I, DON GIOVANNI (Carlos Saura, Italy) — 8
MADE IN HUNGARIA (Gergely Fonyo, Hungary) — 7
THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD (Radu Jude, Romania) — 7
MEDAL OF HONOR (Calin Peter Netzer, Romania) — 9
AUTUMN ADAGIO (Tsuki Inoue, Japan) — 8
I’m more likely to complain if a film spoon-feeds you everything and doesn’t trust you enough not to explain and spell out every last thing. But here is a case of a film that had a few too many ellipses, particularly in the last reel (I had to piece together what I think happened and I’m still not certain I got it right). And there’s one or two things about nuns that AUTUMN ADAGIO gets wrong that I think may have grown out of cultural innocence. Sister Maria, the certain character, doesn’t really seem to have any attachment at all to any order or community — we never see her Mother Superior or hear references therein, etc.
But still, this is a quietly excellent (and quite excellent) 75 minutes and, possible missteps on details aside, we might be grateful that it’s a Japanese (and a woman) to make a film about a nun experiencing midlife regrets, including the midlife change and what that defines about women’s sexuality. (To be honest, as a Western Catholic boy, the very notion of nuns menstruating at all seems “off” to me.) And in too many current Western hands, such material would become an excuse to have Sister Maria get in touch with her inner lesbian or march for a pro-abortion health-care bill as signs of a feminist “awakening.” Instead, as the Ozu-like seasonal title suggests, this is a film centered on music, meant to played and savored slowly. It makes even the moments that might come off as precious or affected in other contexts — e.g., the several involving flowers and leaves — seem absolutely right. Menopause makes never being a mother stark and irreversible, a matter Sister Maria works through without losing her vocation and without lasciviousness on the director’s part (one very unfortunate choice involving bathing soap aside). By the end, she’s able to explain the facts of life to a little girl whose reply then tells her something profound about her own periods.
In the course of the film, Sister Maria (played by J-Pop star Rei Shibakusa in one of those performances, like Maria Callas in Pasolini’s MEDEA, where you marvel that a singer has such interiority without using her voice) comes across three men — a stalker who attends the church where she plays the organ, a man whose mother is dying and to whom she must deliver a letter, and the star dancer at the ballet school where she also plays piano. At various times, ADAGIO reminded me of Bresson’s DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST — living out a religious vocation that mostly consists of daily repetition and apparent failure in the midst of an indifferent, where not hostile, community. Sister’s tentative steps in the direction of secular goods come mostly through her music and a connection with the dancer. There is a scene of him dancing to her playing that is extraordinary — one of the most magical scenes in any movie you’ll ever see. The connection between the two is breathtaking, charged — I want to say “erotic” but that seems inadequate, reductive and an invitation to the wrong sorts of thoughts. It is as close to a communio of persons as cinema can provide, but in the name of art not sex. And what happens — which Inoue by using ostentatious fades to black — afterward makes it clear that this is the kind of eros Plato wrote about in the Symposium, one made possible only by repression and destroyed by bumping-and-grinding.
WHITE WEDDING (Jann Turner, South Africa) — 4
Remember what I wrote the other day about WILL YOU MARRY US? Here is the flip side — another sitcom film about a wedding and whether it will or won’t happen and every bit as much of an “Our Country for Export” movie (it even helpfully starts with a map of the country, setting up the several locations where all the action is taking place). But WHITE WEDDING has more of an ensemble, so it’s hard to fall in love with a character as much and there’s a couple of stabs at profundity or at least seriousness that really feel off-key in this featherweight context.
Except for the use of Xhosa in most of the inter-black conversations (and Afrikaans in some of the inter-white), WHITE WEDDING could have been a Tyler Perry movie — well-off young Mercedes-driving blacks genially clashing with traditional less-well-off but more loving parents, the rich outsider ex-boyfriend who threatens to usurp the hero groom (Elvis) in the bride-to-be’s affections as he makes his cross-country journey (several times and ways interrupted) to be at the wedding. Turner also uses such hoary tropes as the flamboyantly effeminate wedding planner and the repressed spinster who works at the gown shop, but doesn’t actually do anything with them once established. You know there will be at least one inter-racial romance to represent the New South Africa (people who dismissed INVICTUS as mere homily are invited with deep sarcasm to this movie as the alternative).
Speaking of New and Old South Africa, there are also scenes, and this still is from the aftermath, where Elvis, another black man and a white Englishwoman stumble into a bar where rugby is on the TV, the apartheid-era flag is on the wall, there are signs (unenforceable of course) of whites-only bathrooms and the militarily-decked-out men make their discomfort clear. And it’s in the middle of a whites-only town where they have to stay the night. This scene REALLY made me itch. It realize it seems priggish of me, a foreigner, to object to South Africans, blacks among them, making jokes themselves about their apartheid past (being able to do that is a sign of a healthy polity — I get that). And moments in the bar scene (the way a drunken Elvis, oblivious to where he is, sings what I’m guessing to be a Boer folk song about a military hero) indicate the potential comedy gold. But there is no universe in which gun-toting Afrikaner nostalgists driving up to a home because there’s some kaffirs threatening our women, like the Klan riding out to protect Lillian Gish at the end of BIRTH OF NATION, will seem like a good choice in a light entertainment.
I now realize this review is far more negative than I intended. So let me reiterate that, horrific caveats aside, WHITE WEDDING is a genial good-souled sitcom and thus sometimes entertaining and might serve as the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. But it’s not anything special or unmissable, though a smart distributor would make a killing by releasing it generally worldwide during or immediately after this summer’s World Cup.
LOURDES (Jessica Hausner, France/Austria) — 9
BEYOND IPANEMA (Guto Barra, Brazil) — 3
I will start at the end, because that is what determined a grade of such distaste as “1” — if the closing title card were removed and the facts it referred to altered in the film, my grade would probably be about a 4 or 5. I also add that if I misread or the subtitles mistranslated that ending, I will happily alter my grade.
ARMY OF CRIME is a French Resistance movie. It (also) begins at the end with a strong, incantatory reading of litany of about 20 names identified as having “died for France” to images of people in handcuffs that (we presume correctly) are the death honor roll. The first thing I noted was that many of the identified are not typically French and/or typically something else — Slav, Hungarian, Jewish and others. And that’s the key to what the movie’s about and ultimately why it nauseated me — this cell consists of exiles, mostly East Europeans, several Jews, most Communists. Which is fair and plausible enough — the makeup of anti-Nazi resistances would naturally draw on such groups, and there’s always been a cosmopolitanism streak in admirers of the French republic and muthos (“every man has two countries — his own and France,” an American Francophile president once said). And all the talk of proletarian internationalism and Popular Front and whatnot is certainly appropriate here. But this zeal causes Guediguian to cross a moral line I believe sacrosanct.
But even without those intellectual problems, ARMY OF CRIME would still strike me as an unspectacular and muddled film. The best through-line involves an Armenian poet who starts the movie as a pacifist but has to learn to lead a Resistance cell. ARMY suffers from comparison both with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (perhaps unfairly; Tarantino couldn’t care less about history and really made a film about cinema and about his own skill in constructing set pieces, a measure by which QT painfully outdoes Guediguian) and with THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (more fairly; indeed several scenes seem like precise parallels, including the unpopular fact that both guerrilla groups were ruthlessly broken). Compared to ALGIERS though, ARMY is much less hard-headedly realistic, morally complex on civilian bombings, and has nothing on Pontecorvo’s French colonel or Morricone’s primal-wail music. Serious urban guerrillas have always been willing to kill civilians — a fact Pontecorvo presented unblinkingly in his film’s most memorable and suspenseful scene. Here, we get a bomb raid on a German officer soiree called off in mid-attack because there were women (and good-looking young ones, we’re helpfully told) as if there could ever have been doubt on that score. I also will probably never be completely happy with the spell-it-out History Channel touches inevitably found in this kind of movie.
But then there was one bit of outright fraud that made me start to question the film. The guerrilla cell is led by an Armenian who’d already seen (and describes fleeing) one mass slaughter. Subtext received, and plausible enough. But I began beating my head against the back of the stadium-seating chair when the Armenian gilded the lily (or rather Guediguian gilded his script) by explicitly mentioning Hitler’s “who remembers the Armenians today” remark, (1) the authenticity of which is disputed and not merely by Turkish denialists; (2) *certainly* wasn’t reported until after the war anyway; (3) *certainly* was not in a 1936 Reichstag speech as ARMY OF CRIME states (or any other public rhetoric; its claimed origin is a dispute with Army men about conduct during the planned invasion of Poland); and (4) refers anyway to plans to annihilate the Poles for Lebensraum — an issue of doubtful relevance to the events in ARMY OF CRIME. To quote it in dialogue supposedly taking place in 1942-43 is a travesty and a pander.
And then we get to the closing title card, which caused me to snap and say something aloud (I forget what) to the screen. It is a quote from Guediguian himself, saying as close as I can recall (and was trying to read it in both Enflish and French simultaneously) that, “in order to tell this story in a way relevant to today, I had to alter some facts.” I instantly began spitting rage. No, Robert … you didn’t HAVE to — you chose to. What are the things you chose to lie about? Are they what I think they are — a desire to turn the French Resistance into a multiculti Benneton ad avant la lettre (a cause that would certainly serve the needs of today, in the eyes of some)? Who gives an airborne fornication to supposed relevance or needs of today? And if they are such that they cannot be served by the truth about history, are they really needs or even desireable? And most relevant to your film — now that you’ve acknowledged that the needs of today, as you see them, override truth (i.e., you’re a liar for political convenience’s sake) why should anyone believe a word of your film?
AUTUMN ADAGIO (Tsuki Inoue, Japan) — 8
WHITE WEDDING (Jann Turner, South Africa) — 4
NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran) — 4
This material about the underground pop-music scene in Tehran, though certainly better than MY TEHRAN FOR SALE, probably would have worked better as a reality-TV show (which it kinda is anyway; most of the actors are musicians playing probably some version of themselves). If this were THE REAL WORLD: TEHRAN. it would then become possible to overlook this film inadequacies as a drama, most basically that nobody in the film, with one delirious exception, can act worth excrement, particularly the central couple Negar and Ashkan. I mean the reality TV comparison literally — the “acting” is of the style you’d expect on a reality-TV show (which is to say, when viewed as drama, awful). The plot is thin and mostly winds up just a picaresque excuse to move from band to band and play what ultimately become like videos of their song (ditto the “we accept such conventions in reality TV” caveat). CATS also lacks in some of the most-basic elements of film craftsmanship — I was particularly aggravated at a early scene, in an apartment being used for disc-bootlegging, that never managed to be in proper focus, and not because shooting was hurried or threatened or Ghobadi was deliberately moving objects into or out of focus for expressive purposes.
There are two things worth seeing in this film, which make it almost worth a recommendation — one is the de-facto music videos. Not because the music is especially great but because it’s at least OK (and some of it good) and such a novelty to hear at all that you can hardly really mind. And if that judgment commit the crimes of patronizing Orientalism and tourist exoticism, then let me be guilty. I mean … who knew there were Persian rappers and heavy-metal bands? The singer for the hard-rock group (I didn’t catch its name) explicitly says his act has nothing to do with politics or religion, but their song (heavy on “King of Pain” type repetitive imagery about who’s awake all night) is as apolitical as the women’s tales in SCHEHEREZADE, TELL ME A STORY. And did you imagine you could ever hear rappers, however amusing it might be (is) to see them strut about representin’ like Public Enemy or House of Pain, complain about how, in their society, money is first and God is second?
The other thing worth seeing is the crazy, manic performance — the only one in the film that belong in any kind of dramatic movie — of Hamed Behdad as Nader, who dubs film and music disks, listens to Negar and Ashkan’s record and promises to make it a hit and get them abroad. He is only prominent in two or three scenes, but he is a clownish comic delight as the hyper-helpful, motor-mouthed, big-talking little guy who’ll make things happen. And then in one scene — let’s just say it involves a trial — we see the same persona in another context and the laughter sticks in the craw.
THE OTHER IRENE (Andrei Gruzsniczki, Romania) — 7
I’m at the point now where I want to see a bad Romanian movie, just to convince myself that my grades for the eight or so Romanian films I’ve seen in the past few years — every one at least a 6, most better, and one a “best of decade” favorite — aren’t simply a fanboy’s reflex. But across a wide variety of subject matters, they all have the same combination of urgent realism and existential gloom and an utter lack of snark or Generation-Whatevuh — a mix I’m just a sucker for. In the case of THE OTHER IRENE, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about and how it’s about it without spoilers, so I’ll discuss more after the jump. For the front page, let me say that it makes a nod to virtually every recent Romanian festival hit and most resembles POLICE, ADJECTIVE (Dragos Bucur even has a small role, as does Vlad Ivanov), though it’s less stylistically radical — another structural exercise in a character trying to spin a narrative for the sake of his sanity and (in this case) his memories, only to be … well, what happens here (WARNING: link to a recent French classic that obviously is a giveaway too). Continue reading
THE ARMY OF CRIME (Robert Guediguian, France) — 1*
* I’ll elaborate later but I’d be prepared to reconsider if the final title card (film was about a 5 until then) doesn’t mean what it seems to say.
Also decided to bag AIR DOLL for its commercial release in DC during Dog Days of Summer
THE SECRET OF KELLS (Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, Ireland) — 8
Or “why I take notes, part 1.” The last words in my viewing notes for this film, about a hero boy’s quest to keep a book safe, were actually taken after the lights were up: “wow, kids totally silent.” I had just looked around the crowded-but-not-packed-to-the-gills auditorium and seen that virtually the entire audience was made up of families with children. (KELLS is already in limited release nationwide, but the Festival showed it as a reduced-price children’s weekend matinee.) And yet during the film’s entire 75-minute running time, I was never conscious of being in an auditorium full of rugrats, who tend to run up and down the aisles or cry or demand to be taken outside or otherwise indicate when they’re not enjoying themselves. I know that “reviewing the audience” is dicey, but with children’s movies, because they haven’t learned to sit in silent boredom when a film sucks, it’s easy to determine whether a film is working or isn’t.
The kids’ reaction also happened to confirm an idea I had about KELLS — that it had a gentleness of tone, a real sense of wonder and fantasy that is too often absent from kids entertainment (there’s even an actual fairy in this fairy tale). I recently saw HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (a film I liked much less), which covered a lot of the same subject matter and theme and setting (see Steve Greydanus here for the comparisons). But DRAGON did it in a more “contemporary” style, trying to take advantage of 3D, chopped-up action editing like Bay and Bruckheimer, and a much more “knowing” sensibility. And I felt, and I think I would done the same as a boy, pushed away by all the freneticness of DRAGON. Something as gentle and relaxed as KELLS is literally a breath of fresh air.
Not that KELLS has nothing for adults or more-sophisticated audiences. Among other things, I think adults will have a better sense of how detailed the nearly all hand-drawn animation is and how much effort goes into making all the film’s curlicues and decorated curves and whatnot, as if the film is trying for an animated equivalent of the illumined manuscripts that “Dark Ages” monks sweated their lives for. They also will (or should) have more of a sense of how the imagery, with its flat two-dimensionality and stylized shapes, fits a pre-Renaissance world whose self-representations were without realistic-looking perspective. There are even some shots in KELLS (though I couldn’t find one online) of floors rising up the frame, like in Byzantine icons.
My one reservation about the film is religious (though, pace Michael Sicinski, it isn’t exactly about the crystal). Rather, it is the secularizing or at least de-Christianizing of the book and the abbey. If you go into this film knowing that the Book of Iona/Kells was the four Gospels, then the film actually is the “Christian propaganda” that Michael feared (c’mon … the last line is that the book “can give hope to the people in these dark days of the Northmen” and there’s even an explicit reference to the serpent being trapped into eating itself by “drawing lines”). But the film never (that I recall) mentions either that this book, though there’s much of that vague “this book can bring light into the darkness,” is a copy of the Gospels or that these monks are, you know, Christians, rather than just an all-male commune of unspecified character.
I AM LOVE (Luca Guadagnino, Italy) — 9
Or “why I take notes, part 2.” Here are some of the names and films and artworks that I AM LOVE put me in mind of and jotted down while watching — Antonioni, KING LEAR, the Recchi Co. as neorealism and Italian film itself, MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, Max Ophuls, THE LEOPARD, BABETTE’S FEAST, Garbo, Impressionism, the 19th-century novel and Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot, Scorsese, SUNSET BOULEVARD. Between this film and VINCERE (which I saw again recently and admired even more), Italy is definitely back as the country that offers the antidote to the Cinema of Lack. I AM LOVE, whatever else may be said of it, is bursting with ideas and conceits and style and flourishes. Nor is this mere name-dropping. Guadagnino doesn’t suffer from Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, instead saying that he’s deliberately acknowledging the towering antecedents that an Italian film-maker must face (though few have done so successfully recently) and trying to make something new with them. From an article in the current Sight and Sound:
I Am Love’s dazzling title sequence – cut, designed and scored to brashly recall some great Italian art film from 1960 – defines this new confidence. “We were trying to connect the chromosomic code of great movies that we love, from Visconti to Antonioni, with a vision of Milano today,” Guadagnino says. “You can’t start in a humble, hypocritical way, saying, ‘Those were masters and we are not.’ We have to say, ‘Let’s aim for the stars and see where we go’.”
To some everything up in a single bite — an updated Impressionistic version of a Visconti film based on a 19th-century novel, though changed to reflect current social and economic realities. However, again, it’s always love and sex that break up the social order. Like THE LEOPARD, I AM LOVE looks at the generational passing-on of a class through the eyes of (in this case) someone imported into the family from outside (Tilda Swinton, playing a Russian who married into the family of Italy’s largest textile firm) via immigration rather than Garibaldi’s bourgeois revolution. I AM LOVE also introduces us to the dramatis personae with a bravura overture scene of the family gathering, though instead of Visconti’s family rosary, we get a secular meal where a major announcement is made. The directness of Guadagnino’s acknowledgement of the shadow of Italy’s cinematic past is clear in one detail: the scene features Gabriele Ferzetti as the patriarch signing over his empire, and, as Swinton’s husband, an actor who looks like he did in the 1960s.
In that scene and others I AM LOVE and its constantly prowling camera channels Visconti’s sensual adoration of the surfaces and appearances of a rich decadent civilization, only here it’s the late 20th-century bourgeois dinner, not a 19th-century aristocratic ball. I already mentioned VINCERE, but the one sense in which I AM LOVE does differ radically is that where Bellocchio’s film is boldly and grandly operatic, Guadagnino’s movie (until the end) instead goes for a more-subjective style that might be better called Impressionism — shots out of time, colorful surfaces, hazy focus, contrast with sun-kissed nature. In one food-porn scene, Swinton eats a shrimp dish that you can practically taste yourself and fall in the love with the chef (which is the cause of much of the film’s conflict). There’s even a shot of a colorful table of food drifting in out of focus and image-smear like a Cezanne might have produced. There are scenes where Swinton walks through a room and touches the objects in it like talismanic reminders, and others where the sound mix drifts in and out as the world comes clanging down on your ears. And the final betrayal is shown, not in a handful of peas, but a fish-soup recipe that causes everything to click together. It’s all stylistically overheated, no doubt, but the film centers on Swinton and her subjective experience as a Russian for whom Italy IS a garden of delights. And one that eventually …
25 KARATS (Patxi Amezcua, Spain) — 5 (downgraded from 6)
Or “why I take notes, part 3.” I downgraded this one because it was clear looking at my notes my dominant reaction was “this isn’t as good as Tarantino.” I kept noticing the similarities: braided plot threads among a group of criminal lowlifes, scams and scheming involving debts and sacks of money, betrayals and trust issues, sudden bursts of violence, details of the underside like the differing rates for various prostitution services, etc. This film should have been titled JACOBA MARRONA. But more importantly I also kept noticing where 25 KARATS failed to match its American master. And (unlike I AM LOVE) Amezcua’s film is too derivative of a single source to judge on any terms other than its original.
25 KARATS entirely lacks Tarantino’s wit, instead being played pretty straight with little or none of his type of colorful dialog. I don’t speak Spanish perfectly and I miss stuff and details; but I can hear Spanish well enough to tell what a film is trying to do — and this is functional dialogue just about entirely (I can tell definitively that the subtitles are witless and straight). Tarantino also would never have the kind of tender-hearted sex scene that plays straight out of what Roger Ebert called in the 60s and 70s the semi-OLI (Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude with soft and would-be romantic music; call it the semi-OFI). The ending also doesn’t come off, for all score of reasons: there’s two people killed that just seems gratuitous and two switches — one of loyalty, the other of costume — occur that are flat unbelievable). 25 KARATS held my attention and sometimes was interesting and fun in a way that crime movies always have suspense and intrigue built into them. But never was it more than that.
NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS (Bahman Ghobadi, Iran) — 4
THE OTHER IRENE (Andrei Gruzsniczki, Romania) — 7
Obviously, I bagged plans to be going to work and the festival and got the OK to burn a vacation week, so this is what I saw, unplanned, on Sunday:
THE SECRET OF KELLS (Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, Ireland) — 8
I AM LOVE (Luca Guadagnino, Italy) — 9*
25 KARATS (Patxi Amezcua, Spain) — 6
* There is still one more screening of this during the festival: Monday night.
I upgraded this film from 5 upon reflection because it finally became clear to me that, the ridiculous and self-contradictory last scene aside, the film really does have a consistent attitude toward its protagonist and her situation — a custody fight in which the city of Prague is trying to take away her seven children on the grounds of abuse, neglect, truancy, etc.
My problem was that I could never figure out while I was watching EL PASO what the film wanted me to make of Vera — a Roma woman who is frequently her own worst enemy. The film seemed to occasionally overdo the “cultural sensitivity” act in her blaming “gadjos” (Roma for “The Man”). And at other times the film played as a PRECIOUS-like wallow in poverty and child dysfunction (gypsy children gratuitously stealing pens from their mother’s lawyer? c’mon … it’s like Precious’s fried-chicken bucket)
But no … EL PASO is really about a family, albeit a deeply problematic one, defying the stifling nanny state. Indeed, this is where EL PASO distinguishes itself as better, or at least more realistic, than PRECIOUS — the visiting social workers are clearly portrayed as interfering busybodies. “You feed your children sausage, that’s not healthy,” one says at one point, and the city bureaucrat leading the case is like Montgomery Burns as played by James Cromwell. Horrible abuse like smoking in the front of the children (seriously) are taken as evidence of unfit motherhood. But EL PASO doesn’t take the easy way out — Vera, brilliantly played by Irena Horvathova with plenty of strength but little grandstanding Strength, is not an easy character to like and constantly acts oblivious to, and sometimes contemptuous of, her legal predicaments. And she eventually alienates her lawyer (the more-quietly excellent Denisa Demeterova) who tries to help her and dispenses sound advice and thus is as close to an audience surrogate as the film gets. So again, my initial “mixed” reaction was really a testament to the film’s success in having me share her reaction to Vera. (Though that still makes the final “everybody happily ever” scene unforgivable.)
Sometimes you just have to be honest and admit that you enjoyed a movie that isn’t really very good. WILL YOU MARRY US is basically a Swiss sitcom about a small-town civil registrar whose marriage is breaking apart but (here’s the twist) meets an old boyfriend who wants her to preside over his impending marriage. Given that high a concept, everything that happens is completely predictable — there’s some funny scenes (one good punch line came at the end of a scene involving tiramisu; the best scene is the climactic speech and an absurdly overextended metaphor about marriage as a voyage), a growing realization that the old flames still love each other, and a wisecracking best friend (who is NOT gay). It’s fun but never anything that threatens to be great.
There is a scene involving someone unexpectedly walking into a room containing two people who are not supposed to be together or in that room — it’s amusing and there’s one big laugh, but the difference between that scene and the comparable scene in A FISH CALLED WANDA (Kevin Kline in Cleese’s study) is the difference between an OK film and a great one. Indeed, a film like MARRY entirely depends on “do you enjoy spending this time with these people and existing in their environment?” And the answer to that question, for me, is “yes.” Indeed, I quickly developed a 90-minute crush on Marie Leuenberger, who plays the “civil registrar” of the film’s German title (DIE STANDESBEAMTIN). She glows on the screen, even though she’s not playing someone conventionally happy for most of the film and isn’t an obvious sex-bomb type (more like an early career Minnie Driver), but she is so likeable and the camera so “likes” her that I found her very presence irresistible.
Lewinsky said during the Q-and-A that he wanted to make “a normal romantic comedy for Swiss, but there haven’t been many.” He also said, surprisingly to me given how well the film seemed to be received by the packed auditorium and how generally it seemed to be selling “Switzerland for Export,” that MARRY would probably not be distributed commercially in the US. There was an audible disbelieving groan in which I shared — this film would go down very smoothly with Landmark-type audiences if it were booked and handled properly (I’ve already got the pitch line — MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING meets ONCE). Or perhaps if it were simply remade — indeed, like with FAREWELL, I wouldn’t mind seeing a first-class American handling of this premise, because an American film might be a little faster-paced, a bit more manic and a touch nastier, and if it were, the result could be a screwball classic.
¹ If I have to use something as absurdly artificial as “Czech Republic,” why not this, also a proper name (it’s the origin of the “CH” national-ID tag on cars)
EL PASO (Zdenek Tyc, Czech Republic) — 5
WILL YOU MARRY US (Micha Lewinsky, Switzerland) — 6
SILENT WEDDING (Horatiu Malaele, Romania) — 8
The current World Cinema “It”-Country now has a representative comedy to go with all the grim dramas it’s been turning out. SILENT WEDDING starts in current-day Romania with a TV crew taking a trip to a deserted factory (“the Communists destroyed a [traditional] village to build a factory, and now the capitalists are destroying the factory to build a [retro] village”) though some uncanny moments flash in, as if the site were haunted by ghosts — which it is. The film flashes back to the main events, which take place at a time we later learn is 1953 but could have been virtually any time — Romania as the home of the vampire legend makes a short cameo. It mostly about village daily life among the peasants, most prominently a young courting couple not exactly waiting for the wedding night, which causes quarreling and joking and drinking.
Balkan-peasant humor seems to be virtually the opposite of the Polish-Czech dry mordant humor — full of oompah-pah-pah overstatement, broad clowning, midgets, wild tone shifts, magic realism and crude cruelty. The best moment was a sex scene in which the young lovers are copulating in a vat of corn, the depth of which becomes a measure of their excitement. Still, I can’t say I was overwhelmed by much of SILENT WEDDING as it was unspooling — it was fairly amusing but large parts of it reminded me of the one Emir Kusturica film I’ve seen (TIME OF THE GYPSIES, which I didn’t care for). A little of that goes a long way with me, but this film was comfortably humming along at a 5-6 clip. Until …
Let’s just say I was sore after watching the scene from which the film derives its title — one of the best comedy sequences I have ever seen, featuring (among much else) the funniest on-screen fart in movie history (no, I’m not forgetting BLAZING SADDLES). For complicated reasons, the villagers put on a wedding feast in which everybody has to remain silent (think the sect members’ pact in the banquet at BABETTE’S FEAST). The sequence is so filled with big laughs that it even retroactively recoded some of the earlier less-amusing broadness and loudness. Part of the reason THIS is so funny is that we’ve already seen how this Zorba the Romanian village normally is — which makes the increasingly elaborate sham so painful for them. And then …
the final tone shift. And it’s not what we’ve been expecting even though, as a film set in Romania in 1953 and watching in 2010, you probably should have seen it coming. It takes a special film to pull off this many tone shifts and choosing the right ones at the right time.
FAREWELL (Christian Carion, France) — 6
Like the other directors scheduled to appear here, Christian Carion was kept away by the Icelandic volcano’s effects on trans-Atlantic travel. But in a note read before the screening, he said he admired “Anglo-Saxon cinema” for its “willingness to make films about political reality” and cited as examples influencing him THE QUEEN and JFK. That description can be read either as an invitation or as a STFA (“stay away”: one more detail: actors imitate Reagan and Mitterand).
Honestly, while I take that (reasonably fair) critical cross-reference as an invitation, FAREWELL is more a film I admire in concept — an old-school pro-Western Cold War espionage film a la TOPAZ, and from France no less — than in execution. I wouldn’t have wanted a BOURNE-esque action film, but FAREWELL never really manages to be terribly exciting or filled with suspenseful set-pieces (a wait by the Finnish border near the end is as close as it gets).
But FAREWELL is very well done in every small way and in the characterizing touches that European films do tend to do better. Weary Slav Emir Kusturica in particular is very strong as the KGB colonel who feeds information to a dorky Frenchman (Guillaume Canet, also cast well) whom he knows is too amateurish for the Commies to suspect. Kusturica’s first appearance is a sudden leap-into-the-throat that also acknowledges cinematically the first appearance of Harry Lime. The relationship between the two men and their parallel (actually more inverse) marriage-espionage woes really is the heart of the film more than thriller-genre elements. And the last reveal would have been even better without the repeated references to a certain John Ford classic. It sounds cliche, but honestly, my heart breaks at the thought of what Hitchcock could have done with this material. Or how much tighter and more exciting any competent Hollywood craftsman of today would have.
The big local event of DC’s film year starts next week, FilmFestDC (contrary to what I told an out-of-town programmer friend with whom I went out last night — I really thought at the time that the festival began this week). The Opening Night film (a la-dee-da affair I’ve never gone to) is the Russian musical HIPSTERS, which I almost certainly will see at some point. And the Closing-Night film (which I have gone to once — Lukas Moodysson’s TOGETHER some years ago) is the (still undistributed — why?!?!) German feel-good food-porn film SOUL KITCHEN. There are programs of films from Italy and Romania, the latter of which seems more mouth-watering at this moment in history. There also seemed to be, though not a formal program, a large number of wedding films and music-related films.
These are the films playing here that I saw and (with one exception, that I will see again) reviewed at Toronto or Charlottesville last year:
AIR DOLL (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 7)
I KILLED MY MOTHER (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 7) — my review here (2nd capsule)
IRENE (Alain Cavalier, France, 3) — my review here (3rd capsule)
SCHEHEREZADE, TELL ME A STORY¹ (Yousry Nasrallah, Egypt, 5) — my review here, 2nd capsule
SHAMELESS (Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic, 3) — my review here (4th capsule)
SOUL KITCHEN (Fatih Akin, Germany, 6) — my review here (4th capsule)
TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE² (Cristian Mungiu / Ioana Uricaru / Hanno Hofer / Razvan Marculescu / Constantin Popescu; Romania) average: 6.6, directors not specifically matched to the shorts — my review here (4th capsule)
“The Legend of the Official Visit” — 8
“The Legend of the Party Photographer” — 7
“The Legend of the Chicken Drivers” — 4
“The Legend of the Greedy Policeman” — 6
“The Legend of the Air Sellers” — 8
VIDEOCRACY (Erik Gandini, Sweden, 2) — my review here (3rd capsule)
As to what I’ll be seeing … I haven’t purchased any tickets because, as I don’t think I can take time off work, I cannot be certain I’ll make every 630 show I’d like to. There’s a couple I will make certain I attend, but this plan is my wildest dreams:
Saturday, 24 April
430 Avalon I, DON GIOVANNI (Carlos Saura, Spain/Italy)
700 Avalon MADE IN HUNGARIA (Gergely Fonyo, Hungary)
1000 E Street THE MESSAGE (Chen Kuo-fu and Gau Qun-shu, China)
¹ FilmFestDC’s stated 186-minute running time for SCHEHEREZADE may be wrong; the IMDb and the Toronto Festival both list the film as 134 minutes, and I certainly don’t remember it being 3 hours.
² Marculescu is not credited at FilmFestDC page, though I don’t know whether it is correct or Toronto’s page is. The film itself had no director credits
I generally don’t walk out on movies. I won’t give a bad movie the satisfaction of driving me out of the theater, and so it becomes a contest of wills or an excuse to nap or whatever. To this day, I’ve only walked out of three theatrically-seen movies (I obviously “turned channels” a lot more — it feels different). And until 2003, the only movie I had ever walked out on in a theater was …