, in the end, we had the privilege of taking in the outstanding latest works from Frederick Wiseman, Angela Schanelec, Radu Jude, and Kleber Mendonça Filho, and we also reveled in two features from emerging filmmakers in the Discovery slate.
Aligning with our viewing patterns of past iterations of AFI Fest, the majority of the movies we saw for our reviews came from the Discovery, Documentary, Luminaries, and World Cinema sections. For this piece, we have chosen the ten movies that we admired the most, beginning with our number one selection from the festival.
Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World / dir. Radu Jude
After the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989, capitalism began to plant its seeds into Romania’s economy. Now, in the 2020s, it’s in full force, and director Radu Jude describes its overwhelming impact on working Romanians through the contrasts in the lives of two characters named Angela in his latest feature, Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World. One Angela (Dorina Lazar) is a taxi driver in Lucian Bratu’s 1981 film, Angela Moves On, and the other (Ilinca Manolache) is a present-day production assistant logging twelve-plus hour days to complete a worker safety video for an Austrian furniture company. Both Angelas drive in and across Bucharest for their work, and both deal with the ugly sides of their occupation and relative point in history. Multiple men assert that Bratu’s Angela is less of a woman because she does a man’s job. Jude’s Angela can barely stay awake at the wheel, despite being occasionally woken by the profanities of male drivers criticizing her driving. Bratu’s Angela falls in love, whereas Jude’s Angela barely can maintain a casual relationship. And, Bratu’s Angela’s work ultimately helps people get from one place to another, while Jude’s Angela’s work will culminate in a slick video that will deflect any corporate responsibility for safety back onto the workers themselves. These two parallel lives form the structure of Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World, and Jude layers many juxtapositions on top of his Angela of today to form an urgent and penetrating view of how a polarized contemporary culture where the image and the word are regularly transformed for profit and survival impacts the individual being. Angela’s lewd and satiric with her TikTok avatar, Bóbita. She is professional and sympathetic as she interviews injured workers to cast in the safety video. She is earnest and righteous when she has to help her mother deal with the loss of the family gravesite. And, she is an intellectual who reads Proust in bed and quotes Goethe as she drives. As the epitome of the complexity of contemporary times, Jude’s Angela embraces as much of the now and the past as she can in the midst of a grinding and hopeless job, and that commitment to multi-dimensionality is admirable, but likely unsustainable at the pace she’s going now and where she’s heading towards in the near future. We spoke with Radu Jude during AFI Fest 2023 about his approach to making Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World, and that conversation is available here on Ink 19.
In Water / dir. Hong Sang-soo
Perhaps Hong Sang-soo’s most somber film to date, In Water seems to tease the audience with its mostly out-of-focus images, but raises serious questions around the purpose of filmmaking and its ability to represent reality. Seoung-mo (Shin Seok-ho) has decided to step into the role of a director after spending his early adult years as an actor. For his debut, he cashes out all of his savings to bring Nam-hee (Kim Seung-yun), an actress friend who will play the lead, and Sang-guk (Ha Seong-guk), a filmmaking colleague who will serve as the cinematographer, to Jeju Island to live, research, and create with him. When Nam-hee and Sang-guk arrive, Seoung-mo admits that the script of the film does not exist, and the three stroll and explore the island as tourists and scouts. During these walks, Hong presents blurred passage ways, roadsides, beaches, and shoreside cliffs, and we settle into the softened, blended edges of the figures and landscapes. In Water represents our visible world in the spirit of Camille Pissarro’s “Cliffs at Petit Dalles” or Paul Cézanne’s “The Bay of Marseille, Seen from L’Estaque” and dares us to look at each scene not as a sum of its individual parts but rather as one complete work where the parts are interlocked and dependent on one another to capture reality in a way that is felt, rather than seen or heard. With such a Post-Impressionistic technique, Hong heightens our senses, and we can better detect and feel Seoung-mo’s confusion, isolation, and sorrow. So, when Seoung-mo’s chance encounter with a woman who voluntarily cleans up garbage thrown onto rocks by tourists on the beach becomes a brief discussion about the intrinsic value she places on her own work, which she knows will go unnoticed, we can instantaneously recognize the gravity of the moment as it relates to Seoung-mo’s struggles to define his own purpose. In turn, when the first-time director decides to re-stage and replicate this interaction in his short film, it takes on a deeper meaning in its repetition and in its connection to the scene he creates to follow it. Incisive, beautiful, and heart-breaking, In Water is a different kind of Hong Sang-soo work, but one that we welcome and hope will serve as a point of further departure in films to come.
Kuolleet lehdet (Fallen Leaves) / dir. Aki Kaurismäki
After years of acknowledging Kaurismäki as an inspiration, director Jim Jarmusch must have been ecstatic to see his film, The Dead Don’t Die, as the first date movie selected by Holappa (Jussi Vatanen) and Ansa (Alma Pöysti), the beleaguered lovers of Fallen Leaves, the immensely satisfying and welcome continuation of the famed Finnish director’s Proletariat Trilogy. In fact, it has been thirty-three years since the release of The Match Factory Girl, the final installment in the trio of films that began with 1986’s Shadows in Paradise and 1988’s Ariel, and with Fallen Leaves, Kaurismäki returns to his ethereal domain of grays and blues, of dead-end jobs and lost blue-collar souls whose only hopes for ascension from their day-to-day lethargy lie in finding the one person who accepts them wholly. With all of the original trilogy’s thematic elements in place, it is only the aforementioned Jarmusch film and radio broadcasts of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine that act as clear present day cultural identifiers in Fallen Leaves, which amplifies the grim truth that decades after his original trilogy, we are still working too hard to get by and to find love while the uncontrollable forces all around bend us to a possible breaking point, leaving few options but to get through our lives the best we can. Such is the dilemma for Holappa and Ansa, who must navigate a series of misfortunes that hamper their chances of being together, from the simple plight of a lost phone number to Holappa’s grave inability to hold down a job or even make it through a quaint romantic dinner due to his drinking problem. As bleak as all of this may sound, these setups provide yet another opportunity for Kaurismäki to once again exercise his singular and iconic mastery of finding humor through exploiting the absurdities inherent in even the darkest of our realities. And as the director continues to heighten the comical within these frail human connections as a juxtaposition of our inability to effectively react to the dire state of the world of today, he finds a new positivity absent in his original trilogy via our ability to rise above these challenges by forming real bonds with one another through a level of compromise and realization that our leaders continue to reject in favor of unharmonious misery.
Musik (Music) / dir. Angela Schanelec
It has only been a year since we lost the talents of the great Jean-Marie Straub, who for over four decades collaborated with Danièle Huillet to create some thirty films that adapted text with an independent method that transformed film language with their preference for the distance of the classical stage over the intimacy of character-driven cinema and the use of music as way to speak more than any form of dialogue. The influence of Straub-Huillet is palpable in Angela Schanelec’s work, particularly in her newest feature, Music, a loose, but affecting adaptation of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. Opting for a fixed camera for much of her film’s narrative, Schanelec’s Music begins with what appears to be a series of seemingly unrelated events. We start off with a view of the surrounding mountains in an unnamed location in Greece and only the sound of the wind. The stillness is broken by thunder just as we see a man carrying a woman across the range. They cry out in agony, announcing a birth. Early the following morning, paramedics find the man on the rocky ground. The woman is no longer visible, and the infant is ultimately found with strange wounds on its ankles. The infant is taken home by one of the paramedics, Elias (Argyris Xafis), and he and his wife, Merope (Marissa Triantafyllidou), become the child’s parents. Cut away to young adulthood and that foundling now appears as Jon (Aliocha Schneider), whose carefree day at the beach takes a turn when he is accosted by a man whom he inadvertently kills when a shove causes the man to fall on a rock. While in prison for this act of manslaughter, Jon encounters Iro, a female guard (Agathe Bonitzer), and when Jon is eventually freed, the couple fall in love and start a family. They eventually head back to Jon’s parents’ house, where the last bits of this tragedy transpire.
The challenge with Schanelec’s arrangement of Music is the elliptical technique she uses throughout, which constantly leaves the viewer with the impression that there are some unseen forces (perhaps the original gods of Greek tragedy?) at play, but as we start to detect them, the scene shifts and emits ambiguity into the next. Adding to the enigmatic feel of Music, Schanelec’s actors also maintain a stoicism that turns any desire to identify with their characters into a need to simply observe them. In its opacity, Music excels at contemplating fate on a scale beyond the individual, who, after all, is often powerless against it anyway. And unlike Sophocles’s adaptation of the myth, the protagonist in this version is not made aware of the tragedy in which he’s the lead. He will never understand his wife’s death, but music, as one of the oldest art forms and one of the only channels for the characters in Schanelec’s film to emote anything, can help him connect to her and, most importantly, whatever may be far beyond the realm of his and our own perception.
Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros / dir. Frederick Wiseman
We live in fast times where years of dedication to a craft are often judged by a few phrases on some online platform, a photo, or a 30-second video. With such condensed, superficial judgments, we’ve lost our appreciation for detail and for the benefits of additional care and time, and this is particularly true in the world of food, where social media has made people more informed about cuisine without any real, practical understanding of how dishes are made from end to end. This is why Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros is not just about food, but rather about the respect for history, artistry, awareness, and diligence in achieving at an exemplary level now and for any extended period of time. The Troisgrois family forms the nucleus of Wiseman’s film. Michel, the patriarch, is a third generation chef of exceptional and accomplished lineage, and his sons, César and Leo, have remained in the family craft and business. The Troisgrois family’s namesake restaurant earned its first Michelin star in 1955 and has retained three Michelin stars since 1968, and today, father and sons work together to continue to celebrate their family’s history while incorporating new and sustainable tastes and techniques. This balance between past, present, and future weaves throughout every moment of the family’s day in operating the Troisgrois signature restaurant and its sister, La Colline du Colombier, and Frederick Wiseman gives us a front seat (and four hours of time) to observe how this balance is represented in each decision made and each action taken as Michel, César, and Leo prepare for a day of service (both in the kitchen and in the front-of-house), select ingredients based on how they are cultivated and/or processed, and execute the orders as they flood in during lunch and dinner. The level of attention dedicated to the minutiae of operating the family’s restaurants is astonishing and inspiring, and Wiseman’s screen allowances for these intricate operational and artistic details beg us not to forget the importance of every minute, individually and as they accumulate into days, months, and years to form a legacy of excellence that can transcend time itself.
Retratos Fantasmas (Pictures of Ghosts) / dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho
Back in 2019, directors Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s expertly realized feature, Bacurau, was an AFI Fest favorite of ours that also ranked high on our best of list for that year. The setup of that film had a young woman named Teresa returning to the titular village, a town in the Brazilian sertão, on the occasion of the passing of its matriarch, her grandmother Carmelita. After Carmelita’s funeral, we begin to see an amalgam of bizarre events and a western invasion of sorts that leads to that community’s potential disappearance off the map, which serves as metaphor for the adverse effects of exoticization by culturally invasive ethnographic documentarians. As we begin Kleber Mendonça Filho’s documentary, Pictures of Ghosts, our director returns to his hometown of Recife and to his family home where his late historian mother, Joselice Jucá, provided both the emotional and physical environments where his appreciation of cinema and his desire to create within the medium was born. Serving as the defacto set for many of his earliest experimentations as a filmmaker, Filho guides us through the rooms of his now emptied home as he shows the scenes from his films that align that space with his cultivation as a cineaste. The film then expands out of Filho’s home and into his youthful memories of a section of downtown Recife as he recounts the story of how that area’s once thriving cinema and arts scene was progressively homogenized into a tourist attraction for the likes of affluent foreigners prior to arriving at its current semi-vacant state. We visit the once majestic movie palaces of Recife, some abandoned, some turned into shops and Evangelical temples, and are also introduced through archival footage to the late Mr. Alexandre, a longtime projectionist from the Art Palácio cinema where Filho once worked, who speaks of the demands placed upon him by governmental censors employed by the dictatorship in power during the 1990s. As the images and sounds of vacated spaces and people who have long passed invoke memories within Filho of a cinematic past that are now a distant memory, he moves us into the final third to show a ray of hope in Recife’s one remaining palace, the Cinema São Luiz, where current generations enthusiastically fill up the theater to build their own personal cinematic history today. Unlike Filho and Dornelles’ Bacarau which uses the action genre to forcefully confront the external forces of change that redefine a place, Pictures of Ghosts beautifully marries the physical edifices where we experience and create art with the mystical properties that will always remain due to the people who labored to give these spaces their intrinsic power and the community that preserves and builds upon those spirits.
In Our Day / dir. Hong Sang-soo
Our second Hong Sang-soo film of the year, In Our Day, comfortably tucks in longtime fans of the director’s work into his typical rhythm of conversations straddling the awkward and the lucid, closed spaces with zoom-ins on semi-connected objects or actions, and outbursts fueled by an undercurrent exposed or too much alcohol (or sometimes both) while exploring similar questions and crises around artistic purpose as his other more melancholic work from this year, In Water. In Our Day splits its focus on a single day for two artists: Sang-won (Kim Min-hee), a former actress, and Ui-ju (Ki Joo-bong), a poet. Sang-won has returned after deciding on a career change and studying abroad, and she’s staying with her longtime friend Jang-soo (Song Sun-mi) as she settles back into life in Korea. Ui-ju is in failing health, but obliges a film student’s request to be her documentary subject, so the student (Kim Seung-yun) follows and records the poet’s daily life in his modest apartment. A third participant arrives in both artists’ day seeking creative advice — Sang-won’s cousin who wants to become an actress and a young actor inspired by the writings of Ui-ju — prompting discussions about their respective approaches to their artform while also underscoring how their awareness of their surroundings and themselves have shaped their lives and work. Interspersed between conversations and moments of Ui-ju’s and Sang-won’s day, Hong includes title cards with third person omniscient descriptions of the poet’s and the actress’s internal states, and as the film proceeds, we see echoes of Ui-ju and Sang-won in each other’s words and thoughts, forming connections by coincidence or by familial ties left unsaid. In Our Day looks at artistic lives from two separate perspectives and disciplines, but arrives at an elegy to past mistakes and an appreciation for self-honesty in the immediate now.
Die Theorie von Allem (The Universal Theory) / dir. Timm Kröger
Though titled in English as The Universal Theory, Timm Kröger’s film has the original title of Die Theorie von Allem, which translates directly to “The Theory of Everything,” referring to the famous, elusive theory that seeks a way to connect everything in the universe. However, The Theory of Everything is also the title of the 2014 biopic of Stephen Hawking, so the title alteration was certainly necessary to attempt to differentiate Kröger’s fantastical approach to the life-altering discovery of a doctoral candidate named Johannes Leinert (Jan Bülow) away from the life and work of the famed British theoretical physicist. The Universal Theory opens with Johannes’s departure from his family home to attend a conference in the Swiss Alps with his doctoral advisor, Dr. Julius Strathen (Hanns Zischler). On the train ride, Dr. Strathen dismisses Johannes’s current thesis subject and proofs in search of the theory of everything and encourages him to focus on more quantifiable phenomena in order to complete his PhD studies successfully. But, a run in with Dr. Strathen’s maligned colleague Professor Blumberg (Gottfried Breitfuss) offers Johannes some hope that his work is not only intellectually valuable, but also that it captures something possible. When Johannes arrives at the Alps, everything seemingly falls apart: the conference’s featured speaker does not show up; he becomes fixated on Karin (Olivia Ross), a woman whom he recognizes in a church and later in the hotel ballroom; a mysterious illness spreads throughout the conference attendees, and, Professor Blumberg is found dead and then encountered alive again. Johannes follows Katrin and other shadowy figures to try to understand what’s happening and soon uncovers a place where the current time intersects with an infinite number of parallel timelines. As with Ken Russell’s Altered States, The Universal Theory uses love as a guide and motivator through space and time, so even though ideas from theoretical physics construct the setting of Kröger’s film, its protagonist remains grounded in a primordial, human concept that can consume and redirect any scientific pursuit and lead to experiences beyond equations and even our current definitions of reality.
Sèr sèr salkhi (City of Wind) / dir. Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir
Drawing from her earlier award-winning short films, Mountain Cat and Snow in September, director Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir creates an assured debut feature with City of Wind, a bildungsroman that carefully examines the juxtaposition between the identity of place and tradition against the powers of modernity. At the film’s center is 17-year-old Ze (Tergel Bold-Erdene), who is not your typical Ulaanbaatarian high schooler. While his classmates indulge in the media and vernacular of most contemporary American teens, Ze carries himself as a dedicated and somber student who, when he is not matriculating, supports his community as his rural town’s grandfather-spirit, a shaman who has the gift of connecting with ancestral spirits that can guide and protect those he engages with through ritual. One day, Ze is tasked with providing a spiritual connection to Maralaa (Nomin-Erdene Ariunbyamba), an angst-ridden teen whose mother wants a shaman to bless before she undergoes major heart surgery. Ze obliges the family’s request and performs his duty, but once completed, he is immediately called out by Maralaa as an avarice-driven fraud. This stark emotional confrontation pulls Ze out of his spiritual mindset and into a secular one, which compels him to seek out Maralaa after surgery. The teens develop a friendship that eventually leads to a romance, and their pairing will force Ze to question his path, which has been actively and passively defined by his family, teachers, and the community around him. Ze and Maralaa’s surroundings include a wide array of relics, old and new: distant mountain ranges, glass and steel high rises and nightclubs, dilapidated Soviet housing, and posh department stores in a sterile city mall. And, the diversity of these places that coexist in Ulaanbaatar today, along with the local traditional and contemporary music, reflect the various parts of Ze’s and Maralaa’s individual existences. These conflicting aspects of their lives that the protagonists have to carefully balance eloquently depict the dynamic terrain of a contemporary Mongolia being pulled between its historical traditions and its current Western/capitalist aspirations. Much of the strength of City of Wind lies in the naturalistic performances of Ariunbyamba and Bold-Erdene, which enable you to empathize fully with the conflicting expectations and trends that teens in Mongolia and around the world are faced with everyday. We spoke with Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir during AFI Fest 2023 about her approach to making City of Wind, and that conversation will soon be available here on Ink 19.
Dispararon al pianista (They Shot the Piano Player) / dirs. Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba
In their first joint directorial effort since the Goya-winning film Chico and Rita, Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba have once again produced an aesthetically gorgeous animation that deftly blends jazz with the social and political tensions of the time. Constructed as a hybrid-documentary, They Shot the Piano Player follows New York journalist Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), who deviates from his original desire to write a book encapsulating the broad history of the Bossa Nova when he stumbles upon the story of the young but masterful pianist Francisco Tenório Júnior, who “disappeared” while on tour in Argentina in 1976. This chance discovery compels Harris to travel back and forth from South America to speak with Tenório Júnior’s family and fellow musicians as his fascination with the pianist’s profound influence on the emerging Bossa Nova craze and potentially tragic fate becomes nearly obsessional. As a result, Harris obtains oral histories that not only paint a clear picture of Tenório Júnior the man, but also the artist, aiding in our understanding of his creative journey through extended musical performance scenes that joyously culminate in some of the most breathtaking visual sequences in the film. However, in contrast to these blissful moments that showcase Tenório Júnior’s enormous gifts, we follow Harris as he uncovers the treacherous political situations of South America during the 1960s, particularly in Argentina under the dictatorship of Isabelita Perón, who led a repressive regime that was supported by the United States and was notorious for rounding up innocent people for torture and assassination, and unfortunately, amongst that regime’s victims was the apolitical Tenório Júnior. They Shot the Piano Player, which was originally envisioned as a pure documentary fifteen years ago by Trueba, who started interviewing everyone who knew and loved Tenório Júnior, thrives in its docu-fiction animated form, offering the viewer moments of pure beauty that a traditional documentary structure would otherwise tone down through a more subdued, clinical approach. The movie also succeeds because of Trueba’s avatar Harris, who shares our joy upon realizing Tenório Júnior’s brilliance and our sorrow upon learning that this once-in-a-generation talent was extinguished at a young age for no discernible reason.
All films were screened at AFI Fest 2023. Many thanks and congratulations to the staff and volunteers of AFI Fest for another excellent year of cinema and conversations, and a special thanks to Johanna Calderón-Dakin, Senior Publicity Associate for AFI Fest, who made coverage possible. ◼
Featured photo courtesy of Rodin Eckenroth / AFI