For my third batch of reviews from the 2022 True False Film Festival, I’m recapping two Sundance premieres (“Dos Estaciones” and the much-buzzed-about “Fire of Love,”), the crowd-pleasing “The Balcony Movie,” and the epic four hour “Mr. Landsbergis.” You can read my thoughts on those films below.
On a sunny day, filmmaker Paweł Łoziński sets up a camera on the balcony of his Warsaw home, overlooking the bustling sidewalk below, and attaches a microphone to the gate beneath him, to the curiosity of passersby. From his perch above the walkway, Łoziński calls down to neighbors, friends, his wife and daughter, and complete strangers, inviting them to stop and have a conversation with him. Initially, most of the people Łoziński tries to stop react the way most of us probably would: they rush by, muttering that they don’t have the time, they have somewhere to be. But it doesn’t take long for people to start opening up to Łoziński, whose presence creates a sort of confessional for those who stop to discuss everything from how they’re feeling to the meaning of their existence.
There are quite a few individuals who pass by the balcony once, never to be seen again, but the real joy of “The Balcony Movie” is to be found in the recurring characters and the rapport they build with Łoziński over time (production notes state that “The Balcony Movie” was filmed over a two year span, but the film is edited to make it appear as one year, as it cycles through the four seasons). These include an outgoing woman who is only too willing to put on a show for Łoziński; an elderly, cantankerous widow; and a man recently released from prison and looking for a job. We get to know them from solely through their interactions with Łoziński, whose camera keeps them at a physical distance, but we revel in their joys and heartbreaks all the same. Aspects of “The Balcony Movie” feel rather uneven, however, such as Łoziński’s occasional statement to passersby that he’s looking for a hero for his movie; but if his search for a hero is his film’s thesis statement, he never carries it to fruition. And at 100 minutes, the routine nature of the film causes it to wear out its welcome after a while. Łoziński occasionally moves the camera and switches up the angle he’s shooting at to break up the visuals, but at the end of the day, it’s interesting because of the people involved. I think that was the mission all along: to remind people that it’s worth it to take the time and stop to have a real conversation with someone.
Runtime: 100 minutes. “The Balcony Movie” has been picked up for distribution by HBO Max.
A four hour documentary about Lithuanian independence sounds just a little excruciating. But director Sergey Loznita’s 248 minute “Mr. Landsbergis” is a remarkable achievement not just in its scope and construction, but in its entertainment value. Engrossing from start to finish, “Mr. Landsbergis” chronicles the time between 1989 and 1991 when Lithuania fought to establish its independence from the U.S.S.R. This was accomplished under the unexpected leadership of Vytautas Landsbergis, a mild-mannered music professor who became the country’s first Head of Parliament, and whose down-to-earth outlook preached hard work, logic, and honesty—a stark contrast to leaders like Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who seemed to get by on empty promises and outright falsehoods.
The bulk of “Mr. Landsbergis” is painstakingly assembled from archival footage of speeches, assemblies, protests, and attacks, edited together so clearly and powerfully that no narration is present or needed to help tell their story, even though the film’s format doesn’t allow for multiple perspectives. The lengthy runtime allows Loznita to let these moments play out in their entirety, and while the end result may be overly meticulous, it allows the viewer to get a clear sense and understanding of how events occurred and why. The footage is occasionally broken up by one extended talking head interview with Landsbergis himself, not necessarily commenting on the exact footage we are watching, but recollecting his experiences some 30 years after they occurred. Landsbergis, with his calm demeanor and a perpetual twinkle in his eyes behind his glasses, sitting outside his home on a sunny day, radiates an aura that makes it easy to understand why this man—so unlikely a political leader on paper—was able to inspire a country to fight for its independence. The dialogue created between the contemporary Landsbergis monologue and the archival footage of the past sets the film’s pace, traveling between the urgency of the event itself and the slowness that comes with reflecting on it much later. “Mr. Landsbergis” is an epic film and an epic achievement, one that will reward the patient viewer not just with a wealth of knowledge about a rather niche point in world history, but also with the fulfillment that comes with witnessing the courage and resilience of people fighting for their freedom.
Runtime: 248 minutes.
Juan Pablo González’s “Dos Estaciones” isn’t the type of film you’d typically associate with True/False. More docudrama than straight documentary, the film has a lead actress playing a fictional character (but inspired by reality, particularly González’s own family tequila business), surrounding by both actors and non-actors playing versions of their real selves. The fictional and the real blend together to craft this intoxicating if uneven portrait of a Mexican tequila factory in distress, and its owner who is just trying to hold it together.
María (Teresa Sánchez) oversees production at her family’s Dos Estaciones tequila plant, but when it becomes clear that she can no longer hide her company’s struggling finances (thanks to foreign competition), she hires Rafaela (Rafaela Fuentes), a young woman she meets at a party and who has a background in finance and administration, to help her. Sánchez’s performance, in which she conveys outward fortitude that masks an interior desperation and loneliness, is masterful. María, rather androgynous in appearance from her workmanlike clothing to her cropped hair, doesn’t seem quite at ease with herself, and her burgeoning affection for Rafaela is subtly conveyed in the interactions between the two women, in which María always appears to want to say more than she actually is. Sánchez demonstrates her quiet unraveling through her soulful eyes, and her life is briefly contrasted with that of Tatín (Tatín Vera), a local hairdresser whose salon, unlike the tequila business, is doing incredibly well. Tatín even sees more success in her love life, as a weekly trip to the casino proves, although this tangent feels like an unnecessarily long detour from María’s story, already slowly paced as it is.
“Dos Estaciones” also boasts beautiful cinematography by Gerardo Guerra, particularly of the landscapes of the Jalisco Highlands where the story is set or the brilliant fireworks that light up the night sky, and the careful framing makes many shots look like a painting. We frequently view the characters through doors and windows. Much of the time the framing emphasizes how trapped the characters are in their circumstances, but in a scene toward the film’s conclusion when María asks Rafaela to dance, the tightness of the door frame surrounding them pulling the pair even closer together. The film leans more into the realism of a documentary with its shots of the workers harvesting agave and the tequila-making process. While “Dos Estaciones” may be a work of fiction, the set pieces that surround the characters lend their environment a dose of realism, prove that there’s perhaps no filmmaker at the moment combining the two more effectively than González.
Runtime: 97 minutes.
Early in director Sara Dosa’s archival documentary “Fire of Love,” we learn from her subjects that they turned to their passion and life’s work out of a frustration with humanity (this is stated somewhat jokingly, but it isn’t hard to believe it isn’t at least partially true). Those subjects: Maurice and Katia Krafft. That passion: volcanoes. But as much of their lives as they spent dancing dangerously close to lava, “Fire of Love” is a profoundly human story, one that marries the love the Kraffts had for each other with their love for the natural world, and their work that both informed and protected other people around the world.
French scientists who devoted their lives to getting as close as possible to active volcanoes, the Krafft’s collected samples, gathered research, and, perhaps most invaluably, took hundreds of hours of footage and still photographs of the volcanoes, bringing people closer to these locations than ever before. Dosa’s film is comprised almost entirely of this footage, which is edited together with interviews with the couple and lovingly animated interludes that further illustrate the Krafft’s work, all running under Miranda July’s calm and inquisitive narration. The visuals are truly spectacular, and almost from the start, you can’t help but marvel at the sheer quantity and quality of film that the Krafft’s shot, not just of volcanoes, but of the nature surrounding them, the other people helping them with their adventures, and each other. “Fire of Love” is quite quirky too, from the aforementioned animation to its editing to its (maybe overly) cutesy opening credits that name the volcanoes that play a role in the film (Dosa has cited French New Wave cinema as the inspiration for the playfulness of her movie).
“Fire of Love” is a nature doc, and you’ll likely walk away from it knowing at least a little something about volcanoes that you didn’t before, but that’s only one part of it. It is, above all, a love story—a love triangle, even—about the love Maurice and Katia had for each other (evident in the archival footage that sees them interacting so playfully) and for the natural world. It feels more than fitting that they had so much passion for volcanoes, a natural wonder whose explosions and red hot lava are inherently romantic; the film’s transition from how the pair met and fell in love to their decision to devote themselves to exploring and learning all they could about volcanoes, is seamless. The Krafft’s were world-famous during their lifetime, up until they were killed doing what they loved: capturing the 1991 eruption at Mount Unzen in Japan. But their names have largely faded into obscurity, at least to the general public, in the years since, leaving behind their body of research and reels upon reels of 16 mm footage. With “Fire of Love,” Dosa and her team put the pieces together to assemble a pleasurable, eye-catching portrait of this scientific power couple, ensuring that their names won’t soon be forgotten again.
Runtime: 93 minutes. “Fire of Love” has been picked up for distribution by National Geographic.