AFI Fest 2022 Review: A Community of Watchmakers Plot Other Kinds of Revolutions Per Minute in Cyril Schäublin’s “Unrest”

An enterprising programmer will take it upon themselves some time in 2023 to program a double bill of “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” and “Unrest,” films that may be separated by centuries and continents but exude an attitude about collective action in a world that seems hopelessly fractured in the face of existential threats. Seeing the two films explode onto the festival circuit together this fall has been bracing when calls for radical systemic change rarely make their way into mainstream narrative work, though when the limitations of what current governments can achieve in these times of partisan gridlock have been exposed more and more, it seems neither out of place or out of time when Cyril Schäublin slyly sets up the conversation he wants to have in “Unrest” with a well-to-do woman in the late 1800s laying out the tenets of anarchism after being prompted by her curious friends after news travels about a recent uprising.

Remarkably, this comes across nowhere near as didactic as it might sound, but rather invigorating, as much in its revolutionary spirit as its unique setting in the Swiss Jura Mountains where watchmaking controls the whole economy. “Unrest” is somehow a film entirely about people and yet doesn’t appear to be about them at all when there are few distinguishing traits for the characters in the idyllic village where the citizenry can be divided into two camps, those who clock in and keep the factory running without questioning the inequities that are baked into the historic way of doing things or a growing number quietly organizing to upend operations, inspired by protests in Baltimore, Belgium and Barcelona that they actively plan to help with funds they raise for a raffle. There are two who stand out amidst the collective – Josephine (Clara Gostynski), a worker in the factory who goes about her work as an activist as quiet and efficiently as she sets the “unrest” in the watches she hunches over to construct, and Pytor (Alexei Evstratov), a visiting cartographer who is stymied in his efforts to get an accurate lay of the land by a pair of local police officers who have cordoned off access to roads because of a photo shoot for a promotional catalog for the town.

It is just one of the ways the powers that be in the community reinforce their own mythology on the eve of an impending celebration of patriotic values, shown to be as powerful a force as any other in upholding the societal order and although there may be reluctance for anyone to express how they really feel, they needn’t do so even privately for the benefit of an audience when Schäublin so vividly conveys a sense of oppression in the film’s visual and sound design, where characters are often diminished by the architecture around them in striking still frames outdoors and the constant churn of gears underscore the machinery of the city that seems as if it can’t be undone. Amidst the cacophony, the writer/director is able to give value to peace of mind in quiet moments where characters are allowed to think and collaborate on their own accord and can often look surprised where their thoughts take them. Constructed with Swiss Watch precision (another parallel with “Pipeline” that takes its structural influence from the bomb its characters build), the momentum of originality in “Unrest” counters the sturdy and uncontested machinery inherent to how the city at its center functions as well as in other narratives, executed with equally impressive skill and strength yet wholly and gloriously disruptive.

“Unrest” will be distributed by KimStim Films in 2023.

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