This year’s Mons Festival of Film d’amour exhibited a variety of first films within the section of the European Competition, focusing on the subject of love (search) and its multiple facets. Although diverse and even contrasting in their approaches to the complex layers of different realities and human relationships, one common theme predominates in most of them: motherless families and a strong bonding with and/or search for a father. Except in this year’s Fedeora winner Let My People Go! directed by Mikael Buch, Shelter (Podslon) by Dragomir Sholev and Turn Me On, Dammit! (Få meg på, for faen) by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, the mother is either dead, dispensable or simply absent. The preoccupation with the father-children relationship permeates many films, and in some of them, the father figure is usually caring, tender and devoted to sons/daughters – most explicitly shown in the excellent The Mole (Kret), directed by Rafael Lewandowski, and less intrusively in En ville by Valérie Mréjen & Bertrand Schefer; She Monkeys (Apflickorna) by Lisa Aschan, The Phantom Father by Lucian Georgescu and Martino’s Summer (L’estate di Martino) by Massimo Natale. Surprisingly and quite refreshingly, the father seems to have become a new mother.
Whereas Halkawt Mustafa’s daring debut, Red Heart (Rødt hjerte), inspired by a true-life story, movingly paints the devastating impact of a phallocentric/patriarchal tradition on a Kurdish woman’s life in Iraq, Martino’s Summer is the only film in this group in which a dead mother is hauntingly resurrected on screen to read bedtime stories to her son.
Family troubles are dealt with differently in Io sono Li (translated for international audiences as Shun Li and the Poet), a tale of love, migration, and exploitation, in which the mother is physically present, but the child is not, i.e. they are separated by thousands of miles across two continents. After a series of successful documentaries, Andrea’s Segre first fiction film centres on the Chinese immigrant, Shun Li – wonderfully played by Tao Zhao – and the relationship she develops with Bepi, a fisherman of Slavic origins, also called “il Poeta” in an insular community of the Venetian Lagoon. After leaving behind her family in China, Shun Li works first in a textile factory on the outskirts of Rome, in order to obtain her administrative papers and bring her eight-year-old son to Italy. She meets Bepi in Chioggia, where she is transferred to work as a bartender. She barely speaks any Italian and, while other robust local characters ridicule her linguistic malaise, Bepi “the Poet” is the only one who helps her adapt to the new environment, gently humouring her accent. But their friendship upsets both the local and the Chinese community.
With a brilliant cast of actors – Marco Paolini, Giuseppe Battiston, Roberto Citran, and Rade Serbedzija at his best – the film paints a gallery of characters and progressively contrasts two worlds: the world of sincere closeness between two individuals and that of brutal exploitation, based on social, ethnic, racial and gender identity.
As they rely less on linguistic communication and more on visual codes, Li and Bepi’s closeness grows, in an ambiance reminiscent of Kai Wai Wong’s In the Mood for Love (Fa yeung nin wa, 2000), and they manage to escape love patterns from their environment. Their mutual gaze is free of any prejudices and antagonisms, typical of other members of the community, mainly leisurely local barflies. Although their friendship functions outside the codes of well-established identities, it is not unburdened by social constraints. Their pain, nostalgia and solitude are anaesthetized through the mise-en-scène, which exhibits no excess. Very little is shown, and emotions are only subtly suggested. They create a space of their own, their island of poetry and fishing (which happens to be the same in China and Chioggia – underlined by the morphological similarity of toponyms), through writing, dialogue and the symbol of a floating candle.
In this new neither/nor space, which is not free of imperfections, but is free of social boundaries and prohibitions, their dialogue is made possible through new connections and ties. In philosopher Alain Badiou’s words (In Praise of Love /Eloge de l’amour/, 2009), this third position can work as “angel”, a function of the imaginary, a meeting point…that may never occur. Their simple human encounter creates a third space.
The temporal framework of the film does not seem to correspond with the present digital era. As if time had stopped for Chioggia, there are no mobile telephones, computers, internet, or digital social networks shown. Only Bepi’s old static phone exists, thanks to which Li can communicate with her family in China. Human progress, the film suggests, is not measured by technological advances. In the world of sexual and racial prejudices, technology is (ab)used to subordinate others, to fuel owner-slave relationships. As inhumanity by the humans is increasingly revealed, water pervades the screen and becomes an important metaphor. Water purifies, regenerates, divides, menaces and floods people, cities and spaces. Water temporarily effaces the marked boundaries of physical spaces, which become more vague and uncertain. As the sea changes its colour and landscape itself becomes one of the film’s protagonists, so the social narratives can transform people’s lives.
Two lonely strangers with foreign accents are stigmatized by the world that feeds itself on exploitation, financial manipulation, deceit and cruelty. Bepi himself is a foreigner without a country (Yugoslavia), a nostalgic outcast like Li and, although he has managed to integrate himself well into the adoptive community, he is still capable of differentiating an ignorant crowd from an authentic individuality. And he reacts against the brutality of socio-political norms. But Li’s position is more complex, as she is ostracized by both communities. Being a woman, a mother, an immigrant, a slave of criminals and a racial other, she represents the other of the other. She is a female other, a slave to be exploited by her countrymen and is mocked at and despised by prejudiced foreigners, because she represents the racial other. The subaltern – silenced, subordinated and denied the right to speak – both by her own ethnic community and the foreign one, Li needs to reinvent and reshape her own world, outside the sombre everyday reality. She creates arts and poetry and her voice is heard, by the spectator and Bepi only, through her journal and letter writing. The other characters do not hear her, they see her only as they want to see her. While she is aware of being an outcast with a linguistic handicap, the others seem to be unaware of their ideological handicap, their prejudices and xenophobia. If there is any political statement in the film, then it is the assertion of Li’s identity as “Li”, racially, ethnically, nationally and gender-free, simply as Li, rising from her position of the subaltern, as the film’s title in Italian suggests. `
In a play between what is seen (and what can be seen) and is said, verbal communication is reduced to the minimum, to the simple, but highly suggestive, small community everyday exchanges, that come across as more real, inasmuch as Li’s intrusion on both communities belongs to the realm of the imaginary of social constraints. It is the visual narrative, with its camera work and long takes, paced with a documentarist’s precision, thanks to the photography of Luca Bigazzi that records the protagonists’ casual glances, looks and silences, filling in for the verbal gaps or the impossibility of linguistic communication. The film’s poeticity is underscored by the film’s structural organisation centred on a poetically minimalist mise-en-scène, of landscapes of misty mornings and golden dusks set against the sombre interior social spaces and darker human figures, and the recurrence of images and sounds that function as the film’s poetic leitmotifs. Water becomes a universal metaphor for the changeability, destruction and absurdity of shifting historical narratives and socio-political systems, and their destructive impact on an individual’s life. By creating their own – third- space as a shelter from the socio-political confines, Li and Bepi create the most beautiful poem of the film. Li and Bepi’s world, and by analogy any ideologically unpolluted individual’s, becomes more real than socially coded collective identities, that should be left to the realm of the imaginary.
Maja Bogojevic, member od FEDEORA Jury