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London Film Festival 2018: Happy as Lazzaro, They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, Ash Is Purest White

Luca Chikovani and Adriano Tardiolo in Happy as Lazzaro

Few can make me as happy as Alice Rohrwacher can. Brief flashes of light and hints of magic abound in Happy as Lazzaro, an entrancing story about a modern-day maybe-saint, and a compassionate appeal to the people of Italy for precisely that: compassion. Rohrwacher's plea is a simple one to make, though perhaps not so simple to follow, asking that we abandon our pursuit of self-awareness and self-worth as measured by possessions, physical assets, and knowledge, and leave such concerns behind us. Here, they are the currency of a class that has run itself into ruin and that has dragged the rest of the country down with them; the film posits that happiness itself is achievable only through the pursuit of happiness alone. As light, nature and the simple pleasures of music and companionship provide character and viewer alike with contentment enough, so Rohrwacher makes the case for innocence and naivety as virtues enough to sustain humanity, if wielded appropriately. She's not so naive herself; a jarring closing sequence throws her sweet little fable into realistic relief, even if it doubles down on the fantastical elements that give Happy as Lazzaro its singular character, but at a time in my life when I've come to realize that prioritizing compassion over all other virtues may be the most important thing that one can do for the world, I'm inclined to give myself over to this lovely movie's appeals.

At the other end of the artistic spectrum is Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind; more on that when I've actually seen the film, but one never got the impression that Welles' perspective on humanity was quite as optimistic as Rohrwacher's. They'll Love Me When I'm Dead is Morgan Neville's collation of footage and fresh interviews on the making of that film, thorough, spirited, and seemingly wise to the nature of both film and filming process. If Welles was interested in obscuring the boundaries between art and reality in his final feature, set for a Netflix release next month, Neville nods his head in that direction by emphasizing the reality of the content he and others have captured, alongside the artificiality of his own process - subjects are shown sporting headphones, Alan Cumming's narration is presented to-camera. That narration was a bad idea, and Cumming's theatricality as a performer compounds the mistake; Welles' 'divine accidents' are absent entirely from Neville's work, either here or in previous features, the whole enterprise an enjoyable, involving, but artistically vacuous. I took the odd note here and there, then left with a half-empty page. Worthwhile watching, but hardly essential.

Zhao Tao and Liao Fan in Ash Is Purest White

If Morgan Neville lacks vision as a filmmaker, Jia Zhang Ke has vision to spare. Not everything this maverick artist attempts always works, as I found out in Ash Is Purest White, but each new scene in each of his films brings with it the promise of greatness or, at worst, interest. Here, he leans into an alternate outlook on familiar themes, the changes to the Chinese nation since the turn of the 21st Century, here confined to eras with which he has experience (sorry, ye few - very few - fans of Mountains May Depart's last act), and seen through the progress of a relationship that never properly takes hold nor lets its participants go. Jia's concern for subtlety is negligable, though his overtly literal and symbolic approach is applied with such wondrous appreciation for the power of cinema as a communicative tool that one wonders if subtlety might here only be a hindrance. Nothing is accidental, nothing is presented passively, yet there's an accuracy to period recreation and an intrinsic understanding of how Chinese culture, both ancient and contemporary, manifests itself in personal attitudes and in the significance of routine and ritual - Ash Is Purest White is a typically deliberate Jia film, but rarely ponderously so. Alas, the story that serves as the vessel for Jia's messages feels redundant, rather than resonant, against the backdrops that attract the majority of his sympathies, and his gradual shift toward increasingly narrative-driven cinema isn't proving especially flattering. That killer fist through the car window, though!

All three films screen at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival, kicking off today! Happy as Lazzaro competes for the Best Film Award in Official Competition

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