In a springy sign of optimism — illusionary or otherwise! — this year’s New Directors/New Films is returning to theaters full throttle. New York’s Covid numbers are creeping up again, but the festival, a joint venture of Film at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, has ditched the virtual for the physical. So, if you would like to check out the selections at the 51st edition, which runs through May 1, you will need to do so in person. And while masks are not required, they are recommended by the organizers.
From its inception, New Directors has focused on younger or at least less-established filmmakers, many grappling with social and political issues. In a bad year, that means the event is little more than a grab bag of nice tries and misses. In a good year, though — and this is one — the event can feel like the unrulier, at times more adventurous younger sibling of the New York Film Festival. The strength of this year’s lineup is heralded by the strong opening-night selection, Audrey Diwan’s “Happening,” a gutsy, smart, involving French drama about a college student’s agonizing effort to secure an abortion in 1963, when the procedure was illegal. I’ll have more to say about the movie when it opens May 6.
As usual, most of the slate has been culled from other festivals, including a half-dozen standouts from Sundance. Among these is Nikyatu Jusu’s “Nanny,” about a young Senegalese woman working for a white Manhattan family with an adorable daughter and the kind of nice, agonizingly polite, broadly smiling parents who, if they were any weirder, could have featured roles in a sequel to “Get Out.” With firm directorial control, an expressionistic palette and a transfixing lead turn from Anna Diop, “Nanny” shrewdly draws from African folklore and old-school Hollywood horror freak-outs to tell an emotionally engaging, up-to-the-second story of class, gender and race — which means it’s also about power.
Unlike “Nanny,” most of the selections lack American distribution. That may change, of course, though it’s doubtful that most will secure a theatrical release given the fragile condition of foreign-language distribution in the United States. That makes an event like New Directors all the more necessary, and also gives it an air of quiet urgency. To that end, try to see Laurynas Bareisa’s “Pilgrims,” an eerie, impeccably controlled Lithuanian nail-biter about a man and woman revisiting the horrific murder of a beloved. As they retrace the crime, doggedly uprooting the past, exploring darkened cellars and confronting unwelcome bright faces, they exorcise personal demons, and the long shadow of World War II closes in on them.
Another must-see is Sierra Pettengill’s “Riotsville, USA,” a mesmerizing documentary essay that tracks American anti-Black racism through a wealth of disturbing, at times super-freaky 1960s archival footage. The title refers to several strange Potemkin-like towns that the United States military constructed in the wake of the civil unrest of the era. There, against rows of cardboard storefronts with generic names, military personnel — some in uniform, others in civilian clothing — engaged in pantomimes of violence, exercises that were observed by local politicians who took lessons from these war games back to the home front. As the Johnson administration publicly grappled with the fires at home, including with the Kerner Commission that investigated the roots of the unrest, it was also stoking future conflagrations.
There are predictable letdowns, too, notably “The Innocents,” from Eskil Vogt, who’s best known for the scripts that he’s written with Joachim Trier, including “The Worst Person in the World.” In theme and spooky vibe, “The Innocents” skews closer to one of their earlier collaborations, “Thelma,” about a woman with telekinetic powers. Set in a sinister, isolated housing complex next to one of those forests where the wind always blows ominously through the trees, “The Innocents” — the title seems to nod at the 1961 psychological horror film with Deborah Kerr — tracks the very, very bad things that happen to several children. The results are unnerving, pristinely crafted and altogether unpleasant.
Like “Nanny,” some of the most memorable selections in New Directors use families to explore a constellation of ideas about contemporary life, its pressures and thorny complexities. In movies as distinct as “Father’s Day” (from Rwanda), “The Cathedral” (the United States) and “Shankar’s Fairies” (India), the family is at once an intimate unit and a microcosm of larger cultural and social relationships. An appreciable number of titles in the program are female-driven and, not coincidentally, patriarchy also looms — openly and otherwise — as a means of domestic control, as an arm of the state, as a virulent presence or as a structuring absence. Whatever the case, father definitely doesn’t know best.
One of the most exciting discoveries, Kivu Ruhorahoza’s “Father’s Day” knits together three loosely connected stories that explore the anguished toll of historical and generational traumas. In one story, a hollow-eyed masseuse mourns the abrupt, outwardly random death of her son and the loss of her business to the pandemic as her wastrel husband dreams and schemes. Elsewhere a daughter takes painful stock of her dying father and his hold on her. In the brutal third story, a petty thief cruelly schools his young son (and be warned, some of these scenes can be difficult to watch). An unspoken malignancy, genocide haunts this movie, and while men trouble the present, women — hopefully, movingly — look to the future.
Ricky D’Ambrose’s slow-boiling, visually striking drama “The Cathedral” tracks the coming-of-age of a boy — played by separate actors — who grows up in a lower-middle-class family that gradually falls apart year by year, one loss and disappointment at a time. Beginning in the 1980s, the story charts the family’s bleak disintegration through a series of precisely framed and staged chronological scenes in which nothing much seems to happen or everything does. With uninflected acting, explosions of fatherly violence and occasional nods at the outside world (the gulf war, a Kodak commercial), D’Ambrose brings together the personal and the political with lacerating cool and a boldly deployed anti-aesthetic.
By vivid contrast, Irfana Majumdar’s quietly piercing drama, “Shankar’s Fairies,” uses beauty to sharp critical effect. Set inside the lush grounds of a sprawling estate in India, the story centers on the daughter of a wealthy family and one of its many servants. As news of the 1962 Sino-Indian war periodically drifts in, the movie charts the bonds and radically unequal lives of this child, with her British school and manners, and of her loyal, exploited caretaker. With scant exposition, flashes of breathtaking cruelty and banal moments bristling with meaning — a servant cuts the crusts off white-bread sandwiches while listening to Prime Minister Nehru on the radio — Majumdar takes measure of colonialism and neocolonialism alike.
The tonally and visually distinct “Dos Estaciones” and “Robe of Gems” both take place in a contemporary Mexico consumed by violence. In “Dos Estaciones,” the director Juan Pablo González tethers the travails of the owner of an artisanal tequila factory to the ferocity of global capitalism: Her family’s legacy and her future are existentially imperiled by foreign competitors. In “Robe of Gems,” the director Natalia López Gallardo focuses on women from different classes whose lives are undone by shocks of barbarism, mostly domestic. Gallardo is too indebted to some of her art-cinema influences, Carlos Reygadas included. But she — like a number of this year’s other new and newish directors — is nonetheless a talent to watch.
New Directors/New Films runs Wednesday through May 1. Go to newdirectors.org for more information.