“The Scandals of 2002”
“There is no more universal experience than sitting in a darkened theater, watching the magic of the movies.” So says Richard M. Daley, mayor of Chicago. While one could think of one or two human experiences that are arguably more basic, there’s no need to contradict Hizzoner’s words of welcome to the 38th Chicago International Film Festival, especially when he presides over a city that is home to at least 19 cinema organizations and 26 other film festivals every year.
Once again, the “Sold Out” signs went up quickly, with crowd control making festival staff work like fruit flies while Chicagoans marked time waiting in lines to see films by Kaoru Ikeya, Joo Kyung-Jung, Sijie Dai, Nae Caranfil, and Kornel Mundruczko. These were the names on everyone’s lips (and were occasionally pronounced correctly). Inside the theaters, savvy filmgoers were soon shouting out each corporate sponsor’s name even before its logo hit the screen.
The U.S. State Department provided this year’s scandal, apparently reasoning that the terrorists would somehow win if renowned humanist Abbas Kiarostami were allowed to attend the New York Film Festival. Considering that the Iranian master had already visited this country half a dozen times without detonating any bombs, Washington’s refusal to grant visas to him and other Iranian participants set off an international furor. Harvard University protested, as did former French culture minister Jack Lang, while Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki expressed his solidarity by refusing to travel to the U.S. The scandal rippled its way to Chicago when Bahman Ghobadi, who had brought his Kurdish language feature The Time of Drunken Horses to Chicago two years ago, found he could not enter the “land of the free” to collect the Gold Plaque he won for this year’s Marooned In Iraq. Who could blame him when he responded by rejecting the award?
With such worthies missing, Chicago’s celebrity quotient dipped slightly lower than at previous festivals, but the starstruck could still take in gala flashbulb-popping tributes to actors Pierce Brosnan and Charles Dutton, plus rub shoulders with such film folk as Michael Moore, Lynne Ramsay, Maximilian Schell, D.A. Pennebaker, Parker Posey, Phillip Noyce, and Julie Taymor.
Equally absent were several eagerly-awaited titles unreeling at the concurrent New York Film Festival, like Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, Claire Denis’ Friday Night, Almodovar’s Talk to Her, and of course Kiarostami’s own Ten. However, no one was complaining about Chicago’s much more inclusive program, with half the films shown in New York, plus ninety more (not counting entire programs of shorts). What follows here is a roundup of ten personal selections that reflected still more scandals.
“She’s a saint. Your mother’s a saint!” That’s the startling news posed to artist Sergio Castellitto in the darkly stylish and sharply funny My Mother’s Smile. Not since Buñuel in his heyday has a film ventured to mock the pragmatic politics and economics of sainthood, with various characters comparing belief in a deity to a life insurance policy (“Eternity is a sound investment”). From his debut feature, Fists in His Pockets – whose protagonist memorably set out to murder his entire family – director Marco Bellocchio has made the themes of twisted family ties and religious hypocrisy his own. Here he centers the warm and sensible Castellitto (who himself played modern saint Padre Pio on Italian TV) as an island of bedrock integrity in a swamp of profane motives hidden under the sacred surfaces. The title smile, it turns out, was so hated for its bovine passivity that his brother picked up a knife and stabbed their mother to death, instantly putting her on the Vatican’s shortlist for martyrhood. While a rightwing religionist challenges the atheist hero to an old-fashioned duel for the offense of inappropriate smiling, family members are leaning on him to become a team player and cooperate in the canonization proceedings for all the unspiritual dividends. Meanwhile, a madman attributes a miracle to the mother, an anarchist architect wants to blow up the Victor Emmanuel monument, and the hero is tempted by a mysteriously alluring nun. Without lapsing into the surreal, Bellocchio uses deep focus camerawork and haunting Armenian dirges to convey the strangeness of religious practice in striking sequences: the clandestine baptism of a sleeper, a sinister cocktail party in a cardinal’s chambers, and a ceremony with African children climbing stairs on their knees. Best of all is an elaborate photo shoot for the advertising blitz to establish the mother’s public image, a clear case of “A Saint Is Born.”
Equally sophisticated is Russian Ark, but a little-mentioned secret is that it’s also quite funny. Admittedly, this is not the first word normally associated with Alexander Sokurov’s searching meditations on life and death, with their layers of fog and dreams and storm-tossed seas. Here Sokurov marries some of these concerns with the possibilities of high density video technology, enacting one of filmdom’s greatest stunts: shooting the entire ninety-five minutes in a single hold-your-breath take (accomplished after two false starts) recorded directly on a computer hard drive. Leading us through just about every nook and cranny of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, Sokurov expertly commands over a thousand players and three live orchestras (all in costume), while his unseen narrator follows in the company of a spindly continental aristocrat, a crepuscular leftover from the Congress of Vienna in 1815, who loftily disdains entire rooms of the museum (“Europe’s mistakes!”). Wandering from gallery to gallery, with Sokurov’s Steadicam floating behind, he encounters people from various historical periods (“Was that Pushkin?”), flirts with women, smells the oil paintings up close, and idly wonders whether Russia is now a republic (“I don’t know” is Sokurov’s reply). With time and history suspended in the endless moment of this definitive long take, anything is apt to happen at any time, from Catherine the Great running in the snow, to Czar Nicholas grandly receiving the ambassador from Persia, who apologizes for the murder of Russian diplomats (while we examine the porcelain at the reception tables). If Sokurov does not invariably cover the seams of staging that make this bravura concept possible, he outdoes Visconti with the longest ball sequence since The Leopard, yet ups the stakes by featuring two separate dance floors at the same time.
Opening on the murderous pursuit of a chicken through ghetto streets, shown in slashing widescreen cuts, City of God produces enough visual razzle-dazzle and computer-assisted camera conniptions to power its own festival, all to tell a true story about guns, sex, and drugs among rival teen gangs in low-rise public housing, a kind of barren Soweto for the homeless outside Rio de Janeiro. These are people reaching up for the bottom-most rung of the social ladder, played by an authentic and energetic cast who developed their characters in the course of an eight month-long acting workshop. With the impressive production and crackling samba score as support, some clever narrative splintering compounds the emotional ante, and the power struggles behind dealing drugs are studied in exhausting detail. If the non-stop action slams with the same visceral excitement as the opening sequence of Amores Perros, the concept of “overkill” is apparently not in the lexicon of director Fernando Meirelles, nor is “subtext,” since this Brazilian hit’s biggest surprise is how often it mirrors the conventional up-by-your-bootstraps sentiments and shallow psychology of crowd-pleasers like West Side Story, but not the social critique of its elder brother, Hector Babenco’s more incisive Pixote.
Maximilian Schell’s My Sister Maria, together with his previous exploration of the waning days of squalor afforded to Dietrich in Marlene, makes a sad diptych on the twilight of the goddesses. Now seventy-six, although her voice has dropped a register, Maria Schell remains unmistakable for those spirited eyes and that uniquely bittersweet smile. When a tabloid newspaper publishes a photo of her now aged face, she makes a comment worthy of cinema royalty: “Before, I was on page one. Now, I’m on page three.” During the 1950s, she reigned as Europe’s golden girl, earning a cover in Time magazine and winning best actress prizes at both Cannes and Venice, the first for her miserabilist laundress in René Clément’s Gervaise, and the second for her soulfully suffering doctor kidnapped by Yugoslav partisans in Helmut Kaütner’s The Last Bridge. Inevitably, she tried Hollywood (“It was like a pane of glass behind which I was moving”), where she made a lively stab at Grushenka in MGM’s indigestible The Brothers Karamazov but gave a moving performance as a blind immigrant in The Hanging Tree opposite Gary Cooper (“He was so calm”). Showing clips from all these titles (and her dance scene with Marcello Mastroianni in Visconti’s White Nights), younger brother Maximilian also displays questionable taste by restaging more recent incidents, like her financial confusion that almost led to a public auction of her possessions. In her hilltop home in Austria, she lives in the aftermath of a stroke, in what the film discreetly calls “a different level of reality”. Maximilian nevertheless prods her into reminiscences, with help from various family members, producing an invaluable cinema document, but one with some awkward effects. Walled in by several of her eleven TV sets (guess whose pictures she watches), Maria recollects her passions, including a suicide attempt when her last lover, a Russian composer, left her. When a visitor brings news of him, she is dismayed: “How could he not ask about me?”
In El Bonaerense, a young locksmith flees his small town to escape a safecracking rap and enrolls at the notorious police training school in Buenos Aires. The grainy color and urban flavor, along with its study of progressive brutalization, suggest that director Pablo Trapero has some familiarity with the works of Sidney Lumet, especially Prince of the City, the difference lying in several enthusiastically steamy sex scenes. Still, under the throbbing guitar music, Trapero captures how corruption works, as truth and morality get lost in the ebb and flow of boredom and crime that make up the rather blockheaded hero’s workday. It’s a process of baby-steps, each one seemingly a minor decision, from lying on an application form, to taking a proffered payoff, until he has become numbed into turning a blind eye to murder. When all matters are negotiable, the society is built on a rotting infrastructure of lies, cheating, and extortion, with the ironic kicker that authorities come up with an official reward for each compromise.
Madame Sata is an honorific bestowed on Brazil’s tallest, darkest, and most aggressive drag queen, who earned his name when he emerged from ten years in prison spitting more fire than ever, and immediately leapt to fame with a costume (based on Cecil B. DeMille’s kitschfest, Madame Satan) that grabbed first prize at Rio’s carnival in 1942. In the title role, Lázaro Ramos gives a ferocious performance that seizes the film and won’t let go, while screenwriter-director Karim Ainouz (who worked on Todd Haynes’ audacious Poison) paints his picture of Rio’s dark underworld of pimps, hustlers, and cops in rough and gritty colors. Unlit by streetlights, the inky back alleys are Sata’s habitat, where business requires him to part tricks from their wallets. He survives by using his kick-boxing skills, defending himself and his haphazard household, a family composed of an effeminate hustler named Taboo, a blowzy hooker called Laurita, and her baby of indeterminate origin. They laugh and snort cocaine together, but his main refuge from the mean streets is cabaret glamour. Assisting a nightclub diva with the veils and spangles for her Scheherezade number (although she abuses him in blatantly racist terms), he dreams of Josephine Baker, who wowed Paris in her jungle mama masquerade. Definitely a top man, as demonstrated in one thrusting sex scene, he doesn’t want to be a woman; he wants to be free to dress himself in whatever beads and bangles he chooses, but keeping his masculine chest triumphantly bare. The film’s climax pulses with violently exciting colors and pounding samba rhythms, like some lost musical by Jean Gênet.
What initially seems like a stately pace and a predictable triangle plot in Springtime in a Small Town soon begins to boil with repressed desires and stifled melodrama. In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, when the Japanese have withdrawn from China, a doctor returns to his hometown to stay with his boyhood friend, a fragile aristocrat who maintains a shabby mansion with his emotionally estranged wife. Remaking a celebrated Chinese film classic from 1948, director Tian Zhuangzhuang strips his drama to the basics, using only five characters, spare dialogue, and a restless camera (manned by Mark Lee Ping-Bin, muddying the palette he employed in Flowers of Shanghai and In the Mood For Love). While the players climb around a provincial section of the formidable Great Wall, they ponder whether the season is still winter or has turned to spring (whether the uncertainties of wartime will persist or the country’s rebirth can begin), but feelings are less spoken than acted out in behavior. As the director’s takes grow longer and stiller, the emotions intensify, and the film subtly amasses a cumulative poetry until, in one remarkable scene, merely the repeated turning on of a lamp becomes a signal of sexual submission. When they all descend to the river to cross in a wooden rowboat, the hero’s exuberant kewpie doll sister stands up in the prow and leads them in singing a Johann Strauss waltz that echoes to the hazy hills. The fact that this scene actually works, and that the plot resolves in a harmonious yet enigmatic balance, is proof that the director of the excellent The Blue Kite still makes films unlike anyone else.
From its opening sequence of Santa Claus being chased by hostile teenagers, Divine Intervention injects much-needed mockery into the Palestine-Israel imbroglio, cleverly casting the conflict in terms of bad neighbors. One flings bags of garbage into another’s backyard, an old man hurls bottles from his rooftop, and yet another drives through the narrow streets of Jerusalem richly cursing each person he passes, but no one listens to anyone else. Working up to a knockout martial arts sequence that suggests “Crouching Israeli, Hidden Palestinian,” the hilarious dry humor doesn’t so much diffuse the tensions as explode them with laughter. Director Elia Suleiman prefers to stay at a panoramic distance, keeping action moving through several planes, suggesting a Middle Eastern Jacques Tati, especially in a hospital sequence that shows doctors and nurses joining their patients to compulsively smoke up the corridors. The lively and eclectic musical score (“I Put a Spell On You”?) fills in during long stretches that, just like the Middle East situation, rely very little on dialogue, but one bravura sequence sends an unmistakable message when a red balloon sporting Arafat’s smiling face sails past every checkpoint, circles the city, and finally comes to rest atop the golden Dome of the Rock.
The spirit of drollery continues in The Man Without a Past, a clear-eyed palate cleanser which won the Grand Jury prize at this year’s Cannes festival. Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki starts with a gang of thugs beating a night watchman into amnesia, then moves him into a shack fitted out with a jukebox, and watches as his hero lives out a kind of anti-Memento. With no clues to his own identity, he busies himself with turning a Salvation Army band into hard rockers, then inherits a listless attack dog called Hannibal, starts a farm with eight potatoes, and gets locked in a bank vault with a desultory teller (her bank has just been sold to North Koreans). Each encounter opens a new window on absurdities, like people forced to live in dumpsters, or money manipulators who undermine the small businessman by opting for transitory profits. With his agile camera gliding elegantly, Kaurismaki sets a relaxed and graceful pace, but especially relishes a nitwit duel where a police chief and a lawyer hurl contradictory regulations at one another.
Celibacy rears its ugly head in The Crime of Father Amaro, but it doesn’t have a chance. This vivid pop melodrama, the biggest hit in Mexican film history, was also the first festival offering to display the “Sold Out” signs. Director Carlos Carrera flips a series of calculated affronts to the establishment, from a priest clothing his quivering girlfriend in the blue mantle of the virgin Mary (just for kinks), to an autistic wild child ripping a catechism to pieces, to assignations made inside the confessional (the sinner asks the priest to confess!). Did I mention the old crone who feeds a communion host to her cat, or the corpulent naked bishop climbing into his tub while arranging an excommunication by cellphone, or the liberation theologian who supports freedom-fighting guerrillas in the hills, not far from the jungle abortion clinic? Gael Garcia Bernal, certified heart-throb of Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien, was born to be a leading man, and his sensual good looks make palatable the young priest’s many dubious actions as a soldier in the army of the church establishment. They also don’t hurt when he meets the mini-skirted jailbait who is devoted to god yet worried about being “very sensual.” With dangerous power struggles between drug lords, and a no-illusions portrayal of society couched in salty language, plus relationships straining until they break out in decisive confrontations, this accumulates the intensity of The Sopranos. What with millions of people buying tickets to this movie, and the world talking about the church exposés in My Mother’s Smile and Peter Mullan’s controversial The Magdalene Sisters, not to mention the altar boy scandals sweeping across the United States, the Vatican these days must seem like hell on earth.
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Retrospectives included two screenings of Harold Lloyd’s rarely seen silent Speedy, with a live appearance by the Alloy Orchestra, plus Lloyd’s daughter as guest of honor, all the more so since she brought along restored copies of the comedian’s home movies. In addition, local critic Jonathan Rosenbaum dipped into studio vaults and pulled out Al Jolson in the 1933 Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, Roger Ebert chose to showcase Kurosawa’s timeless classic Ikiru, but Michael Wilmington presented Bertrand Tavernier’s new Safe Conduct (Laissez-Passer) which nevertheless harkens to the past by treating the unique problems faced by French filmmakers during the resistance to the Nazi occupation.
When the projectors stopped, the competition jury (including British critic John Russell Taylor) awarded the Golden Hugo for Best Film to Madame Sata, while the Silver Hugo for Best Director went to Germany’s Andreas Dresen for his improvisational Grill Point (Halbe Treppe), with a Special Jury Prize to Divine Intervention. This year’s Fipresci Prize for best first or second feature was given to El Bonaerense. Another jury (including The Onion’s Scott Tobias) chose Rob Fruchtman and Rebecca Cammisa’s tough-talking Sister Helen as the best documentary feature, and the audience favorite turned out to be Michael Moore’s cheeky Bowling for Columbine. An array of additional awards and jury comments are detailed here.