Like all recent festivals, this year’s Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR) took place online, but that didn’t stop the organizers from programming their usual mix of provocative and challenging films from around the globe. The Limelight section featured some of the year’s best foreign films, like Déa Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, a story about faith under attack in Georgia…Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis Aida, a harrowing film about a UN translator in Bosnia…and Andrei Konchalovsky’s historical drama Dear Comrades!, about a worker’s strike crushed by Soviet forces. Here are some of our other highlights:
For those into the quirky vibe, look no further than Queena Li’s Bipolar, a rowdy road film about a young woman who steals a mutli-colored magical lobster from a hotel in Lhasa. Shot in gorgeous, high-contrast black & white, Li’s debut feature follows the unnamed protagonist (Leah Dou) on a journey across half of China where she has a whole range of bizarre experiences, and slowly reveals itself to be a poignant meditation on how to recover from an emotionally abusive relationship. One of the most visually exciting and unexpectedly moving films at the festival.
A trans woman’s murder haunts a rural Brazilian city in Madiano Marcheti’s Madalena, a striking first feature that follows three loosely connected characters and opts not to weave their stories together with easy answers. Marcheti fills the screen with unnervingly eerie shots of farmland and quotidian customs in a quiet right-wing village, hinting at the horror hiding beneath the idyllic. Slow but constantly intriguing, the film really comes alive during its final stretch as it accompanies three of the victim’s trans friends on a day trip. By refusing to divulge details about Madalena’s death, Marcheti makes a powerful and necessary point about how often these stories go unreported.
Another haunting portrait of village life, Ainhoa Rodríguez’s Destello Bravio tackles a lot of issues in its brief running time, including toxic masculinity, religious hypocrisy, and the effect of globalization on rural areas. Set in a dying town in Spain’s Extremadura region, the film (which feels almost like a documentary) follows the mostly older inhabitants on their daily rituals while blending David Lynchian weirdness with touches of dark humor and melancholy and features one of the most memorable dinner table scenes in recent memory.
Dutch-Iranian filmmaker Kaweh Modiri’s tense revenge thriller Mitra stars Jasmin Tabatabai as a Iranian scientist living in the Netherlands whose peaceful life is thrown into turmoil after the arrival of a woman who may or may not have killed her daughter nearly 40 years ago in Tehran. Expertly paced and beautifully acted, Mitra’s a tightly wound piece that explores themes of motherhood, grief, immigration/integration, and the virtues of vengeance. Also, Tabatabai’s performance is an absolute knockout.
Set in rural Kosovo, Norika Sefa’s teen drama Looking For Venera has a lot of the same characters and themes as other coming-of-age films (a new friendship with a rebellious peer, domineering parents, sexual awakening) but something about this one feels refreshing and original. Not much happens, but the smooth and confident direction, excellent performances from the young actors, and story of female agency and liberation in a patriarchal society make this one a must-see.