What to Watch at the 2022 Festival: Time Travel With These Period Pieces

By Amy Felix Stewart

Journalists, investigators, and storytellers of all types know they must answer certain basic questions — who, what, when, where, why, and how? — to get to the heart of their work. Several filmmakers in our program this year chose to place particular emphasis on the “when” to most effectively tell the stories they had in their heads.

Period pieces transport audiences to a specific point in the past, whether decades or centuries earlier, by immersing them in the sights and sounds of another era. Flickering shadows on a cabin wall, sunlight on a patch of shag carpet, the swish of scythes in a grain field, the tinny beat of a protest song from the speaker of a transistor radio — all help set the stage for memorable scenes.

But the best period pieces are more than mere collections of vintage props and retro costumes. They manage to capture an entire atmosphere, complete with prevailing attitudes and societal limitations, the cultural air their characters were born breathing. 

So settle into your sofa and travel with us to the antebellum South, 19th-century Macedonia, post-World War II Britain, or late-’60s middle America and discover how the “when” of a story can illuminate the “why” and the “how.”

Alice (U.S. Dramatic) — Krystin Ver Linden’s thriller features one of the most jarring juxtapositions in period-piece history. Alice is a woman enslaved on a Georgia plantation, suffering daily brutality and horrific injustice. After she manages to escape, she bursts from the forest onto a highway in 1973. The film follows Alice’s awakening as she learns of and comes to embrace her freedom and personal power. 

You Won’t Be Alone (World Dramatic) — A witch in a 19th-century Macedonian village discovers she can inhabit the bodies of the unsuspecting humans she encounters. This haunting and graphic horror tale, written and directed by Goran Stolevski, is also a tender reflection on loneliness, connection, and what it means to live as a human.

Living (Premieres) — In this thoughtful retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro and director Oliver Hermanus move the story to Britain in the rebuilding period after World War II. Williams, a stale, bureaucratic civil servant, gets a wakeup call in the form of a terminal diagnosis. As he begins to reexamine his life, he learns in dying what it really means to live.

Call Jane (Premieres) — Joy leads the calm, structured life of a housewife in a suburb of Chicago in 1968. When she suffers a life-threatening condition brought on by her pregnancy, she finds no help from the medical establishment. Desperate for a safe solution, Joy discovers “the Janes,” a secret organization of women who come to her aid and change her life. Writer and director Phyllis Nagy gives us a timely period piece that resonates loudly in today’s world.

The Cathedral (NEXT) — This film gently chronicles the origins and growing-up years of Jesse, a boy born in 1987 to a middle-class American family. Ricky D’Ambrose offers a meditation on moments from a particular time and place, lingering on a commemorative coin commercial, for example, the upholstery pattern on a couch, the light reflected on a wall. The resulting atmosphere is at once familiar, recalling shared visceral experiences from a recent past.