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Italian Drama, British Horror and Broken Americanism: BFI London Film Festival Revisited

Updated: Jan 3, 2021

by Rich Giptar

We return to our stint at the London Film Festival this autumn with Rich Giptar who shares some of the most exciting releases they caught, including the much anticipated Nomadland

Still: 'Bad Tales (Favolacce)' (2020: dir. Damiano and Fabio D'Innocenzo)

Bad Tales (dir. Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo)

This coming-of-age story by the D’Innocenzo brothers explores the legacies of violence and sexuality bequeathed to three children in the sun-baked suburbs of Rome.

Bad Tales begins with a narrator telling us that the story is inspired by a diary of a young girl he discovered in the rubbish. The writing stopped abruptly, which led him to speculate as to why. This surreal piece of background is a jumping off point for the film, which isn’t told from one perspective but instead focuses on three pubescent children dealing with turbulent, unstable fathers and the fallout of neighbourhood rivalries.

Our first image of one family is on a hot afternoon where they are lazily transfixed by a report of a murder-suicide on the TV. This sets the tone for the rest of the film, where markers of a childhood summer (dinner with neighbours in the garden, paddling pools, and a visit to the beach) are intruded upon by the menaces of the adult world—a father screaming at his son while he chokes on his food, a teenager playing sexual games with a younger boy, the paddling pool sabotaged by an adult seeking revenge.

Infections pass between the children; nits and chicken pox, sometimes encouraged by the parents and sometimes to their chagrin. Often scenes are filmed like something glimpsed by a nosy neighbour. In one short scene, viewed as if looking out of a backdoor, a girl is pulled onto a man’s lap during a party game of musical chairs. The party-goers watch, laughing, but there is an undercurrent of harm.

After the backlash Cuties received earlier this year it was interesting to watch another film that touched on pubescent sexuality but will likely not receive the same condemnation. In Bad Tales the effort is subtler, and more directly shown to be an influence of the older generation—after a scene at a birthday gathering where two men crudely discuss a female guest, we see into the bathroom where the young daughter of one of them shows her nascent boyfriend porn on her father’s phone.

Despite the flashes of darkness, nothing truly harmful occurs until it is wrought by the children themselves, longing for a power reversal with the adults they despise. Before this happens the older generation seem oblivious to the harm caused; when his son starts doing doughnuts in their car, the father who was previously caught masturbating by the boy, gleefully shouts, ‘You take after me!'.

A twist ending changes the creepy lull of childhood to something much more dramatic and pierces the realism of the film to disquieting effect.


Rose: A Love Story (dir. Jennifer Sheridan)

Sheridan’s debut feature film is a supernatural horror centred on a dysfunctional couple living in an isolated cabin deep in the English woodland.

Still: 'Rose: A Love Story' (2020: dir. by Jennifer Sheridan)

The supernatural as a metaphor for mental illness or neurological disorder isn’t a new idea in horror (see The Babadook or the recently released Relic). However, Rose presents a fresh take on the trope when it looks at its link to codependency.

Sam and Rose are in a loving relationship that seems strained by the fact that it’s rare for them to have any other human company (fairly relatable for viewers in the midst of a pandemic.) While Rose spends the day writing romantic fiction, Sam goes out to grow food and trap animals in the forest. They’re forced to live far from civilisation due to Rose’s unnamed condition and when they do re-join in the evening, Rose’s guilt manifests as insecurity; she becomes upset by things like Sam telling her ‘you look lovely today’.

As well as offering emotional support, Sam cares for Rose in other ways, preparing her food and making sure she follows ‘the rules’ by eating it. The metaphor of caring for a partner even includes literal bloodletting.

By the end of the film their arguments have escalated to something familiar to any viewers who have witnessed their personal struggles impact their partner; ‘You can go’, says Rose, ‘you can’t be happy [here]’. ‘The second you lie down and give up, I’m sorry but that’s the second I’ll lie down and die next to you,’ Sam replies vehemently.

This precarious set-up is challenged further by an unexpected intruder, which exacerbates the couple’s challenges and leads to a grizzly ending.

It is somewhat of a challenge for the film to perform as a British isolation horror, peripheral characters can be fairy-tale one-dimensional, from the cagey runaway to the unfriendly thug. However, the couple’s characters show complexity. Horror is a notoriously hard genre to avoid cliché, but the interplay between Sam and Rose (played by a real life couple) gives the film a thoughtful depth.


Nomadland (dir. Chloé Zhao)

Although the epic, desert landscapes of Zhao’s feature lend themselves more to a viewing on the big screen, the themes of aging, deindustrialisation and community still resonated through a laptop.

Nomadland is a fictionalised version of Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book of the same name which follows a community of destitute, retiree-age transient workers who live in motorhomes. There are an estimated three million of them in the States and 90% are over 55. Although the film focuses on one character in particular, Fern (a brilliant turn from Frances McDormand), it stays true to the imagery of the book and you can trace some of the most striking scenes from this extract in Wired.

Like many of the real people featured in the book, Fern led a comfortable enough life until financial circumstances forced her into nomadism. She and her husband lived in the former mining settlement of Empire, Nevada, which turned into a ghost town when United States Gypsum Corporation closed the gypsum plant in 2011. Her husband died while they were still living in Empire, leaving her to step alone into the unknown when she loses her house just as she’s reaching her sunset years.

The film follows Fern and her van, ‘Vanguard’, across the States as she works in an Amazon warehouse, at a campground, and in other seasonal jobs. Yet the motifs of loneliness and vulnerability you might expect are replaced by a strong sense of community among the other nomads, many of whom Zhao met on the road and are playing themselves. One of the only other actors is David Strathairn, who plays a potential love interest which pulls Fern back towards a life with commitments.

This is Zhao’s third film that explores American identity but its study of deindustrialisation and aging has global resonance. The crumbling interiors of Empire’s bungalows are juxtaposed with the crumbling health of the weather-beaten nomads. Both have been spat out by a system that values economic productivity. Even as the nomads try to reject a capitalistic life, they are still in thrall to big corporations for survival for as long as their bodies are capable of physical labour.

Still: 'Nomadland' (2020: Chloé Zhao)

Although Fern has been forced into nomadism she also tries to frame it as a conscious decision--a lifestyle rather than being homeless. She is offended by the assumptions of well-meaning passers-by that she needs help. When someone brings up investment in real estate while she’s visiting her sister, she angrily points out the link between the housing bubble and the situation of many of the nomads. Fern’s sister assures her that she sees her nomadic lifestyle as part of the American 'tradition' of pioneering, but really her comfortable, settled life is much more reminiscent of the actual American dream.

Rather than buying into idealism, Fern accepts the absurdity of her situation. Meeting a young man on the road she quotes a speech from Macbeth; ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’, which dismisses life as ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ While this is the mantra that Fern needs to keep finding joy and beauty in her circumstances, the viewer is challenged to think about the meaning of what they have seen.


Rich Giptar is a writer living in the South East who enjoys anything that can be consumed through a screen. They tweet and promote online short fiction @RichGiptar


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