New Directors New Films: Happy Times Will Come Soon
One of the most surprising films at this year’s New Directors New Films festival also happens to be the winner of FICUNAM, a small, ambitious film festival that takes place annually in Mexico City: The charms of Alessandro Commodin’s Happy Times Will Come Soon are perhaps not immediately apparent, yet its powerful, subtle imagination slowly works the viewer into a feverish, dreamy state. The film’s win at FICUNAM was doubly surprising, as so many works I saw there seemed to run against Commodin’s purely allegorical aesthetic, no doubt proof of that festival’s ample understanding of film craft. The Cátedra Bergman series of critic and filmmaker panels, in which I participated at FICUNAM, focused on the question of history and film history, setting the tone for most of the festival. Indeed, some of the most memorable films I saw were linked to the question of how history is passed down to us: John Torres’s People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose (2016) and Niles Atallah’s Rey (2017) both astounded as mature works from young filmmakers, for whom, in varying ways, history is the base material to draw on.
By contrast, Commodin’s film is remarkable in how it avoids time-specificity, and therefore a notion of history, altogether. Time and place are subject to confusion in this winsome parable. Even this description—a “parable” or “fable”—is tentative, for we are not presented with any extraordinarily supernatural imagery. In the film’s opening, two young men, Tommaso (Erikas Sizonovas) and Arturo (Luca Bernardi) jump over a high wall, as they escape into the woods. They must hunt for small pray—they manage to capture a rabbit—and satisfy their constant hunger by collecting mushrooms. The colors of the woods are murky, hinting at a danger that surrounds the youth, but nothing literally supernatural befalls them. The danger, instead, comes from the human element: The youth stumble across a corpse of a murdered farmer, and make away with his rifle. Unaware of danger, the two fire the weapon, and attract unwanted attention.
It is here, after what we can call a first act, that Commodin adds an insert: A middle-aged Italian villager narrates a local fable of a wolf and of a young girl, who comes to the area seeking a cure for an undefined illness, but who, upon entering the woods one day, is never seen again. A younger villager chimes in, over beer, saying that he has seen the wolf himself. Thus the scope of the story is broadened, to include the local lore. Then we move back to what we might call “the present tense”: A young woman, Ariane (Sabrina Seyvecou), echoing the one mentioned in the fable, ends up wandering into the woods. This young woman, however, is very much rooted in reality: We see her in an establishing scene catching a ride with one of the local farmers, maneuvering a tractor. In the woods, she finds a cavern with a secret passage, and ends up meeting one of the escaped “young wolves,” i.e. the young men we saw on the run. A romance between the shy young couple takes place, kept in the style of a pastoral.
We are given to understand that while Tommaso is possibly a fugitive, Ariane a certainly an eccentric—a mysterious figure (in the fable, clearly associated with the city, as opposed to nature and the villagers’ traditional ways). Commodin hints at sexual aggression in a scene, in which Tommaso carries Ariane’s limp body. We see her laid down in the ditch, an image that clearly speaks to the voraciousness of passion.
Tommaso is hunted down by a search party, and ends up in jail. And yet, contrary to what we have been led to believe, Ariane is unharmed: She is the first person to visit the young man in prison. The local lore, with all its imaginings of young male sexual aggression, is upended, and what is left instead is the two young people’s affection, in spite of social conventions—a touchingly romantic vision, which mixes the Romanticism’s notion of nature as forever bewildering, a sublime that reason alone cannot comprehend. During a jail visitation, Tommaso confides to Ariane that he sees the root of all his misfortune in his hailing from nowhere. A woeful complaint of rootlessness, it brings this wondrous social folk tale full circle, suggesting that much of the lore is the embodiment of the youth’s helplessness, on one hand, and of the village community’s prohibitive vision of the world, on the other. That Commodin manages to keep these two realities, the social and the fantastical, on a parallel track for so long, never fully yielding to either interpretation, speaks to the freshness of his talent. A Better Time Will Come is a gentle film whose gorier details evoke psychic terror.