From now through October 15th, Film Misery will be covering the 56th New York Film Festival with regular dispatches on the films screened there.
Only three films in, Barry Jenkins’ career feels defined less by hope than resilience. His last film, Moonlight, was notably a tale of two queer black men learning to adapt to the raw deal life has dealt them. Despite ending on a moment of positive catharsis, that long-term damage remains and will linger long beyond that reunion. Jenkins clearly wasn’t finished exploring that internal dynamic, delving deeper into the wide-spread ramifications of injustice with If Beale Street Could Talk (★★★★1/2). Adapted from the beloved novel by renowned social critic James Baldwin, it’s a rich opportunity for Jenkins to not only widen his poetic voice, but blend and contrast it with another’s. The result is a profoundly moving work of communal creation, about a community crafting an imperfect life for themselves, no matter how mangled.
It’s suspect to claim that a hetero romance confirms a straight man as one of the great queer cinematic voices. The most taboo thing about the union between Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) and Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Kiki Layne) is their incomplete marital status, though a lengthy extended family exchange cuts to the depths of that ideological divide. What invokes the beguiling freshness of queer discovery, though, is how their childhood friendship evolves quite naturally into intense romance. As narrated with cool omniscience by Tish, their courtship is a collection of glances, touches and gestures. Alone, they’re simple displays of kindness. Together, they pull the two inexorably into each other’s lives and minds. As their friendship builds fully into congress, their gaze becomes both loving and bewildered. It’s jarring to see a loved one in a new light, but just as tender, too.
Even as we’re witnessing a pure love bloom, though, we’re already heartsick knowing where it leads. Fonny starts the film already in jail for a sexual assault crime he didn’t commit, we gather from Tish’s preferential but reliable perspective. At the time when broadly bigoted white Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) alleges Fonny assaulted a woman, Fonny was conceiving a child with Tish. The newborn’s slow-approaching arrival sets an unconscious ticking clock for Tish to get her fiance out of prison as soon as possible. Though the forward-moving span of the film holds the two at a distance, cruelly separated by glass, Tish’s narration isn’t linear. It jumps around to memories long passed and conversations unseen, yet still perceived, by her.
Mixing comprehensive ensemble focus and a centered, emotionally confident perspective, Beale Street feels like an internal reckoning with events beyond one’s grasp or control. Tish isn’t present for a conversation where her dad (Colman Domingo) and Fonny’s dad (Michael Beach) work through hopelessness and commit to supporting their children, whatever the legal cost. She isn’t there when her mother, Sharon (Regina King), leaves the country to talk with assault victim Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), but her empathy for all recovering from abuse and hardship is conditionally felt. Not everyone finds solidarity, particularly in the wrenching latter encounter, where Sharon’s personal attachments blind her to the trauma Victoria is still experiencing.
As much as If Beale Street Could Talk is about sharing pain and struggle, it’s also about the limits to that empathy. “If you’re going to handle this case, I need you to be family,” Tish says to Fonny’s lawyer, whose altruism can’t entirely compensate for the emotional distance he displays in his assignment. In one flashback, Fonny meets up with Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), newly released from prison after an overlong stint for a minor offense. Daniel exhibits both the joy of freedom and the torment of imprisonment. “You can’t understand if you haven’t lived it,” Daniel tells a friend who will soon understand his words all too well. Jenkins’ D.P. James Laxton shoots Daniel’s monologue in dark tones, almost devoid of light, with Nicholas Britell’s score further entrenching us in the curdling digestive tract of a broken system.
Just as necessary to Jenkins’ patchwork, though, are the moments of unexpected support and solidarity. “I guess that’s the difference between us and them,” a non-black character says to Tish & Fonny. There’s a beat, within which we analyze the sociopolitical layers of him saying “us”. It’s a potential overstep, but one that pays off in empathy. It may not make a legal difference, though, which Beale Street confirms in its downtrodden, tragedy-laced final act. Moment by moment, hopes for a “happy” ending dwindle. When Jenkins is transfixed by slabs of woods and screws meaningfully mangled-together, the film’s once-buoyant spirit crumbles. As is often the case, birth is what revives it. It’s a birth of new lives, but also of a new paradigm with which black people are often forced adapt to, even as they resist it. What’s broken stays broken, but a cracked sweetness remains.
If you’re going into Jafar Panahi’s latest, 3 Faces (★★★1/2), with the hope of lighter, cheerier fare from him – perhaps something akin to Offside – the opening image works very hard to dispel that. Teenage Marziyeh Rezaei, playing herself, takes a rough, rickety iPhone video in a cave away from their village. She talks about her desire to learn at the conservatory, despite her family’s insistence that she focus solely on marriage. As she puts a noose around her neck, the camera drops and fuzzes out. The recipient are Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari and Panahi himself who, jarred by the devastating video, quickly set out for Marziyeh’s village. Is it a rescue mission, a murder mystery or some elaborate, harshly manipulative ploy? Either way, it’s a tensely wrenching setup. So why does what follows feel gradually more like an absurdist comedy?
His fourth film since being banned by the Iranian government from making them, 3 Faces is a pretty delicate tonal mix. Shifting from heartbreak to outrage to awkward humor, Panahi captures the gamut of conflicted feelings that dominate those living in modern Iran. Panahi is present onscreen, but he understands both the limits of his view and how secondary in importance it is. What matters more than his face is those of the women, one weathered and experienced, the other eager and desperate. For Jafari, this sojourn to the countryside feels increasingly like a cruel maneuver, a frustration she unduly takes out on a largely open-minded and supportive Panahi. The suicide video may be a ploy, but in an Iran that suppresses women’s aspirations while idolizing fame, recruiting renowned filmmakers as allies isn’t the most insane idea.
To say more would ruin the tumultuous ride, as Panahi consistently allows the viewer to experience anxiety, panic, compassion, suspicion and at times bashful enjoyment. One moment we’re worried that a washed up actress’ house will burn down. The next, Jafar Panahi’s being presented with a child’s foreskin and listening to a lengthy monologue on its prophetic power. In 3 Faces, everyone is desperate to bypass hardship and struggle to find a quicker, easier route to success. As suffocating as Iran’s cultural climate can be, though, there are visibly more progressive avenues for people to move in. That a belligerently violent, patriarchal man is increasingly pushed into closet and outside women’s conversations is a comforting enough gesture. The image of two women independently walking into future is even more aspirational. Even limited by his own perspective, Panahi has the grace to know where to look for compelling stories.