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Rotterdam 2004, The Trainee Project:
Bodies: Rest And Motion
By Paolo Bertolin

While the diversity and variety of filmmaking styles and directors' diverging stances towards narrative and camerawork is not in question, still, in many of the films that stroke me the most in Rotterdam, either in positive or negative terms, a recurring, though differently declined presence keeps on returning to my mind: human body. Bodies as, of course, objects of desire — desire of some characters, pulling the strings of narrative, or desire of the filmmaker that transpires through his/her shootings; bodies as ordinary physical presences, vehicles of warm and pulsating life or cold and rigid mementos of a life that's gone, as in the state of cadavers; bodies as divine blessings, when filled with beauty and health, or as terrible curses, when ugly and/or crippled; bodies as doubles or stand-ins for the filmmaker's crystallized thesis and theorems; finally, bodies of actors, undying source of vital energy and inspiration in filmmaking.

Bodies in motion, first. As in Jan Krüger's Unterwegs, one of the most accomplished and intriguing entries of the VPRO Tiger Awards Competition and a sensual score for three, played on the strings of two male and one female bodies. Role play and game of desire tensely innervate a road movie, in which the most relevant displacements are not those across space and landscape, but instead the never explicitly uttered switches in sexual attraction, as well as the filmmaker's sensuous ways of filming bodies in a constant and menacingly fascinated proximity. Or as in Lukasz Barczyk's Changes, where an unstoppable tsunami waves over the placid seashore made of lies and make-believe entangling a four-women-and-one-man family, as a vigorous and sensual male body checks in their country mansion. Death, sex and radical confrontations, filmed with a mature visual talent, often in impressively stretched and emotionally charged one-shot sequences, are the sole possible answers to the ruptures brought by this Pasolinian alien.

Bodies that move in the perennial struggle for making a living or finding happiness through love or, in case, through sex as a transitory panacea for loneliness, in the works of two young Austrian femme-directors, Ruth Mader's Struggle and Barbara Albert's Free Radicals: the former, conceived as a radical two-segments clinical dissection, offers a bleak portrait of contemporary human life and relationships, neat and precise as a theorem; the latter, though more conventionally structured as a choral picture of intertwined destinies, presents a quite convincing demonstration of how sufferance, love and instinct for life circulate from one body to another.

Bodies in rest, trapped in frigid cinematic prisons, blocked on steep stairs to nowhere, in films that castrate and inhibit the pulsating of flesh. Perfect example of this specimen is Catherine Breillat's devastating failure Anatomie de l'Enfer, where bodies are used as lifeless simulacra, pawns of a chess play where everything is already set before of actually starting the game. Too much in love with her own writing, redundantly read trough flute-like voice over by elle-même, and with filling mouths with literary-resounding and infinitely-ridiculous stone-definitive statements, Madame Breillat never concerns about insufflating life and blood into her characters. Thus, their marble-like roundedness and static proves fragile and vulnerable as plaster: the mouse wandering through the deserted room where the protagonists' meetings have taken place looks less out-of-place than porn icon Rocco Siffredi in pronouncing Breillat's preposterous lines.

Bodies used as mere means for teaching a hypocrite lesson in moral, as by Finnish Jukka-Pekka Siili in Young Gods. "Don't play with fire!" — the director seems to warn, while with judging distance he employs young bodies in a most predictable and stupid storyline that unmasks his de-humanizing and insincere pornography. Glittering wax-statues populate instead corridors, classes and students' flats of Robert Salis' incongruously cheap Grande École, moth-balls-preserved bodies escaped right out from old Pierre et Gilles clichés or Abercrombie and Fitch ads. Bodies imprisoned into deliberate and slim cinematic-concepts, like in Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern's Aaltra, where the defy to politically correct moderately stops at the choice of wheel-chaired protagonists, never pushes the accelerator of transgression and madness, preferring the quiet pattern of more standardized emploi des corps. Or just like in Lee Kang-sheng's The Missing, where, soon after an impressively protracted and suffocating shot involving a granny looking for her lost grandson, the Tsai Ming-liangesque magic abruptly dissolves and Lee's bodies begin to feel like zombiefied clones mimicking a mannerist dance.

Luckily, some Asian films have powerfully demonstrated that human body can be a critical battlefield, where the fight for individual identity still wages on. Japanese Yutaka Tsuchiya, through the multi-faceted Peep 'TV' Show, a complex meditation over the blurring boundaries between reality and virtual and the post-9/11 aftermaths, shows how self-mutilation and peculiar dressing-styles are no more than one of the multiple aspects of an ongoing process of loss of grasp on reality and self-definition. Chinese Diao Yinan's subtly polemical Uniform reveals how the posture and behaviour of a body might change through new clothing, as a shy and introverted tailor becomes an arrogant and bribe-taking fake neighbourhood cop, when he starts wearing an abandoned uniform. Sri Lanka's Satyajit Maitipe has instead bravely taken a woman's POV in frankly depicting sexual desire and in following a painful path through sin and redemption in his compelling melodrama Scent of the Lotus Pond.

Finally, the quintessential body of cinema: the body of the actor. An outstanding performance by Pietro Sibille is substantial to the accomplishment of Josué Méndez's Días de Santiago, a stunningly vivid Peruvian reworking of themes and style of American films dealing with the post-Vietnam trauma, relocated and translated to the altitudes of Lima. Always playing on the verge between retention and sudden fits of anger, Sibille gives body to the memorable portrait of a young war veteran parted between a frustrated desire of integration and the primal instinct for violence. Equally, the charming humour and surreal mood of Dito Tsintsadze’s pleasantly destabilizing Schussangst seem to irradiate from the lanky and slim body of its virgin-pure lead Fabian Hinrichs. But in every respect the most spectacular contribution of the body of an actor to the essence of a film comes from Virumaandi by and with Indian superstar Kamal Hassan. Politically committed yet unrestrainedly contagious entertainment, Virumaandi is literally brought to life by the vigorous and fearless bravura of Hassan, in wonderfully achieved imbrications of author, actor and character that provide the most prominent example of how a film could become an extension of its author's body.

Paolo Bertolin



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