One of the films in competition in the current Sitges International Festival, In the earth, takes the viewer to a world affected by a pandemic derived from the spread of a respiratory virus. The prestigious screenwriter and director Ben Whatley (High-Rise) does not offer too much detail: it shows the corresponding prevention measures (masks, tests, quarantines) and refers to problems of food shortages. The audience does not get to know to what extent the blow has been hard, because the fiction is located in a controlled and secluded place, but it indicates that a process of social reconstruction is underway with signs of success.
With this approach, Wheatley thus moves away from the usual tremendous logic in fictions about pandemics. If the audiovisual tends to relate dramatic civilizational collapses, In the earth about what we have been living with the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus has strongly shaken daily life, social interactions, mental health and the economic fabric. It has caused a large number of deaths (four and a half million deaths, according to official figures) and a lot of pain, but life, and the institutional networks of a certain protection (for some), have been making their way.
In the earth it stages this resistance capacity of organized structures, as opposed to a certain inertia of the audiovisual to represent civilizational collapses. One of the characters in the film even anticipates that everything that has been lived will be forgotten, that the old ways will return. In parallel, the irruption of brushstrokes of ecological terror seems to indicate to us that perhaps some environmentalist teaching should be extracted from our non-end of the world. Another work seen at the Catalan festival, The feast, is much more explicit: the relationship between humans and the planet is closer to the cinema of rape and revenge when a spirit rises violently against the predatory extractivism of resources.
Wheatley, for his part, seems to encourage reconnection with a nature with which humanity may not be able to understand no matter how hard it tries to expand its perceptual capacities. The director recovers elements of folk horror in contact with culture hippie that represented movies like The wicker man or Satan’s claw, and emphasizes its lysergic component. The bad guys, if anything, are still humans. And its author achieves a film that can appear in the final list for the aesthetic care shown, for the creation of potentially fascinating images accompanied (perhaps even too preponderant, but very attractive) or for the music of Clint Mansell.
He has also dealt with resistance to catastrophe A nuvem pink, a peculiar mix of family drama, social parable and film about civilizing clashes embedded with shocking calm. Brazilian filmmaker Iuli Gerbase anticipated the confinement resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic with a modest but visionary work about the appearance of unexplained and lethal pink clouds. Breathing the air from open spaces becomes deadly, so people are forced to stay indoors.
The approach could remind us of a kind of everyday version, without elements of thriller, of that agoraphobic apocalypse of Spanish production that was The last days. Beyond the secondary characters that appear on the different screens of computers and mobile phones, Gerbase basically serves two protagonists. A one-night stand turns into a forced cohabitation. After the corresponding period of pragmatic patience, their experience forks: he chooses to resign himself to forced confinement; she begins to despair, seeks experiences, changes and even secludes herself in the artificial expansions provided by virtual reality glasses.
The plausibility of the proposed A nuvem pink, which requires letting go of a good number of internal logic problems. Its author does not pay attention to logistical problems, organization, food production, but attends to other things. He wonders about the ability of telematic communications to fulfill the human need for social interaction, friendship, affection. And it questions the possible, or desirable limits of adapting to circumstances that can be considered openly inhumane.
The filmmaker also asks whether a new generation, grown up during a total confinement based on virtual communication, can live that way, understanding it as full, without nostalgia or frustrations derived from losing possibilities that they have never experienced. In this regard, the film brings to the table the possibility that resilience is not something positive that helps us to continue, but also something disturbing because it enables uncritical acceptances of undesirable states of affairs. With its inconsistencies, delinquencies, limitations and redundancies, the author’s proposal raises interesting questions dressed in an elegant visual device.
Another story of civilizational disturbances, and perhaps one of the most solid works seen so far in the current edition of the Sitges festival, is The terra dei figli. The Italian director Claudio Cupellini has created a post-apocalyptic drama with elements of action without artifice. And he also wonders if the generations grown after a very strong social upheaval can get used to the situation. In fiction, a disease has radically decimated the human population and turned the Earth into a hostile space.
In this context, a man lives with his son in a secluded and somewhat isolated area: a lake in which to try to fish and trade objects with a couple of other survivors. The protagonist is the young man, feral but still affected by the harshness of a stern father who seems to hate him. Or that, perhaps, he just wants to harden his character so that he is not a helpless person in a world where all support networks have disappeared and some predators are at ease.
Unlike In the earth or A nuvem pink, The terra dei figli You have one foot in the fantastic adventure and entertainment. The narrative of adventures, with adventures and life and death confrontations that allow the proposal to be aligned with the entertainment cinema, coexists with a dejected tone and a certain meditative breath. We are prompted to reflect on the dissatisfaction caused by a life without attachments. The result could also be read as a metaphor for our society of competitiveness of all against all, with the nuclear family as the only or almost the only safe space. A monstrous version of this retreat is even portrayed in tiny circles by showing a group of seven survivors ready to devour whoever they can.
The protagonist could have become a survival machine, thanks to his poor cultivation of empathy that includes the ability to kill. At the same time, he is still a naive boy who takes risks to discover what his father wrote about him in a personal diary. Discovering a world of extreme cruelty beyond the lake does not prevent the door from opening to new affections. Between emotional blocks, feelings find their way into the survival story. And that’s another way to start rebuilding the circles of support of the pre-apocalyptic world, to point out the possibility of a reboot.
The Sitges festival program also includes apocalyptic films that clearly follow the tremendous dynamics of the filmic end of the world. In the last section of the contest will be screened Prisoners of the Ghostland, a presumably wacky collaboration between radical Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono and actor Nicolas Cage. Meanwhile, another sample of zombie cinema has been screened as Wyrmwood apocalypse, somewhat removed from those social democratic frameworks of George Romero’s enduringly influential films (The night of the Living Dead, Zombie), a filmmaker in contact with the counterculture and leftism.
In the trial The superfluous man, the writer Ilija Trojanow identified the futures of disaster as typical of a reactionary culture. Taken as an infallible rule, the approach is debatable: Romero himself showed sinking scenarios, perhaps to represent the need for backbone institutions that help good people to protect themselves from predators. However, the audiovisual fascination for the end of the world, beyond the good commercial moment that fantasy cinema or the zombie genre has experienced, can be seen as an emanation of a neoliberal present of mistrust in the individual, of contempt for institutions and worldviews of extreme competitiveness.
Maybe, just maybe, the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic will facilitate the proliferation of other ways of imagining the ends of the world. The story of less univocal and less unruly catastrophic processes, more subtle and, if possible, more complex and related to reality. The assumption of this resistance to the state of things can be read in an optimistic and comforting key, but it can also (and should?) Serve to reflect on the capacity for persistence of undesirable aspects of reality.
Works like In the earth or A nuvem pink They remind us that what we understand as civilization, a capitalism articulated through states that become absolutely necessary in times of crash and need, does not end easily. But they can also serve to signal that this persistence is not positive in all respects. Just look at the post-pandemic indicators of inequality, global vaccination management, and other crisis management embarrassments.