The Hollywood Reporter JULY 14, 2021 - by Deborah Young


The hidden depths of COVID-19 are plumbed by arthouse headliners Jafar Panahi, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, David Lowery, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor, Anthony Chen and Malik Vitthal in seven offbeat stories.

It was perhaps inevitable that someone would organize an international grab bag of auteurs reflecting on the world's COVID-19 crisis in 2020. While there have already been documentaries like Wuhan Wuhan collecting human interest stories about coronavirus in a very specific place, The Year Of The Everlasting Storm chooses a global approach. Its bow in Cannes in the Special Screenings sidebar is amply justified by two whimsical exercises in art house cinema directed by Jafar Panahi and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The other tales are quirky but mixed in impact.

Panahi opens the parade in person with his personal domestic lockdown story, in which a giant pet iguana called Iggy features prominently. Shot in the director's luminous apartment in Tehran, where he spent many years of house arrest pre-COVID courtesy of the Iranian authorities, the nineteen-minute tale centers around his family's emotional reactions to being separated from each other. With typical humor, Panahi describes how his aging mother turns up at their door dressed head to foot in PPE. After his wife sprays her outerwear with disinfectant, granny talks to her distant granddaughter on a video call that turns very sentimental, with both sides insisting "I'll die for you." Granny's mistrust of toothless old Iggy turns to something like sympathy by the film's close.

Three episodes come from the American directors David Lowery, Laura Poitras and Malik Vitthal. Vitthal's brief take on a Black father's overwhelming love for his three kids, all of whom have been placed in foster homes, is worth repeat viewing, even if its connection to the pandemic seems marginal. In eight edgy, machine-gun-fire minutes, Bobby Yay Yay Jones educates his son about how to act if he hears gunshots outside ("you lie down") and mentions in passing how he himself was a homeless, neglected child and has had to deal with PTSD while fighting for seven years to regain custody of his kids. The synthesized music track plays off against simple animation around the live images, adding surprise to the emotional expressiveness of this striking work.

Poitras, who produced and directed the politically engaged docs Citizenfour, about whistle blower Edward Snowden, and Risk, featuring WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, here directs a futuristic, multi-screen mini-documentary that is more nerve-wracking than any horror film. It highlights the threat that coronavirus tracing apps can be used to increase government and police surveillance of citizens without their knowledge. The film proceeds via interviews with those in the know to discuss "digital infection" of our phones, computers and cameras by malware. The Israeli company NSO Group (which denied the film's allegations) is singled out as a bad actor prone to intimidate and sue anyone calling them out. NSO is both a cyber weapons manufacturer and, guess what, the producer of coronavirus tracing apps. Brian Eno's music adds to the film's dystopian atmosphere, along with a rolling database that scrolls sinisterly over the screen. It's enough to ruin anyone's day, which is probably what Poitras intended.

David Lowery returns to the moody atmosphere of his indie Western crime drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints in a puzzling tale about a Texas woman (Catherine Machovsky), who once was called Clyde. She sets out to dig up the body of her little brother on the basis of old letters from her father (now also dead). Many years earlier her father stole his son's dead body from a hospital and, unable to get the putrefying corpse to Texas, buried him in the remote countryside. One imagines the boy might have died from some kind of contagion to connect to the film's theme, but that has no importance in this weird and partially incomprehensible Gothic horror tale in which skeletons talk.

Singapore director Anthony Chen (Ilo Ilo) offers an excellent take on the stress a young family goes through sharing close quarters during forty-five days of lockdown. Though set in China with Chinese actors, the situation is universally recognizable. The break-down in the marriage of a couple played by Dongyu Zhou (noteworthy as the female teen lead in Derek Tsang's Better Days) and her husband Yu Zhang (An Elephant Sitting Still) is gradual but steady as they struggle to take care of their young child on a limited income in a small apartment. While she still works for a call center from home, he (a car salesman) hibernates on the couch. Her nerves are frayed; he wants sex and she refuses. It ends in a liberating but possibly no-return outburst of wildness. Chen offers the viewer some relief from the claustrophobia with outdoor shots of deserted streets and a huge banner that says Wuhan.

Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor, who became the first woman to win Locarno's Golden Leopard with her 2018 feature Too Late To Die Young, looks at the separation of loved ones under COVID restrictions. A plucky mother and her grown daughter keep up a farmhouse, while a city daughter announces her first baby has been born. The family is briefly "reunited" under a third-floor balcony, where we get a glimpse of new life, a child who will eventually help repopulate the empty pandemic landscape. The use of ancient church music underlines hope in a no-frills story.

Less simple and linear (as might be expected) is Apichatpong Weerasethakul's closing reflection. The set is a naked bed surrounded by neon tube lights, vaguely suggesting a porn film before the action begins. But in the tropical night, the action already has begun: Attracted by the lights, insects of all sizes and shapes congregate indiscriminately over and on the sheets. There is promiscuity, but also death - big insects eat smaller ones with unemotional cannibalism. Disembodied human voices float from a scratchy gramophone record off screen, talking over old black and white photographs. Is this life after the apocalypse?