Latin American Cinema
More Essays by Ela Bittencourt
Mar del Plata International Film Festival is the culmination of what I think we can say has been a good year for indie women directors, despite it being overall an impossibly difficult year, with so many films not getting wider recognition due to cinemas being shut. Nevertheless, there are films by women to celebrate, and perhaps some of the most visible among them are coming from American filmmakers. First, there was the Sundance Film Festival, with the premieres of women directors Josephine Decker’s Shirley, Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (I wrote about both films from the festival, for MUBI Notebook). Both films then traveled to the Berlin Film Festival, and onward. Then, of course, this has been a great year for Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, as recognition for her film has been growing steadily, after also screening at the Berlin Film Festival (where some critics favored it to win Best Director; that prize ultimately went to Hong Sang-soo for the playful Woman Who Ran). In the fall, the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF) unrolled its online and in-person programs, and it too featured a good number of notable films from first-comers, women among them. Perhaps the most notoriously fun was Emma Seligman’s dynamic satire Shiva Baby (there’s a review of it, along with Malgorzata Szumowska’s Never Gonna Snow Again, on this site, as we reported from the festival). Seligman’s film is yet to travel more widely, but Szumowska is yet another case of a woman director steadily gaining more recognition, particularly in Europe. Also at TIFF, there was Suzanne Lindon’s debut, Spring Blossom, about a young girl’s infatuation with an adult — a tale of unusual courtship that’s based on so much on an actual desire to seal the relationship in a sexual union as a fantasy that allows a quiet, silent girl propel herself into more aware early womanhood. Wistful, funny in places, and wonderfully acted by Lindon as the girl, Arnaud Valois as the actor, and particularly Frédéric Pierrot as the attentive, tender father, it’s one of the year’s films that one hopes will make its way to streaming.
The year is wrapping up in many ways with the Mar del Plata International Film Festival, which for years now has been both an opportunity for the Latin American audiences to glean some of the most exciting European debuts, and to make occasional discoveries in what’s latest in American indie cinema. It’s perhaps no surprise then — but certainly a delight — to see both women, Seligman with Shiva Baby and Lindon with Spring Blossom in the International Competition. The slate also picked up another American indie title: Jessie Barr’s Sophie Jones, about a young woman, Sophie (Jessica Barr who’s Jessie Barr’s cousin, and co-wrote the film), struggling to come to terms with her mother’s death. Similarly to Seligman’s Shiva Baby, it’s a film that gives its heroine ample license to behave badly, with crisp dialogues that capture the awkwardness of adolescence, and with the prickly sense of someone’s inner compass having gone terribly wrong, yet without moralistic undertones. Both Shiva Baby and Sophie Jones — though it’s also definitely the case for Hittman’s adolescent drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always — lean hugely on their main actresses’ ability to take us on for the ride, and to sustain both momentum and tension. In this case, Jessica Barr is simply perfect: she can be pouty faced and vulnerable, but is also flinty, at times, sometimes taciturn, even cruel. The credit here also goes to both Barrs for crafting this incessantly ebb-and-flow narrative in such a way that it never coalesces as simply a story about grief, or one that links mourning and bad behavior in an overly determined way. Instead, Sophie’s presented as a mystery that’s unraveling; she’s a constant discovery, even or perhaps, first and foremost, to herself. Scott Miller’s cinematography stays close to the protagonists, capturing the subtle shadowing of emotions, with sometimes softer, more lyrical touches that make Sophie’s world appear as sweet as it is agonizing.
The Mar del Plata International Film Festival took place in Argentina from November 21 to 29.