Quietly, and almost imperceptibly, Second Run have become one of the go-to labels for those seeking the highlights of current foreign-language filmmaking. Their catalogue is an eclectic one and has encompassed many different approaches, styles, countries and decades. Yet I believe the popular perception is primarily directed towards their Eastern European focus: the label that has unearthed many a classic from the Czech New Wave and reminded the UK of (or introduced them to) Miklós Janscó, Zoltán Huszárik, František Vlácil, et al. These are the discs that attract the vocal attention of the cinephiles and have us proclaiming the likes of Szindbád and Marketa Lazarová as genuine masterpieces. But this is only part of the story as every year a handful of titles also emerge which do much the same for 21st century filmmakers. Second Run were the first label in the UK to distribute Apichatpong Weerasethakul onto DVD and a number of their acquisitions since enjoyed only the briefest of theatrical runs or not at all. Yet in each and every case their appearance on disc has been a welcome one, whether it be Avi Mograbi’s remarkable documentary Avenge But One of My Two Eyes (one of the most stunning films of recent times) or the visual splendours of Maria Saakyan’s elegiac Armenian drama The Lighthouse. The latest arrival, Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool, which proved a hit at festivals and amongst critics but never made the transition to British cinemas, is no exception.
The word ‘quietly’ needs to be applied once more, as it sums up perfectly the manner in which Liverpool goes about its business. The film is centred on a homecoming, that of Juan Fernández’s middle-aged sailor, Farrel. He is first encountered as he goes about his work onboard. Alonso’s camera keeps its distance, but this small series of shots - mostly static, always lengthy - is enough to glean some perspective on our protagonist. He is clearly a solitary man and of his own choosing: as members of the crew enjoy an enthusiastic break in front of a computer game, he sits silently in the background and exits without anyone noticing. It is tempting to speculate that he is working at sea as a means of satisfying this need to be, to all intents and purposes, alone. He may work alongside other men, but interaction and conversation is kept at a bare minimum.
Fittingly we first hear Farrel speak properly only when he really needs to. The ship is seven hours away from docking in Ushuaia, with the village in which he grew up within travelling distance. He requests a couple of days leave in order to see the sick mother whom he hasn’t visited in a number of years. Any information beyond this remains unknown, yet Alonso keeps his camera trained upon Farrel for another ten minutes or so as he sits in his cabin between shifts, smokes a cigarette on deck and finally packs his bag for the journey. Now Fernández has an intriguing face - the angles of his nose, chin and long hair are strangely complimentary - but it is obvious that we are being asked to look beyond the aesthetics. The withdrawn Farrel of the opening couple of scenes has become a more fidgety figure, his eyes in particular seemingly occupied by what the next few days will hold. These moments prompt questions from the audience - or at the very least a curiosity - that will continue once the journey home begins on land.
There is no switch in style to accompany Liverpool’s switch in locale. The camera maintains its unobtrusive distance as, indeed, does Farrel himself. There may be more unavoidable interaction with other people, but still conversation remains elusive. Even a late night visit to a strip club appears to be an entirely passive experience. Details are plenty, however, as we begin to realise how often Farrel is swigging from a vodka bottle as he slowly moves from place to place or how completely unplanned this journey is: no transportation or sustenance (other than the vodka) has been worked out in advance and for that first night ashore he sleeps rough on the docks in what look likes an abandoned passenger boat. Is there a certain trepidation on his part? Does this explain the continuous drinking? Or is that simply to keep him going and to keep him warm? (The time of the year is never specified, but the landscape is covered in snow. Tiny pockets of warm colour do enter Lucio Bonelli’s cinematography from time to time which only serve to emphasise the cold palette elsewhere.)
Such considerations are the audience’s means of satisfying the gap left by Liverpool’s minimalist style. All of those long shots and the long takes have us questioning the significance of the tiniest details - and, indeed, questioning whether our attention is actually in the right place. As a result the film has a tendency to sneak up on the viewer: we are too busy looking for answers that when a revelation or a reason does appear it comes with a really quite immense impact. Not that Alonso suddenly throws in big emotions or any kind of overstatement; these moments feel as organic as the rest of his film. I can’t discuss these revelations as they would necessarily create spoilers, but it’s interesting to note for they are still open to interpretation. David Jenkins, in his excellent booklet essay, even goes as far as to offer a whole series of possibilities, none of which match my own. What we can agree on is the sheer emotional weight that comes with them, one that makes the final moments truly affecting and resonates throughout the rest of the picture. To the point where I feel another viewing will no doubt occur very shortly…
Liverpool is released on January the 23rd and maintains the now standard Second Run approach. Here we find a region-free disc containing a director-approved transfer of the main feature, restored soundtrack and accompanying booklet, in this case containing two superb essays by Time Out critic David Jenkins plus a page-long director’s note from Alonso. Of the two essays one is devoted to Liverpool and the other to Untitled (Letter for Serra), a 2011 short film from Alonso that also features on the disc as an extra. The other on-disc addition is a newly-filmed five-minute piece entitled ‘Alonso on Camera’ from the director. Both are discussed below, after a consideration of the presentation.
The main feature is only 82 minutes in length and so fits quite snugly onto a dual-layered alongside the two extras which collectively add up to just under 29 minutes. There are no problems to be had with regards to unnecessary compression issues resulting in a fine presentation of a print in excellent condition. Dirt, blemishes or damage are non-existent and the level of detail, especially during those rare occasions when the camera does get close up to its subjects, is consistently good. Those odd burst of colour, particularly the reds, also come across as strongly as they were no doubt intended. Needless to say, the original aspect ratio is in place and comes with anamorphic enhancement. The soundtrack, presented here in its original stereo, is similarly impressive and ably copes with the minimal sound design. Dialogue is often non-existent, as too is any musical accompaniment, but what does remain is consistently crisp and clear. The accompanying English subtitles have been newly created for this release.
Of the additional features, the ‘Alonso on Camera’ piece is a basic to-camera address from the director intended as an introduction to Liverpool. He briefly touches on the film’s making and some of its themes before offering up a quick endorsement of Second Run and the kinds of titles they choose to distribute. In truth it is a rather lightweight piece, but not without its charm. The director’s note in the booklet is certainly the weightier and more considered of his two contributions to this disc’s extras. Untitled (Letter for Serra) is by far the more substantial offering. It was made as part of a series of filmed correspondences between directors that was instigated in 2006 by Victor Erice and Abbas Kiarostami. The recipient of Alonso’s ‘letter’ is Albert Serra, best known in the UK as the director of Birdsong. Unlike previous filmmakers in the series the two directors here were friends prior to production. Thus their correspondence is not based around getting to know each other, but rather a communication in their own distinct styles. (Serra’s resulting film, The Lord Worked Wonders in Me, ended up becoming his third feature, with a running time of almost two-and-a-half hours.) As Jenkins notes in the booklet, it is immediately obvious from the opening shot that we are dealing with an Alonso film. The main character from his 2001 feature debut, La libertad, also puts in an appearance. I confess that I know too little of Serra’s work to make any firm judgements on the short - or, for that matter, to know whether it has any significant bearing - but this is nonetheless an intriguing little film and as visually confident and enticing as Alonso’s other work. For this reason alone it no doubt justifies its inclusion. (Please be aware that Second Run were only able to obtain a non-anamorphic copy with burnt-in English subtitles.)