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BFI London Film Festival 2022, Dispatch #18: Unrest, Robe of Gems

Unrest, Cyril Schaublin, Clara Gostynski, Alexei Evstratov
Clara Gostynski and Alexei Evstratov in Unrest

Measurements of human activity, in financial worth, numerical values, verbal appraisals, set within laws, rules, customs, political ideologies and, ultimately, the innate demands of those very humans. I see what Cyril Schaublin is trying to achieve in Unrest, and I think he achieves it pretty well, but I'm not entirely convinced it's worth achieving. So it's supposed to be, aptly, a measured movie, one of delicate details and carefully calibrated quirks, but my measurements find it somewhat deficient as a technical exercise, in that it seems to be all technique and no purpose. It ends - sorry to skip so far ahead, but needs must - with a delightful final shot, but it's one that acts as a very succinct encapsulation of Unrest's central failing - Schaublin's characters analyse and discuss and calculate and explain, but they hardly ever actually do anything worth noting. That's kind of the point, but it's a dull point, and just when some of them finally decide to take independent, meaningful action, he can't pull himself away from that by-now belaboured point.

It's such a light, winsome little movie it hardly seems to exist upon reflection, but the experience of watching Unrest is, in truth, a fairly pleasant one. Schaublin's technique may be in service of very little in the end, but it's good technique otherwise. He has, of all things, a terrific appreciation of space, not time, and how to convey a sense of space beyond the camera's confines. And the political angle that keeps jutting in, insistently enough that it does, to some extent, begin to shape our perception of the movie's events (insofar as they can be considered "events") is smartly realized, with the non-political content, or lack thereof, of individual characters' dialogue quite revealing in context. And Schaublin appreciates the capacity of representations, in form, content, purpose and provenance, to adequately represent or to misrepresent. I wonder if he appreciates the capacity of his own work to represent... whatever it is he's trying to represent. I think he does, and I hope he's happy with it. He's done a fine job, but at quite what I'm still unsure.

Robe of Gems, Natalia Lopez
Robe of Gems

There's a person in the image above. You just can't see her. The seen and the unseen, the heard and the unheard, the imagined and the unimaginable in a barren, abused place both physical and psychological. Natalia Lopez's Robe of Gems is a compassionate portrait of a callous existence, lifestyles of perfunctory brutality enveloping and corroding the wishful stability of a well-meaning few. There's no way out, not even through, and even yielding to the brutality, participating in it, submitting to the basest whims of its nastiest executors will only perpetuate it. Resistance is futile, hope is preposterous, compliance is unrewarded, and the evil you can't see if you don't want to ends up showing its full face to you anyway, perhaps upon a skinny, frail old lady asking a young man to get some juice from the store. God, if one exists, only knows what tortures she's endured to get to such a position of unspoken authority, or what traumas she's concealing, or if any of the above have even happened to her. When you've only seen the gun from the barrel-end, you hardly even recognize it from the other.

Robe of Gems is an unusual movie in that it hides so much yet eventually reveals so much too, and in that its disturbing intensity only increases in so doing. A woman strikes a deal with a gardener she's known all her life, and you feel like you might not want to know what that deal entails - well, you will know, and you know too what he means when he subsequently parts company with her for good. A single small fire burns in the wilderness, and you wonder why, without much optimism - you won't wonder for long, and what little optimism you had will be extinguished. There are aspects to Lopez's work here that I didn't entirely comprehend, but I'm grateful for that, since there are aspects to her scenario that might have struck me as hokey and derivative were she any less enigmatic. I'm not sure how grateful I am for this movie's moaning, emanating from a wide variety of sources, not always identified, not always even prominent in the sound mix. This is a very troubling movie indeed, and a very good one. It's the 53rd and final movie I watched as part of the 2022 BFI London Film Festival, and it's possibly the best.


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