So many films, and too little time – our selection for #LFF2019’s second week.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
It’s a singular feat, this film that burns ice cold yet conceals a glowing ember. Formally sparse and elegant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is especially compelling for its observation of peripheral characters. The weave of its canvas is thick with cultural and political allusions, and the limpid clarity of the film’s visual style contrasts with what is in effect its metadata. The two women at the centre of the story, a painter and her reluctant subject, are drawn to each other with evident ambivalence, and gauge each other. Both are, more than anything, self-possessed, and both are observer and observed. But perhaps the act of observing precludes bonding.
Dir Céline Sciamma
Wednesday 9th October, 14.30, Embankment Garden Cinema
“The Disappearance of My Mother”
Sometimes the act of observing serves to diffuse a sense of loss. Beniamino Barrese’s documentary portrait of his mother, the fashion anthropologist, activist, actress and model Benedetta Barzini, serves up wonderfully troubling, yet also amusing, contradictions. Mother and son gently spar on either side of the camera, he persisting in filming her, asking her questions. Meanwhile she tells him time and again to stop filming. She does not want to be subjected yet again to the camera’s gaze, nor does she want their relationship mediated through a lens. Yet she indulges him, and as the film progresses, there is that overwhelming sense of a lioness mother preparing her son for something inevitable, that goes beyond simple independence. Barzini inspires more than just filial devotion. She has a trenchant and unsentimental view of a woman’s place in the world, which undercuts refreshingly the film’s brilliant archive footage of her heyday in 1960s New York with Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol. Barrese’s homage to his mother turns out to be a mutual endeavour, a sort of goodbye yet also an acknowledgement that there might after all be some room for a camera in their story.
Do stay for the end credits. The final snippet is a lovely coda.
Dir Beniamino Barrese
Tuesday 8th October, 20.50, West End Vue 4
A splendid film about a true – and devastating – story of enormous magnitude. How many have heard of Gareth Jones? A prescient and prolific writer, who understood very early in the 1930s what was to come towards the end of the decade, and who had a passionate drive towards the truth. This took him to Moscow, then the Ukraine, where he witnessed the man-made famine of 1932-33 which killed an estimated seven to ten million people. The story in itself is gripping. The genre chosen for the film, almost a period drama, with a touch of romance and a handsome lead, and a few clumsy narrative devices, with an actor playing Orwell at his typewriter, detract a bit. Even though paring down the script, and highlighting the visceral power conflicts around Jones and his determination to shine a light on reality, could have made the film even more striking, this remains an compelling and powerful work. Not to be missed.
Dir Agnieszka Holland
Wednesday 9th October, 15.15, West End Vue 4
“Tell Me Who I Am”
A beautiful film, with immense generosity of spirit, which proves once more that documentary filmmaking, not only in content but in form, can be more absorbing and exhilaratingly powerful than the most expensively constructed of Hollywood thrillers. It is also proof that life yet again is stranger than fiction. Here is the starting premise – a young man wakes up from a coma after a motorcycle crash. He remembers nothing, not even himself, but recognises one other person: his twin brother. His new life begins at the age of 18, and though he does not know it, also gives his brother the chance to start something new. And yet. It would be unfair to say more. The twins’ story is so gripping, so unexpected, so strange. But it is best if you let them tell you their tale. Brace yourself and go see this film. You will remember it for a long time.
Dir Ed Perkins
Tuesday 8th October, 18.20, Curzon Soho
Wednesday 9th October, 18.30, West End Vue 4
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Venues, dates and times are indicative and subject to last minute change. Please countercheck the BFI website for accurate scheduling information and ticket availability. The BFI’s Leicester Square ticket office is open every day 10.00 – 20.30, throughout the Festival.