The 38th International Film Festival in Rotterdam has streamlined its program into three sections, but it hasn’t lost its focus. The fest still throws its weight behind young filmmakers, and a previous beneficiary, Carlos Reygadas, has emerged as a central figure early on this year. He’s credited as producer on two films, Carlos Serrano Azcona’s “El Árbol” (2009) and Amat Escalante’s “Los Bastardos” (2008), and he’s presenting two of his own works as well. The first is “Serenghetti,” a new feature-length video projected on an office building in the center of town, which joins outdoor loops by Guy Maddin and Nanouk Leopold. The second is his earliest film, “Adulte,” a seven-minute comic short from 1998, which arrives as part of a series on auteur debuts.
Before the world premiere screening of “El Árbol,” Reygadas pumped up his opener “Adulte” by saying, “it doesn’t work very well,” and we’ll leave it at that. “Árbol,” however, works very well indeed, and is in its own modest way one of the strongest works I’ve seen at the festival. It’s an impressive effort in Dardenne-like minimalism, following the near-vagabond Santiago as he obsessively walks around central Madrid, atoning for a sin never revealed. Bosco Sodi, a Mexican painter new to acting, inhabits the character with a feline, loping grace, and one has to study his every gesture to parse the sparse details of his life that emerge. Serrano Azcona keeps a fastidious grip on Santiago’s point of view, particularly given locked-in immediacy by David Valdeperez’s deft handheld camera work. Azcona and his cinematographer indulge in very few shots where Santiago is not in the frame (only two or three by my count), so when some release is given (a shot of seagulls and streetlights against the sky), it becomes nearly rapturous. With reality slowly suffocating Santiago, Serrano Azcona offers a way out in a wonderfully surreal and spiritual deus ex machina finale.
The outdoor exhibition of “Serenghetti” displays Reygadas’ playful side. Two female soccer teams face off in an ancient mountain range in central Mexico, shot as if for TV, complete with on-screen graphics, gratuitous replays and a leggy sideline reporter. It’s an agglomeration of things he likes: sports, sun flares, his country and the cinema. But while the action plays much like a regular broadcast, Reygadas can’t help but tweak it. He employs high-angle shots that catch wheat swaying in front of the lens, cutaways to mountains that ignore the action for minutes on end, and after a few replays, goes for a full reenactment of the deciding goal. It’s both banal and mesmerizing, watching the game for its transient beauty, and patiently awaiting his next deconstruction.
About a five-minute walk from “Serenghetti,” another building has Guy Maddin’s “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair” projecting on its face, a seven-minute short he whipped together in about a week. He started with a question — “Who hasn’t wanted to see a film beauty go to the chair?!?” — and rang up Isabella Rossellini. And there we have it: Isabella orgasmically writhing to the twirling of a jerry-rigged generator, light bulbs popping and nightclub patrons disrobing. An ode to Thomas Edison and sex and the dreams both have provided and fulfilled.