“Bad karma doesn’t wait for the next life,” states a trauma-raddled Khmer Rouge survivor toward the end of Rithy Panh’s “Graves Without a Name.” He says it in a tone of numb assurance, confident but also past caring: He may wish ill on those who murdered, raped and tormented his people 40 years ago, but with no chance of remedy for his own grief, he’ll leave it in the hands of the universe. A more intimate follow-up to Panh’s Oscar-nominated documentary “The Missing Picture,” this meditative piece likewise seeks to move past devastation and into a manner of still-painful peace.
Following the director himself on a study of indigenous ritual and mythos in search of his slain family’s unknown resting places, it’s a less formally rigorous work than “The Missing Picture,” perhaps by design: Sudden surges of emotion seem to guide its shuffling of symbols, techniques and points of view. Following its premiere as this year’s Venice Days curtain-raiser, festival rotation will be heavy for a film that might seem a heartfelt concluding statement on a subject that Panh has addressed in multiple projects since 1991’s “Cambodia: Between War and Peace” — though never with his lens turned so directly on himself. Arthouse distribution, given a bump by the filmmaker’s raised profile in recent years, should follow easily enough.
Where “The Missing Picture” was defined by its inventive use of clay figurines to revisit and reimagine the Cambodian genocide through a victim’s eyes — a kind of cinematic therapy for memory retrieval — such puppetry makes only a sporadic return in “Graves Without a Name.” Instead, Panh draws on a more scattered range of iconography, from folkloric masks and totems hanging from trees to creased, frail family photographs, to prompt his reflections on the atrocities. His perspective is rounded out, meanwhile, by wrenching interview footage with a large ensemble of rural residents still living all too tangibly with the consequences of the Khmer Rouge regime, as broken-down remains of the dead — teeth, buttons, bones — are still churned up in the soil they work on a daily basis.
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Panh is introduced having his head shaved at a Buddhist temple, the first step in an exploration of religious practice in which the director takes a mostly anthropological interest. If he never quite commits to faith, he’s open to ideas in his pursuit of spiritual healing, submitting to the apparent powers of shamans and mediums in an anything-goes attempt to commune with the dead. In extended poetic passages of self-reflection (delivered in French-language voiceover by Panh’s regular narrator Randal Douc) that bookend proceedings, he even counts himself among the deceased, felled from the inside by years of grief, psychic pain and recurring exposure to the horrors of the past.
That affinity, however, gives Panh no leads on the more practical objectives of his mission: to find the grave of his father, or the mass burial site where the bodies of his mother and sisters were anonymously dumped after being executed. Panh represents the vast variables of his search with simple, mournful visual trickery: The faces of his parents shimmer briefly on a river’s surface before melting into the water, while the unfolded garments of the dead appear and disappear on a desolate stretch of grassland. Yet if he remains eternally uncertain as to the specifics of their fate, the frank testimonies of other survivors paint a vivid, lacerating picture of the possibilities: Shot in the fields where they make their meager living, Panh’s subjects share first-hand stories of brutal carnage and sexual assault, forced marriage under pain of death and, in one especially horrifying vignette, a starving woman stripping meat off the thighs of the dead to survive.
Even as Panh’s more personal, more purply articulated quest gives the film its narrative thrust, these interludes are its most bluntly moving; gradually, the film’s various impassioned perspectives coalesce into a unified national cri de coeur. For all its patient, heartsore excavation efforts, “Graves Without a Name” isn’t focused wholly on the past. Cambodia’s present-day political corruption and social inequality weigh on its mind too, as some interviewees mourn what they perceive as a lack of fight left in a generation of Khmer Rouge victims still stunned into submission. Complicating the filmmaker’s search for inner peace, these sentiments are a reminder that catharsis needn’t lead to complacency: “A life like this marks you until you die,” shrugs one survivor. Perhaps this isn’t Panh’s final word on the matter after all.