My films aren’t narratives. I observe people, different moments, and I put them all together in the film. The audience has to imagine or create something sitting in the chair. —Lisandro Alonso
La Libertad (2001) observes a logger (Misael Saavedra) working solo in the forests of Argentina. He wanders through groves with a lazy gait, sizes up potential trees for his ax, and then chops, strips, loads, and hauls away his day’s harvest before heading for camp and dinner, which he (quite literally) picks up on his way back and cooks over an open fire. He barely speaks a word, and filmmaker Lisandro Alonso feels no need to explain or comment. The logger is defined by what he does and how he does it, and we can assume the cycle simply repeats itself—man alone in an indifferent world. That’s Alonso’s idea of la libertad: freedom. And it’s Alonso’s idea of filmmaking.
This kind of cinema has never found much popular favor (we like our movies to move) or even succeeded as “serious” Oscar-bait drama (we like those movies to explain themselves), but it has a long tradition that is currently experiencing a revival on the international film festival scene. Viewing these films in actual theatrical runs is a little more difficult, but it happens, and every once in a while you get something like Northwest Film Forum’s “At the Edge of the World: The Cinema of Lisandro Alonso,” a presentation of all four of the young director’s features to date (all of them, I should add, making their respective screen debuts in Seattle), accompanied by the director himself.
I have a fondness for this—what would you call it, a style? A filmmaking philosophy? A certain tendency of cinematic expression? Let’s simply say it’s a way of looking at and framing the world—the physical space of the external and the characters that inhabit it—on the screen in a way that favors the integrity of the quotidian and the immediacy of the moment. Alonso works with nonactors, and, like Robert Bresson (a spiritual godfather to Alonso), his direction favors the physical over the emotional. You’re not going to see much “acting” play across the impassive faces of these performers, just like you’re not going to get much exposition.
Alonso’s films are about lone men, isolated by some combination of circumstance, choice, and temperament, and their movement through their landscapes. In La Libertad, it’s the logger in the forest (with a brief trip into a village hacked into the middle of the wilds). In Los Muertos (2004), it’s a man released from prison making his way up river to his village home and a reunion with his daughter (it could be either reconciliation or retribution, given the film’s uneasy tone). And in Fantasma (2006), the (non)actors from these two films go to see a screening of Los Muertos in a cinema so empty it’s unnerving.
Alonso doesn’t put them under a microscope; he’s more of a naturalist and these men the subjects of a fictional documentary, shot with a camera that hangs back to observe them in their natural habitat. But there’s also a tension in the way his camera studies spaces, arriving before his characters and lingering after they’ve left. It creates expectations that Alonso inevitably defies, and sometimes it creates mysteries that dig under the skin of the viewer, especially when things happen offscreen and are left for us to explain.
Liverpool (2008) is the centerpiece of this retrospective and the closest Alonso has yet come to making a conventional, commercial narrative. A sailor (Juan Fernández) on a freighter arrives at a snow-covered port on the cold southern tip of Argentina and sets off to his village to see (in his own words) if his mother is alive. Bleak and beautiful, this is the richest of Alonso’s films to date and, by the director’s standards, action packed. The sailor hits a strip club, bums rides from truck stops, and drinks himself into blackouts; he wakes up one morning in an outhouse, almost dead from exposure (a scene played for mordant humor). But most startling is the final act: Unable to connect with anyone in the family he left long ago, the sailor walks away from the camera. The film remains in this ramshackle community, with the family that has pulled together to look after one another. It feels like a new chapter for Alonso.
In addition to putting together this Seattle series, Northwest Film Forum has taken up the mantle of distributor for Liverpool in the United States. As fewer foreign films find traction in stateside theaters, this may be the future of international cinema. Kudos to Northwest Film Forum.
“At the Edge of the World: The Cinema of Lisandro Alonso” plays through Nov 19 at NWFF. The director will be in attendance at the screenings of his films through Sat Nov 14 and offer a “Master Class” on Sat Nov 14, noon, $13.