If we can say that the 48th New York Film Festival offered films that were for the most part concerned with social issues, we certainly cannot accuse the selection committee of putting together a one-note program, or of being restricted only to socially conscious films produced within the traditions of film realism. Of the politically and socially motivated standouts, The Social Network (d. David Fincher) and Black Venus (d. Abdellatif Kechiche) treated us to fictionalised accounts, vastly different in tone and aesthetic, of historical events (of which more below); while Post Mortem (d. Pablo Larrain) offered a fictional personal story set in the time of and impacted by the coup in Chile by Augusto Pinochet that overthrew Salvador Allende; and Inside Job (d. Charles Ferguson) blazed across the screen, a searing must-see documentary indictment of the men and institutions that caused the international financial crash of 2009 (again, more below). Also noteworthy, in the category of cinema ruled by cultural concerns and actual political events, was Carlos (d. Olivier Assayas), which kept a packed auditorium of critics in their seats for over five hours with a glossy, but intelligent action film version of the 1970s exploits of a terrorist born Illich Ramirez Sanchez, but known internationally as the Jackal, also by the code name Carlos; and Des Hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois), a film, elegantly minimalist in design, based on a real-life encounter between Algerian fundamentalist Islamic terrorists and a community of ascetic Christian monks. But the best the festival had to offer were three stunning films that, in speaking of the human condition, took full advantage of the dreamlike nature of cinema: Shi (Poetry, Lee Chang-dong), Lung Boonmee Raluek Chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul), and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, as re-interpreted by Julie Taymor.

Poetry is a Korean film in which the initiating action is a gang rape. Sounds enough like a “ripped from the headlines” premise, but director Lee Chang-dong spent years thinking about how he could best tell his story without reducing it to a boilerplate social problem film. He arrived at the decision to spin his tale through the point of view of a very traditional woman in her 60s, Mija (Yun Junghee), who lives in the suburbs with her teenaged grandson (who has no other guardian) and works as a nurse’s aid for an old man who has survived a stroke. Mired in banality, Mija has high-minded aspirations to write and better understand poetry. She worships the talent of her poetry teacher, and poets in general, and is outraged by the presence in her poetry class of a bawdy policeman, who insists on cracking off-colour jokes. Dressed in fluttery, feminine garments, and passionately wishing to look beyond, indeed ignore, the coarse facts of ordinary life, Mija bears some resemblance to Tennessee Williams’ Blanche Dubois, but is revealed to be made of infinitely sterner stuff. No butterfly to be broken by the lust and brutal pragmatism of any Korean equivalent of Stanley Kowalski, Mija digs deeply into the depths of her humanity when life calls on her to step up to the plate after she discovers that her grandson was among the pack of boys who sexually assaulted Agnes, a young girl in his class, who has killed herself as a result.

As I write, one news story after another is being circulated about teen suicide caused by sexual humiliation and brutalisation. And yet, as poignant as these ruined lives are, Lee does not address the problem at hand through the perspective of the victim of the attack. Nor does he place at the centre of his film the perpetrators, whose callous barbarity might have been explored as an extension of the attitudes of their fathers, who assume that Mija will join them in their plan to buy their sons a way out of owning up to what they did. They plan to guarantee that the police will never be notified about the rape by paying Agnes’ financially stressed single mother for her silence with a substantial amount of money. Rather, Lee asks us to look, through Mija, at very large issues. Through her, he probes the civilised ideal, that shrinks from the savagery it would rather sublimate than fight, and the aging process that robs us of the confidence to use accumulated wisdom when money and youth seem to have all the power, if push comes to shove.

Mini-spoiler. Brace yourself: the civilised ideal wins, represented by an unlikely champion. As Mija copes with her reservations about being part of the “reparations” deal the fathers of the culpable boys have put together – and the fact that she doesn’t have the money to pay her share – she is taking a course in poetry at a local community centre, and is reeling from the news that she has Alzheimer’s disease, the symptoms of which are made obvious almost immediately to the audience as we watch her forget simple words. However, as powerless as she initially seems, with brilliance and subtlety, Lee brings together Mija’s poetry, the risque police officer in her class, her work as a nurse’s aid, her impending oblivion, and a powerful experience she has talking to Agnes’ mother, to reach a transcendent conclusion. If all is not right with the world when Mija makes her final move, and it is not, our faith in human dignity is restored by her incandescent spirit. Note: Yun Junghee, who plays Mija, is an established Korean actress, but she has not worked on a film in 16 years. In Poetry, she gives a performance of the highest calibre, which should, but will not, be recognised with an academy award nomination, at the very least.

The extraordinary, mind expanding, as well as mindbending, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is also built around the mortality of an older person. It takes place in northeast Thailand, where Uncle Boonmee, dying from kidney failure, is preparing for the end. Because director Apichotpong Weerasethakul believes in re-incarnation, the way he renders the last days of Uncle Boonmee is a revelation for Western audiences. Forget what you have gleaned about the transmigration of souls from cheesy films about mummies brought back to life, in which the thinning of the line between life and death and then and now is a traumatic horror to be coped with only by some definitive, and exhilaratingly violent, re-instatement of the boundaries. As Weerasethakul shows it to us, death – in a universe built on metamorphosis – is virtually a celebration of the unity of all beings, time and space. When Boonmee leads his family, who have come to support him in his last days, through the jungle to a hilltop cave where he lived his first life, his dead wife shows up to nurse him, and her presence is not a fantasy. Similarly, when his long lost son shows up in the shape of a strange red-eyed simian-like animal, reality is opening wide; this is no dream state. Other characters appear along the way that challenge other limits, for example those between reality and fiction, as when a princess in all her gilded finery, straight out of conventional Thai “myth films” immerses herself under a waterfall near where Boonmee’s cave is located, meets a talking catfish, and has sex with him. The experience Weerasethakul provides of the continuity among the living and the dead, animals, plants and movies is exhilarating and unusual, to say the least, and seems unimaginable in any other medium but cinema. Boonmee’s death is followed by a final segment of the film in which others respond to it, and according to Weerasethakul is the most important part of the narrative. One of those witnesses to Boonmee’s life and death is a Buddhist Priest who decides that he is no longer interested in his sacred calling, another of those fluid transitions that are unfamiliar to American and European moviegoers, but which reflect a Thai reality. According to the director, it is quite common for Thais to move easily between the secular and the religious life; Weerasethakul was, himself, at one point a Buddhist priest.

Because this film transports its Western audiences far beyond what they are used to, it might be helpful to hear Weerasethakul’s explanation of his aesthetic:

Originally the script was more explicit in explaining which were the past lives, and which were not. But in the film, I decided to respect the audience’s imagination. Of course, after watching it, you can tell that [Boonmee] could be a buffalo or a princess. But for me, he could be every living thing in the film, the bugs, the bees, the soldier, the catfish, and so on. He could even be his Monkey Ghost son and his ghost wife. In this way, the film reinforces a special association between cinema and re-incarnation. Cinema is a man’s way to create an alternate universe, and other lives.

This blazingly original film began as part of the Primitive Project, commissioned by the Haus der Kunst (Munich) and FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), Liverpool. The other aspects of the Project include a seven-screen installation called Primitive, a single-screen installation called Phantoms of Nabua and a short film called A Letter to Uncle Boonmee. Weerasethakul’s interest in the project is in documenting the passing of a way of life, represented by Uncle Boonmee, as modernity changes the world, and the kind of Thai cinema represented by the appearance of the Princess during Boonmee’s last days that is also disappearing as cinema is globalised.

The final film in the triad of sublime films shown at NYFF 2010 is The Tempest, and it also concerns the summation of a life as death approaches. If you’re in the mood for miracles, both in a film and in the circumstances of the making of a film, Julie Taymor’s latest Shakepeare adaptation is for you. The two major characters in the film, Prospera (as we all know by now Taymor has adapted the original script to place at its narrative centre a female form of Prospero) and the Hawaian island of Lana’i, on which much of the action was shot, became available to Taymor by accident. She ran into Helen Mirren by chance at a party, and sealed the deal for the most important member of her cast during their lively conversation about Shakespeare, when Mirren herself, not knowing that Taymor was doing preproduction for The Tempest, brought up her desire to play Prospero as a woman. Lana’i took a bit more work. When Taymor expressed a strong interest in filming on the island, with its black vocanic rock, red earth canyons, and white coral – all of which were suggestive of great visuals for this production – producer Lynn Hendee made the appropriate inquires only to be told by the film commissioner in Hawai’i that Lana’i is owned by the Dole Food Company, which had never allowed a film production permission to shoot there. However, one dinner with Dole CEO David Murdock turned the tables in Taymor’s favour. Murdock, a Shakespeare enthusiast, was delighted with Taymor’s inventive ideas for bringing the play to the screen. He made the correct choice.

As with Taymor’s previous Shakespeare film, Titus (1999), in The Tempest she displays a genius for bringing to surface things hidden in the original text that tend to be masked by traditional performances. The play is a drama of revenge and forgiveness – in most productions the revenge is emphasised – a kind of retribution of the nerds, 17th century style. In the original, the rage of the dispossessed grows out of the Renaissance concept of the war between thought and action in the rough and tumble arena of politics, unequally weighted against intellect and in favour of unprincipled pragmatism. Prospero is violently supplanted as Duke by his devious brother Antonio, who gets his chance because Prospero, involved with his books and studies, doesn’t notice until it is too late the way Antonio has politically manipulated himself into power and into a position to cast Prospero adrift in a boat with his small daughter Miranda, toward what may be their death at sea. Prospero is only able to take the upper hand when he and his child land by chance on a magical island where he takes on supernatural powers, which he is able to use to bring to his domain all those who were involved in his banishment for a taste of what it feels like to be victimised. Against the amazingly photographed landscapes of a fairytale like Hawaiian island, Taymor genders this plot. Her Antonio sees his chance at the keys to the kingdom because the reigning political power is Prospera, a woman, whose interest in science makes her vulnerable to a charge of witchcraft. The revision gives the situation a new energy and a new tone.

The image of Prospera being abandoned to the cruelty of the ocean with her daughter not only radiates a beautiful maternal quality, but also resonates against familiar fierce contemporary attacks on women merely because they have worked intelligently and hard enough to eke out some power for themselves, which gives Antonio’s usurpation a sense of immediacy that just isn’t present when Prospero is banished for bibliophilia. Similarly, Prospera’s decision to forgive is full of an electricity that Prospero as a man can’t muster because we know, as Taymor makes painfully obvious, Prospera is returning to being a second class citizen when she breaks her staff and drowns her book. While there is generally the sense that when Prospero returns home he will now receive the respect he always deserved, Prospera’s return to same old/same old is signalled in numerous ways, not the least of which is, as Taymor herself points out, Prospera’s change of wardrobe as she prepares to leave the island. Where she has spent her days and nights in free flowing, comfortable garments, to fit in at court she must return to the constricting garments of the 17th century lady, and we watch her incarcerating herself in a black court gown, which requires her to pull the strings of its bodice tight and tie them in a knot. And why does she willingly accept what lies ahead of her, a life in which “every third thought will be of death”? For her daughter, who has become romantically involved with handsome young Ferdinand, the son of King Alonso, who permitted Antonio’s usurpation, and may now regret his deed, or perhaps only regrets having come under the sway of Prospera’s powers. Ferdinand, along for the ride with his father, is innocent of the crimes of the older generation of men. Nevertheless, which of us is inclined to accept as a happy ending Miranda’s restriction to the role of aristocratic wife? Of course, she will henceforth be safe from the persecution her mother endured, but many may sigh at how, with all that amazing magic at her command – and Taymor gives Prospera some dazzling hocus pocus – the good lady couldn’t have set up a situation in which Miranda’s “brave new world” allowed her own place as well as that of the consort of her man.

No one will be surprised that Mirren’s performance is a triumph, and David Strathairn and Tom Conti turn in their usual solid work. But many filmgoers will be meeting for the first time Djimon Hounsou and Ben Whishaw, as Caliban and Ariel, respectively. They completely inhabit their roles as earth and air, with Taymor’s aid to be sure. Their costumes, makeup and special effects are superb. But their success is more than merely standard movie magic. The two, as larger than life, magical creatures under Prospera’s control who play roles in her administration of justice to her former persecutors, make up a unit with her that one dreams of when reading the play, but rarely sees realised in production. Perhaps this is another happy result of playing Prospera as a woman, or of casting Mirren, but, for whatever reasons, in this production, in a way that I have never seen before, the three together stand as an elemental unity of everything that exists outside of the marketplace of men jockeying for power.

So many good movies, so little space. Fortunately, The Social Network and Inside Job have already received numerous reviews that point out what is good about them. The bickering that has sprung up in the American media about whether or not The Social Network is an outdated view of a younger generation conceived by men who are in their 40s and 50s and don’t understand the internet phenomenon as the young turks do is currently making for a cultural conversation that is almost as scintillating as the film itself. And with any luck, there will be widespread viewing of the thoroughly researched Inside Job, which will be a force for directing anger at the current economic tribulations of the working and middle classes toward the real instigators of the breakdown of international markets, replacing the epidemic of impotent rage misdirected toward immigrants and gay men and women just trying to live their lives. As for Black Venus and Post Mortem, it is to be hoped that they will receive the acknowledgement and the distribution they deserve. Herewith a brief word about each of them.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s film about the humiliation and dehumanisation of a black South African woman exported to Europe in the early 19th century to be put on display as a kind of feral beast for the amusement of thrill seeking audiences could not have been made only a few years ago, but as yet has not drawn the widespread commentary that Social Network and Inside Job have received. Kechiche is to be applauded for his brave confrontation of how racism does its most horrible damage when it is internalised by the oppressed as well as the oppressor. The sexual exploitation of Saartjie Baartman ­– the hottentot Venus, as she was billed when she was on display – becomes a metaphor for that internalisation. The narrative proceeds in an ascending spiral of violation of Saartjie’s person; her body is increasingly not her own, and accordingly her ambition to express herself artistically becomes increasingly an unattainable dream.

At first, she is presented as a spectacle for working class audiences of an English, 19th century version of a freak show, where onlookers are invited to touch Saartjie’s clothed derriere as she pretends to roar and claw like an animal. Behind the scenes, her handlers persuade her that she is a full, creative partner in the show, a lie that takes hold in her mind, not because she is stupid, but because her overwhelming desire to be recognised as an artist allows her to fool herself into collaborating with them. But by the time Saartjie becomes the rage in Paris salons, she is no longer able to maintain her faith in the good will of her white masters. Things have taken a turn toward even more serious obscenity, when, as part of the show, the assembled are incited to put their fingers on her naked exposed sexual organs and “give her pleasure”. Her refusal to continue such displays leads her (ironically) to the life of a prostitute, and after her death her sex organs are cut from her body to be put on display, as a “medical” artifact, in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, an even more horrible intellectual fraud than that of the men who exploited Saartjie as a performer. Although some might find it a flaw in the film that we are never really privvy to Saartjie’s inner life, which we can only deduce from events, there may be some aesthetic justice in the refusal of the filmmaker to violate her internally in that way too, or at least that may be the motive that can be deduced from the filmmaker’s statements that he felt that no evocation of Saartjie’s psychology could do justice to her complexity.

Pablo Larrain too is to be applauded for his Post Mortem, which revisits the same period in Chile, the 1970s coup d’état by Augusto Pinochet, in which he set the drama of Tony Manero (2008). Larrain too used bodies as part of visible synecdoche for essentially invisible abstractions. In his case, he demonstrates an uncanny ability to define the authoritarian rule imposed on his homeland through the way human bodies are perverted by the pressures and stresses of living with thoroughgoing cultural repression. In Tony Manero, the vehicle was the body of John Travolta as it became an obsession for the hero of Larrain’s film through one of the few American films that Pinochet would permit to be shown in Chile, Saturday Night Fever. In Post Mortem, the vehicle is the body of Chilean president Salvador Allende, whose autopsy is unexpectedly attended by Mario, the protagonist of Post-Mortem, a nondescript 55 year-old clerk in the morgue of a hospital who routinely types up the necessary reports. Forced into the presence of the corpse of the President, who clearly did not die a natural and peaceful death, and surrounded by dead bodies piling up in the streets and hospital corridors, Mario, like all the other characters we meet, is unable to endure the absurd horror of the moment, and withdraws into a fantasy about Nancy, a cabaret dancer he barely knows. When it turns out that she is not equally involved in fantasies about him, the personal becomes the political. Without directly training his camera on an actor impersonating Pinochet, Larrain brilliantly portrays the visible signs of the invisible tyrant through Mario’s decline into jealous insanity.

The gamut of international virtuosity demonstrated by the films selected for this year’s New York Film Festival speaks of continuing concerns about spectacular instances of greed, violence and ignorance. But the exceptional Poetry, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and The Tempest have a voice of a different kind. They whisper of maturity, understanding and the poetry of the big picture. Perhaps the greying of the population of the West and Eastern regard for the wisdom of old age have come together in some unforeseen globalised moment of grace. Is this the sound of the meeting of the twain?

New York Film Festival

24 September – 10 October, 2010

Festival website: http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff/2010/

About The Author

Martha P. Nochimson is the author of five books, including The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood and World on Film: An Introduction, and is working on a second book about David Lynch. For 26 years a Professor of film at New York University and Mercy College, she is now an Associate Editor for Cineaste.