Where I would usually just post a list of my ten favourite films of the year on Facebook and hope to attract upwards of eleven likes and three comments calling me pretentious, this year I've felt compelled to say a few words about my top two films of the year - Cemetery of Splendour by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Mia Madre by Nanni Moretti. At first when I came up with my ranking I thought very little connected the two films, and then, the more I thought about them, the more I found points of similarity between the two that point to a radical shared agenda.
The first aspect on which the films share common ground is their exploration of trances and dreams. They set about this in different ways, so that the similarity can be easy to miss: Moretti's cinematic language is ostensibly forthright and realistic, whereas Weerasethakul's very aesthetic has to do with trances and slumber. Mia Madre, about the professional and personal struggles of a woman trying to make a film while her mother lies on the brink of death in hospital, deals with fairly practical considerations: what meals Margherita should bring her mother, how to get her main actor (John Turturro) to read his lines correctly. But Margherita is also prey to terrible dreams and visions that reflect her panic, her sense of not being up to the task. (All of Moretti's cinema is about incapacity, from his inability to make a documentary in Aprile to the pope's sense that he isn't the right man for the job in Habemus Papam.) Dreams about the death of her mother, half-remembered recollections of past events: these are the things that inhabit Moretti's central character. Moretti's set-up is deceptively simple, but his meshing of dream and reality in Mia Madre, so that the lines are blurred between the real and the unreal, is brilliantly accomplished and points to his antsy vision of a life without respite.
Weerasethakul also finds life and the dreamlike sharing a very hazy boundary. In his story, a nurse cares for a comatose soldier in a school-turned-hospital built on the grounds of an old graveyard for kings. Again we find a set-up of one person caring for another who is somewhere between life and death. Jenjira, the nurse, finds herself half in love with Itt, the soldier who is her charge. With the help of Keng, a clairvoyant who shoulders Itt's spirit to take Jenjira on a journey through the ghost of a now-ruined palace, Jenjira comes to feel she knows the soldier more intimately. Weerasethakul's rhythms, his work on sound, his colours, and the narrative line he sketches where real and imagined worlds are intimately connected, induces a sense of hypnosis in the audience, and opens up wonderful realms of possibilities for his characters who feel like something is missing in their lives. It is also a very sly way for the director to question the politics of his country: suggesting spiritual or imagined dimensions to a world that is controlled by a a military regime is a way of reclaiming a country enslaved by despotic rules. Weerasethakul's film is pointedly political, as the ghosts of the kings buried under the hospital come to nourish the souls of the languishing soldiers in hospital: we see that the film's narrative is deeply connected to the history of his country; the characters are bound to past events.
Moretti joins Weerasethakul in this political dimension, speaking of his country, like the Thai director, at a narrative remove. Not for nothing is the film within the film, that Margherita is struggling to make, about workers going on strike. Moretti's films have always had a political vein running through them (as have Weerasethakul's), touched on directly, as in The Caiman, or at a tangent, as in Caro diario. In Caro diario, his most delicious touch is to skewer the growing impact of television on his country, culminating in a farcical scene in which a character catches up on old episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful at the top of Stromboli. This is nothing less than a sly but murderous dig at Berlusconi, whose hold over Italy came about because of his control of television, which numbed the country with soaps and inane game shows while he set about grabbing the political reins. In Mia Madre, Margherita finds herself incapable of making a film about industrial action: she senses that she has lost the language to talk about it, that her images appear fake, overdone. Moretti shows that his country is losing the ability to talk about politics, to connect with real issues of labour and class struggle. His most thrilling gambit in Mia Madre, a heist that he got away with right under the noses of all the world's critics and filmmakers at Cannes, is to have Margherita's heartfelt, politically engaged film nearly torpedoed by the involvement of a useless American actor, the idiotic Barry Huggins. At Cannes this year were two other Italian films, Youth and Tale of Tales, whose casts were crammed full of American actors, in an effort to crack the international market, which were scuppered in the process. Italy, Moretti says - perhaps a little donnishly - has lost the ability to talk about itself, has forgotten what it represents. Another pointed moment: Margherita's mother, a Latin teacher, is trying to help Margherita's daughter with her homework. Later, Margherita observes (I paraphrase), "I know Latin is useful, but I can't remember why." The country is forgetting about its past: where for Weerasethakul the past is all around, in ghosts and in visions, and in the visible war wounds of his characters, for Moretti the ties with the past are disappearing, becoming dust.
A final point of commonality between the two films, one which is so moving and surprising, is in their blurring of gender and identity. Both directors employ a female alter ego: Weerasethakul's talisman, Jenjira Pongpas, takes the main role in Cemetery of Splendour, and contributed to many of the ideas and stories behind the film, while Moretti teams up with Margherita Buy for a third time in as many films, asking her to play a refracted version of himself. Of the two, Margherita is clearly the more direct stand-in for a director in their film: she plays a relentlessly self-questioning film director given to fits of rage and bouts of depression, who is torn between work and family. These are the hallmarks of Moretti (the man as well as the character) and there are a handful of scenes in which Buy gives an eerily accurate impression of Moretti - his intensity, his questioning body language. It's wonderful to see Margherita raging in Moretti's film, in a way we do not see women rage; to see her working at her job, in a way we are not seeing women accustomed to working on screen. Moretti, through this device, shows that his fears are universal, that he too when confronted with death feels all this tumult and chaos, is a vulnerable creature loaded with doubt. In a further dimension, Moretti himself plays Margherita's brother, Giovanni, a character who appears to be in charge of his life and who sidelines his sister; but Moretti shows him losing his job in a short, devastating scene that reminds you that none of Moretti's characters is ever completely in control. This multiplying of his selves gives a new dimension to Moretti's work, which has always played with fact and fiction: this experimentalism at a late stage of his career is somehow used to terribly touching effect.
Weerasethakul uses Jenjira - the actor's name is the character's, as in Mia Madre - to speak about himself, and about his country. She represents the voice of the film, a spiritual conscience, a conflicted soul, a damaged body. In Cemetery of Splendour she and Weerasethakul seem increasingly fused: she is the originator of stories, one who travels into new dimensions. Her mildness, and something gently sorrowful about her, something questing too, align her with the director. It's touching to see a kindred spirit filmed so lovingly. In Weerasethakul's film, Itt, the soldier, is reborn into the body of the female clairvoyant, Keng - and through her, in one of the film's most beautiful scenes, he licks the wound on Jenjira's battered leg, offering back to her some of the care and attention that she has expended on him in his sleep. Weerasethakul finds identity beyond gender - this fits with his past work on identity, from Tropical Malady onwards, and it is another beautiful act of liberation, of political resistance on his part to say to the tyrants who have stolen his country, that people are not their bodies, and therefore cannot be controlled, cannot be owned.
Final top ten for 2015:
1. Cemetery of Splendour, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
2. Mia Madre, dir. Nanni Moretti
3. Carol, dir. Todd Haynes
4. Taxi Tehran, dir. Jafar Panahi
5. Tangerine, dir. Sean Baker
6. The Lobster, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
7. Marguerite et Julien, dir. Valerie Donzelli
8. Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse, dir. Arnaud Desplechin
9. Magic Mike XXL, dir. Gregory Jacobs
10. Force Majeure, dir. Ruben Ostlund