New Directors/New Films is one of New York’s most exciting film festivals. For nearly five decades, it has heralded new talents and trends, so it’s no surprise that a number of stellar films in the 49th edition evoke art’s power to heal. “When you do things with your hands, it heals you in places lower than where you cry from,” says Dimples (Koko Zauditu-Selassie), a Black mother grieving her son in Keisha Rae Witherspoon’s short film T. The mandate to heal, tempered by resilience, resonates with our current multiple crises. It also stresses the pernicious hold of trauma. “The hole in your heart you can never fill up,” says Dimples.
The impressionist T portrays a fictional “T Ball” in Miami, during which dancers mourn lost loved ones. Witherspoon collages anguished confessions with video, illustrations, dreamy electronic music, and ecstatic cosmic images. Some of her subjects defy the camera’s intrusion, but Dimples welcomes it as a conduit. In one hypnotic scene, the costumed participants gyrate in inky blue light. Dimples, a seamstress, shows off glistening wings she made from potato chip bags to honor her son’s cravings, while Tahir (Kherby Jean) is invisible except for the tiny white lights lining his armor.
“Death is a thing for the living” echoes the voiceover in Catarina Vasconcelos’s sublime The Metamorphosis of Birds. Vasconcelos dives into her past, having her grandparents’ letters read aloud as she stages scenes from their lives: her grandfather an absent seaman, her grandmother (whom she never met) a housewife caring for six children. Family members are depicted roaming the grandparents’ house with Alice In Wonderland enchantment. Prosaic objects (a wall socket, a peacock feather) stir sentiment, the still camera full of Proustian rapture. The film’s themes are commonplace, from a seamen’s nostalgia to how patriarchy has frayed over decades, and yet the sheer beauty of its compositions makes The Metamorphosis of Birds one of this year’s most memorable debuts.
In Camilo Restrepo’s bold Los Conductos, the past is a drug-numbed wound. The film is loosely based on the eight years that Fernando Úsaga Higuíta, who plays the main character Pinky, spent in a cult. The action takes place after Pinky’s escape, but his mind remains entrapped. In voiceover, Pinky recalls the cult’s hold on its members with biblical gravitas. The murky cinematography reflects the claustrophobia of his unmoored life in Bogota’s sepulchral tunnels and warehouses. The film’s willful opaqueness is a potent metaphor; as Pinky says, “Closing our eyes to our own barbarity” further perpetuates trauma.
Los Conductos is also a tribute to sound design’s role in cementing a world, locking in a character’s perspective. In Sandra Wollner’s flinty second film, The Trouble With Being Born, sound conveys the audience into the software of a girl-like robot, Elli, who is reprogrammed by a succession of owners to serve their cruel, often perverse desires. The electronic landscape of Elli’s mind, brilliantly engineered by Felippe Schultz Mussel, is frightening in its evocation of a nascent consciousness breaking down. Subtler but equally stirring are the psychological jolts delivered by Peter Albrechtsen’s sound work in Robert Macholan’s The Killing of Two Lovers. Creaking, grating, low oboe-like noises are juxtaposed with the film’s static wintry landscapes, contrasting torment and calm.
In Maya Da-Rin’s fiction debut The Fever, trauma has gone viral and taken on a fantastical form. Justino (Pedro Cesarino), a widowed Indigenous security guard at a Brazilian river port, reacts with sullen dignity to blunt racism at work. At home, his strange fever stymies his daughter Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto), who works as a nurse. The family drama plays with multiple ambiguities. Justino’s feverishness may result from Western malice or his own longing — here again Mussel oversees the sound, infusing the commercial sites with audio of the forest. A jaguar plaguing the urban dwellers may be a sensationalist prank or a deeper socio-somatic projection. Like Restrepo, Da-Rin’s opacity points to internalized trauma with wider societal implications. To quote T again, “the inner reality creates the outer form,” though connections remain nebulous. Healing can’t purge what ails you if it’s not rooted in an honest quest for knowledge — not only personal, but also communal.
New Directors/New Films runs until December 20, online via Film at Lincoln Center.
They Managed to Mess Up an Art Heist Movie
There must be a lesson in Vasilis Katsoupis’s film Inside about the vacuousness of the art market or the claustrophobia of exhibition spaces — I just don’t care.
Ten Painful Stories of the Dutch Colonial Slave Trade
The Rijksmuseum’s traveling show strives to remind us that we are all, in some way, a part of this chapter of human history, whose legacy continues today.
The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation Presents The Feminine in Abstract Painting
Curated by Jennifer Samet and Andrea Belag, this group exhibition in NYC explores the feminine through aesthetics, as opposed to identity or gender.
Textured Histories at Shiprock Santa Fe
The Santa Fe gallery features Indigenous textiles and jewelry from the early 19th century to today.
Renaissance Portrait of “Ugly Duchess” Likely Depicts a Man
A curator at London’s National Gallery believes the subject of painter Quinten Massys’s painting “is most likely a he.”
NYU Steinhardt Opens 2023 MFA Thesis Exhibitions
Taking place at 80WSE Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village, Part I is on view from late March through April while Part II opens in May.
Hokusai’s “Great Wave” Makes a Splash at Auction
An edition of the iconic woodblock print broke records when it sold for $2.8M this week.
MTV’s The Exhibit Is Back With an Inflatable Dolphin
Episode four, in which artists tackled themes of justice and injustice, was the most lifeless of the reality TV show so far.
Miniature Worlds: Joseph Cornell, Ray Johnson, Yayoi Kusama
Through small-scale works, this exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York examines Cornell’s prominent role in the lives and careers of Johnson and Kusama.
Florida Principal Ousted Over “Pornographic” Michelangelo Sculpture
Parents complained that the famous sculpture was shown to their sixth graders.
Tickets to Sold-Out Vermeer Show Are Going for Hundreds
The online resale market for the Rijksmuseum’s smash exhibition is booming, with tickets selling on eBay for over $2K.
The Wider World and Scrimshaw
On March 28, join the New Bedford Whaling Museum online and in-person for a symposium on global carving traditions from across the Pacific Rim.
Three Looted Antiquities at the Met Repatriated to Turkey
Nine other repatriated works were seized from Met Trustee Shelby White, whose collection was subject to a criminal investigation.
This week, the world’s lightest paint, Pakistan’s feminist movement, World Puppy Day, and were some of Vermeer’s paintings created by his daughter?