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Highlights from Week One of the New York Film Festival

This year’s New York Film Festival (which begins Thursday and runs through October 11th) is taking place by way of online screenings and drive-in presentations. The 2020 festival calendar has been thrown into disarray because of the pandemic—and because of ongoing closings of movie theatres and doubt over whether theatrical releases will be commercially viable when theatres reopen. (Films that earn acclaim at the N.Y.F.F. often open in theatres soon after; this year, with most films, it’s unclear when or how they’ll be available after the festival ends.) The social side of the festival is, of course, absent; in a normal year, its public screenings and press screenings alike are meeting places, like an annual cinephiles’ convention. The festival’s very festivity is among the double-edged swords of cinematic experience: although at times an enormous celebration is whipped up around an artistic nonentity (it happens every year), there’s also at times the joyful yet solemn sense of grand occasion when a new masterwork is unveiled—an occasion that renders the social side double-edged, too, when, greeting friends long-unseen, there’s still a great impatience to get out into the night and walk alone to exult in the experience of the film, to keep it under pressure, to let it take root and grow. This year’s festival, which will be watched mainly at home, will be different—though the differences will be distinct and unforeseeable for each film. (I’ll be doing a short roundup for each of the festival’s three weeks.)

Two of the festival’s main offerings work intricately with time and do so to greater emotional effect, worldly insight, and artistic imagination than anything I’ve seen by Christopher Nolan. (I haven’t seen “Tenet”—theatres aren’t open in New York, and I wouldn’t be inclined to go to one yet.) One of these highlights is simply called “Time”; it’s a documentary, by Garrett Bradley, about a couple, Sibil Fox Richardson and Robert Richardson, who, in 1997, when the clothing store they owned, in Shreveport, Louisiana, was in danger of closing, took part in a bank robbery. She was imprisoned for three and a half years; he was sentenced to sixty years without parole. The Richardsons are Black, and Sibil took clear and furious note of the cruelly excessive sentence that Robert received—and of the racist basis for it. After her release, she devoted herself to raising their six sons, to restarting her professional life (she became a successful auto dealer), and to working for the release of Robert—all the while video-recording her family life as if preserving it for Robert to experience should he get home. Bradley and her crew draw on this footage and are present to record later stages of Sibil’s efforts, as Robert was coming up on twenty years in prison. “Time” goes into the intricacies of the family’s bureaucratically nightmarish and financially ruinous confrontation with the judicial system, of the normalized horrors of incarceration and the destruction of family life that it entails, and of Sibil’s activism on behalf of the abolition of a system that she—and not she alone—calls a new form of slavery. It also details Sibil’s devoted work of atonement, her unsparing candor about the crime that wrenched the family apart, and her exertions to restore and sustain the family in Robert’s absence—and the love that sustains the couple despite his absence. In the process, the movie opens vast political vistas on the deep-rooted and unchallenged forms of white supremacy at work throughout American society (whether involving legal or economic inequality) and displays the enormous depths of emotional strength, the daily heroism, that endurance demands. The movie, in black-and-white, blends its mournful tones and its dramatic energies with a romantic ardor and a historic grandeur.

The prolific young Argentinian director Matías Piñeiro is Shakespeare-obsessed, which is to say that he’s also performance-obsessed and theatre-obsessed, and his new film, “Isabella”—centered on a planned production of “Measure for Measure”—leapfrogs through time, and through performances and productions, with a whimsically graceful yet intimately passionate cinematic imagination. Mariel (María Villar), a thirty-eight-year-old actress in Buenos Aires who’s seven months pregnant, auditions for the lead role of Isabella in a production of the play. It’s a strange audition, for which she needs to deliver a personal monologue, which she builds around an incident that had occurred a while ago, in Córdoba, with her brother (Pablo Sigal), and his so-called lover (Agustina Muñoz), an actress who’s also auditioning for the role. Meanwhile, Mariel has written a play that’s about to be staged—a personal one, endowed with ingenious stagecraft (its striking imagery figures in the movie throughout), centered on the problem of doubt and action, and regarding which she herself faces an ongoing doubt, as to whether she’ll act in it or ever act again. Shattering Shakespeare into shards of personal experience, rhythmically repeating sequences and actions in a sort of cinematic music, and catching actors in highly inflected and extended closeups, Piñeiro fuses performance and daily life into a quietly mighty architecture of psychological complexity. Working with an extraordinary cast of many regulars in his films, he sustains a tensely balanced tone that, as in films by Éric Rohmer, reveals the piercingly intimate and passionate element of intellectual pursuits.

The festival includes eight programs of short films; the eighth of those programs, “New York Stories,” features “Object Lessons, or: What Happened Whitsunday,” Ricky D’Ambrose’s historically resonant work of documentary drama—drama rooted in fictitious documents. It’s the story of a young woman who is murdered at a nature preserve in New Paltz, New York—on a site that was about to become an art complex showing the holdings of one late collector. The killing became politicized, through the actions and claims of a right-wing anti-immigration activist planning to run for office. (The story is loosely based on the killing of Kathryn Steinle, in 2015, and its place in Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.) D’Ambrose tells the story with documents made for the film—faux newspaper articles, a death certificate, maps, and architectural plans, as well as film footage of the rustic site and other relevant venues. With its allusions to rallies, Internet harassment, and the abuse of religious occasions, it’s a clear and subtly furious unfolding of the prime political pathology of the times.

Restorations and revivals are also a major part of the festival, and one of the best is in the first week. Joyce Chopra’s 1985 drama “Smooth Talk,” based on a story by Joyce Carol Oates, stars a teen-age Laura Dern as Connie, who lives with her parents (Mary Kay Place and Levon Helm) and older sister (Elizabeth Berridge) in a rustic home in Northern California, far from town. Connie, who’s in the summer between her freshman and sophomore years of high school, is sneaking around with her friends, claiming to be going to movies when they’re actually trying to meet boys (and she’s trying a little harder). Tensions with her family are rising over their efforts to control her actions and supervise her time; her encounters with young men grow increasingly tense and risky, and reach a crisis when she’s stalked and pursued to her home by a man (Treat Williams) whose smooth talk she rightly perceives as a threat of violence. Chopra strikes an astoundingly tactile, intimate vision of Connie’s terror together with the burdens of self-doubt and silence that she endures—and that predators foster. The film’s power is enormous throughout; spare means (long-held closeups, a four-minute take of sisterly confessions) evoke a drama that seems to have been filmed holding its breath.

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