Pescare Essay by Kevin Pontuti

Richness in Austerity and Cleansing with Blood: the Roots of Visual Imagery in Kevin Pontuti’s Pescare

By Sarah Diebel, PhD

May 15, 2017

Pescare, 2016, film still by Kevin Pontuti

Pescare, 2016, film still by Kevin Pontuti

In Kevin Pontuti’s Pescare, a rich visual poem that maintains a patient focus on the starkly repetitive motion of a woman gutting fish, the long tradition of still life painting is captivatingly brought to animation.  The contradiction inherent in that thought is mediated by the length of the film maker’s gaze which lingers on a simple action, and allows the viewer to regard at length the details of texture, color, light, and mood.  The last frames of the film finally resolve the scene into true still life, when the woman, in whose work we have become absorbed, leaves the scene and the viewer is left alone to contemplate- in Baroque lighting- the fish, their viscera, the knife, the stone slab, the silence, and the sudden absence of human presence. The film, in essence, fulfills an absent action that precedes and follows the scenes we see in paintings (Figure 1), and by doing so deepens the possibilities for both meaning and ambiguity.  

Fig 1. Goya, Still Life with Golden Bream, 1808

Fig 1. Goya, Still Life with Golden Bream, 1808

In Pontuti’s austere light the silver-skinned fish gleam in the darkness, but the image is unlike the plump, intact bream in Goya’s painting, which are presented straightforwardly, in a matter of fact pile.  Pontuti’s animated “still life” shows us not only fish, but also their preparation.  But the real focus is on the hands performing the action.  Those hands progress from clean to increasingly bloody as the work continues. The viewer is spared neither the gore nor the woman’s mild distaste of her task.  Painters have not typically turned their attention to the bloody process of evisceration, but rather to the before and after states, as in Goya or in the still lives of Pieter Claesz (Figures 2 and 3), where elegantly dissected fish have been gently poached and are offered invitingly with capers and lemon. 

Fig 2. Peter Claesz, Still Life with Fish, 17th century

Fig 2. Peter Claesz, Still Life with Fish, 17th century

Fig 3. Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Herring, Wine and Bread, 17th Century

Fig 3. Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Herring, Wine and Bread, 17th Century

Knives are present in these scenes too, but only for the pleasant task of consuming the feast, and there is no echo of the visceral and violent action of gutting fish. Pontuti’s consideration, though, ends with the gutted fish without suggesting the sensual pleasures of cooking or consuming. This abrupt conclusion removes the woman’s action from the realm of mundane activity, and suggests that the patient act itself is the purpose, and is the justification for the camera to focus our attention on it.  The bloody hands, then, take on greater significance, suggesting guilt, vengence and patient penance at the same time.

In Pescare’s dark, confined setting with its stark, Baroque light the woman’s long red hair balances the dark red viscera that stains her hands. This austere mingling of blood and beauty in the cell-like setting suggests the Christian balance of sin and salvation.  And the fish the woman manipulates can, ironically, also suggest both states. This is borne out in the imagery of art where, for instance, at the very bottom of the extraordinary Garden of Earthly Delights (Figure 4) by Hieronymous Bosch, a strange

Fig 4. Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights (det.), 1510

Fig 4. Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights (det.), 1510

vision of wanton and sinful humanity, lies an enormous fish with a huge, cloudy eye that stares out at the viewer.  The cloudiness in the eye means this fish is no longer fresh. It is already physically corrupting just as the earthly sinners surrounding it and caressing it are morally corrupt.  But balancing this image of corruption is a much longer and stronger salvific tradition of the fish in Christian imagery (Figure 5). Linked with the very name of Christ and with his earliest miracles, the fish in Christian iconography and imagery is a symbol of hope and redemption. 

Fig 5. Early Christian Fish mosaic (c. 3rd century AD)

Fig 5. Early Christian Fish mosaic (c. 3rd century AD)

In Pescare, the fish that are flashing in the darkness, and that are the focus of penitential action are also the vehicle of salvation, but it is a salvation gained only through the intense contemplation of her past.  In this way Pontuti’s image of the woman at work also links to the earlier tradition of painting, though it veers in a darker direction. In the Baroque tradition of genre scenes, market and kitchen maids were popular fare, and while some are portrayed straightforwardly, as in Adriaen van Ostade’s Fishwife (Figure 6), in many an underlying theme is the freshness and availability of the young woman, who is shown as equally delectable as her wares, and as equally available to the buyer (or the viewer).

Fig 6. Adriaen van Ostade, The Fishwife, 1673

Fig 6. Adriaen van Ostade, The Fishwife, 1673

In a painting like Vincenzo Campi’s The Fruit Seller (Figure 7), the blushing round cheeks of the girl reflect the soft, flesh-toned skin of the peaches that fill her lap, and the abundance of perfectly ripe fruit hints at the Biblical temptation and its consequences for all mankind.  This link between the sensuous enjoyment of foodstuffs, and the potential (perhaps probable) enjoyment of the maid who serves them, can be made more apparent in works like Vincenzo Campi’s The Cheese Eaters (Figure 8), where the mound of fresh cheese is, in effect, a surrogate for the girl’s rosy cheeks and bulging breasts. 

Fig 7. Vincenzo Campi, The Fruit Seller, c.1580

Fig 7. Vincenzo Campi, The Fruit Seller, c.1580

Fig 8. Vincenzo Campi, The Cheese Eaters, c.1580

Fig 8. Vincenzo Campi, The Cheese Eaters, c.1580

Here also, the uncouth nature of the men, who shovel the cheese toward their mouths in large, greedy spoonfuls, suggests a brutishness in their nature, and in the nature of their intentions toward the girl.  

In Pescare the woman’s preoccupation with the fish and her task offers a similar potential to suggest her past availability to men.  Here, though, the lightness of the genre scenes is replaced with a stark austerity that addresses the woman’s own feelings in a way the genre scenes never do.  In the Baroque paintings, targeted toward the male viewer, the girls are always outwardly cheerful and inviting. In Pontuti’s scene it is the woman’s inner life that matters, and it is not her availability to men, but her exploitation by men, that is revealed through her task. And in her revulsion, and yet in her steadiness in completing that task, her feelings and her fortitude are revealed.  Exploitation and abuse by the powerful is certainly addressed in the earlier visual tradition, as in an extraordinary print after Pieter Breugel, title Big Fish Eat Little Fish (Figure 9).  Here a monstrously large fish lies on shore while a small man with a huge knife slices open its belly.

Fig 9. Pieter van der Heyden, after Pieter Bruegel, Big Fish Eat Little Fish, 1557

Fig 9. Pieter van der Heyden, after Pieter Bruegel, Big Fish Eat Little Fish, 1557

It disgorges smaller fish from both mouth and gut, and in turn those disgorged fish give up still smaller fish.  Bruegel’s moral is a sobering one, suggesting all humanity are prepared to prey upon those in a weaker or lower condition than themselves.  In the act of gutting the fish, opening it to the light, this exploitation is revealed. But in Bruegel’s print the image we are left to contemplate is the grossness of human nature and human failure, while in Pescare, the scene has a resolution, though a bloody one, that is both revealing of the woman’s past, and empowering for her future. She addresses her past and her bloody task with directness.  And in that increasingly matter-of-fact approach, she resembles the Judith of Artemisia Gentilleschi (Figure 10), who calmly but determinedly slices off the head of Holofernes.  Pescare’s exploration and resolution of the sins of the past is quieter in tone, but no less deeply conveyed.  

Fig 10. Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes, c.1612

Fig 10. Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes, c.1612

Sarah Diebel is a writer, art historian and professor at University of Wisconsin—Stout. She received her Ph D from Rutgers University and specializes in Italian Renaissance Studies. 

PESCARE wins Slow Cinema Award by Kevin Pontuti

LA Underground Film Forum (LAUFF) is Los Angeles’s premier showcase of experimentation in film, video and audio based mediums. It focus on avant-garde, art-house, independent and no/low budget filmmaking.

Our program provides a venue for filmmakers to reinvent and explore new approaches, to foster new forms of media art and to build an audience for such work. We aim to present a wide range of work exploring the many definitions and interpretations of the concept of “underground”.

http://www.undergroundfilmforum.org/

EAM Cinema Magazine Review by Kevin Pontuti

Visit EAM Cinema Magazine for full article: www.elantepenultimomohicano.com

Read the English translation here:

Review by Alberto Sáez Villarino | Thursday, November 17, 2016 .

Kevin Pontuti, director of the feature-length film North Passage, appears on the artistic scene with an ambitious project entitled The Poetry of Penance, which consists of a series of short films, photographs, and objects, and whose purpose is the artistic representation of love, sin, remorse, and redemption in medieval Europe.  The first of these short films is Onere, an abstract metaphoric tale about the penitential crossing over of a young woman to a deep conceptual woods of acceptance.  The first sequence that we are able to contemplate shows a woman sleeping next to a large, human-looking burden, which is covered with rags and tied with ropes.  This image suggests an inexorable feeling of continuity, exhaustion, and effort.  We do not know how long the protagonist has been dragging along this heavy weight, but, by her present state, we can guess that she is not in the initial phase of her undertaking.  It is inevitably a voyage of initiation, expiation, or incrimination, since, although the task as it is depicted demands a great sacrifice which has presumably been undertaken as a matter of free will, we are not able to discern if this endeavor is meant to hide a previous reprehensible deed, rectify another regrettable action, or initiate a process of introspective change.  The director isolates us completely from the context and keeps us from any trace or bit of information from before the time depicted in the film that could facilitate our exegetical task.  We know that we are witnessing a significant chapter in the life of the young woman, but we cannot determine either the sin that has been committed, if that is what has led to the situation, or the consequences of her interrupted determination.  In order for the contents of the burden finally to be revealed, and for the spectator to understand that, in fact, the tortuous path was more about a penitent and compensatory ritual than an actual case of repentance, the events will take an unexpected turn, brought about by a renunciation of spirit and the inability to continue with this transformational journey for which she was not prepared.

An aesthetic that carries us inevitably to a medieval gothic framework indebted to the mysticism of Yeats and an almost epic magical realism that plays on the suggestion of a Homeric voyage.

 There is a deeper understanding, then, of the inability of human beings to allow to pass by certain aspects of one’s life, whether these are biological – childhood, adolescence… -, or inherent in one’s human condition – innocence, resentment, dependency… . Also, by paying attention to the polysemy of the message with its interpretive effects, given the ambiguity of what is shown, the story could be understood as the definitive path of a human being to individual and personal acceptance, a thorny process that requires great tenacity and hard work, with, however, a calming and satisfactory result, which we could derive from the peacefulness and relaxation of tension of the protagonist, when we look back at the reason for her suffering.  A young woman whose striking long red hair carries us back to folkloric mythology and to the stories of childhood, intense hair that contrasts with the pallor of her snowy complexion, intensifying the drama of her character, and by extension, the drama of her actions in a natural setting whose main feature is the cold gloom brought about by the dark clouds, the bare trees, and the poor little stream that drags itself along in agony only to die sucked up by the arid voracity of the merciless ground.  To emphasize the relevancy of the setting, Pontuti gives much more importance to the sounds of surrounding nature than to the non-diegetic minimalist music that is heard only to enhance the feeling of tension created by the contrastive image.  An aesthetic that carries us inevitably to a medieval gothic framework indebted to the mysticism of Yeats and an almost epic magical realism that plays on the suggestion of a Homeric voyage, without being able to set the structural base of an epic due to the brevity of the depicted time period. 
 ★★★★

Data sheet: United States, 2016. Original title: "onere". Director: Kevin Pontuti. Guion: Kevin Pontuti. Studio: Penitent Productions. Photography: Ed Jakober and Peter Galante. Music: Chiwei Hui. Costume Design: Susan Jakober. Editing: Kevin Pontuti. Starring: Alexandra Loreth.

Translation by Martha Wallen

 

 

 

HUMAN PATH AWARD by Kevin Pontuti

Actress Alexandra Loreth and director Kevin Pontuti at the PiGrecoZen Film Festival.

Actress Alexandra Loreth and director Kevin Pontuti at the PiGrecoZen Film Festival.

Kevin Pontuti’s film ONERE won the Human Path Award at the PiGrecoZen Film Festival held in Ancona, Italy. The award was presented by Festival Director Max Miecchi. The Human Path Award is given to the film that best embodies the mission and spirit of the festival in particular—in relation to personal growth.

"Often we say we are weighed down by people or events that are part of our life and we forget to look in the mirror and recognize us as the only real actors in our journey of life, for better or for worse. This film reminds us that only with the understanding we can move forward. An important message that we tend to forget, because knowledge means responsibility. If we were all more responsible for ourselves we would live in a better world. Thanks to Kevin Pontuti for this important message."

About PiGrecoZen Film Fest
Held in Ancona Italy, the PiGrecoZen Film Festival aims to be a catalyst for personal transformation, change, health and wellbeing, self-empowerment, community and for the exchange of ideas and concepts. We believe that life can be awesome, positive, inspired and empowered. We believe in the celebration of life and the exploration of our potential as spiritual beings with the desire to fully embrace this physical life experience as free thinkers. We believe that change is available to us anytime; all we have to do is to ask the right questions. We feel passionate about our mission and will always endeavor to make the Festival a creative, joyous celebration of our unity and our need to belong.

The Burning Branches Teaser by Kevin Pontuti

With our recent inclusion in the London Experimental Film Festival, FEDAVX, PiGrecoZen, Blow Up: Chicago AND our award last week at Flyway—we've been getting asked "what are you up to next"? Well, here's a sneak peak (today only) at a teaser for a feature project we're developing—THE BURNING BRANCHES. Check it.