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In Focus: Albert Serra
Institute of Contemporary Arts
Wed 19 – Thu 27 April 2023

A white man in a white suit and sunglasses stands on a rooftop against palm trees and a pink sunset
Pacifiction, dir. Albert Serra, France / Spain / Germany / Portugal 2022, 163 min.

No one makes films like Albert Serra. His first feature, Honor de cavalleria/Honor of the Knights (2005) presented a bold vision of cinema as an engagement with the past, and an interrogation of literary icons and myths that was playful and imaginative. His two ambling modern-day knights, versions of the idealistic Don Quixote and his pragmatic servant Sancho Panza, wander in a contemporary rural Catalan landscape shot in breathtakingly long takes. They are in search of an adventure that appears always out of reach, in a pastoral world where destination is an elusive context. El cant dels occels/Birdsong (2008) too, with its three modern-day Magi wandering through an almost lunar landscape, provided a further rumination of sorts on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a journey without end, where its male protagonists – Serra’s protagonists are always male – awkwardly reveal their foibles as they travel in search of the elusive new-born child.

All of Serra’s films are in some way a reimagining of the quest landscape, a journey where the viewer is encouraged to observe in an unhurried manner the world of the characters – figures whose all too human frailties are always on show. El Señor ha fet en mi meravelles/The Lord Worked Wonders in Me (2011) revisits the landscape of the legendary Don Quixote but this time in La Mancha, part of a project realised for Barcelona’s Centre de Cultura Contemporània where Serra exchanged filmed letters with Argentine director Lisandro Alonso. This engaging road movie in search of a landscape that no longer exists, is a metanarrative that captures something of the Quixotic absurdity of filmmaking, a ‘making of’ in conversation with his past films, a film, like Truffaut’s La nuit Américaine/ Day for Night (1973) where everything threatens to fall apart but just about manages to stay together. Failure is an all too real possibility in Serra’s work.

Societies in transition and moments of change mark Història de la meva mort/Story of My Death (2013) and La mort de Louis XIV/The Death of Louis XIV (2016). The former sees a middle-aged Casanova in dialogue with Dracula – two philosophical visions (rationalism and romanticism) in conflict. The latter set in 1715 and featuring Truffaut icon Jean-Pierre Léaud in the title role, is another exercise in waiting – the days and hours leading to the French monarch’s death played out with a painterly intimacy as the court observes in performative denial. Liberté (2019), a reflection on voyeurism as the core of what it means to watch a film, makes for uncomfortable viewing. Pacifiction (2022), marked by the languid pacing and astute eye for composition that has distinguished all his films to date, eschews the historical prisms of his most recent work for a present-day exploration of the rituals and routines of a French high commissioner at work and play in Tahiti. As with Lucrecia Martel’s Zama (2017), colonialist abuses and corruptions are at the heart of a study of power that is unafraid of exploring the sinister absurdities that underpin the bureaucratic systems created to impose control and authority. Serra delivers, as with all his work to date, a singular vision, a model of filmmaking that is slow, gloriously sedate, cinematic, and ambitious. Albert Serra divides audiences – loathed and loved, admired, and denigrated – but as this season demonstrates, his is a body of work unafraid to ask what cinema is and should be, a cinema of patience where mood trumps narrative, and where myth, fiction, and literature intersect to beguiling effect.
Text by Maria Delgado.

This programme is presented in partnership with New Wave Films, Second Run DVD and the Institut français du Royaume-Uni.

As part of this focus, the Institut français presents a preview of Pacifiction preceded by a masterclass with Albert Serra on Thursday 20 April

Supported by:

A couple in 18th century garb take a rest from their carriage and sit on a small hill, in a lush, almost painted field of grass and flowers

Wed 19 April, 6:30pm
Opening Night: Liberté + Q&A
Albert Serra’s explicit and opulent exploration of the limits of the erotic imagination is one of the most radical and subversive works of recent times.

An elderly Don Quixote in knight's armour stares at the camera while he embraces the head of his white horse

Fri 21 April, 6:20pm
Honour of the Knights (Honor de cavallería) + Q&A
Maria Delgado joins Albert Serra for a conversation following the screening of the Catalan filmmaker’s debut.

A man in a white suit and sunglasses stands on a rooftop overlooking a pink island sunset

Fri 21 April, 8:50pm
Albert Serra’s latest work is a hypnotic, dark film centering on a government official in Tahiti who embodies the greed, hypocrisy and paranoia of colonial power.

Three kings consult in the middle of a black and white foggy desert

Sat 22 April, 4:30pm
Birdsong (El cant dels occels)
Albert Serra’s sophomore feature accompanies the Three Wise Kings on a search for the newborn baby Jesus.

Albert Serra walks down a road beside a field of golden grass

Sun 23 April, 4:15pm
The Lord Worked Wonders in Me (El Senyor ha fet en mi meravelles)
Part of the crew of Honour of the Knights travels to La Mancha to see the real settings of Quixote’s life in order to shoot a film.

Two people in 18th century European dress wave a sparkler among a joyful group of people, against a wall of smoke

Tue 25 April, 6:20pm
Story of My Death (Història de la meva mort)
A baroque reflection on pleasure and erotic desire dramatised from an imagined meeting between the ageing Casanova and Count Dracula.

The ageing King Louis XIV sits on a chair flanked by his servants in a lush garden full of pink sunburst-shaped flowers

Thu 27 Apr, 8:50pm
Closing Night: The Death of Louis XIV (La mort de Louis XIV)
Albert Serra’s adaptation of the Duc de Saint-Simon’s memoirs, starring Jean-Pierre Léaud as the Sun-King.