(This dispatch is part of our coverage of the 2019 Chicago International Film Festival.)
After day one of CIFF comes day two! Yes, for the next round of CIFF sweetness, I was able to catch another four movies. That means more time away from home and, in turn, less time from the dust that my radiator continues to burn off as we dip below 50 degrees. (For those wondering, that’s still going on every couple of hours.)
First on Thursday morning was Maternal, the first scripted feature from writer/director Maura Delpero. Her prior filmography consists of two documentaries, and it helps here; Maternal plays quite well with the tropes associated with the two styles. It isn’t a mistake that the title card brings in a sort of Greek choir as we first see Sister Paola (Lidiya Liberman), only for another character to switch off the radio.
Paola is the closest thing to a conduit, the moral compass for a Buenos Aires refuge where nuns house young mothers and their children. At first, it seems that her main concern is Luciana (Agustina Malale), an ill-tempered type whose caring for Nina (Isabella Cilia) is questionable, to say the least. She’s especially rough when placed next to Fatima (Denise Carrizo), a mother of one with another on the way.
Then things start to shift, and while Delpero’s script is a part of that, it’s mostly her direction. Her camera is still for what very well might be the entire film, yet she and editors Ilaria Fraioli and Luca Mattei establish a decent sense of place. The spatial awareness wavers—some rooms feel like they could be anywhere— but Delpero lets characters enter and exit the picture as fit. They’re a conveyer belt of people for religion to help on jut back into the world. Maternal doesn’t do as much with dynamics between womanhood and religious oppression as it thinks it does at times, but the realism is carefully crafted, and it helps ground it.
Afterward came yet another feature debut with Babyteeth. Director Shannon Murphy has worked in short films and television before this, and like the opposite of how Delpero’s previous work affected Maternal, this dramedy is too episodic to land. Meet Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a tenth-grade chemo kid who has a meet-cute with a would-be Harmony Korine character named Moses (Toby Wallace). And by meet-cute, I mean meet-creepy; after her nose bleeds, he rips off his shirt and covers her face to stop the bleeding. It looks like he’s chloroforming her.
Thus telegraphs writer Rita Kalnejais’s romanticizing of suffering—and dumb behavior. Maybe Milla will ghost Moses? Nope, she introduces him to her parents (Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn). They toss out some quips about how bizarre this relationship is but do nothing about it. This ignorance-is-bliss sort of mentality could have worked in a tighter runtime, yet there’s so much dead air between the beats that work. Instead, it plays like a web series stitched together, with the moments of style and massive leaps in tone such a label entails.
Some parts are well executed; hell, Murphy gives the last scene more tact than it deserves. One scene is hypnotic, even. Then there are asides that touch on Milla’s parents that are too detached for their parallels to land. There’s a sketch comedy type of feel that comes about whenever Babyteeth tries to shift gears, and while it’s amusing at points, it isn’t enough to fill two hours.
Luckily the next movie was very simple, and I mean that in a good way. Jan Ole Gerster’s Lara follows the title character (Corinna Harfouch) on her 60th birthday which, as it so happens, is the day her son, Viktor (Tom Schilling), is performing. He’s a pianist-turned-composer soon to have a full orchestra behind him. As such, Lara withdraws her entire checking account, gets a sleek new dress, and buys all 22 remaining tickets for the show. So begins a day of revisiting relatives and old friends, hoping to make the day go well.
But throughout, Gerster and Harfouch make it clear that she doesn’t want to make her son feel good. She wants to make herself feel good, like she’s a good mother whose demeanor hasn’t distanced her from her friends and family. It would be easy to make such a character a shrew (or fall into more sexist implications). Lara, on the other hand, plays into her mentality only to play against it, with Harfouch giving work as an egoist.
Some stretches were quiet and brutal enough to make me think of Christian Petzold. Is Gerster’s film on the same level? No, but it shares the same themes, and he and composer Arash Safaian know how we romanticize our futures. They know how we elevate ourselves in the guise of helping others. (They even have some fun with the Herrmann-meets-Goldsmith score that Lara seems to assign her own life.) Blaz Kutin’s script has too many codas and veers towards spelling its themes out at times, but the simplicity is what makes it painful.
And what do you know, the next movie also centered on someone named Lara! It’s a bit of a shame, though, that this one turns out to be too hollow to really work. Emily Harris’s Carmilla—yes, based on the Sheridan Le Fanu novel—centers on a teen girl in the nineteenth century, and while the original text took place in Styria, there’s little to no sense of place here.
It tells the story as simply as possible: the central character (Hannah Lae) lives with one Miss Fontaine (Jessica Raine) and their stereotypical servant, Margaret (Lorna Gayle). Lara’s been anticipating the arrival of someone named Charlotte, but in her place comes someone else: an unnamed, awkward girl with no recollection of a family. She asks for a name; she gets one in the form of Carmilla, and their relationship jumps towards sexual awakening almost immediately.
There’s a line in the first act that plants the immigration allegory in audiences’ heads, and that’s about the extent of its commentary. It’s a seed for an otherwise barren (and sometimes tone-deaf) movie. It’s like Harris based the conflict around a basic parable rather than on top of or through it. The relationships are drab, and the characters, all of who are meant to work as archetypes, embody baseline ideologies rather than show how those ideologies act in certain situations.
Otherwise, it feels overblown. Harris and DP Michael Wood play with some lighting motifs only to promptly abandon them, and their reliance on sepia and lens flares distracts from Lara’s psychology rather than plays into it. Likewise for the soundscape: there’s a misconception playing normal sound design at a higher level is the same as making it more sensual. Yet I can’t call Carmilla a bad film, per se; it didn’t elicit enough of a response to earn that. Rather, it just feels unnecessary.