The Monsters of MSPIFF

The 42nd Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) wrapped up on Thursday, April 27. Offering two weeks of local and international fare, encompassing fiction, documentary, animation, and practically every conceivable genre, it’s an almost overwhelming smorgasbord for cinephiles in Minnesota.

Initially, my plan was to see more than 40 movies throughout the festival, but I ended up only seeing 20: life, work, and a sick pet foiled my plans. So while I can’t say I can offer a thorough recap, I can at least highlight the films I was able to check out – which, given my cinematic preferences, gravitated toward narrative films from around the globe. Several of these movies dealt with monsters of the literal or figurative kind, including two Frankenstein homages (which drastically differed in levels of quality) and metaphorical horror from Malaysia and Tunisia. Without further delay, here’s a rundown of the monsters of MSPIFF, in descending order from the best of the fest to the worst.

Trenque Lauquen (Laura Citarella, Argentina/Germany)

It might seem like cheating to shoehorn in my favorite MSPIFF movie here: on the surface, it has no monsters whatsoever. But the second half of this sprawling, four-hour Argentinian film partially concerns a human-animal-plant hybrid that remains stubbornly offscreen, so I’m going to include it anyway (and hey, it’s my list, so why not?). Initially, the film seems like an update of L’Avventura (1960), Michelangelo Antonioni’s arthouse classic in which two men search for a woman who may not want to be found. In Trenque Lauquen, the missing woman is Laura (Laura Paredes), a botanist in the titular Argentinian city who has possibly set out to find a rare orchid. The two men searching for her are her clueless boyfriend, Rafa (Rafael Spregelburd), and her work colleague, Chicho (Ezequiel Pierri), with whom she had an affair while the two of them were researching a love affair from the 1960s between a small-town schoolteacher and her rich Italian lover.

For the first two hours, Trenque Lauquen seems like a bold and fascinating but fairly straightforward story of undeniable lust and the distortive affairs of the heart. But the second half goes in a wildly different direction: Laura learns of a recent scandal in Trenque Lauquen in which an alligator boy suddenly appears hovering over the town’s central lake, while other residents claim to have seen UFOs in the area. It turns out a scientist in Trenque Lauquen and her female companion have locked the creature in their home and are trying to care for it by growing a mysterious flower. The story is as bizarre and unpredictable as it sounds, and we never learn the true origin of the creature (or even its caretakers). This should all be considered a compliment: Trenque Lauquen turns into an ode to storytelling and the irresistible allure of the natural world, with flora and fauna that contain their own secrets. Cowriter-director Laura Citarella builds a dazzling visual style and an absurdly complex narrative reminiscent of Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, 2010), transfixing the audience for over 240 minutes and scratching away the layers of reality to get at something dreamlike and profound beneath the surface.

Ashkal (Youssef Chebbi, Tunisia/Qatar/France)

In this ambiguous and highly creepy thriller from Tunisia, a young female detective (Fatma Oussaifi) and her older male partner (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa) investigate a series of deaths near a luxury housing complex that was halted halfway through construction. An opening title tells us that the complex was meant to be for dignitaries in the former Tunisian regime, until the country’s revolution in 2011. The victims have all been immolated in ways that look like suicide, but witnesses describe a mysterious man who “gives them fire” and apparently forces them to light themselves ablaze. (This connects to one of the first acts that catalyzed the revolution: a street vendor who lit himself on fire in an act of protest in late 2010.) Is the figure the ghost of a former political despot, or a symbol for the forces of extremism and corruption that continue to plague the country? The movie doesn’t provide easy answers, and its implications are probably even more resonant for Tunisian audiences. Politically engaged films that use horror, mystery, and other genre elements to convey their ideas are right up my alley, and Ashkal (which is Arabic for “shapes”) is one of the best in recent memory. In its haunting imagery and vaguely apocalyptic sense of doom, Youssef Chebbi’s magisterial film reminded me of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s great thrillers like Pulse (2001) and Cure (1997).

Stone Turtle (Woo Ming Jin, Malaysia/Indonesia)

A cryptic and visceral thriller filled with baffling surrealism and leaps in chronology and logic. On a nearly uninhabited island off of Malaysia’s coast, a community of women steals turtle eggs as their only form of subsistence. The arrival of a male intruder (Bront Palarae) reveals the traumatic past of one woman (Asmara Abigail) and her supposed niece in particular. The film presents a feminist critique of oppressive patriarchy, government bureaucracy, and violent religious ideology through a dreamlike structure that adopts the tone of an ancient folktale. The film seems to hold coherent logic at arm’s length, especially in a climactic showdown between beings representing male brutality and female vengeance. It’s hard not to feel like there’s less here than meets the eye — it’s essentially a revenge fable obscured by a warped, achronological structure — but its heightened, sometimes horrific images will stay with you long after the movie is over, and its underlying themes are hard to shake.

The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster (Bomani J. Story, USA)

This is infinitely better than the other Frankenstein homage I saw during the festival (see below). The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster follows Vicaria (Laya DeLeon Hayes), a teenager in a housing project that’s dominated by a drug dealer (Denzel Whitaker) and his gang. When Vicaria’s brother is killed in a drug-related incident, she sets out to reanimate him. The movie can’t seem to decide whether Vicaria’s obsession is noble or heinous: her experiments leave a trail of bodies in their wake, and the film’s message that acceptance is a part of grieving is contradicted by Vicaria’s ultimate victory over death. The movie also somewhat simplistically posits drugs as the cause of her community’s carnage (not, say, housing inequality, poverty, biased policing, or other forms of institutional racism). But it powerfully addresses the pervasiveness of death in Vicaria’s world (humorously conveyed in an early scene in which Vicaria starts an argument with her white biology teacher), and believably builds her relationships with her friends and family thanks largely to sincere performances. It’s also funny, exciting, and has moments of visual imagination (like the creature’s electricity-fueled awakening, which honestly might be the best reanimation moment in a Frankenstein-adjacent movie since Colin Clive screamed “It’s alive!” in 1931). The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster certainly has its stylistic and thematic flaws, but it’s hard not to like as it brings an urgent perspective to the classic tale.

Nayola (José Miguel Ribeiro, Angola/Portugal/Belgium/France/Netherlands)

Bright and vibrant animation carries this story of three generations of women in war-torn Angola across the decades: grandmother Lelena, her daughter Nayola, and Nayola’s daughter Yara. The film doesn’t tell us much about the Angolan War for Independence or its civil war in the 1990s, opting instead for poetic, symbolic imagery and a strong current of magical realism. This culminates in a last act filled with mystical beasts, including a being that apparently tethers Nayola to the moon and forces her to regurgitate all the weapons and grim machinery of the country’s seemingly nonstop violence. I usually don’t shy away from metaphorical monsters representing political atrocities, but the trade-off for Nayola‘s symbolic flourishes is that the movie isn’t remotely political; it offers no commentary about the social forces that gave rise to the wars which are ostensibly the film’s focus. Even so, Nayola‘s lush visuals help make up for its dramatic and thematic shortcomings.

Birth/Rebirth (Laura Moss, USA)

By far the worst film of the fest was this cruel and ugly Frankenstein homage. In New York City, a nurse’s six-year-old daughter dies from bacterial meningitis, reminding us once again that killing a child is cinema’s laziest way to engender an audience reaction. A pathologist (Marin Ireland) who works in the same hospital as the nurse (Judy Reyes) has been conducting experiments in life after death and steals the girl’s corpse. When the nurse discovers that the pathologist has successfully reanimated her daughter, she becomes equally obsessed with keeping her undead progeny alive. There’s more humanity and insight in a single paragraph of Mary Shelley’s novel than in the entirety of this film, which adds literally nothing to the themes and narrative developed in Frankenstein over 200 years ago. Each shot looks like it was filmed through a filter of gray muck, and the soundtrack drones with the same kind of unoriginal, “edgy” music that you’ll hear in almost every low-budget horror movie. Worse than the movie’s aesthetic sloppiness, though, is its general air of nastiness: if the death of a six-year-old girl not once but twice weren’t enough, we’re also treated to the bludgeoning of a pig, the fairly obvious theme that grieving over family is tough to get over, and an array of bodily harm to characters who deserve better. Speaking of people who deserve better: do yourself a favor and avoid this movie at all costs.

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