Jazmín López's Leones is playing as part of the New Directors/New Films festival, on Monday, March 25th and Wednesday, March 27th. You can buy tickets here. Go.
“A long tracking shot is always a statement of liberation.”
“The greatest novelty of the recent cinema is the appearance of worthy treatments of religious subject matters.”
Cinema began stationary. Sandow flexed his muscles for the camera. The train rushed into the station. Melies and his crew moved into the frame to perform their action. The camera recorded, but it was a dispassionate observer. The camera was not yet the camera.
Once the camera moved, it also began a new life. It became expression embodied. It became a life force with its own gestures and language. This is not to discount the beauty of the stationary camera—Ozu made this his life blood. But a moving camera creates its own narrative, beyond the characters and beyond the text perhaps. It becomes a sensuous, breathing validation of art.
Leones is a film that validates the history of tracking shots while also pushing it into a new future. Leones is only about cinema in the way every film can be claimed to be about the cinematic process. Its director, Argentina’s Jazmín López, utilizes the purpose of the tracking shot in so many unique, forceful, and honestly humbling new forms. But the film is also a journey of the spirit—a film that doesn’t just imply cinema can depict a spiritual journey, but can itself be a spiritual journey. This is a film that takes the camera and morphs it into Virgil, Dante’s guide through the beyond. Have I mentioned yet that Leones is an outright masterpiece and perhaps one of the great works of world cinema of our contemporary moment? Allow the hyperbole.
Leones takes place in nature. The time is unknown. The exact location of this forest is irrelevant. After beginning with a series of intense almost Brakhage-like flashing lights, the images open the way you might expect a Dardennes film to open: we’re tracking a young girl, Isabel, through the woods. But the camera begins to take a life of its own. Its movements are not defined by her, but instead curiously float around and near her, not necessarily focused on her emotions. She moves left to a tree; the camera moves right, beginning to focus on a new detail. Soon the camera holds back as she walks forward, observing the world around her. Is she a traveler in the woods, or do the woods travel trough her?
This is only are set up shot, but already López, working with Gerry and Elephant camera operator Matias Mesa as her DP, has established three major things: 1) A main protagonist in Isabel: an unformed mass of puberty without concrete identity 2) the forest: mystical, magical, and perhaps more alive than it will ever let us know 3) the camera: a being of its own, working as a guide between the human spirit and the spirit of nature.
But these rules are not concrete—characters will change their inherent nature, nature will change its inherent character, and the camera refuses to only follow one particular style. Isabel emerges as part of a group of teens, weaving in and out of the frame, often to delightful surprise (never has a director used the appearance of characters emerging from behind the camera to such great effect, as López uses here in a few crucial moments). They walk with some purpose. A beginning and an end are hinted at, but never feel like they can exist with some form of linearity. The teenagers play a game where they attempt to create a six-word short story as Hemingway did. Some of them are one word to big or short, some are silly and reflect the naughty minds of these teenagers. Others are suddenly profound, but lost in the deluge.
What does it all mean? Leones has been criticized by some for having plenty of mystery without answer, but nothing too concrete that it too easily let’s the viewer interpret all of its elements as they want. This is certainly true— López’s dialogue never offers up any obvious answers about why these kids are here and what their goals are. I feel I was able to intuit most of what “happened,” but I think I more importantly doubt that Leones is tough to interpret except for the agonistic. It’s a film about finding belief in a world of where shapes, people, nature, and cinema all take form in amorphous states. Leones is not a series of non-sequiturs but a battleground between the concrete and the abstract—a young girl finally has sex with her boyfriend to define herself as a woman, another breaks off from the group to define herself as an individual, a gun takes a brief moment as an object of violence before being relegated to only an object. The film plays with these genre elements, but it avoids using genre as a template as much as one possibility of understanding. But it’s everything that’s beyond the text that defines what happens within it.
Through all of this, the camera continually re-defines itself. Godard claimed that a tracking shot was a moral decision, yet López’s camera acts beyond a definition of morality, in a world where the classical morals of society have seemed to disappear along with any standard forms of narratology. And with that, her camera becomes liberation. The tracking shots allow us to realize the boundless freedom we can have when we emerge beyond concreteness. Even though editing allows space and time to flow freely in cinema, López all but eliminates editing to focus on how the exact opposite can do that as well Because there’s no other way to do this, I must discuss these tracking shots in detail, or at least choose a selection of the ones that floored me:
1) Our five characters walk beyond a creek into a pass. The camera stays behind. It begins to turn, and time turns with it. We cannot recognize it, but time now moves in a lapse, as we see shadows blink across the leaves in the forest. All the way around as nature evolves through the bits of motion. The camera returns to where it was. The characters emerge from behind the camera, unsure of whether this is where they have been before. The shadows have changed, but they have not.
2) Our characters have made it to a gorgeous lake. They have already played in the water. They begin playing a game of volleyball, but we realize that there is no volleyball. Yet the camera moves in handheld as if there was a volleyball, as Antonioni did with mimes in Blow-Up. The camera turns to Isabel, her hair crowned with leaves and flowers. The camera suddenly moves to her feet and along the group to their clothes they have discarded. One boy approaches and takes out the gun, he brings it to the lake and attaches an orange to it and shoots it into the water. Is this her nightmare?
3) An iPod rests along a log. It repeats a recorded conversation between the teenagers that took place before the narrative. The camera tracks along the log from the iPod to the end of the earbuds. But the earbuds are long and soon enough they do not appear as separate from the log but part of it. The dialogue reveals an essential key moment, one we cannot recognize, but the forest can.
4) The characters have found a house. This is perhaps what they were looking for, but it remains locked. The camera tracks around the house as the characters attempt to open its boarded doors and windows. As the camera makes it way around the house, it centers on Isabel, who enters an area of intense violet flowers. She walks among these flowers, the camera changing focus to make her the only concrete object among this mass color green and violet character. She is lost and remarks on her frustration, but soldiers on nonetheless, rejoining her friends.
5) The secret of the narrative has been revealed. The camera tracks around a car, seemingly out of place in these woods. It observes its details, each of which could lead to a separate conclusion of the narrative. The camera slowly turns back to the woods. We see a spark of intense light far beyond. The camera slowly moves up, down, left, and right, through the various entanglements of this jungle. By the time we’ve reached the intense light, which suggests a heavenly presence, the camera moves to an area where a mist rains down on the forest, cleansing it. As the camera turns, the narrative turns on itself again, almost resetting itself.
6) A final shot. A new location. A sudden change from the flowing grace of a spirit to a hard handheld. The softness replaced by a determined hardness. A final destination along the horizon. Movement till the end. Till the body returns to the final spirit. The concrete enters the shapeless. Suddenly representation itself ends. Colors replaces index. Music replaces faces. The lyrics ask us, “Do you believe in rapture?” We do.
What does it mean for the cinema to be spiritual? Bresson was a noted Catholic, and made a filmic aesthetic that reflected some of his philosophy. Weerasethakul’s puzzling and delightful narratives that completely distill reality and time are influenced by his Buddhist traditions. López certainly feels indebted to Weerasethakul, but her cinematic approach is nothing like he would ever do. Is this a new age spiritualism? Perhaps. But to be more insane, it feels like a belief in cinema itself.
Since its propagation in society, cinema has existed in a moral context. It has both been a part of deciding our morality as well as challenging it. But few have considered the medium of cinema itself a location of spiritualism. The Cashiers writers turned to cinema as a replacement for their church, and so have many cinephiles done so. The question then became, what could the cinema do to confirm their own meaning of lives? How can cinema dictate a worldview to the viewer through its own devices?
Again, we return to the tracking shot. A shot beyond character, narrative, but always held by the idea of a spatial proximity, even if time becomes infinite. Godard called the tracking shot a moral choice because he was often refusing to cut away from what he saw as the degradation of society—Weekend’s traffic jam and Tout Va Bien’s supermarket come to mind. But this is not López, who works in not an amoral world, but toward an idea that hasn’t truly embraced concepts of morality, somewhere in the “in between.” Her tracking shots ask us to break from concreteness and definitions because they remain amorphous—always clear to the viewer, but never defined by a formal rigor.
Her teens reflect this. Their minds and bodies are still amorphous in some ways, not concretely defined as adults. What do they believe in? Where are they heading? Where did they come from? The iPod, as well as a fantastic shot inside a BMW, can help you place together a story about why these kids are on this journey. But to do so would be to deny Lopez’s main interest in these kids truer journey: this is not a coming-of-age tale in which characters discover who they are, but one in which they discover who they are not. The major dynamics that are played out are only interesting because they don’t cause a major rupture in the dynamics of the group. This is not an a àb à c journey, but one that spirals back on itself and then through another dimension. The final moment is thus away from the concrete.
Cinema itself has often followed rules, but López only sets up rules to break them. And in doing so, she uses for cinema as a philosophical tool. For as many years, the cinema has acted as a guide toward so many ideologies, philosophies, and realities. But Leones is a break from structure. López wrote that she stole her title from an idea of Borges, who said that animals never understood the concept of time, and thus she decided to name her film after an animal. So why the lion? It is fierce and knows no boundaries. It is willing to do anything. López strikes me as an animalistic filmmaker: she intuits instead of conceptualizes, working without fear. And if anything, Leones is a fearless work.