In “Feast of the Epiphany,” a narrative-documentary hybrid, the line between fiction and reality is demarcated quite clearly, even as those two modes remain in constant dialogue — and the conceit is entrancing precisely because of its elusiveness. Beginning as the overtly make-believe story of a dinner party before segueing into surprising verité terrain, this unique feature from directors Michael Koresky, Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman is too unconventional to court more than an art-house audience. Still, those interested in experimental works that incite contemplation and debate will find much to chew on throughout the course of this concise, canny effort, which recently premiered at BAMcinemaFest.
Koresky and Reichert are the co-founders of Reverse Shot, an online New York film journal to which Zaman is a contributor. Koresky is also director of editorial and creative strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and Reichert and Zaman co-directed 2013 doc “Remote Area Medical”; the critical astuteness of the three can be felt throughout “Feast of the Epiphany.” Ostensibly set on the Jan. 6 religious holiday that provides its title — and is the date of the action in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” which is briefly spied on-screen — the film’s first half focuses on Abby (Nikki Calonge), who sets about kicking a guy out of bed to go food shopping at a farmer’s market. She’s hosting a get-together at her Brooklyn flat that night for a group of old friends, including Sarah (Jessie Shelton), who’s suffered a recent, traumatic loss.
Even before she arrives at Abby’s place, Sarah’s grief casts a pall over the proceedings, which include Maggie (Jill Frutkin), Ryan (Meng Ai) and Ryan’s new boyfriend Jacob (Sean Donovan), who at first comes across as prickly by requesting to have some of the scotch Abby received as a present, but soon ingratiates himself after breaking into an impromptu rendition of George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.” The group’s conversations are sometimes superficial, sometimes personal, but always shot with inviting intimacy by the trio of directors. That formal assuredness isn’t quite mirrored by the performers, whose line readings can be theatrical and clunky. Yet the tactic is clearly intentional, as evidenced by an introductory montage of these actors auditioning for their roles, which calls attention to the material’s inherent artificiality. Still, the strategy often stymies full engagement with the action.
After a kind gesture from an unexpected source, “Feast of the Epiphany” cuts to shots of snowbound New York City streets and then, without warning, to quiet early morning sights of Upstate’s Roxbury Farms, where we’re introduced to owner Judy Bolluyt, a lifelong farmer with a love for the outdoors and a habit of beginning each day by gathering her employees in a circle and reading Rudolf Steiner poems. There’s a clear mirror-image quality to this shift — from night to day, from urban to rural, from consumers to producers, from fiction to documentary — which doesn’t prevent things from feeling initially jarring. And the filmmakers, content to follow Bolluyt and her compatriots as they go about their daily business, do little to explicate the thematic connections linking the two segments of the bifurcated pic.
While such obliqueness can be frustrating, the more one spends time in the company of “Feast of the Epiphany” — enhanced by an intermittent classical score by Sibelius and Ashley Connor’s inquisitive, enticing cinematography — the more it develops into a tantalizing portrait of both the fascinating realities behind people’s day-to-day existences and of the role food plays in fostering communion with friends, colleagues and the larger natural world. It’s a celebration of diverse community that plays its insightful hand close to its vest.