Farrel (Juan Fernández) begins the long journey home in Liverpool...
In Sight & Sound's 'Cinema Of The 21st Century' article (February 2010), Jonathan Romney details the emergence of 'Slow Cinema', a movement identifiable by its static long takes, diegetic sound and unhurried editing. In his introductory essay, Nick James supports Romney's theory by citing Godard's famous maxim, "all great fiction films tend toward documentary". In an interview with Violeta Kovacsics and Adam Nayman, Alonso states that he is interested in "describing characters' environments", which suggests Liverpool as a series of perfectly composed tableaus, set in the southernmost town in the world. Its story follows a man named Farrel (Juan Fernández), who arrives into the wintry town of Ushuaia via a deserted freighter, and proceeds to travel deep into its heart in an effort to locate his dying mother and estranged daughter. The director's precise mapping makes for a deeply moving journey, marked by emptiness and undeclared sorrow.
Curiously, Alonso uncorks his tale in an explosion of guitar-charged rock music, courtesy of Spanish foursome Flormaleva. One imagines the toffee-nosed arthouse crowd being viscerally shaken by the opening credits which - unfurling in bold red capitals - feel like they've been hijacked from Gaspar Noé's Irréversible (2002). Soon the director settles into a quieter mood, establishing the cold climate of Ushuaia in wide, expressive takes. The freighter which Farrel travels on is a lonely vessel, scarcely populated, and when it docks our protagonist makes no attempts at goodbye. Instead he stashes a bottle of vodka into his duffel bag and wanders into the night.
DP Lucio Bonelli captures the town beautifully, especially after dark, when his use of natural light makes the sight of falling snow seem otherworldly. The sound is also captured naturally, but then amplified in post-production, establishing a kind of hyperreality - the noise of an engine may exist within the world of the film, but Alonso employs it like he would any other cinematic device, drawing attention to its whirring to inform the isolation of his characters. Only in the abyss of Ushuaia could such a small sound consume us so profoundly.
Fernández, who worked as a snow shoveler before being selected for filming, delivers an incredible performance as Farrel, free of any actorly inhibitions or vanity. Watching him I was reminded of Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak) in the Turkish film Uzak (Ceylan, 2002), who always existed at a distance from the camera, and therefore the audience. Alonso, whose style is less formal than Ceylan's, only frames Farrel in close-up once, after he wakes up on abandoned bus. The vehicle is tattered and derelict; the perfect home for its new tenant, who takes a swig of vodka as he overlooks the ocean. Fernández brings such a rawness to the role, such an unidentifiable harshness, that we can't help but see Farrel as a walking enigma. His final actions - leaving a keyring in the hands of his daughter - leave us wondering about his past, and how long the man has been away from home. Upon this action he descends into the surrounding woods, never to be seen or heard from again. Most films stamp a full-stop on their characters by their conclusion, but Farrel remains an ellipsis.
There is a problem, and it's one I've experienced with much of the so-called 'Slow Cinema'. There is the sense, sometimes, that the film is too consciously motivated by silence. For example, the scene where Farrel flags down a timber truck for his ride, but instead of engaging his companion in conversation he sits mute, staring into the mountains which populate the winding roads. I understand the character's reticence, but in scenes such as this one the silence didn't seem natural. Godard said that all great fiction much tend toward documentary, but 'Slow Cinema' seems to have adopted a troubling rule of thumb: the smaller and quieter the film, the closer a reality it will establish. But as Shakespeare once said, "life is full of sound and fury", and sometimes silence can be as downright manipulative as a soaring John Williams suite. The problem was not nearly as notable here as in, say, the recent Las Acacias (Giorgelli, 2011), but it was infuriating in the film's more immediate moments. If Alonso can match his technical skill with a more rounded emotional arc, I think we can expect great things from him in the future, but for the moment Liverpool is a compelling calling card for UK audiences, and it deserves us to listen.
Second Run are known for their exemplary booklets, and this one, authored by David Jenkins, is no exception. It contains two essays running over 16 pages, each detailing the production history of their selected film (the first is on Liverpool, the second an accompanying short film, Untitled) and expounding upon them with theory (I'd abide by the recommendation of reading the essays after your first viewing). On the disc there's a 5-minute video interview with Alonso, but more compelling is the aforementioned short, Untitled (Letter For Serra), which is the concluding part of a two-part project by Alonso and Albert Serra (The Lord Worked Wonders In Me, 2011). It's an odd little film, opening with a hunter aiming his rifle through the trees, and ending on a to-camera narration by an unknown outsider. The first ten minutes are essentially about a bullet fired into the forrest, told from two different perspectives in the same fragment of real time. Alonso employs his usual long takes (there are only six shots in the film), amplified sound design and low-key performances, but apparently this relates back to his debut feature, La libertad (2001), which I haven't seen. It's interesting though, and beautifully shot, rounding off the package nicely.
Liverpool is released by Second Run DVD on January 23rd.