At the Movies

Michael Wood

I remember Morelia, in Mexico, from visits long ago: a fine old colonial city which seemed to have a crumbling convent or modest palace on almost every corner. It went through a bad patch in the early years of this century, even before narcoviolence made life difficult there as in so many parts of Mexico. But the city cleaned up its streets, activated the tourist trade, and thanks to much skilled restoration now looks even more colonial than it used to. The effect is of a visit to an elegant and bustling 18th century, updated by cars and discos and cellphones. And for one week of the year at least, the time of its annual international film festival, now in its ninth season, Morelia has glamour in addition to its old charm: red carpets, parties, international directors and stars, journalists everywhere, lots of happy gawking crowds. A waitress asks me discreetly when Diego Luna is arriving. I can’t tell her, because I don’t know; and I don’t tell the waitress I don’t know who Diego Luna is.

The festival has various premieres, retrospectives of the work of several directors, thematic cycles (the presence of Mexico in film noir, for example), showcases for the films of special guests (in this case Volker Schlöndorff and Béla Tarr), and competitions for best Mexican documentary, feature film and short. Along with Mark Cousins and François Dupeyron, I am a member of the jury for the best feature. Of course the chance to watch films you are not judging is one of the attractions of such a festival, and I thought of devoting this space to Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), an inspired film noir I hadn’t seen before, where the ruthless, calculating woman, in the shape of Jane Greer, may also really care for the man she is framing and using, a very young Robert Mitchum. This complexity is not going to do her any good, because both the plot and Mitchum believe in the simpler story of her murderous guile. But we are left wondering if there isn’t some sort of baffled innocence lurking in her evildoings.

The festival programme also allows for riffs and sequences you couldn’t have foreseen. I came to wonder, for instance, why new Mexican movies linger so obsessively over lost or distressed figures whom ordinary, undamaged people can’t help, and indeed for whom normality itself has become a brutal, unforgiving enemy. There may be a link here to the use of black comedy to cope with unmanageable realities, and an accidental sequence of viewings brought this strongly to mind. One day I saw Luis García Berlanga’s The Executioner (1963), in which a young man becomes a public executioner in Spain: accommodation is scarce, and this way he is entitled to a flat. His hope is that no one will be sentenced to death for a long time, and his plan is to resign as soon as it does happen, before he is required to act. He isn’t opposed to capital punishment, just horrified by the thought of the job and its unpopular social aura. The truly memorable moments of unlaughable comedy come when he finally has to take a man’s life. The condemned criminal is sick, and is half-led, half-carried towards his death by a group of warders. Behind him the reluctant, still struggling executioner is dragged along by another group. In one shot these two clusters of figures in black, seen from behind in long shot, cross an empty courtyard within the prison, and vanish. This is as close as we get to the actual execution, but we feel we have seen some sort of parable about conformity and coercion, and how death’s servants will always get the job done.

The Mexican movie I saw the day after, Kenya Márquez’s Expiration Date (Fecha de Caducidad; ‘Best Before Date’, or ‘Best Before’, would be a catchier and crueller translation) picks up this note, but is even darker. The audience was laughing out loud, but I felt its (irresistible) humour called for a more troubled reaction. It stars the well-known Mexican actor Damián Alcázar as an odd-job man who is delighted to find a beat-up old Datsun abandoned on the wasteland where he lives. He is less delighted to find a severed head beside the car, and much of the movie has to do with his trying to dispose of it. There are two other stories – that of a girl who has killed her abusive boyfriend and run away, and that of a mother whose graceless grown-up son has disappeared – and the narrative takes up the three different points of view in turn. One of the beauties of the film is that each of the characters is forced to invent a story for what is happening to them, and each set of lies fools someone else irremediably. The film’s combination of perfectly false stories and impeccably pitched grim jokes says a whole lot, it seems to me, about how one talks about the unspeakable.

There’s no connection through comedy to Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011), which is probably the most impressive film I’ve seen at the festival, although Tarr himself was very funny about it in the Q&A session after its first showing. Asked if the division of the narrative into six days had any significance, he said the inhabitants of a Catholic country – as I write the remains of John Paul II are doing the local rounds, Pátzcuaro this afternoon, Morelia this evening – should know the answer to the question, and then added a gloss to the effect that God took six days to make the mess we live in, and then had the gall to give himself a day off. The movie, by implication, takes six days to let the mess unwind to its final point, and there is no seventh day.

The starting point, and the source of the title, is the famous incident of Nietzsche’s embracing a horse on a street in Turin just before his final collapse into mutism, and the film’s ostensible question, actually comic in a Beckettian sense, is what happened to the horse. As soon as the question is asked we see a tired and sweating horse dragging a long cart up a lonely country road, its driver stiffly hanging on to the reins. There is violent, overbearing music in the soundtrack, and this sequence, with much concentration on the horse’s plod and its increasingly bowed head, goes on for … oh … an hour or two. No, but for perhaps seven or eight minutes out of the film’s total of 146.

And yet the film is not about the horse. It’s about repetition and fatigue and the world the horse inhabits. The driver gets home to his stone cottage in the bleak countryside, his daughter silently joins him in unharnessing the horse, stabling it, shoving the cart into a barn. She helps him change from his work clothes into his home clothes – they’re more or less identical – taking off and putting on socks, boots, trousers, shirt, pullover, jacket. She has to do this because he has lost the use of one arm. We see her helping him to dress and undress quite a few times in the movie, but after the second day he doesn’t use his work clothes. A terrific wind is blowing, and the horse refuses to pull the long cart. The father and daughter stay at home, eat their potatoes – that’s all they eat – stare at the landscape, chop wood, do the ironing. They scarcely talk except to bark a command or a piece of information to each other. The wind continues to blow furiously, and its music is supported on and off by the same grinding tune we heard at the beginning of the film.

One day father and daughter have a visitor, who wants to buy some liquor from them, and who delivers a Nietzschean rant while he’s doing it. Another day a group of gypsies pays them a raucous visit, only to be driven off by the father with an axe. Then the well runs dry, and in the film’s most amazing sequence, the father decides it’s time for them to leave their house. They pack up their essential belongings and load them on a small cart, which the daughter pulls, the father pushing from the side, and with the horse tethered behind. They slowly reach the top of the hill at the back of the screen and disappear over it. We look for a long time at the empty landscape. Then father, daughter, cart and horse return, trundle back down the hill, unpack and settle into the house again. What happened? Did they think the world over the hill was even worse than their desperate homestead? Did they decide that that grim place was home after all? Or did they just realise that dying might be better than living? We don’t see them die, we see them sitting there, waterless, and with their food running out. It’s the sixth day.

I’m making the film sound like a parody of pessimism, but it’s not that. It’s not even pessimistic, it’s a compulsively loyal picture of the doggedness of lives without options. As you watch it you think repeatedly: ‘This is boring.’ And just as often you think, with some surprise: ‘But I’m not bored.’ A special effect of a special kind.