The Challenge is a film of dust and metal; streams of cars and motorcycles drifting through the sand with nary another sign of civilization in sight. They’re attending a Qatari falconry tournament; hence the rows upon rows of expensive SUVs with bored, listless princes and businessmen waiting for the sport to begin. Each composition is gilded, every moment laden with the weight of a golden hue, as if Midas tinted each frame one by one. A barren wasteland of gold, the peak of luxury set against an uncaring landscape.
Sometimes a single image in a film will arrest me; often a seemingly inconsequential one. In The Challenge, Yuri Ancarani’s feature debut (and Special Jury Prize winner at the 69th Locarno Film Festival), that image is a beat-up jeep rapidly backfiring, its exhaust pipe aimed at into the desert ground like an artillery canon, the camera lingering on the cracked crater left behind. It goes on for what feels like a full minute, the harsh sound and abrupt, explosive burst of red and orange briefly blanketing the screen over and over. The sheer meaninglessness of the act, the senseless barrage of machinery against earth, seems to capture my general feeling throughout the film.
Formal conceits are more interesting to watch than traditional coverage, but The Challenge is left tethered by its insistence on moments of thematic portents. A hooded falcon sits by a plane window, the flightless bird framed by the man-made metal simulacra flying through the air in its place; a cheetah proudly slinks into the passenger seat of a Lamborghini, collared and boxed in as the car outpaces the creature in speed and grace. Striking, yes, but also tinged with a self-aware feeling of construction, which is certainly excusable, but exacerbated by the dearth of interesting commentary created by these contrasts. The film is a testament to the dominion of man over the earth. A desire for control and entertainment is fraught with the feeling of danger and adventure, only without risk or true sport. The falconers lounge about as much as their pets, asking to take selfies with a pet cheetah, and then discussing the safety of doing so.
The film is punctuated by breathtaking moments, however, such as literal bird’s eye view: a GoPro strapped to the falcon’s head, allowing us to see what it sees. Sporadic, jerking motions leave it disorienting, but in the pleasant manner of seeing the world through new eyes. It’s the playful respites such a this that the film earns its leisurely pace and makes the most of its absurdities, but these moments are few and far between.
The Challenge is a pretty, rigorously mounted film which is ultimately specious. By replacing the artifice of traditional documentary (talking heads, narrative arc, fly-on-the-wall realism, etc) with the artifice of arthouse formalism, Ancarani merely exchanges a tired cliché for a tired novelty. He never gets at the root of his subject or unearths substantial discourse surrounding it, even as he has the appearance of doing so. Certainly, its critique of the idle rich play hunting in the desert is more effective for its formal approach, but its approach feels as stagnant politically as it is innovative visually. Startling regardless, with fresh images and smart juxtapositions which are well worth its running time of seventy minutes, The Challenge should be celebrated for its minor accomplishments and precise framing of mise-en-scène, even as it leaves one wanting a more substantial whole.