In more ways than one, “Fausto” is a film that likes to keep its audience in the dark: The bulk of its imagery is thickly cloaked in velvety night, often barely illuminated but for pinpricks of moonlight or a flickering candle, sometimes to the point where viewers must strain and squint to identify what they’re really looking at. That’s no accident, as Andrea Bussmann’s beguiling, perplexing sophomore feature is out to challenge the way we see and interpret images, and attach them to accompanying narratives. Packed with shards of local folklore and half-remembered mythology from the Oaxacan beach community on which it centers, this unidentified filmic object resists illustrating these tall tales, effectively testing our belief in its vivid oral ethnography, all while occupying its own liminal, unstable space between documentary and fiction.
Having already garnered festival acclaim in Locarno, Toronto and Berlin’s Critics’ Week sidebar, this ultra-independent experiment — produced, written, shot and cut by its Canadian helmer — may be too esoteric for most distributors’ tastes, but it will continue to pop up in specialized showcases like this month’s “Locarno in Los Angeles” event. Arthouse SVOD platforms should also bite, though it must be said that home viewing conditions aren’t optimal for “Fausto’s” immersively murky visuals. Rather like the nocturnal animals that count among the film’s various, disparate fixations, viewers must wait for their eyes to adjust to the dark before its themes and rewards come into focus — and even then, they remain far from crystalline.
The familiar German legend referenced in the title is one key to unlocking the whole, though it’s also a bit of a decoy. Bussmann’s film is hardly a standard adaptation, and while its sliver of binding narrative may involve an uncanny exchange of sorts, those Faustian allusions are merely woven in with other threads of fanciful indigenous storytelling, none granted more significance or credence than another. Indeed, there’s no room for cultural imperialism in a study heavily preoccupied with the space — physical and intellectual — that men claim from each other and nature alike.
Local non-actors play out the film’s minimal, reality-blurring drama. On an otherwise secluded stretch of Mexican coastline, friends Fernando (Fernando Renjifo) and Alberto (Alberto Núñez) run a small beachside bar that they’re keen to expand — at the expense of surrounding wilderness rumored to house the lair of a powerful witch. With the aid of their cartographer friend Ziad (Ziad Chakaroun), they begin to research the lay of the land, uncovering a wealth of local legends and superstitions in the process, muddling their business-minded mission with impractical magic. Tales of telepathic animals and women in the woods who may or may not be ghosts commingle with their own uncanny experience, involving an enigmatic French hobo who turns up at the bar, seeking work and shelter in exchange for his only possession: his shadow.
At multiple turns, it seems, Fernando and Alberto are compelled to take intangible spiritual capital — a stranger’s shadow (or soul?), sacred or enchanted land — for their own economic or material gain. The wider metaphorical implications of this are clearer than anything else in “Fausto,” as Bussmann invites us to consider the ancient cultural traditions and belief systems lost throughout history to colonization and gentrification. Frequently, a measured, omniscient narrator discusses the supposedly purer way animals see the world, analyzing a cat’s psychic capabilities or a horse’s field of vision with a straight-faced blend of stuffy science and outright whimsy; as with Fernando and Alberto’s investigation, fact and fancy bleed fluidly into into each other throughout the film’s thesis.
That puckish unreliability, even in the film’s most starkly poetic interludes, keeps “Fausto” far from message-movie territory. It’s an essay that admits the very human blind spots in its knowledge and understanding of the universe, and exposes them, so to speak, in the blanketing darkness of its images — shot on digital and transferred to 16mm for maximum, mysterious grain and dust. We’re told, truthfully or otherwise, that the beach sand has iron levels that render phones and other devices dysfunctional, turning their screens black; teasingly, the frame repeatedly threatens to succumb to the same technological curse. “We live in a conscious universe, we just don’t realize it,” says one of Bussmann’s subjects; in “Fausto,” the first step to making sense of the cosmos is to stop trying.