Review: Fausto

by Andrew Parker

A work of contemplative art that packs its small, unassuming, and intimately composed frame to bursting with unanswerable questions about man’s place in the universe, Canadian filmmaker Andrea Bussmann’s avant garde opus Fausto uses tried and tested oral and literary storytelling traditions in an effort to get closer to the ethereal and sublime. It’s not as chilling as the devilish myth that partially inspires the film’s title (which has several other meanings that could also be taken into account), but when pondered and puzzled over long enough, some viewers could reach darker conclusions about human nature and man’s inhumanity to man. If it sounds all a bit wishy-washy, that’s because it is by design, and within those margins there’s more than enough worth parsing.

Shot over the course of three weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico and edited over the course of several years, Fausto blends fiction and reality. Sometimes Bussmann has her stream-of-consciousness thoughts and those of others narrated over footage of natural landscapes. Sometimes these thoughts are scripted. Other times they’re off the cuff and in the moment. Bussmann spends time with locals who also blur the lines between personal recollections, elaborate oral history and myth, and classical literature. From scene to scene, Fausto flows effortlessly and rhythmically between storytellers with tales and people who weave in and out of Bussmann’s narrative like movements in a ballet.

It’s not as gorgeous to look at as that makes it sound, but Fausto is visually inspired in a daring way. A great deal of the film is shot in low, natural light outside, forcing the viewer to carefully pay attention to the faces of various storytellers and the sounds of the Mexican night around them. In the daylight, Bussmann frames landmarks that could appear grand in the eyes of others – such as endless coastlines and cliffs that appear to be jutting straight up out of the ground – as being just as small as we are; just natural cogs in a universe no living creature could fathom the vastness of. Sometimes the results can be eerie or menacing, but mostly the visual artistry of Fausto is in service of calling the viewer to a deeper point of contemplation. Fausto isn’t interested in eliciting primal emotional reactions, but more keen on telling stories that have those typical high points and asking viewers to create their own unique responses. As one of Bussmann’s subjects poetically puts it, Oaxaca is the type of place where the spirits demand attention, and the filmmaker wisely gives these unseen entities all the possible room to move within the frame.

The five people Bussmann chooses to follow tell a variety of tales, be they personal, historical, or literary in nature: a kidnapped native girl plots her escape from a band of pirates; a man tells the story of his family’s flight from Lebanon; a bored know-it-all turns to the dark side for stimulation. Even some of nature’s fiercest creatures sitting stuffed and motionless for all to see in a museum have their own story to tell about man’s place in the universe. Indeed, Faust’s bargain and themes are all around us, but Bussmann’s film isn’t sticking hard and fast to such interpretations.

Fausto is a heartfelt and sometimes openly earnest plea for contemplation; a look at where the human mind can go once one takes their own ego out of their own analytical abilities and what can happen when people refrain from imposing their privilege on the realities of others. What separates day from night? What sets humans apart from animals? Why do languages differ, and how do the similar stories told in different tongues take on contrasting tones? If the ground beneath our feet is the same, how can there still exist a difference between upper and working classes? If the world is so expansive, vast, and meaningful, why are some people forced into loneliness, while others choose self-imposed isolation? What are the differences between expansion, establishment, and encroachment? What does one see before making life altering decisions based on self-preservation? These are just some of the most tantalizing questions I found myself wrestling with during and after watching Fausto. Many films have meditated on our place in the natural world, but few works of cinematic poetry have simultaneously tapped into literature, art, myth, and human imperfection while staying so focused and assured on keeping the viewer in a single place for a prolonged period of time.

And yet, to some degree, Fausto is a victim of its own storytelling and analytical whims. While it moves along briskly, it’s almost over too quickly. There’s not much time to breathe and reflect in the moment, which is sometimes a shame. Like some human beings trying to wrestle with their own thoughts and prejudices, Fausto occasionally trips over its own train of convoluted logic and storytelling. Bussmann’s film isn’t paced like mainstream fare, but there’s sometime a sense that it could be cycling too rapidly, and even after a second viewing to think on it harder, some of those problems still remain.

That doesn’t make Fausto any less ambitious or commendable, but it does make Bussmann’s work sometimes frustrating and vexing. After watching the film twice, back-to-back, I’m still not certain if that frustration is part of the text or not. It very well could be, and that could be a further layer to asking such unanswerable questions about life. Fausto is a unique work of art where even its faults are endlessly fascinating and worth thinking about.

Fausto opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, April 12, 2019. It also screens as part of MDFF’s monthly series on Thursday, April 11 with Andrea Bussmann on hand for a Q&A.

Check out the trailer for Fausto:

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