A Film a Week - Piety / La Piedad

 previously published on Cineuropa

Eduardo Casanova’s second feature, Piety, is a film like no other, for better or for worse. His debut, the 2017 Berlinale title Skins, certainly was excessive, but with Piety, Casanova brings the excess to the next level in order to tell a deep and necessary, realistic story in a completely unrealistic, fantastic and allegorical manner. It has premiered in KVIFF’s new Proxima competition, but its next stop, Fantasia in Montreal, could actually decide its destiny because Piety is something that would theoretically suit fantastic festivals better than arthouse ones.

Casanova opens his film like a thriller, with a pulsating score, close-ups on the clock, and cuts that add to the tension just to throw his first of many curveballs in the title sequence. Printing the title in both Spanish and Korean, one might assume that he is actually paying the tribute to the recently deceased filmmaker Kim Ki-duk and his 2012 film of the same name, but the function of the Korean is something else that will be revealed later. Kim’s Pieta was certainly weird, and so is Casanova’s, but it is another kind of weirdness we are dealing with here.

Mateo (Manel Llunell) lives in a pink-and-pastels-covered world that seems like something straight out of musicals and is ruled by his mother, Libertad (Ángela Molina, seen in a number of Pedro Almodóvar films). Ironically, liberty is something Mateo does not enjoy, since he is a grown man relegated to the role of her little boy that she takes in tow to her musical rehearsals, and asks for insincere feedback about anything from the quality of her performance to the quality of her cooking. She also gives him baths, clips his nails and regulates his diet. Their days usually end with the news from North Korea (the plot of the film is set in 2011, the year of Kim Jong-il’s death) and they go to sleep in the same king-size bed.

When they learn about Mateo’s cancer diagnosis, Libertad tries to firm his grip over him, while he makes his best efforts to break free from her. Also, the people on North Korean news, a couple fleeing to South Korea when the authorities poisoned one of their daughters and executed the other one, find their way into the film in short excerpts, but Casanova has even stranger stuff in store for us: not so subtle hints at incest, breastfeeding and giving birth to a grown man in a nightmarish dream sequence.

There is no box Piety could be put to, since its elements are basically different types of bizarre, so maybe a description of something that would come out of the mind of Álex de la Iglesia if he would wake up in a pastel-coloured rehab centre is the most fitting one. The question, however, is whether the best way to treat such an important and complex topic as the co-dependence a person forms with a dictatorial regime, whether it rules a household or a country, is an exercise in excess.

On the other hand, Casanova demonstrates a unique and singular vision, the steel will to pursue it and some of the necessary skills to do so, such as envisioning and executing a proper genre movie set piece. Also, the counter-intuitive colour scheme used to portray the freedom and captivity and North and South Korea is an obvious metaphor, but also a nice touch. In the end, not all of Piety’s ingredients blend well together, but some parts of the film are really hard to forget.

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