Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Fabrizio Ferraro's Les Unwanted de Europa (2018) is exclusively showing January 28 – February 26, 2019 as part of the retrospective Direct from Rotterdam.
Fabrizio Ferraro’s Les Unwanted de Europa opens with brief prologue of 16mm footage taken from the Institut Jean Vigo’s 2015 DVD “Filmer en bord de mer: Le littoral du Languedoc et du Roussillon,” a compilation of amateur, corporate, and institutional films rescued from the attics and archives of various privately held collections. This opening, comprised of some rather idyllic landscape imagery of the Southeastern Pyrenees and nearby Mediterranean coast, sets the quiet, contemplative tone for the forthcoming film. Accompanied by little more than the faint, non-diegetic sound of footsteps, the footage, shot in warm, autumnal hues, is tranquil and evocative of a bygone early-to-midcentury milieu where horses shared the roads with cars and farmers proudly worked the hillsides by hand. It’s the only color sequence in the film, which eventually, in between the credits and some introductory title cards, opens upon a nocturnal clearing along a seaside pathway where a man and a woman, captured in a patient tracking shot, walk around the surrounding harbor. Now pitched in stark black and white, the film has subtly cast the narrative into the realm of history through two simple gestures: a bit of sound bridging (the footsteps, we soon find out, are those of the characters walking around the harbor) and a change in color palette, effectively bringing the viewer into a story several shades darker than the oceanside idyll promised by the archival footage.
Such cogent decisions define Ferraro’s quietly virtuoso feature, which brings many of the Italian director’s diverse interests to bear on a figure of vast historical import. Centered on the final days of German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, Les Unwanted de Europa trades traditional biographical talking points for more existential concerns, offering a complex meditation on language, landscape, and cultural legacy through a wider framework of European exceptionalism. Ferraro, a film theorist and photographer with a background in language philosophy, has spent a significant amount of time working in documentary over the past fifteen years, and there’s a distinct tinge of historical immediacy in the slowly unfolding dramatization of his latest. In the way that, say, the films of Jean-Marie Straub merge past and present atrocities through the synchronicity of landscape, text, and performer, so too does Ferraro’s film extract its drama from a setting inscribed by historical memory. The opening titles place the story in 1940, the year of Benjamin’s death, as he and other foreigners were forced to flee Nazi-occupied France for Spain, just as refugees of Franco’s civil war had fled in the opposite direction the year prior. This cross-pollination of people and politics forms the dramatic undertow of the narrative, which, like the characters it depicts, remains suspended between notions of freedom and fate.
As the story begins, Benjamin (played by Euplemio Macrì) is plotting his escape west across the Pyrenees. Accompanied by a young mother and her son (Marta Reggio and Raphaël Bismuth-Kimpe), he enlists the help of a female sympathizer (Catarina Wallenstein) to guide them on their journey. Meanwhile, a trio of Spanish militiamen (identified only as “milicianos”) are seen crossing the border into France; together their opposing treks suggest the collective state of displacement brought on by the early years of the Second World War, which in turn weighs on the characters who, when not staring blankly into the distance, mostly travel in silence. Indeed, save for a couple of encounters with local institutional figures—namely, the Mayor of Banyuls-sur-Mer (Jean-Louis Tribouley) and an elderly librarian (Vincenç Altaió), each of whom provides key information for safe passage to Benjamin and his friends—dialogue is sparse, and just as often delivered in voiceover, as when Benjamin’s words are heard aloud as he writes in his journals.
If the above largely describes the plot, it’s to Ferraro’s credit that he manages to turn such relatively uneventful activities into a hypnotizing feat of visual and aural storytelling. Accompanied by elegiac passages from John Cage’s Quartets, the film unfolds with an appropriately orchestral-like flow, with Ferraro and his cinematographers Giancarlo Leggeri and Simone Borgna unmooring the camera from the formal strictures associated with so called “slow cinema” and allowing it to map the Pyrenees landscape in elegantly choreographed strides. Ferraro has a distinctly modernist compositional sense, mixing the tranquil outdoor tableaux of early Albert Serra with sequence shots recalling recent Nuri Bilge Ceylan. With a soft touch and an eye for natural beauty, he’s less rigorous and austere than many of his contemporaries but equally attuned to the nuances of space and time and the camera’s capacity for traversing otherwise nonnegotiable coordinates. In the process he opens up the somewhat tired figures-in-a-landscape model that continues to define so much contemporary art cinema. Late in the film, the camera follows Benjamin and his companions to the crest of a hill, at which point the two diverge, with the group continuing on down a dirt path as the camera lifts up and away from its subjects. Tilting toward the sky, the camera seems to arc across the horizon, lost in the wonder of the surrounding environment. When it touches back down, we’re now in front of the characters, tracking them backwards down the same path, several furlongs from where we began.
The growing diffuseness of the narrative is mirrored by such increasingly suggestive flourishes, so much so that by the end of the film any sense of temporal grounding is all but lost on the viewer. (The story could take place over the course of a few days or a few months, it’s never quite clear.) Visibly exhausted and downtrodden, Benjamin eventually encourages the others to continue on without him. (“I’m fine. You three go on,” he says calmly, quietly.) Sidestepping the particulars of Benjamin’s death (the official account has it that he would overdose on morphine pills soon after crossing into Catalonia, for fear of repatriation to the Nazis), Ferraro opts instead to depict his protagonist’s final throes in more symbolic fashion. Sitting alone amongst the brush, he delivers an unexpected belly laugh in the face of a new world he has spent years anticipating but one whose horrors he has no desire to witness firsthand. Resigned to his fate but open to the possibilities of the unknown, he curls up and lies down in the dirt. The image fades to white, and life and landscape slowly become one.