Like the vernal equinox, New Directors/New Films is a sign that winter and the soul-crushing slog known as awards season have finally ended. Now in its 52nd year, the festival, opening Wednesday, is a great place to recharge and revive. With a slate largely drawn from recent international film festivals — from Berlin and Locarno to Sundance — the 12-day event is also a nice way to travel the world by proxy while previewing work before it begins percolating into art theaters and onto streaming services.
Each edition of New Directors — a presentation of Film at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art — is partly shaped by the competition from other events. It’s also shaped by its programmers’ tastes and orthodoxies, including ideas about what constitutes a festival movie, which, much as at Cannes and elsewhere, tends to mean gravely serious, non-genre work. That can get monotonous, but at its best, New Directors offers enduring proof of cinematic life beyond the corporate bottom line: The festival’s commitment to film art is a galvanizing article of faith.
This year’s program consists of 27 features, about half of which are North American premieres, along with some dozen shorts. Among the strongest is the opener, “Earth Mama,” the terrifically assured feature debut from the writer-director Savanah Leaf, a former Olympic volleyball player. Set in the Bay Area, this contemporary drama tracks the heartbreaking, frustrating, at times exasperatingly self-sabotaging daily travails of Gia (a lovely Tia Nomore), a young, single, heavily pregnant woman, as she tries to regain custody of her son and daughter, who are in foster care. Every conceivable odd has been stacked against Gia, including the degradations of systemic oppression.
Anchored by Leaf’s empathy and by her precise, confident visual style, the story unfolds during the last stretch of Gia’s pregnancy. With naturalistic dialogue that largely avoids exegesis — as well as with expressionistic flourishes and subtle camerawork that often reveal what the characters don’t or can’t say — Leaf skillfully engages with larger social issues while steering clear of the kind of sermonizing that too often seeps into similarly themed dramas. In Leaf’s hands, Gia isn’t a case study or object lesson. She is instead a woman who’s both singular and much like any other — a human being, in other words, struggling to find a place and a sense of sovereignty amid the onslaughts of everyday life.
“Mutt,” another festival highlight, this one set in present-day New York, follows its heart-stealing title character across a single exceedingly eventful and emotionally fraught day. Written and directed by Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, it centers on Feña, a young man who has recently transitioned (played by the charismatic Lío Mehiel, who, like the filmmaker, is trans), as he crisscrosses the city and through the labyrinthine complexities of his life, including his tricky, sometimes confusing relationships with friends and family. With fluid cinematography, deft narrative pacing and swells of feeling, Lungulov-Klotz creates an urgent, of-the-moment portrait of a young man who’s at once distinct and movingly, rightfully ordinary.
Like most movies on the contemporary festival circuit, the selections in New Directors tend to draw on a hodgepodge of different realist traditions (Hollywood, the European art film, Sundance, etc.). This year, more than a few selections also incorporate fantastical interludes — from brief hallucinations to alternative worlds — that productively complicate and on occasion destabilize their realism. One of the boldest, most extensive uses of the fantastic occurs in “The Maiden,” a dreamy, gentle story of loss and mourning from the Canadian writer-director Graham Foy. Set in the hinterlands of Alberta, the movie focuses on several teenagers, both living and dead — a haunting that feels like a generational cri de coeur.
I’m still puzzling through the far-out, what-in-the-what finale of “Astrakan,” a drama from the French writer-director David Depesseville about a watchful 12-year-old, Samuel (the appealing Mirko Giannini), who’s been placed in a foster family that seems supremely ill-equipped to deal with his trauma. For most of its running time, the movie embraces a familiar if somewhat stylized realism only to abruptly veer into full-blown symbolism. Like some of the other movies in the lineup, “Astrakan” owes a conspicuous debt to established filmmakers — the boy at times evokes François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel while the filmmaking nods at Robert Bresson via Bruno Dumont — although at its strongest, it stands on its own.
The cinematic touchstones are just as obvious elsewhere in the program, which isn’t necessarily a negative. The influence of the Ukrainian auteur Sergei Loznitsa clearly informs the dramatic tumult, political pessimism and elegantly flowing camerawork of “Pamfir,” a visually striking drama from the writer-director Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk about a smuggler who’s recently returned home. There’s certainly some of the Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes’s DNA in “Tommy Guns,” a far-out tale from Carlos Conceição that opens in Angola (where he was born) during the tail end of that country’s war of independence. The movie opens powerfully and gathers dramatic momentum as it begins to blur the time frame, only to lose its sting (and focus on subjugated Angolans) when it drifts into self-conscious surrealism.
Energetic, sweeping and feminist to the bone, the Iranian drama “Leila’s Brothers,” from the writer-director Saeed Roustaee, traces its title character through the claustrophobic tumult of her life, family and world. Leila (Taraneh Alidoosti, vivid and grounded) is trying to balance her desires with the competing, clamorous needs of her squabbling brothers and impoverished, traditionally minded parents. Organized around a series of encounters, the movie fuses the personal with the political. It opens with a protest that soon turns violent, an overture that sets the tense, fractious mood and telegraphs the story’s trajectory. Then, scene by scene, it lays bare the complexities of contemporary Iran.
“Chile ’76,” Manuela Martelli’s visually and tonally meticulous exploration of political resistance and conscience, takes place in the brutal years after the 1973 American-backed coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power. Soon after it opens, Carmen (Aline Küppenheim), a doctor’s wife with expensive taste who’s decamped to her family’s vacation home, is asked by a priest for help with a wounded stranger. Before long Carmen is drawn into a shadowy world of passwords and strange noises on the phone, and this unnerving feature has turned into a veritable horror movie. When a body washes up on a beach, Carmen tells her grandchildren to avert their eyes; by then, though, hers have been pried open.
There isn’t a false note in the tender Mexican drama “Tótem,” which follows the 7-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes, suitably luminous) as she navigates the chaos and indifference of her sprawling family during celebrations for her ailing father. With intricate staging, lapidary camerawork and an expressionistically warm palette — along charming appearances from the natural world — the writer-director Lila Avilés creates a richly textured, deeply compassionate portrait of a family that’s falling apart as one of its youngest members comes into consciousness. “Tótem” is only Avilés’s second feature — her first, “The Chambermaid,” screened at the 2019 festival — but it’s also one of the finest movies you’ll see this year.
“Tótem” is also the kind of movie that I think one of the festival’s early programmers, the writer Donald Richie, had in mind when he told The Times in 1972 that the inaugural New Directors “will introduce deserving films that perhaps otherwise might not have exposure here.” It was a honorable idea then; it still is. If anything, the fragility of the art-film exhibition, which has only been worsened by the pandemic, makes the festival’s support of movies like “Tótem” feel even more necessary than it did back then. And if I haven’t convinced you to get off the couch, then consider that this year the festival has sweetened its offerings with a smartly priced package of five movies for $50 — a cinephile carrot that’s as good as it gets.
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