*These reviews were originally published at The Film Experience.
The studio Celluloid Dreams recorded a remarkable success this year by winning the top prize at all of Europe’s big three festivals. The journey started in Berlin with the Golden Bear for Taxi, continued into Cannes with the Palme d’or for Dheepan (review) and ended just last week with Venice’s Golden Lion for Venezuela’s Desde Allá. Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is the film that piqued my interest most, both as an Iranian, and as a fan of the auteur’s complex career, which I have followed in real time since his first film—a children’s movie—back in 1995.
Taxi is filmed digitally with incredibly modest means, borne of the director’s complicated situation with government authorities. Panahi plays a taxi driver, on a sojourn across Tehran in which he picks up an assorted range of passengers whose interactions with him shape the film. None of the cameras used ever leave the space of the car. Panahi’s film, influenced by a rich tradition of hybridizing documentary and fiction in Iranian cinema, began to experiment with the limits of fiction in The Mirror. Nearly two decades later—and several similar attempts in between, including the masterful Closed Curtain—he’s back in the same territory, this time to very entertaining effects.
Panahi plays himself, disguised as a taxi driver, and although one suspects the film is entirely scripted, some of the conversations convey no sign of awareness on the passengers’ part. Some recognize him; some berate him for not knowing addresses. The best of these passengers is his niece, a sweet, loud and clever little girl who’s making a short film of her own.
This is one of Panahi’s most accessible films, consistently funny and engaging, and heartwarming, for showing the director in high spirits after the troubles of the past few years. Yet, the complexity and subtlety, the sly sociopolitical commentary seem absent in Taxi. Panahi’s passengers are a checklist of Iranian stereotypes, whose succession of appearances make comic, but not thematic sense. And the introduction of Nasrin Setoodeh, a beloved political activist as one of the passengers, is warm and touching but only serves to make the film more politically overt. Taxi is the director’s most entertaining film, but not his richest or most nuanced.
If the Iranian film is unexpectedly fun, no such thing can be said about Lorenzo Vigas’s debut feature, Desde Allá. The Venice winner tells the story of Armando (Alfredo Castro), a wealthy, lonely and closeted gay man who invites young boys from a poor neighborhood in Caracas to disrobe for him as he pleasures himself. When Elder (Luis Silva) a seventeen year-old petty criminal turns out to be a homophobe, punches Armando in the face and runs away with his money, a curious relationship develops between the two that keeps them going back to each other.
Vigas is very economical with the details of the story. There is very little dialogue in the film apart from cursory conversations and some important background information is left for the audience to guess, often with eerie effect. The reason for Armando’s deep hatred for his father for example, is never explained, but a clear undercurrent in his behaviour. Desde Allá is shot with superb precision, alternating between punishing, sturdy close-ups of the characters and energetic handheld sequences on the streets.
This is quite possibly the most confident film debut of any director in recent memory. Vigas studies societal hierarchies in Venezuela, the exploitative nature of the relationship between the wealthy and the lower classes, the deep-rooted effects of childhood trauma, the melancholia of loneliness and the fluidity of human sexuality, all within the parameters of the most sacred cinematic rule: show, don’t tell. Tense, gripping and with two stellar performances from the central duo, Desde Allá is a film that immediately puts Vigas among the most exciting directors working today.