This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Panorama Europe Film Festival, a series that covers a great deal of ground and, as it happens, serves many masters. Co-presented by the Museum of the Moving Image and the member nations of the European Union National Institutes for Culture (amusingly identified by the acronym EUNIC), the festival is intended to showcase the cinematic output — and “culture” more broadly — of the nations involved. Needless to say, it’s a mixed bag, at times resembling the Eurovision Song Contest in its breadth and uneven batting average.
Themes, linkages, and correspondences certainly emerge. The coherence found in Panorama Europe is due in part to the yeoman efforts of guest programmer Nellie Killian, no stranger to New York repertory audiences. She notes that she was asked by MoMI to help bring a bit more cohesion to the long-running program. “There are certain themes of migration, displacement, looking to historical (or even mythic) narratives to make sense of contemporary situations, that tie some of the films together,” Killian tells the Voice, while admitting that, in dealing with such a wide array of films and institutions, “no theme could be all-encompassing.”
Many films do address “Europe” as an unsure concept, as a space in flux. Rabot, from Belgium, documents the final weeks of a modernist apartment tower slated for demolition. Some old-timers blame the slide into disrepair on “blacks” and “immigrants,” while others simply see it as part of the march of capitalism. Steel Mill Caffé, the Croatian entry, likewise observes the final days of a once-burgeoning luncheonette that served a now-defunct steel mill. Spain’s Lots of Kids, a Monkey, and a Castle, the debut film by actor Gustavo Salmerón, traces his family’s history, from Franco-supporting conservatives to neo-socialists ruined by the 2008 financial crisis. Even the lightest entertainment of the series, the award-winning Silent Night from Poland, engages with questions of brain-drain, with business opportunities tearing apart the traditional fabric of both family and society.
In short, all is not well in Europa, and everybody’s looking for someone else to blame. However, these films do not actually tell us a great deal about the deeper social forces that are creating the conditions they depict. Why has Belgian urbanism failed? Where did those steel jobs go? How does the radical conservatism on the rise in Poland make a new life in the Netherlands (which the protagonist of Silent Night chooses, to his family’s chagrin) a highly appealing option? Many films are stuck on the level of surface realism, and this is partly because they take neoliberalism as a given, not something to critically interrogate.
In other words: Depicting something is not the same as critiquing it. Ironically, the most progressive films playing in Panorama Europe are the ones that have the least to say about the State of Europe right now. In their unusual form, or in some cases their explicit retreat to the past, these films end up telling us more about our present moment than other films that seem designed to flatter liberal prejudices.
Two of the best films in the series exhibit a lightness that belies their actual import. One is about love, the other friendship: two topics that are at the heart of the problems facing Europe, since these emotions are the bedrock for fellowship, compassion, and, ultimately, shared citizenship. Anna Marziano’s Beyond the One, from Italy, is a short essay film about the various forms that love relations can take, separate from the dominant notion of the monogamous romantic couple: polyamory, communal family living, single motherhood, open marriage. Sometimes the choices are political; other times, the participants are simply following their hearts. Focused on friendship as a kind of elective brotherhood, Maryam Goormaghtigh’s Before Summer Ends, from France, is about a suspended migration. Three Iranian students in Paris decide to take a road trip to the South of France before one of the guys has to go back to Tehran. Remarkably freeform and sensitive to nuance, Before Summer Ends is the Jarmuschian comedy that Kiarostami never got to make.
Some films, by trying to capture small, private truths, have a great deal to say about how people are actually living in the New Europe. Lejliet (Eve), a short film from Malta, is a tight one-act play about masculinity and hopelessness, set on the roof of a village church on Christmas Eve as two men, one young and one old, consider suicide. Even better, the Slovakian featurette 5 October by Martin Kollár documents a multi-nation bike trip undertaken by the filmmaker’s brother Ján, weeks before he is scheduled to undergo dangerous but necessary surgery. In both cases, we see marginal men struggling to find their place in a changing world, one with markedly greater success than the other.
Two films with almost identical premises are quite remarkable in their divergence from one another. Rita Azevedo Gomes’s Correspondences, from Portugal, and Ruth Beckermann’s The Dreamed Ones, from Austria, are both composed of letters exchanged between two poets. In The Dreamed Ones, actors perform letters between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. We learn of the professional jealousy that Celan felt at Bachmann’s successes, as well as Celan’s ongoing sense of being an outsider in an anti-Semitic Europe, something he knows Bachmann cannot truly understand. Correspondences, meanwhile, looks back at Portugal’s fascist period as experienced by two other key poets of that era. Jorge de Sera spent his most productive years in exile, first in Brazil and then the U.S.; Gomes’s film is an experimental exploration of the letters he exchanged with poet Sophia de Mello Breyner. Where The Dreamed Ones is characterized by a muted rigor, Correspondences uses multiple film stocks and aspect ratios, speaking to the fragmented character of a relationship conducted intermittently across time and space. Both films are quite strong, and well worth seeking out.
If certain of the most enlightening films in Panorama Europe look forward by looking back, it should come as no surprise that the two strongest works in the festival are its two repertory selections. Given the fact that each national organization could send most anything it wanted (from which Killian would then choose), both Greece and the Czech Republic are to be commended for taking the opportunity to support their respective cinematic histories: Neither country went for an easy-pleasing prestige choice. Greece presents The Illiac Passion, the 1967 experimental feature by Gregory J. Markopoulos. Based on the myth of Prometheus, the film is a rich, sensual evocation not only of Ancient Greece but of the sheer physical beauty of light caressing bodies. It features avant-garde luminaries such as Jack Smith, Taylor Mead, Gerard Malanga, and Andy Warhol.
Meanwhile, the Prague Spring artifact Case for the New Hangman (1969) by Pavel Juráček is in a class by itself. Exhibiting a surrealism equal to that of Chytilová or Němec but somehow more elastic in its disregard for conventional cinematic space, Hangman is a loose adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels that blends the fanciful and the Kafkaesque with such insouciance you’d think it were being invented on the spot. In fact, it is a meticulously constructed deep-dive into modernist absurdity, the sort of film that seems both sui generis and somehow intellectually inevitable. To argue that it has a thing or two to say about the current resurgence of global fascism might be a bit of a stretch. But Hangman is certainly a study in governance by misdirection, tribalism, and, above all, chaos.
Panorama Europe Film Festival
Museum of the Moving Image
Through May 31