KVIFF 2023 – From East to West (and Back) to East / A Festival Struggling Between East and West
I’ll start off by saying what I always say: I feel at home in Karlovy Vary. Of course, my familiarity only grows with each visit back to the festival, but, usually, whenever somebody asks me what is the festival that I feel best at, I say that it’s Karlovy Vary, topping the Berlinale. I must confess that, in this case, a major factor is my disdain towards red carpets, and indeed, at KVIFF one can live their lives as a critic without being subjected to the prestige parades that entrap most other A-rank film festivals.
Despite all of my love for the festival, this year’s experience started off quite badly, in particular, because of the festival’s trailer, which shone a spotlight on Johnny Depp. It’s hard for me to assess the fact that the actors featured in this year’s trailer other than as an act of support on part of the festival – KVIFF invited Depp as its guest of honor in 2011 – which is an attitude that I believe is in quite bad taste, whether or not the actor is guilty of the accusations that were brought to him across the various trials of the past years are true.
With audiences of all kinds returning strongly after the pandemic, it has become very clear that KVIFF has grown so much that it can no longer accommodate all the spectators who pass through its doors in an equally satisfying way.
Fortunately, during the press screenings, one can get away from the trailers, and so this is where I tried to take refuge throughout the festival, only for me to notice one of the rather timely problems that the festival is starting to suffer from.
An edition with a lot of critics
In past years, I wrote that what I appreciate about KVIFF is that, between the press and the audience, there are little to no distinctions, so most people end up sharing the same cinema hall and also the same lines, without having a press badge that would bestow its owner with major privileges. To me, this is a healthy practice, because it’s useful for us film professionals to be reminded, once in a while, that we’re not the center of attention. So I must admit that my egalitarian pretensions turned into my own greatest enemy this year. I missed a lot of screenings because tickets had run out, and since my press badge didn’t grant me a guaranteed seat in the cinema, this year at KVIFF I felt like I was unable to do my job as a critic.
With audiences of all kinds returning strongly after the pandemic, it has become very clear that KVIFF has grown so much that it can no longer accommodate all the spectators who pass through its doors in an equally satisfying way. In particular, KVIFF can no longer accommodate its press – which has come in much bigger numbers than in the past. The festival usually only organizes a single press screening per film, which one enters on a first-come-first-served basis, which means that if you don’t stay for the whole festival, you run the risk of missing the films you’re interested in because even the press screening halls (save for the Competition screenings) are very, very tiny – they feel much more like a test-screening room than they seem to be proper cinema halls.
These circumstances, combined with the fact it was sensible that many more members of the international press had joined this year’s festival, make me see KVIFF as a festival that is struggling between East and West, one that continues to give privilege to the local field, but that has not yet made up its mind on how it wishes to interact with the global circuit that it aspires to.
Of course, this bathes everything in a very soothing sense of intimacy, but in the most sought-after films (like Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall), many critics were unable to find a seat. As I mentioned earlier, the alternative is to rely on public screenings, but there, the battle for seats is even greater, and the tickets for this year’s edition sold out extremely fast in comparison to last year’s – another proof of the fact that the audience is also getting increasingly bigger. These circumstances, combined with the fact it was sensible that many more members of the international press had joined this year’s festival, make me see KVIFF as a festival that is struggling between East and West, one that continues to give privilege to the local field, but that has not yet made up its mind on how it wishes to interact with the global circuit that it aspires to.
Despite all these rather uncomfortable circumstances, this year’s KVIFF was far superior to the previous one, a confirmation of the fact that cinema has now finally managed to recover after the pandemic. This feeling does not, however, come from the festival’s Main Competition – which should’ve, in fact, been the litmus test for the selection’s true level of quality – but rather, by the side-bars and especially its special screenings, which borrowed some of the most successful titles that were shown in Berlin and Cannes.
The festival’s spirit has remained largely unchanged, in the sense that it satisfyingly covered most tastes, even though it does seem that its degree of populism is waning. The large audience films weren’t peaks of mainstream culture – for example, even Master and Commander (2003, dir. Peter Weir), which was screened to honor the presence of Russell Crowe as a special guest, and The Princess Bride (1987, dir. Rob Reiner), screened on the occasion of the presence of Robin Wright, are two genre films that are more than respectable. Even You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder (dir. Emma Westenberg), whose sole quality relies on the fact that its main roles are performed by Ewan McGregor and his daughter, Clara, is a generic road movie that is still admirable in terms of its indie tendencies.
The films in the Crystal Globe Competition seemed, like last year, not to stand out much – I even gave up after half the films, not even seeing the winner, Blaga’s Lessons (dir. Stephan Komandarev), since several friends warned me that, although it featured a prominent Bulgarian actress, Eva Skorcheva, the film was essentially conventional. The main prize didn’t even go to the titles that we, critics, had placed our bets on while chatting in the halls of the Hotel Thermal, as we believed that the much more appropriate (and notable) choices were Citizen Saint (dir. Tinatin Kajrishvili, Georgia) or Where the Wind Blows (dir. Marco Righi, Italy).
Though at times hermetic and placid, Righi’s film is actually my favorite of the competition, focusing on the religious crises and discoveries that plague a young man in a rural community in the Apennines. Echoing both Robert Bresson and Paul Schrader, as the director himself confesses, Where the Wind Blows is a film of rigor and slowness, of small unexpressed doubts that cause implosions, and of a sincere but ultimately misguided desire to help others. The religious theme is also shared by Citizen Saint, a small modern parable wherein a statue from a crucifix comes to life, and the community of the small mining village where the statue is from seems eager to crucify it once again. The Georgian presence in Karlovy Vary’s last few editions seems to be very strong – or, at the very least, very articulate, and I do think that recent Georgian cinema should be followed closely.
On Canada, Georgian cinema and my favorite sidebar
Another notable national presence at this year’s edition of Karlovy Vary was Canada (especially its French side), which, with ups and downs, managed to cover the entire spectrum of genre. I would truly be happy if Temporaries (r. Pier-Philippe Chevigny) will have a long afterlife after the festival – a relatively mature debut feature that recalls the Dardenne brothers, about a handful of seasonal workers from South Americ living in the Richelieu region of Canada. This realistic exercise is not precisely revolutionary, but it’s a decent fictionalization that is very tactful in the way that it approaches the exploitation of vulnerable foreigners. A confirmation of the fashionability of the courtroom as a cinematic space, Red Rooms (dir. Pascal Plante), the Canadian feature in competition, is a perfect demonstration of this schizoid nature of contemporary Canadian cinema, in the sense that it’s a film that is both very good and very bad at the same time. Plante’s production is good in the sense that it’s technically formidable (it looks impeccable, the color coordination is superb), but bad in the sense that it speculates on the theme of violence and sexual crimes in a way that is not that far removed from how one would shoot a true crime “documentary” (allow me the quotation marks) that is meant for Netflix. To conclude my little Canadian overview, if last year I was complaining about the father, now it’s time to pick on the son – Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool is a film that looks like it was made in 2002, when modern exploitation films with poor white people that get lost in so-called “exotic” countries ruled by cruel laws and barbaric local populations were still fashionable.
Last year’s inaugural Proxima competition, where Alexandru Solomon’s new film Arsenie. An Amazing afterlife had its international premiere, continued to show more and more interest towards experiments, even if its winning feature, Birth (r. Ji-Young Yoo, South Koreea) is not necessarily following a transgressive formula. What is fresh about Birth, especially in the context of Koreean cinema, which is dominated by male figures when it comes to international recognition, is its perspective about a young, successful female writer that doesn’t want to keep an unwanted pregnancy. It’s somewhat close to the discourse that Anatomy of a Fall has about gender roles, but much less intellectual, Birth also uses naturalistic strokes to discuss the expectations that are imposed upon women, but especially upon young people after a certain age. Other films such as Keeping Mum (dir. Émilie Brisavoine) and Say God Bye (dir. Thomas Imbach) also made their way into the section, which goes to show that found footage cinema has gained a lot of popularity in the festival circuit (as many others were featured across other sections of the festival), if not, even one of the definitive formulas of contemporary non-fiction cinema.
However, the very home of experimental and arthouse cinema, which is a sort of equivalent to the Forum of the Berlinale, was the Imagina section – which is probably my favorite in the entire festival. To name just a few: James Benning, Pedro Costa, Helena Wittmann (whose gorgeous, gorgeous Human Flowers of Flesh screened here at BIEFF last year) and even Sebastian Mihăilescu with his recent Mammalia. The Imagina selection is perhaps the strongest of the entire festival and is especially commendable in terms of short films; KVIFF only features experimental shorts. Prosinečki (dir. Adrian Duncan) is hands down the third best film I’ve seen in the entire festival (after Triet’s and Alice Rohrwacher’s new film), a very compelling technical exercise under the shape of an essay film about football, memory, technology and aesthetics.
Two admirable retrospectives
Before I get to briefly go through Rohrwacher’s film, so that I may end the article on a gracious note, I want to bring some attention to the festival’s retrospectives. Usually, the retrospectives in a festival whose main focus does not rely on archives or on the recovery of various films run the risk of being boring, spotty and heterogeneous. This year, KVIFF put two admirable retrospectives forward: one dedicated to Iranian cinema, the other dedicated to Japanese filmmaker Yasuzuo Masumura. Iran was also heavily featured in Berlin and throughout the entire festival circuit (for better or for worse), which has now turned its gaze towards Iranian cinema, but the retrospective in Karlovy Vary is admirable in the sense that it included only films made by Iranian filmmakers (unlike Berlin, which featured foreign filmmakers who “discussed” Iran), and especially by younger generations. The Masumura retrospective is a topic that I will certainly return to, but its existence within KVIFF seems to be a very successful gamble – Masumura is rather obscure, and acquired taste, even though he’s one of the most important Japanese filmmakers since the 1950s. I would have never expected to see a retrospective of his at Karlovy Vary – but it’s good to know that it will definitely be making the rounds.
The festival’s saving grace: La chimera
At last, the saving grace, since what Karlovy Vary Took over from Cannes (Ceylan, Koreeda, Wenders, Tran Anh Hung) and Berlin (Nicolas Philibert, Ira Sachs, Celine Song) were some really good films.
La Chimera inevitably recalls a Fellini-esque spirit of small and bucolic rural collectives, but is dominated by a generalized sense of innocence and warmth – and I can’t say anything about them other than the fact that they make you happy that you’re alive.
Ever since I saw Alice Rohrwacher’s La chimera, I have had the impression that I’m dreaming of the film each and every night. Delicate and solar – even more so than its predecessor, Lazzaro felice – La Chimera records the nostalgic charm of a classical film with an innate sense of ease. Playing the role of an English immigrant that has come to Italy in order to search for (read: steal) Etruscan artifacts, Josh O’Connor, a veteran of period films and series in all shapes and sizes, offers the role of a career – in a film where one of his co-stars is none other than Isabella Rosellini. La Chimera inevitably recalls a Fellini-esque spirit of small and bucolic rural collectives, but is dominated by a generalized sense of innocence and warmth – and I can’t say anything about them other than the fact that they make you happy that you’re alive.
This is how I return to the sense of home that KVIFF offers me, which was mostly given to me by the films themselves. I remain attached to the small towns in La Chimera, because Karlovy Vary was full, fuller than I had ever seen it.
Graduated with a BA in film directing and a MA in film studies from UNATC; she has also studied history of art. She also collaborates with the Acoperisul de Sticla film magazine and is a former coordinator of FILM MENU. She's dedicated herself to '60-'70s Japanese cinema and Irish post-punk music bands. Still keeps a picture of Leslie Cheung in her wallet.