Old Masters and Fresh Surprises at the New York Film Festival

The New York Film Festival, now at its midpoint, is a grand, institutional affair. What the selection committee agrees is the best of world cinema — work from established masters and up-and-coming auteurs — assembles at Lincoln Center, along with judiciously selected documentaries, repertory offerings and experimental films. (Tickets are still available at Filmlinc.org.) That’s the big picture, anyway, or the comprehensive version of the story. It began last week with Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and ends next weekend with Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn,” with Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” as the designated centerpiece.

But the film festival is also made up of countless subjective experiences, encounters not with the State of Cinema but with particular movies and the states of mind they create. Those run the gamut from boredom and irritation to absolute delight. The best, and sometimes the rarest, is surprise.

So let’s start with “The Whistlers,” the new feature from the Romanian writer and director Corneliu Porumboiu. Since his first feature, “12:08 East of Bucharest” (2007), he has made films that could be described as linear, minimalist and hyper-local, rooted in the petty ironies and indignities of life at the eastern fringe of Europe. “The Whistlers,” which is a kind of sequel to Porumboiu’s slow-moving 2009 procedural “Police, Adjective,” is something completely different: a globe-trotting, time-shifting, tongue-in-cheek crime caper, shot in bright colors on locations far from Bucharest or anywhere else in Romania.

The plot involves an intricate conspiracy with a cynical cop (Vlad Ivanov), a femme fatale (Catrinel Marlon) and an international cast of gangsters who communicate in Silbo Gomero, the “whistling language” used in the Canary Islands. The whole thing is clever and a little silly, with a lightness and energy that testifies to the filmmaker’s inventiveness.

If the Coen brothers were Romanian, they might have made “The Whistlers,” which is a way of explaining why I like it. If someone — in this case the Italian director Pietro Marcello — took a random list of a dozen things I generally like to see in movies and bundled them into a single film, the result would look something like “Martin Eden.”

It’s a literary adaptation, though hardly a faithful one, truer to the spirit than the letter of Jack London’s intellectually rambunctious 1909 novel. Taking place in an unspecifiable moment in the 20th century that somehow evokes the late ’40s, the mid-70s and the years just before both world wars, Marcello’s mock-epic includes documentary footage, wealthy decadence, left-wing politics, angry speeches (in Italian!), beautiful women, square-jawed men, quotations from Baudelaire and the heroic deployment of manual typewriters, hand-rolled cigarettes, ascots and Volvo sedans. Everything I love in movies, more or less.

I don’t at all mean to suggest that “Martin Eden” is a frivolous pleasure, though for a bookish, voyeuristic, history-obsessed cinephile like me, it is an absolute blast. Marcello has concocted a pastiche of various earnest narrative styles that achieves ethical and historical gravity without taking itself too seriously, so that it gets you thinking about old themes — fame, ambition, social injustice, romantic commitment — in a new way.

Mati Diop’s “Atlantics,” winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in May, does something similar, with its own deft blending of genres and styles. It begins in a familiar, neorealist mood, confronting the audience with poverty and injustice mitigated by glimmers of friendship and romance. Without losing sight of her real-world concerns — the corruption and exploitation in Senegal that leads many to risk their lives by setting off in boats for Europe — Diop makes a daring imaginative leap into horror-movie aesthetics and magical-realist allegory.

“Atlantics” is Senegal’s official entry for the international film Oscar next year, and some of the autumn breezes that stir New York and other seasonal festivals blow in the direction of the Academy Awards. “The Irishman,” which will be released in November, has already stirred up Oscar talk, as has “Marriage Story,” an achingly personal, painfully intelligent (and also funny) study of marital discord, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. There’s no movie I’m more looking forward to writing about in the coming weeks (it’s also due in November), so I won’t get ahead of myself.

I will flag Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” though, which opens shortly. It won the top prize in Cannes and may well break out of the international film category if the academy’s view reaches beyond the parochialism of Hollywood. The film itself, about an elaborate con that goes comically and horrifically awry, is troubling and wildly entertaining, the kind of smart, generous, aesthetically energized movie that obliterates the tired distinctions between art films and popcorn movies. Bong, whose international reputation has grown with the border-crossing, multilingual spectacles “Snowpiercer” and “Okja,” isn’t the first South Korean director to make this kind of impact. But he increasingly seems like one of the handful of filmmakers whose work will come to define this anxious, hectic, edge-of-the-apocalypse moment, in popular culture and beyond.

A similar description might have applied to Marco Bellocchio in the late 1960s and Olivier Assayas in the late 1990s. Not that either of those directors is past his prime. (Bellocchio is about to turn 80; Assayas will be 65 at his next birthday.) Their new films are works of vigorous mastery, each one focused on a real-life chronicle of violence, betrayal and sacrifice.

“The Traitor,” the latest chapter in Bellocchio’s free-form history of modern Italy, focuses on the life of Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), whose decision to testify against his Mafia colleagues in 1984 marked a decisive episode in the Italian government’s long battle with organized crime. Assayas’s “Wasp Network,” which unfolds a little later, takes place in Cuba and Miami, following a complicated spy game undertaken by defectors and double agents variously trying to overthrow and defend Fidel Castro’s revolution. It stars Édgar Ramirez (who played the title role in Assayas’s monumental “Carlos”) and Penélope Cruz as a couple whose marriage story is complicated by duty and deceit.

Both movies are satisfyingly matter-of-fact, sticking to the details of their intricate plots and leaving questions of larger meaning or present-day relevance up to the audience. They also have the busyness of good television drama, with lots of characters to keep track of and plot twists that keep you on your toes.

The film I loved most in this festival doesn’t have much plot at all, and isn’t in itself a great work of cinema, even though it’s by and about one of the giants of the art form. Giant is a funny word, since Agnès Varda, the subject and author of “Varda by Agnès,” was notably diminutive. (She died earlier this year at 90). The film, which intersperses clips from Varda’s career with footage of her speaking to an adoring audience, is both an introduction and a valediction. For Vardaphiles, much of the material will be familiar, since personal and professional memories figure in much of her later documentary work. But her presence on both sides of the camera is a gift, and “Varda by Agnès” is a perfect starting point for anyone who wants to understand what movies can be: local and global; personal and political; difficult and delightful.

New York Film Festival

Through Oct. 13 at Lincoln Center; filmlinc.org/nyff2019.

A.O. Scott is the co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” @aoscott

Source: Read Full Article