MDQ Fest Round-Up 1: Thelma, Columbus, Ramiro & Good Luck

Notes from the 32° Mar del Plata International Film Festival

by Benjamín Harguindey

The 32° Mar del Plata International Film Festival runs November 17-26 and we’ll be reviewing the movies competing in the festival’s International Section. Today’s round-up includes Thelma (Joachim Trier, Norway), Columbus (Kogonada, USA/South Korea), Ramiro (Manuel Mozos, Portugal) and Good Luck (Ben Russell, France/Germany).

Thelma, a thriller about sexual awakening with supernatural overtones, opens up ominously, as a man takes his daughter hunting in the snowy wilderness and then considers shooting her. Years later Thelma (Elli Harboe) leaves the deeply religious family nest to attend college, where she quickly starts suffering what look like epileptic seizures, underscored by supernatural, telekinetic phenomena. These coincide with visions of the alluring Anja (Kaya Wilkins), whom Thelma starts stalking online and meeting on “accident”. When Anja encourages her back, Thelma retreats. She’s unsure of herself, of what she craves, and is torn between foreboding psychic omens and erotic daydreams.

The other key players are Thelma’s parents, who of course hold a secret from Thelma’s past in the form of a few extended flashbacks destined to unveil the movie’s enigma in the third act. It’s a credit to writers Trier and Eskil Vogt that the ending twists are never foregone, but really what bolsters the movie is the performance of Harboe – genuinely scared and daunted by her weird affliction – and the fact that the story is driven by a purposeful (if self-doubting) protagonist… in more ways than one.

Columbus is directed by the mononymous Kogonada, a fervent lover of Richard Linklater‘s cinema who has styled his film debut after his “Before” trilogy. In a nutshell, it details the melancholy reflections of Jin (John Cho) and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) as they walk about Columbus, Indiana and criticize the city’s modernistic architecture. Jin is over to watch over his comatose father, Casey has put off leaving town in order to care for her sickly mother. You see the the symmetry: both characters inhabit a state of limbo and are essentially meeting halfway down their respective journeys, both of them long overdue.

Above all Columbus is about conveying a certain mood and to that effect it employs precision film composition – dwarfing and contrasting the leads with the architectonic beauties that essentially speak for themselves – and camera work that alternatively measures the distance between them and their relationship with the city. It’s a very mellow, very meditative piece of cinema, one that evidently calls back to Kogonada’s influential urban wanderers (Linklater, Jarmusch) but also speaks for itself.

Ramiro is another character study, albeit a more opaque one. The title character, played by António Mortágua, is a grumpy dealer of used books, so off the bat Mortágua is playing a stereotype. We learn very little about him throughout the movie that bears his name, except that he was once a poet, or at least tried to be. The movie is really about his relationship with the cast of characters that bear with him on a daily basis: the neighboring old lady recovering from a stroke, her pregnant grandchild Daniela, Ramiro’s one insufferable customer, his sorta girlfriend and his will-they-or-won’t-they with Daniela’s sunny teacher.

Ramiro isn’t a terribly likable character; there’s very little wit or mordacity to him, and never makes an active effort to alleviate a life burdened by debt and general dissatisfaction. The closest thing to action comes in his visits to a prison inmate who may or may not be Daniela’s supposedly dead father – the kind of melodrama you’d throw in to spice up a stale narrative. In the end, Ramiro is pleasant enough as an exercize in uncompromising character portrait (to quote Charlie Kaufman by way of Nic Cage: “What if you create a story where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies, they struggle and are frustrated and nothing changes?”) but fades quickly from memory.

Finally there’s Good Luck, another movie that could be construed as an exercize, albeit not a terribly interesting one. This lengthy 143 minute, two-part documentary shows, in order, the day-to-day toil of copper miners in Serbia and gold miners in Suriname. We ride down a mine shaft with the Serbians for 5 minutes, spend about an hour watching them flash the lights of their hard hats in the dark ala Spielberg, then we ride the lift back up and then we’re in for another hour or so with gold prospectors in the jungles of Suriname.

The operation here is a pretty straightforward comparison between both scenarios, which through timing and repetition become very much alike. But what is Russell getting at with his movie? He asks obvious questions to the workers and gets obvious answers (spoiler alert: it’s a tough job and they’re in for the money). Most painfully, our understanding and comprehension of the film and its two scenarios does not evolve over time. There’s very little poetry to the movie as well, save for the recurring black and white close-ups who stare at the camera in silence (meaning, I suspect, whatever you want them to mean). Everything about the movie suggests it could’ve been shrunk to the size of a newsreel, hopefully to be projected before something more interesting.

BenjaBenjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).

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