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Mythmaking at NYFF 2020

Reviews of Beginning, Tragic Jungle, and Atarrabi and Mikelats.

Beginning (dir. Dea Kulumbegashvili, Georgia)

Singularity of vision outweighs incoherence, exquisite 35mm frames and deep foreboding offset muddied themes. A religious conflict bait-and-switch transitions to the opaque burden of womanhood, then back again. A reluctant housewife, formerly a woman with acting aspirations, inevitably swept by responsibility into the arms of her husband’s religious sect (Jehovah’s witnesses, inaccurately portrayed, lest their belief systems differ in Georgia). Divine contemplation coincides with the natural world during a park visit; respite splayed across her face as her body’s supine on the grass. If a woman falls asleep on the soft forest floor as a meditative release of her society-enforced yolk, does anyone hear it? It’s like she’s playing dead, but later death plays us.

Her world is besieged by violence: on the church, impressed on her mind through words, and then finally upon her body. Assault is filmed from afar, flanked by purple weeds, confronting the (film)viewer’s passivity. One closed world only leads to another: visiting her mother for repose and strength, she’s met with another fenced-in pen where there are only those who accept their maternal fates and those who don’t— predestined roles, mother or whore. God plays mostly on the sidelines, called upon only when it suits her, a last ditch effort to make a way, save someone and herself.

Tragic Jungle (dir. Yulene Olaizola, Mexico)

Like Beginning, this is also a tale of a woman’s confinement, and like Green’s movie, people and places are symbols. Rooted in Mayan myth, the movie highlights two barraged entities, Woman and Nature, which really are one, wriggling out from the destructive, confused, and sometimes uninspired chokehold of men. The lush steamy surroundings are an unruly force that enact its own sense of justice. At times Tragic Jungle is too straightforward for its own good.

Atarrabi and Mikelats (dir. Eugene Green, France)

Maybe it was the work week rush, but I was overcome by calm the instant this movie started. The film’s transitory prelude, a driving sequence over the hills and highways into the countryside scored to old timey music is the visual equivalent of "once upon a time".

In this Basque myth, the goddess Mari entrusts her two sons, mortal-immortal hybrids, in the care of the Devil. More than a decade later, the teens have diverged from the maternal wood to embody opposing viewpoints, temperaments, and morals — nature vs nurture at large. Their allegiances are laid bare through their clothing — Mikelats dons a fiery jumpsuit in Beelzebub scarlet while Atarrabi chooses white. Satan, smug creature, prefers a smart dinner jacket. Once they come of age, Mikelats remains in the lair, a clodden cave, to become the premiere pupil, while the Atarrabi escapes. Blessed with nature goddess genes, he realizes he can communicate with animals, rocks, etc. However, he's swindled out of his shadow, pinched by the devil and its absence leaves the townspeople in distrust.

Sometimes I’m convinced that the harder a director tries to make something realistic, the less likely it is to inspire empathy or relatability. Always up for an escape from reality, humans like to fasten themselves to make believe. Green, whose films are wry and droll parables for adults, proves this case. His players commit to traditional drama, while the world they inhabit is far from realistic. There is a bit of magic, anachronisms, and propensity towards full speech at odds with costumes more appropriate for an elementary school play. And yet the stuff of fable is elegantly transformed with a peculiar and exceeding grace.

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