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"Reality is far more powerful than any story, legend, myth, or surrealism," observes the Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura in a key moment from Thom Andersen's rigorous and beautiful time-lapse portrait film Reconversion (Reconversão), which screens as part of MOMI's second annual First Look showcase. The Pritzker Prize–winning Souto de Moura, who specializes in creating new buildings out of existing ruins, is discussing his stunning transformation of a decaying 12th-century monastery in the northern Portuguese town of Amares into a boutique luxury hotel. But he could be describing the organizing principle behind the First Look selection itself—a 10-day survey of two dozen recent short and feature films that have yet to receive New York premieres.
Despite emerging into a congested festival landscape, First Look has quickly proved its worth by presenting a mix of vital new work from major auteurs (last year's inaugural program featured the first local screenings of Chantal Akerman's Almayer's Folly and Philippe Garrel's A Burning Hot Summer) alongside emerging filmmakers working in a vibrant strain of neo-neorealism. Broadly speaking, these artists, like Souto de Moura, prefer reality to fiction, drawn to the amorphous border region between the scripted and the lived, guided by the Heisenbergian uncertainty of ever being able to trap "real life" in the camera's gaze. Almost to the last, these are movies that choose to tell their stories through pictures more than words, leaving us room to draw our own conclusions.
This is certainly true of James Benning's fascinating Easy Rider, which performs its own "reconversion" of sorts on Dennis Hopper's masterpiece of dime-store antiauthoritarianism. Following Benning's 2011 remake of John Cassavetes's Faces (featuring only close-ups of human faces), Easy Rider finds the formidable landscape filmmaker retracing Billy and Captain America's journey from Los Angeles to New Orleans, capturing indelible snapshots of the original filming locations as they appear today. Benning has described the project as a search for a modern-day counterculture ("if one exists"), but his findings are less than encouraging: The mom-and-pop diners where long-haired hippies once squared off against hair-trigger straights are now swallowed by big-box America. And yet, the more things change, the more some things—like the graffiti on a jailhouse wall—remain almost comically, touchingly the same.
"Progress" has also wrought its scorched-earth policy upon the remote Japanese mountain community of Pedro González-Rubio's Inori, where a scattering of elderly residents cling to a literally and figuratively dying way of life, the younger generations long ago having fled to the cities in search of work. Graced with the same patient, lyrical gaze González-Rubio brought to his previous feature, the Nanook of the North–esque seafaring adventure Alamar, the sly, intimate Inori begins at the break of dawn and charts the course of a single day, as the locals fish, lay flowers at graves, and seem uncommonly accepting of their own impending mortality. In one of the movie's few concessions to overt symbolism, particles of dust hover entrancingly in a shaft of daylight. Then Inori returns to a bookending image of the morning sun peeking through the fog, as if searching once more for this funereal Brigadoon.
Opening the series—nearly two years after its Cannes premiere—is Outside Satan (Hors Satan), the latest from the always uncompromising French director Bruno Dumont, a professed atheist whose work nevertheless returns time and again to the search for grace in a savage world. In his previous film, Hadewijch, a fanatical young novitiate cast out of the convent found herself drawn into the world of Islamic extremism. In the even more enigmatic, nearly dialogue-free Outside Satan, a mysterious drifter known only as "the guy" (David Dewaele, who has the weathered proletarian features of many a Dumont protagonist) roams the windswept northern French coast in the company of a sullen young woman (Alexandra Lemâtre, a goth Maria Falconetti), dispensing Old Testament justice as well as a miracle or two. In the background, a murder investigation looms, which gives the film a direct connection to Dumont's earlier rural crime tale, Humanité. But the central question here isn't "Whodunit?" so much as whether the film's haunted protagonist is angel or demon—or if, indeed, such distinctions can be made with any certainty. Dumont offers no levity, and his films can seem to verge on self-parody if you catch them on the wrong day, but few directors working today are making such consistently ravishing cinema.
Dumont surfaces elsewhere in the First Look lineup, as co-star and general co-conspirator of actress-director Joana Preiss's debut feature, Siberia (Sibérie), a sui generis film à clef in which Preiss and Dumont—at the time of filming, a real-life couple—take a ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway, their relationship variously expanding and contracting with each new bend in the track. In stark contrast to the painterly CinemaScope vistas of Dumont's own film, the style here is grainy, full-frame DV, each partner recording the other in various states of physical and emotional undress. Once more, form follows function.
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