Cannes 2024: Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point, Eephus, To A Land Unknown


One of the major stories out of Cannes this year is the world premiere of two new films by Omnes Films, an experimental LA-based collective whose micro-budget features, including Tyler Taormina’s “Ham on Rye” and Jonathan Davies’ “Topology of Sirens,” have all, to date, displayed a striking formal command and mesmeric attention to ambiance. These traits seem manifestly personal to the filmmakers but aesthetically unified as well. 

Broadly speaking, the collective’s investigations of ritual and alienation feel like one of the most exciting developments in today’s American independent film scene. They operate in a cultural milieu where the surreptitiously surreal coincides with still-crystallizing nostalgia, giving rise to an evanescent glow in both narrative and atmosphere. As such, two of Omnes’ films premiering in the Directors’ Fortnight section of Cannes is a cause for celebration. 

Taormina’s “Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point,following a blue-collar Italian-American family that converges on Long Island for the holidays, captures both the lingering warmth and latent melancholy of such a gathering in near-ethnographic detail, studying every nook and cranny of their ancestral home as four generations of the Balsano family do their best to navigate the highs and lows of a crowded Christmas-time celebration they begin to sense, with rumblings that the house is up for sale, might be coming to an end.

As some adults quietly debate what will become of the family matriarch, who’s at the age where assisted living might make more sense than another year in the Long Island home, teenagers disappear into the basement to play video games. At the same time, other kids linger upstairs, tinkering with their cell phones and doing time with the grandparents. Others post up in the kitchen or the garage, dividing into smaller groups as the evening progresses. Working with an eccentric cast of characters, Taormina moves from room to room and—with the roving, ever-curious intrusions of his camera—from face to face, tracking microcosmic moments of connection and isolation amid the broader festivities. What he’s after, more than any Hallmark portrait, are those fleeting, ephemeral feelings, the passing surface pleasures and quiet currents of melancholy that each attendee carries into this Christmas celebration. 

Like Taormina’s subliminally menacing “Ham on Rye” and his somnambulist “Happer’s Comet,” “Miller’s Point” was shot by Carson Lund, a remarkably talented cinematographer who gives this shimmering holiday fantasia the hazy gloss of memory; as fairy lights gleam, ornaments dangle from the freshly decorated tree, and the dinner table is piled high with turkey and all the fixings, each red, green, and white detail is rendered so rhapsodically as to appear gauzily indistinct, as if all of the Christmases that we’ve ever cherished have been reconstituted over one another. Rather than giving off a purely nostalgic glow, something is thrilling and disorienting about Taormina’s approach. This uneasy artifice creeps in alongside the abundance, a sense that surrendering to all the hometown rituals is akin to stepping back inside a snow globe.

Lund’s feature debut, “Eephus,” similarly captures the passage of time through a beloved American pastime, following a men’s recreational baseball game played on their favorite field. 

Soon to be demolished to make way for an elementary school, this humble patch of green is perhaps nothing special to anyone other than the middle-aged, community-league players who show up in uniform with heavy hearts one October morning, towing coolers full of Narragansett. But as their last game drags on and refuses to end, even after the sun sets and they’re forced to light the field with their cars’ headlights, they keep playing, dedicated to seeing it through and at a loss, at least outside of the boisterous camaraderie of gameplay, to articulate what their lives, friendships, and rivalries will become without this cherished environment. 

It’s that camaraderie, rather than the final score, that matters most to Lund, who also served as the editor; working in league with cinematographer Greg Tango, he keeps the players in frame and, without disrupting the film’s miraculous temporal continuity moves from dugout to first base to outfield, tuning into the barrage of insults, jokes, and surprisingly candid asides that unite the players in a reassuring communal energy. But “Eephus” is ultimately about the fading of the light, of a time, a space, a way of living; amid the long stretches of stasis and sudden bursts of activity that make up their gameplay, time elapses, and a reckoning with finality awaits.

Lund explained in a post-screening Q&A at Cannes that he was inspired first by the durational landscape portraits of James Benning, only to steer “Eephus” closer to Richard Linklater’s hangout classics upon discovering a cadre of actors—too many to name here, but among them Keith William Richards (“Uncut Gems”), Keith Poulson (“The Sweet East”), and Wayne Diamond (“Uncut Gems”)—whose performances felt as lined, creased, and true to life as the well-worn uniforms they pull over their aching bodies to play one last game in a place that matters more than they’ll ever come out and say. Easily one of the best films I’ve ever seen about baseball (even as the sport here could stand in for any number of cultural traditions waning into memory), “Eephus” has about it a mournful, lightly absurd poetry of the mundane, a rapt attention to the intimacy of transience and the meanings we make from relics and rituals of a time we’re passing through.

Another standout in the Directors’ Fortnight section, Mahdi Fleifel’s “To A Land Unknown” shines a light on the plight of Palestinian refugees who, caught between exile and alienation, have been left with no land to call their own and little recourse to survive statelessness.

Chatila (Mahmood Bakri) and Reda (Aram Sabbah), two cousins who’ve fled a camp in Lebanon and found themselves stranded in Athens, have been on the move for most of their lives. To reach Germany, where they dream of opening a café serving Palestinian food, Chatila and Reda must find enough money to be smuggled into the country; as non-citizens denied even the most basic of civic rights, falsifying passports is their only hope. 

When we meet Chatila and Reda, they’re on a park bench, seemingly just sitting around until they pull off a down-and-dirty scheme to steal a middle-aged woman’s purse; it holds only five euros, hardly the jackpot they need to hit to purchase new passports. Fleifel, whose past films have been made against a backdrop of exile, is forthright about the moral compromises his characters are willing to make. At the same time, his sympathies lie with their situation, not their actions; he carefully captures the endless, hard-scrabble negotiations that Chatila is forced to make in his struggles to keep Reda sober from a nasty drug habit that has him turning tricks in a local park.

Once Chatila and Reda encounter a 13-year-old Palestinian orphan (Mohammad Alsurafa) alone in Athens, hoping to reach a relative in Italy, they go out of their way to help, enlisting the help of a local woman (Angeliki Papoulia) with whom Chatila has become romantically involved to escort him on the flight. This, in turn, leads them to hatch a much more underhanded scheme, one that could risk the lives of Syrian refugees in equally dire straits, to obtain the necessary funds to finally make their escape.

“To A Land Unknown” has been crafted with the same flavor of rough, vivid street poetry that flowed through Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop” and its forefather, Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves,” while Fleifel has cited “Midnight Cowboy” as a key influence. The only Palestinian film at Cannes this year, it reverberates forcefully in present tense, remaining grounded—through a set of powerhouse performances from Bakri and Sabbah as well as Thodoris Mihopoulos’ fine-grained 16mm cinematography—in Chatila and Reda’s morally dubious attempts to secure safe passage to a better life.

That the film was shot in Greece last fall, a month after the Oct. 7 attacks, only intensifies the relevance of its subject; for Palestinians, whose homeland was stolen and whose invisibility in exile has left generations without place or identity, the sense of time running out pervades this intensely devastating parable of desperation.

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