Editor’s Note: The following dispatch is part of Ronan’s coverage of the 2012 Cork Film Festival
Prestige and paparazzi made for a fanciful beginning to a second day of Corkonian film-going as the morning’s movies opened with the world premiere of Get the Picture, Cathy Pearson’s candid biography of John G. Morris, famed photo editor for publications such as Life and The New York Times. Morris, 96 at the time of filming and still busy as ever, is the sort of audacious and amazing character you only ever meet in documentaries; his reckonable life story is so steeped in, and intertwined with, modern history that to hear it is as much to trace the evolution of our race as that of this prime specimen thereof. That Get the Picture functions as successfully as a biography of photojournalism itself as of Morris’ career is indicative of its real achievement: this is a testament not just to the lasting legacy of one man, but also to the striking power of the medium to which he contributed so much. As often witty as it is disturbing and moving, this is a great look at a great life, an unmissable wonder of historical and artistic intrigue.
Artistic intrigue, now that I’ve said it, seems a very appropriate term for the aims of Bestiaire, a glacially paced natural study from Canadian filmmaker Denis Côte, Nominally an exercise in cinema vérité taken to an extreme, it examines the relationship between humankind and other animals by way of a series of primarily static, always extended takes simply observing the creatures about their daily business. It’s an experience at once intriguing and alienating, the sheer striking beauty of Côte’s imagery undeniable, the aimlessness of his meandering “narrative” inescapable. It’s not that the film doesn’t have a clear purpose, more that that purpose never quite amounts to a justification for so draining an aesthetic approach. It hasn’t the humour or the hubris to sustain its own indulgence, leaving the pretty pictures to hold up a weight far beyond their capabilities.
Attracting much international film festival attention since its premiere in Galway this summer, Gerard Barrett’s Pilgrim Hill is an assured take on the slow, steady decline of rural Ireland. Oddly staged with the protagonist—a lonely farmer, rueful for the emptiness of his life outside his job—intermittently addressing the camera in “interview” scenes, it’s a mournful, elegiac piece of work with a good deal to say about the state of the nation today. Maybe the most interesting aspect of the film is the way in which it proves the influence of Lenny Abrahamson on the landscape of Irish cinema. His Garage is the obvious point of comparison here, its similar depiction of the life of one isolated individual against the backdrop of a declining rural Ireland serving, unfortunately, to highlight the inferiority of Barrett’s film. For as impressive a debut as it is, as cinematic and affecting as it manages to be, its problems are many; not least is the easiness of the mockumentary interview, an uninspired means to have the protagonist espouse candidly his emotions. Pilgrim Hill indicates strong potential in Gerard Barrett; hopefully with a few years more experience he can come to realise it.
Matteo Garrone’s Reality brought to a close the penultimate day of the festival, a wildly funny social satire revolving around the efforts of an obsessed family man to become a contestant on the Italian version of Big Brother. Opening with two extraordinary extended takes, Garrone flashes his visual ambition and ability immediately, his camera twirling and dancing through scores of extras at a luxurious wedding scene. It’s the first of many aesthetic achievements he comes to accomplish in the course of the film, none of which even approach in significance the effect of his narrative. Reality is a comedy first and foremost, a wickedly entertaining and amusingly cheeky romp with many inspired moments of facetious insight, yet beyond this it finds far more sinister undertones in this world of obsession and fantasy. If The Truman Show was a prescient foreshadowing of the dangerous direction in which television was travelling, Reality is the frightening reflection of its final destination. That Garrone goes yet further, locating the allure of celebrity within a wider social context that boldly—dangerously, even—speaks to Italian identity and history is indicative of the extent of his analysis; with Reality he has crafted a work of immense importance, an enthusiastically entertaining and immeasurably insightful snapshot of our world.