Sunday 25 July 2021

Streaming on Mubi - Janice Tong recommends WHITE ON WHITE (Théo Court, Spain/Chile, 2019) and MAESTA, THE PASSION OF CHRIST (Andy Guérif, France, 2013)

The landowner Mr Porter's child bride

Blanco en blanco (White on White) 
 is director Théo Court’s second feature. It  premiered at the 76th Venice Film Festival in 2019. The film was awarded three prizes, including the FIPRESCI Prize and also Best Director award for the Horizons section of the festival.  

White on White is a masterful neo-western that acts as a critical commentary exploring art as an avenue of manipulation; the ability to falsely create a reality. Court’s film has an episodic and elliptical structure as he tells of the genocide of the indigenous Selknam people through the lens of its main protagonist, Pedro. 

Alfredo Castro as the photogra pher Pedro 


Chilean actor Alfredo Castro is superb as Pedro, an experienced daguerreotype portrait photographer; quiet and reserved, he appears to have a nondescript persona. But that is only an exterior shell; and this tension between exteriority and interiority is something that helps tease out fine line between the visible and the invisible. 


It is the turn of the 20th century and Pedro has been hired by an unseen plantation owner by the name of Mr Porter (it must have been so exotic to have an American name in that region of Tierra del Fuego) to take portraits of his future wife - a child bride really, she couldn’t be more than twelve years old. 


As Pedro’s trained eye sets up the scene for these pictures, he started to position the girl, helping her pose, semi-undressing her by slipping down a shoulder strap of her dress, raising her dress hem, and making her sit, lie or stand in oddly evocative poses. The resultant image has an extremely jarring effect that makes one uncomfortable; when the face that stares back is that of a sullen child’s. 


The camera eye does not hide anything, precisely because it is not a human eye. The eye of the camera does not judge, it cannot think; it is the human eye that does. 


Pedro soon lands himself into trouble when he gets the child bride to pose for an artistic composition in his own rooms before dawn; and he is duly dismissed by the landowner; who in turn fails to show up to his own wedding. The wedding feast was a sad and odd assortment of drunk people dancing; and the forceful seduction of the indigenous women brought there for entertainment. Courtis an extremely accomplished storyteller.  


In the film, there’s a whole series of beautiful portraits, of people and places around the town; these looked authentic to the period, but given what Courtis trying to tell us, we know that they have been composed by the photographer - perfectly.

One of a series of photographic portraits within the film

Court’s DOP José Ángel Alayón also provided us with a series of memorable and evocative night time shots, outdoors in pitch black, the actors’ movements lit by branded fire torches tracking their actions in a powerful and symbolic way. As though we have misappropriated our power, by stealing fire from the Gods, we behave as though we were Gods; and the only way through this hell is led by these same misguided men. That is in effect what happens, our power to manipulate reality to ‘create’ art, culminates in the very last shot of the film. With this closing shot, it’s easy to see that we are in fact leading ourselves intohell, rather than through it. 

Night-time sequences nothing short of masterly


Court says of his film: “In this way, Blanco en Blanco, little by little, unveils what is hidden beneath the virgin, white snow that covers everything, showing, as it melts away, the origins of our society, the foundations on which our civilizations have been built. The acts of that continuously are repeated on a blank page over and over again as we look on. The film lays bare this final moment when the gaze of the film camera, the photographic camera, the spectator and the main character blend together into a single image as absent yet complicit witnesses of the crimes exposed before them. A place where horror becomes free of guilt.”

Do we turn away from this closing shot of the film?

Maestà is a completely new invention of the filmic form and beautifully conceived and depicted. It is a filmic adaptation of the Maestà of Duccio altarpiece that is made up of individual 26 panels. 

The magnificent altarpiece Maestà of Duccio

It depicts Christ’s Passion from his entry into Jerusalem to his resurrection. 

Guérif’s interpretation of the altarpiece in cinematic form


Whilst the narrative of the passion of Christ is well known, the way that Guérif’s film has brought this to life is a labour of love. The inventive artistic direction and choreographed narrative within each panel played out in chapters, whilst adding other small details to panels away from the main ‘active’ panel continued to bring life to the piece overall. It would have been good to see this film on the big screen, so that we get the full effects of it. But nonetheless it is still very watchable on the small screen; and thanks to #mubi, we are able to experience this very interesting and different cinematic work.


Maestà is currently showing on #mubi and note that White on White is only available on #mubi for another few days.

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