IFFBoston 2023: 3 Narratives


Reviews for the three narrative features I saw at IFFBoston 2023. Go here for reviews of the three documentaries I saw there.


Two young Berliners, Leon (Thomas Schubert), a writer struggling to finish his novel and his friend Felix (Langston Uibel), a photographer, take a trip to a cabin in the woods near the Baltic Sea owned by Felix’s mother. Upon arrival, they discover the cabin’s already been rented to Nadja (Paula Beer), whom they first hear having loud sex in the other bedroom with Devid (Enno Trebs), a hunky lifeguard. As they all get to know each other, Leon’s the only one of the four not having much fun. Easily irritated and often unable to see what’s going on (even when—especially when it’s apparent to everyone else including the viewer), he’s fixated on his book. Meanwhile, persistent wildfires threaten to spread closer to their neck of the woods.

Purportedly the second film in a loose trilogy from writer/director Christian Petzold beginning with 2020’s Undine, this seemingly has little in common with it apart from casting some of the same actors (most notably Beer.) Obviously, this is a “fire” film whereas Undine was a “water” film; however, while the earlier film had some humor threaded throughout its sci-fi/magical realism frame, this one might be Petzold’s most explicitly comedic effort to date. Schubert’s Leon is a bumbling, near-exasperating protagonist, but still a protagonist because he ultimately has a good heart (even if his self-sabotaging behavior often obscures this nature.) His chemistry with Beer is palpable as well, even when it feels like they’re sparring partners. Actually, the whole ensemble is strong, with Uibel and Trebs evolving from second chorus members to the leads in their own story. Matthias Brandt rounds out the cast late in the film as Leon’s older, long-suffering (in multiple senses of the word) editor.

Apart from some ambiguous roughhousing between Leon and Felix, Afire starts off unassumingly, slowly building its relationships and character arcs as the wildfires remain a background threat heard about but only seen via glowing, burnished, distant skies. Like those fires, it’s a slow burn until, all at once, it encompasses everything in its path with dire consequences for some and narrow escapes for others. It’s reminiscent of a Gary Shteyngart novel in that it’s expertly constructed, caustically funny and in the end, tinged with tragedy and the possibility of transformation. Petzold’s built up a noteworthy filmography since 2012’s Barbara and Undine is a dazzling addition to it.


Pietro and Bruno befriend each other as boys in an isolated region of the Italian Alps. For Pietro and his family, it’s a rustic summer vacation spot, a getaway from Turin; for Bruno, it’s the only home he knows. The boys become close but when Pietro’s family attempts (and fails) to provide Bruno with loftier opportunities, they grow apart. Years later, as adults, they meet again following a death, reconnecting over the construction of a home in the mountains. Over time though, it’s increasingly apparent that the two men are on alternate paths. Their class differences and contrasting approaches to overcoming them inevitably leads towards fractures in their relationship.

This Cannes Jury Prize winner, adapted from a novel and co-directed by the filmmaker of The Broken Circle Breakdown benefits greatly from its natural settings, breathtaking cinematography, evocative sound design and as the adult Pietro, Martin Eden star Luca Marinelli (unrecognizable until he shaves off his beard.) Strip all of this away, however, and you’re left with a standard coming-of-age parable. As the adult Bruno, Alessandro Borghi’s performance is far less dynamic than Marinelli’s and the many bluesy rock songs on its soundtrack by Daniel Norgren blur together before long. Still, some of its set pieces are inspired—the nail-biting mountain hike with the boys and Pietro’s father, the change-of-pace Nepal sequences, the sinister splendor of the Alps in the dead of winter. The Eight Mountains is ostensibly about a friendship but its gradually slanted focus on Pietro’s trajectory rather than Bruno’s is what resonates in the end.


Paul Schrader has long established a reputation for going there, which is a major component of his sensibility and thus his peculiar appeal. Consequently, his movies work best when centered on a performance that understands how nutso the material is and can bring it across convincingly anyway (definitely Ethan Hawke in First Reformed, not so much Willem Dafoe in Light Sleeper.) As impassioned horticulturist Narval Roth, Australian actor Joel Edgerton is a strong choice because he’s so adept at disappearing into a part. As he did in Loving, he convincingly adopts a specific physical appearance and voice (a plebeian, nearly Noo Yawk accent) that immediately defines his character which makes the eventual reveals about him all the more potent and shocking.

Still, Master Gardener can be more than a little silly and calculated. For a while, after the big reveal occurs, there is a jolt in that it could go in a number of directions. The one it chooses is a redemption-for-an-abhorrent-past narrative, which has been done to death although Edgerton’s commitment to the story and the part does some heavy lifting. Quintessa Swindell is adequate as his young mentee, but as her great-aunt and his employer, Sigourney Weaver is something else: a prickly, wealthy matron out of a classic Hollywood picture that might come off as a caricature without Weaver’s authoritative take on and comfort with the role. Ultimately, it’s her and Edgerton’s presence and ease with being a little nuts keeping Schrader afoot on the tightrope he’s walking (if barely.)

IFFBoston 2023: 3 Documentaries

Love To Love You, Donna Summer

I saw three documentaries and three narrative features at the 20th(!) Independent Film Festival Boston; here are reviews of the former; check back here in one week for the latter.


She’s rightly remembered as “The Queen of Disco” but even that royal moniker only hints at Donna Summer’s talent and star-power. Blessed with a stellar voice and physical beauty to match, one could assume her success as a singer was also a case of “right time, right place”, adapting to and then defining a dominant musical genre of her era. This documentary, co-directed by her daughter Brooklyn Sudano celebrates Summer but also works diligently to present her as the multifaceted person she was. Most recall her as the woman who orgiastically moaned “Love to Love You Baby” and belted “Last Dance”, but she was also an innovative artist whose contributions to her hit singles and elaborate concept albums far exceeded that primary impression—cue the footage of her vocally coming up with the mechanical electronic rhythm that would define her seminal synth-pop opus “I Feel Love” or the many transformative live performances which she often approached with the meticulousness of a serious actor.

Constructing the film with an extensive assortment of archival footage (both visual and aural), first-time filmmaker Sudano runs the risk of incoherence; at times, the final product does feel a little scattered, stuffing so much content into a feature-length frame. I suspect her co-director, Roger Ross Williams (an Academy Award winner for Life, Animated) provides crucial support in shaping it into a mostly satisfying trajectory. One of their most distinct and effective decisions is to relegate all modern-day interviews to audio only (similar to the recent docuseries 1971: The Year that Music Changed Everything) which keeps the focus laser-sharp on Summer and also preserves the audience firmly in her own time frame (she passed away from lung cancer in 2012.) The only real glimpses of the present are shots of Sudano sifting through all of her mother’s artifacts—less an indulgence than a loose framing device expressing her personal connection to the material.

In the Q&A after this screening, Sudano mentioned that she didn’t want to make a puff piece or a Behind The Music-style overview; the film certainly doesn’t shy away from darker moments of Summer’s life, nor does it gloss over such controversies as her becoming a born-again Christian at the dawn of the 1980s. Also addressed is the backlash she received from the gay community over homophobic song lyrics that spiraled into rumors distressing not only her fanbase but also herself. But that self was alternately (and often simultaneously) a glitzy, commandeering diva, a campy goofball, a devoted but visibly exhausted mother, an introspective wanderer. Similarly, this ambitious, near-exhaustive portrait is a love letter, a critical assessment, a fanciful but also far-reaching collage. Like its subject, it leaves a mark. (Premieres on HBO May 20.)


Best friends Silva and Estefania (nicknamed “Beba”) are two teenagers in Laredo, Texas. They engage in typical activities for their age: hanging out at the convenience store parking lot, sneaking past the gates of vacant or abandoned homes, sitting at the Rio Grande peering across the border to Mexico. Beba, an aspiring musician, is an illegal immigrant, so the view is bittersweet; if she and Silva were to cross the border it would jeopardize her attempts at getting her work papers. The girls’ pro-abortion activism is also poignant once their personal experience regarding it comes into view.

Co-directed by its subjects, Hummingbirds is purposely casual—lackadaisical, even. Sections of it nearly resemble a video diary, yet the subjects rarely break the fourth wall so it’s closer to cinema verité, albeit a self-reflexive take on that non-narrative subgenre. It took me some time to process how substantial this approach actually was (I wasn’t surprised at this screening when two boomers sitting in front of me walked out early on), but I think I get it—anyone can turn a camera on themselves (now more than ever) and call it “art”, but this approach allows one to observe and absorb specifics of community, camaraderie and causes where the personal and political are deeply linked without getting spoon-fed their implications. With considerable candor and charm (and some open-endedness), Silva and Beba could make a sequel in a few years, potentially turning this into their own take on Michael Apted’s Up series if they so desire.


Watch repair requires a steady hand and infinitesimal patience; this documentary exudes the latter in spades and also requires it from the viewer. Alexandru, a 90-year-old Romanian clock maker, recalls his time as a political prisoner in forced labor camps of that country’s Soviet and Communist regimes. Scenes of him speaking openly about his harrowing past alternate with nearly meditative footage of him at work, a survivor whose old age is positively bucolic compared to what came before. This mostly plays out in lengthy still shots meant to emphasize a sense of place and the value of time being deeply considered rather than glossed over. It’s a beautiful, admirable documentary, but also a challenging one that I had difficulty fully connecting with. It aims for a sense of the sublime but sometimes (such as when it aspires to Jeanne Dielman-like rigidity), it comes off as pretentious.

Give Me Pity!

Going straight to your heart on demand!

Cheerfully billed as “A Saturday Night Television Special” starring Sissy St. Claire (Sophie von Haselberg), writer/director Amanda Kramer’s film may feel as if it’s beaming in from another planet to those unfamiliar with 1970s/80s variety shows. Devotees of camp classics such as Donny and Marie, The Lynda Carter Special or the finale of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz will recognize all the genre tropes being lovingly replicated and satirized but even they might feel bewildered (or perhaps transported) by the dark interior spaces an increasingly taxed and frayed Sissy inhabits.

Kramer understands that if you’re going to make a feature-length pastiche, pinpoint accuracy is required. Not only does she shoot on smeary video in the classic 1:33 analog format, stylistically, she replicates everything of the era from the sequined clothing, elaborate wigs, neon colors and piercing lasers to the requisite hanging mirrorball, vintage-looking graphics and Donna Summer-worthy disco anthems including the title track and “Making It” (not a David Naughton cover.) If she left it at that, it would be nothing more than an elaborate tribute to an ultra-specific type of entertainment from a bygone era. However, as with last year’s Please Baby Please, a 1950s-set mashup of West Side Story-style bohemia and genderqueer studies starring Andrea Riseborough (!), this pushes the viewer much further than that.

Not even a few minutes in, Sissy literally faces her demon(s) while the screen glitches and distorts and continues to do so intermittently. Effervescent and hungry for attention, she seems to shrug it off at first, for the show must go on and she’s made it clear she’s giving it her all. As the special moves from one titled set piece to another (“The America Number” answers the question, “What if Laurie Anderson had been given one of these specials circa ‘O Superman’”?), we see the implications and consequences of this. Touches of surrealism such as a literally faceless psychic and an interpretive death-dance with a nurse that climaxes with Sissy declaring, “You will never, never, ever, ever have your own television special, so don’t even DARE to DREAM!” add to the disorientation, burrowing deeper into madness. But you can’t stop ever-resilient Sissy who is dead set on triumphing, even if it means nearly losing what’s left of her sanity while delivering an epic, climactic monologue about a defining, near-traumatic childhood memory and how it made her who she is today.

Whereas Please Baby Please, while fabulous, occasionally muddles its intentions with its many intellectual diversions, this firmly retains its focus (being just 79 minutes helps.) Von Haselberg’s casting is especially inspired—I didn’t even know who her famous mother (someone who might’ve starred in a special like this back in the day) was until afterwards; it’s the type of role that could make her career if it wasn’t such a genuinely strange little film. Regardless, as we get to know Sissy (who appears in nearly every frame) rather intimately, Give Me Pity! gradually transcends its premise, revealing layer after layer of everything that goes into a performance and the toll it can take on the performer’s psyche.