@ the 57th New York Film Fest :: Fear, Class and Power

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday September 30, 2019

One pleasant aspect of this year's New York Film Festival (Year 57—running through October 13th) is that, of the 12 Main Slate films I have seen so far (of the 29), I appreciated each and every one. And while there was a handful that confounded me, I still found elements to appreciate. And, most significantly, there are two major masterpieces among the slate as well as two minor ones.

This year's selections include films from 17 different countries with Netflix snagging both the Opening Night feature (the world premiere of Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman") as well as the Centerpiece (Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story").

Closing Night is Edward Norton's "Motherless Brooklyn," being released by Warner Brothers.

But it is Kino Lorber who scored the biggest coup with five films on tap ("Bacurau," "Beanpole," "Martin Eden," "Synonyms" and "Young Ahmed.")

Queer themes are more peripheral or matter-of-fact then obvious this year in the films I've seen so far... unless you count the debauchery at play in Albert Serra's "Liberté."

This year's films heavily explore death, fear, pain, class and power. Below are the treats in store for this year's Festival attendees in order of adoration.

"The Irishman"

One of our most treasured directors, Martin Scorsese, examines many of the above themes and much more in his sprawling masterwork, "The Irishman," easily the best of the fest—and probably the year. Scorsese is as audacious and fearless as he's ever been telling a story about loyalty, betrayal and the toll a life of crime takes on one decent, if heavily flawed man, Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro, in top form).

At 209 minutes, "The Irishman," adapted by Steve Zaillian from a book by Charles Brandt ("I Heard You Paint Houses"), commands your attention throughout. The movie is chock full of small mini-movies that cohere into one amazing commentary on American life in the second half of the 20th Century; yet with this breadth, it somehow remains quite intimate, and often hilarious as well.

It's a cinephile's wet dream to watch DeNiro with a wonderfully understated Joe Pesci as well as a brilliant Al Pacino, playing the shit out of Jimmy Hoffa (in all the good ways). This is Pacino at the top of his game, etching a portrait of a stubborn, contentious but well-meaning man who didn't know when to stop pushing back. It's also Scorsese at a new and startlingly internal, exploratory level.

(As for the de-aging technology, after the initial strangeness, it's quite effective.)


In any other year, Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite" would be the film that would restore all faith in the cinematic art form (it comes in second now). This outrageous and original work is a wholly absorbing class commentary that is as emotionally devastating as it's strangely invigorating, right up to its astoundingly powerful final shot.

This messy, mean, nasty dark comedy centers on a lower-class family who will do whatever is necessary to survive. And when an opportunity to infiltrate a wealthy household arises they prove they have the wherewithal and chutzpah to do what they feel they must to manipulate themselves into the lives of these dupes. And they succeed—to a point—until a crazy unforeseen plot twist turns everything upside down.

Karma can be a bitch but it's never been more complex and loaded with nuanced questioning than in the mind-bogglingly rich and tantalizing, "Parasite."


In Nadav Lapid's "Synonyms," a young, sexy-as-fuck Israeli man, Yoav (Tom Mercier, in an astonishing debut performance) has just relocated to Paris, fleeing his country, and wanting desperately to assimilate into French culture. Alas, things are not quite that easy. His very first day in Paris, he almost freezes to death but is saved by a young upper-class couple: a brooding, pretentious writer Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and his bored girlfriend Caroline (Louise Chevillotte).

Yoav's odyssey is a startling one as he becomes more alienated by the challenges that face his headstrong desire to shed his identity and establish a new one.

Lapid's gem of a film is homoerotic as hell but plays it a bit too safe in the queer department. In the first hour, there is no physical contact between any of the characters. But Lapid then weaves the triangle aspect into a more conventional narrative and, instead of bravely exploring the same-sex relationship he's toyed with and practically set up, he cops out. A shame since the chemistry between Mercier and Dolmaire is palpable.

Still, "Synonyms" is a brazen dark comedy that blasts our ever-growing worldwide class divide and satirizes notions of assimilation. And Mercier is a fearless and mesmerizing new actor you will not soon forget.

"Bacurau (Nighthawks)"

Kleber Mendonça Filho ("Aquarius") and Juliano Dornelles have hatched a dizzyingly dazzling, bold and bloody genre-mashup with "Bacurau." The setting is some time in the future in a small, poor (fictional) Brazilian town where a crooked politician (Thardelly Lima) has cut off the water supply and shows disregard for the citizens. The film then shifts dramatically as we meet a group of mercenaries, led by the always creepily fascinating Udo Kier, who have their own agenda. "I came for the body count," announces one of the kill-happy Americans played to the hilt by Brian Townes. And just how these two worlds collide is part of the fantastic journey Filno and Dornelles take us on.

The great Sônia Braga steals every scene she is in and should have been featured more. The character is matter-of-factly gay but further backstory would have rocked. More character development throughout would have been a boon but this thriller/western/sci-fi/splatter/satire still manages to exhilarate while making pronounced statements about just how far people will allow themselves to be pushed before they decide to push back.

"Pain and Glory (Dolor Y Gloria)"

Pedro Almodóvar's rich, dense new film, "Pain and Glory" is about the pain of aging and the glory of filmmaking. Almodóvar'channels Fellini in an exploration of a craftsman in turmoil. Celebrated Spanish auteur Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) hasn't made a film in forever and is suffering from a host of maladies. He normally eschews tributes but oddly agrees to appear at a Q&A for a restoration of an early classic. Salvador decides to look up the film's lead actor, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), whom he had a major falling out with and they reconnect.

Banderas is perfect as Almodóvar's avatar, one of his finest performances. Radiant Penelope Cruz and Julieta Serrano impress as Mallo's younger and older mother, respectively.

The film is bittersweet with realizations that are both devastating and exquisite, often simultaneously.

"The Wild Goose Lake"

Another severe and potent meditation on class, Diao Yinan's tantalizing cinematic treat, "The Wild Goose Lake" is deceptively wrapped up in a street crime thriller package but often defies genre convention.

This spellbinding Chinese Noir follows a gangster (the captivating Hu Ge) who is trying to do his best to stay alive and escape the cops after he's accidentally murdered one. There is a lot more here than meets the eye, some of it beautifully brutal and vengefully sweet. Much of it depicting just how little the lives of the lower classes are valued in today's China—which is wholly relatable in the western world as well. Yinan manages that rare blend of social relevance and B-movie escapism with a dash of redemption.

"Zombi Child"

Betrand Bonello can never be accused of making the same film twice or even treading heavily on past ideas. "Nocturama" was one of 2017's most audacious films and "Saint Laurent" pushed its own envelops in 2015. With "Zombi Child" he takes a genre and blows it to smithereens by mashing horror with voodoo, teen coming-of-age, and, of course, the ever-popular zombie thriller.

The slow-burn film begins in Haiti in 1962 where a young man (Mackenson Bijou) is zombified and then enslaved. We jarringly cut to a modern-day all-female Parisien boarding school where a lovesick Anna Paquin-look-a-like (an effective Louise Labèque) befriends a direct descendent zombie granddaughter (Wislanda Louimat).

Bonello effectively tackles themes such as freedom, slavery and white privilege. And the final 20 minutes are absolutely riveting including the use of an unexpected but effective classic show tune at the very end.

"Martin Eden"

Buoyed by a stunning performance by Luca Marinelli, Pietro Marcello's ravishing "Martin Eden," based on the 1909 novel by Jack London—and reset in Italy, in a maddeningly unspecified time—is too often muddled by confusing politics, odd time shifts and a core romance that rings hollow.

Marinelli paints a complex, vivid portrait of a poet who has the cocksure arrogance of Joe Buck from "Midnight Cowboy." No other character is really fleshed out, which may be the point. As much as Martin shouts about the individual, he does tend to lump them together into a contemptible pile of either wealthy evil elites or pathetic poor—happy in their ignorance. Martin feels alone. And as played by a ferocious Marinelli, we actually empathize with the poetic brute.

"The Moneychanger"

"The Moneychanger" is Federico Veiroj's somber, odd yet engrossing film adaptation of Juan E. Gruber's novella about an anti-hero who learns to launder money in an increasingly dictatorial Uruguay. Humberto (Daniel Handler), a bumbling fool with ever eroding morals and no sense of ethics, stumbles his way to becoming a highly successful criminal moneychanger taking advantage of failed governments and ruined economies, and occasionally cheating on his wife.

I appreciated what the film seemed to be saying about the descent into hell for these men driven by greed. Humberto might not be the most relatable protagonist but he is a survivor. The clingy grips of Catholicism permeate the film as Humberto pivots further and further away from any semblance of heaven.

"A Girl Missing (Yokogao)"

Japanese filmmaker K?ji Fukada knows how to create mood and intrigue but his latest film, "A Girl Missing (Yokogao)," doesn't quite live up to the promise of its premise. Two simultaneous stories are going on in two different time periods that involve the kidnapping of a young girl and how one woman's life is destroyed by the aftermath, which also involves a same-sex attraction that goes unrequited.

The film does do a superb job of showing just how insidious unconsummated longing or stray confidence taken out of context can be.

The queer theme in the film is both powerful and disturbing, showing the devastating effects of repression. But a little more backstory, both culturally and personally, would have gone a long way.


"I've been bathed in cum," says an unnamed naked female in Albert Serra's provocative, "Liberté," a psycho-sexual cross between Pasolini's "Salo: 120 Days of Sodom" and Alain Guiraudie's "Stranger By the Lake." Like a convoluted, pornographic cinematic train wreck, you can't stop watching even though half the time you're squinting to try and see what it is you're watching. And, too often, when you can see what you're watching you wonder why you're still watching.

Prepare to stare at a lot of forest. And then witness a pansexual orgy of masochism and sadism that will dare, even the most daring, to not look away in disgust.

"Liberté" is set right before the French Revolution where a gaggle of depraved, wig-wearing libertines, expelled from Louis XVI's puritanical court, take to the woods of Germany to pursue notions of sexual nirvana. The film has some disturbing things to say about the cruelty inherent in people and how, given the opportunity, humans will exert their erotic power in the most perverse ways. It's an endurance test, but a strangely absorbing one.

"I Was at Home, But..."

Arguably the most divisive offering (vs. "Liberté"), Angela Schanelecs "I Was at Home, But..." is another type of celluloid train wreck—or rather train delay where there is very little to see but you watch, frustrated, and, on occasion, you are offered glimpses of the sublime.

The vexing film centers on the domestic drama of a Berlin family after the death of the patriarch. Much of the non-linear narrative is left for the audience to piece together. At given moments, I felt perplexed yet eager, confounded yet intrigued, often alienated yet sometimes sheathed.

More to come...

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com

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