The Year of the Everlasting Storm
2021, NR, 121 min. Directed by Jafar Panahi, Anthony Chen, Malik Vitthal, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor, David Lowery, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Voice by Bill Callahan. Starring Zhang Yu, Zhou Dongyu, Catherine Machovsky, Francisca Castillo, Rosa García-Huidobro, Bobby Yay Yay Jones.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 10, 2021
The whole point of an anthology like The Year of the Everlasting Storm – one with a very slight remit, and directors of honed and unique viewpoints – is to push to the edges, rather than find some consensus about the experience of living through a pandemic. It’s almost like a “what I did on my vacation” essay assignment, only with an A-list of arthouse directors, and so it inevitably feels disjointed, switching from drama to tone poem to documentary to video diary. “Life,” the opening and most charming component, is undeniably the latter, a surprisingly hilarious scene of dissident filmmaker Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, Offside) being visited by his grumpy mother in his apartment. Having survived prison and house arrest for the crime of making movies, he seems at ease with his COVID confinement, unlike his mother, who arrives unannounced in a full body suit and insists on disinfecting every surface, all the while sulking that her son’s pet (a large lizard) freely roams the house.
The Year of the Everlasting Storm may well be topped and tailed by its best, most eccentric works, each at the polar ends of observation. Panahi just wanders his home with his camera, capturing a family moment that has probably been shared globally. In “Night Colonies,” Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) takes human experiences almost completely out of the equation in an abstract view of insects and lizards crawling over windows and fluttering around light tubes. It’s a radical pulling back of the camera, a tense yet calming reminder that human affairs, even a pandemic, are not the only concern on this planet.
Between those extremes, five more shorts attempt to find something to say about this last year and a half. “Sin Título, 2020” by Dominga Sotomayor (Too Late to Die Young) is a delightful depiction of two women in a small Chilean community and the distractions and routines they have assembled to get them through the lockdown. Theirs is a story told with subtle warmth in which flexibility is the important lesson, unlike “The Break Away” by Taiwanese director Anthony Chen (The Reunion Dinner). This focuses on the perils of trying to find normalcy in confinement, as a young couple (Zhang and Zhou) struggle to keep their relationship together as they deal with all the tensions exacerbated and created by the lockdown, especially with a young son and collapsing economic prospects. It’s quite possibly the narratively deepest and most tenderly observed of all the stories, and the one that could stand best by itself.
That’s something that could not be said of the surprisingly underformed “Terror Contagion,” Laura Poitras’ brief documentary about how she and human rights watchdog Forensic Architecture have been researching Israeli firm NSO and its terrifyingly intrusive hacking software, Pegasus. Much of the material was covered in greater depth in Bryan Fogel’s documentary about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, The Dissident, and to greater effect, leaving Poitras’ story as somewhere between all-too-brief, a work in progress, and a Zoom conference call between journalists. Its failure to really connect its themes to the COVID era is in contrast to Body Cam director Malik Vitthal’s “Little Measures,” which follows a father (Jones) scrabbling to keep access to his kids, all in foster care. The pandemic amplifies his plight and reminds the audience how this whole cursed experience has just been a multiplier on strife.
Astonishingly, only one story – David Lowery’s “Dig Up My Darling” – deals directly with death. Shades of Cormac McCarthy and his own earlier work (most especially A Ghost Story) hover around his most Texan tale since Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, as an unnamed woman (Machovsky) fulfills a decades-old obligation, one pledged the last time we went though a pandemic. His signature melancholy binds it to Weerasethakul’s final chapter, forcing us to look with a new perspective on this most extraordinary of times.
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The Year of the Everlasting Storm, Jafar Panahi, Anthony Chen, Malik Vitthal, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor, David Lowery, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Zhang Yu, Zhou Dongyu, Catherine Machovsky, Francisca Castillo, Rosa García-Huidobro, Bobby Yay Yay Jones