Friday, August 16, 2013

Lions – Jazmín López and Meteora – Spiros Stathoulopoulos

Lions (Leones) (Jazmín López – Argentina/France/Netherlands) 82 minutes

Meteora (Spiros Stathoulopoulos – Germany/Greece) 82 minutes

Young Argentine director Jazmín López’s debut film is an elliptical exploration of youthful grief that manages to be both slight and weighty at the one time. Five young rich kids from Buenos Aires embark on a day trip to the country where they appear to be looking for the holiday home belonging to the family of one of them. There is a brother and sister – the nervy, and possibly autistic, Arturo (Pablo Sigal) and Sofi (Macarena del Corro) – Sofi’s boyfriend Félix (Tomás Mackinlay), Niki (Diego Vegezzi) who goes around recording all the sound within his earshot, and Isa (Julia Volpato), who has recently lost her brother in a car crash in which at least one or two of the party may have been also involved.

Lions is a meandering film in which the quintet wander through the lush greenery, telling each other inconsequential jokes and anecdotes, playing games (one is the ‘Hemingway game’, that variation on the six-word short story) and being revisited by the fatal car crash that claimed the life of Isa’s brother. There is no real plot to speak of – what recognisable narrative elements there are drift in and out like the sounds and noises on Niki’s dictaphone. Occasionally López introduces a trope that suggests some drama might be around the corner, like when the edgy Arturo steals a pistol from a tractor they come across, but there is Chekovian pay-off to be had.

The film ends with something resembling a narrative conclusion but an ambiguous close is as near a concession to convention that López makes. Her free-wheeling narrative will madden many (and, to be fair, it does at times have the feel of a student film about it) but the performances are fresh and natural and she has a nice way of incorporating diegetic music into the fabric of the film (Daniel Johnston’s ‘Devil Town’ and Sonic Youth’s  ‘Do You Believe in Rapture’ interpreted by the characters). There are touches of Gus Van Sant (director of photography Matías Mesa operated the Steadicam on Elephant and Gerry) and Terrence Malick about Lions (and, like much cinema that reminds you of Malick, it is far more interesting than the Texan mystic’s current output) and, after Santiago Mitre’s recent El Estudiante, is another glimpse of a very talented young Argentine director.

Another impressive film from a young director is the second feature from the Greek Spiros Stathoulopoulos. His first film, PVC-1, was set in his mother’s native Colombia and was notable for being one single continuous take. Meteora is similarly formally inventive, mixing live action and mesmerising animation in the style of Orthodox icons, even if the story at its core is hardly original – forbidden love between a monk and a nun at the famed Meteora monastery complex in northern Greece.

The convent and the monastery stand opposite one another, atop precipitate limestone buttes (so precipitate that the only way to access the convent is to be hoisted up inside a net). Theo, a young monk (Theo Alexander – best known as Talbot in True Blood) woos Urania, a Russian nun (Tamila Koulieva), communicating with her via light reflected into each other’s bedroom windows. What starts off as a seemingly innocuous friendship soon turns carnal and you wonder quite how Spiros Stathoulopoulos got clearance for the film from the notoriously conservative Greek Orthodox church.

Nothing much happens in the film – Stathoulopoulos even (wisely) refrains from having the couple face any retributive justice for their transgressions. Instead he documents the minutiae of monastery life and the farming hinterland – the slaughter and skinning of a goat reminded me of the ethnographic cinema of Michelangelo Frammartino or the Iranian Abol-Fazl Jalili. We see the film’s narrative reflected and glossed in the beautiful animation sequences. There are voice-over asides on faith but, though a theological consultant is credited in the closing titles, it is hard to glean much from that angle. The strength of Meteora is its narrative and formal beauty – undoubtedly helped by having such a photogenic location; it is a little gem of ontological cinema – the pleasure is all in watching the action unfold before your eyes, as ordinary people go about their business in an extraordinary environment.