New York Film Festival: Determined Women and Uncertainty in the World


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Samuele Pucillo in the Gianfranco Rosi documentary “Fire at Sea,” one of the highlights of the New York Film Festival.

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Kino Lorber

As you watch television news reports of the European migrant crisis, your eyes may glaze over at the sight of so much suffering packaged into brief segments on a small screen. But Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary “Fire at Sea,” a high point of the 2016 New York Film Festival, makes it real, life-size and viscerally unnerving.

Set on Lampedusa, a tiny island between Libya and Sicily and an entry point for Africans headed for Europe by boat, it shows the local fishermen doing what they can to help desperate refugees reach safety. Many are starving, dehydrated and burned by leaking diesel fuel. The film distills the queasy sense of instability that is a dominant strain of this year’s festival (running through Oct. 16), the fear that as the world unravels we are all navigating choppy seas on fragile boats headed into the unknown.

A similar feeling of civilization coming apart suffuses the Romanian New Wave director Cristi Puiu’s enigmatically titled “Sieranevada,” Olivier Assayas’s “Personal Shopper,” Kleber Mendonça Filho’s “Aquarius” and Mike Mills’s “20th Century Women.” Mr. Mills’s film, the festival’s official centerpiece, set in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1979, offers a look at American culture nearly four decades ago.

Mr. Puiu’s film, set in Bucharest, Romania, is one of the most challenging to watch, not only for its three-hour length but also because its characters aren’t formally introduced, and it takes place mostly indoors at the memorial dinner for a deceased family patriarch. The camera often acts as a voyeur, peering at characters as they pass a doorway.

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Adriana Ugarte in “Julieta,” a film that was adapted from short stories by Alice Munro.

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Manolo Pavón/Sony Pictures Classics

Like Mr. Puiu’s depressing 2006 masterpiece — “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” a portrait of a dying man being callously shuffled from hospital to hospital as he expires — “Sieranevada” has an unsparingly cynical view of the world leavened with a dry gallows humor. An added ingredient is a strain of free-floating political paranoia. Because it is set three days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, there is much conjecture about 9/11 and speculation about political conspiracy of one sort or another.

The opening scene shows traffic congestion in front of the family’s house, the last scene an angry fight over a parking space in the same area. The celebrants add up to a microcosm of humanity: selfish, quarrelsome and noisy. Little dramas escalate into stormy eruptions, and the feast is never consumed. It all unfolds like a sprawling, unscripted reality-show marathon.

The eerie supernatural thriller “Personal Shopper” is one of three films in the festival’s second week to focus on a strong, complicated woman, each a world unto herself. “Personal Shopper” stars a riveting Kristen Stewart as a sullen celebrity fashion assistant, bereft after the death of her twin brother, a medium. As her character, Maureen, an American in Paris, travels between France and Britain, she receives teasing text messages from an unknown, seemingly psychic sender who she imagines is her twin contacting her from the other side.

“Personal Shopper” lacks the complexity of Mr. Assayas’s film “Clouds of Sils Maria” (2015), in which Ms. Stewart also played an assistant to a star, but its mood is one of ominous uncertainty as Maureen looks to the supernatural for answers. The film feels very much of the moment and in tune with the concept of instability. An alternative title might be “Clouds of Ectoplasm.”

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Valer Dellakeza, left, and Mimi Branescu in “Sieranevada,” a challenging three-hour film set in Romania.

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Elle Driver

Another determined woman is at the center of “Julieta,” a heartening return to form by the Spanish master Pedro Almodóvar. Adapted from short stories by Alice Munro, and taking place over 30 years, it tells the story of a mother-daughter estrangement in which the title character (played by Emma Suárez as an older woman and by Adriana Ugarte as her younger self) longs to reconnect with the child who abandoned her when she was 18 and has since remained incommunicado. This sexy, visually opulent film is flooded with brooding music by Mr. Almodóvar’s longtime composer, Alberto Iglesias, which contributes to the mood of a high-end soap opera with Hitchcockian overtones.

In “Aquarius,” the powerful follow-up to “Neighboring Sounds,” the 2012 film that established Mr. Mendonça Filho as a major new voice of world cinema, the great Brazilian actress Sonia Braga gives a towering performance as Clara, a 65-year-old widow and retired music journalist standing up to power. When her apartment building in Recife is taken over by an unscrupulous developer, she refuses to be bought out and watches as the building is emptied of its tenants and she is the only one remaining.

The worsening harassment she endures and her angry refusal to back down are the tough shell of a film that above all is a biographical portrait of a proud woman weathering setbacks that include an early bout with breast cancer and pressures from her three grown children to sell. That said, its vision of a greedy, corrupt elite caused a stir in Brazil.

One of the strongest performances of Annette Bening’s career anchors Mr. Mills’s searching group portrait of generational disparities at the moment when punk rock thumbed its nose at mainstream culture. Ms. Bening plays Dorothea, a single mother raising an adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), in a bohemian household that includes a hippie carpenter (Billy Crudup) and a punk artist (Greta Gerwig). The generational schism is symbolized by the hard-core band Black Flag, which Dorothea tries and fails to understand. She much prefers Talking Heads’ brainy art-school music. Set in the moment just before home computers revolutionized communications and when second-wave feminist activism was still near its peak, its hindsight vision isn’t so much nostalgic as amazed at the profound cultural changes time has wrought.

The festival’s second week is strewn with the usual, intriguing oddities. “Yourself and Yours,” the South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s silly comedic divertissement of look-alikes and mistaken identities, has its cutesy charms. The Argentine director Matías Piñeiro’s somewhat more substantial “Hermia and Helena” is a whimsical valentine to New York City whose changing romantic partnerships evoke “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Oddest of all is the cult filmmaker Eugène Green’s elegantly hyperstylized “The Son of Joseph,” an allegorical nativity story about a rebellious Parisian teenager in search of his father.

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