A sampling of the best of the fest’s international offerings
Among the many strengths of this year’s American Film Institute Festival was a relatively new internationalism and, considering their venue, a relatively sharp focus on movies rather than celebrity. That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of klieg lights, velvet ropes, and personalities swanning about for the paparazzi, but, all things considered, the pomp didn’t overshadow the movies. As our world shrinks to more real proportions, perhaps there will be more room for so-called small films. The AFI organizers and juries appear to be moving in the right direction, something of a minor miracle in a city where “the Industry” is virtually a life force. The 2008 AFI fest included some 106 features and 48 shorts from 38 countries. I saw only a fraction of the full 154, purposely skipping the most mainstream entries. Below are a handful of favorites, which should make their way to DVD, if not to a theater near you.
Alexandra Westmeier’s documentary Alone in Four Walls is set inside a Russian youth detention center in a desolate section of the Urals. The boys, many under 12, are doing time for felonies; most for thieving, but there are a fair number of murderers too, including one of the most personable of Westmeier’s subjects. The inmates keep to a strict course of lessons, exercise, chores, and hobbies, with not a moment to themselves even at night, their regimented cots occupying several large rooms. Despite their 90 percent recidivism rate, the center offers a last chance at some kind of rehabilitation, even at a scrap of childhood. Westmeier spent a great deal of time with the boys; her interviews are often the first time anyone has bothered to find out what they were thinking. For many, this is a respite. They are disarmingly candid, mixing shame and giddiness in their responses as they evince a confused awareness of their slim chance of a decent life. The fluid, wide-angle cinematography fosters intimacy without invading the boys’ privacy. It conveys a liveliness they still retain, despite their generally flat affect. As one child explains, no one is yelling at them or hitting them and the food is better than at home. They speak directly to the camera, yet it never feels like talking heads or a video diary. They freely confide, obviously elated to have some outlet. Westmeier first came to the facility on a news assignment, and was compelled to return by the boys’ stated preference for life inside to life at home. The few parents she interviews offer ample evidence that even incarceration beats life with them. Though each of the boys interviewed emerges as an individual and the film is specific to Russia, Alone in Four Walls unquestionably has parallels to America and elsewhere.
Playing Columbine, directed by Danny Ledonne, traces the troubled history of Super Columbine Massacre RPG, a game Ledonne invented. I’m strictly an arm’s-length observer of the gaming world, and I admit to great skepticism before I screened Ledonne’s film. However, according to statistics he quotes, some 75 million Americans will be between 10 and 30 by 2010, and they all will have grown up with video games. As a cultural touchstone, these games arguably already outstrip the other arts, movies and music included. Ledonne, who was in 10th grade at a nearby Colorado high school at the time of the Columbine shootings, constructed his game as an art piece, forwarding it to 20 friends. He tried to convey the “sad and lonely” feeling the boys had, how “alone they felt preparing to do this.” He sought to expose details glossed over in the most familiar news reports. If only as a reflection of what was not reported in the story, the game was valuable, but Ledonne also found that people reacted very strongly to playing. The point of the game is to win, but it’s “dissociative,” since winning equals the most murders. The game ran into myriad problems, in particular with Slamdance, where it was subject to stringent censoring and finally removed from competition, despite earning first prize. The game’s notorious history has largely to do with assumptions made by people who have never played it, or have fixed ideas about what games are. Whereas news reports allowed viewers to sit in judgment, Ledonne’s game makes viewers complicit. Though over-detailed and overlong, Playing Columbine posed crucial questions about the gaming medium as a tool for communication and for art.
In Revanche, written and directed by Götz Spielmann, a bungled attempt to stop a robbery brings the most unlikely characters together in what feels surprisingly like fate. Secret lovers middle-aged Alex (Johannes Kirsch) and twentyish Tamara (Irina Potapenko) both work for a Vienna red-light district boss, he as an errand boy, she as a prostitute. Alex hatches a plan to rob a small town bank to fund their escape. Waiting for Alex in the car, Tamara raises the suspicions of local cop Robert (Andreas Lust), who takes an uncharacteristically bold shot as they pull away, killing Tamara. Abandoning Tamara’s body and the car, Alex takes refuge with his grandfather, not realizing that Robert and his wife live nearby. Alex’s life is shaped by violence, yet for most of Revanche Spielmann puts him in a pastoral, seemingly peaceful landscape. The purely visual contrast between, say, the flimsy, cheap rooms Alex and Tamara pass through and the undeveloped, timeless fields and forests around his grandfather’s place elegantly convey Alex’s ambivalence, the tawdry a backdrop for his happiest moments, the elemental, apparently unchanging setting a goad to his fury. The spare dialogue underlines the intense desperation each of the characters feels. Readers of Spielmann’s fellow Austrian Thomas Bernhard will recognize what I assume are direct references, such as when Alex busies himself cutting at least a cord of wood, surely a riff on Bernhard’s Holzfallen (Wood Cutters), the title (wood cutting, more precisely) also an Austrian term for acid criticism. In this complex film, repetitive sounds, such as birdsong or the whine of the band saw, replace nearly all music. Alex’s split between the need for harmony and reconciliation and his desire for rage and revenge drives, to varying degrees, all the other characters also. Spielmann opens his film with a long, unpeopled shot of a small lake flanked by woods, an image that haunts every frame that follows. By risking convenient coincidence and resisting a tidy finish, Spielmann elevates these quite ordinary characters into the realms of tragedy and myth.
Like his other films, Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale merrily defies easy summation. (And there was an immediate basis for comparison, since the AFI honored him with a retrospective.) As a matriarch of a large family diagnosed with cancer, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) propels the action. Her cancer is a problem only a compatible family donor can perhaps solve. Deneuve perfectly conveys a certain detachment, an ability to see this not so much in terms of her mortality, but rather as a problem her offspring must help her solve. Among her three adult children (one also died young, from the same wasting disease she has), only Henri (Mathieu Amalric), with whom she has the most ambivalent relationship, is a genetic match. Complicating matters are the other two, Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny), who banished Henri from family gatherings several years before, and Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), the eternal peacemaker. Assorted spouses, children, and patriarch Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) add to the mix, with no one behaving predictably or ever quite as they should. Snatches of the film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are seen, Shakespeare’s comedy providing a loose analogy with the spats, couplings, and lost illusions of A Christmas Tale. The film pulls no punches about the nasty surprises bodies can spring on any of us. It also digs deep into parental ambivalence such as when Juno describes her dead child’s abbreviated life: “all he did was die,” or, in a key scene, when she and Henri discuss his willingness to save her life. Sticking close to his subjects as they move around a house teeming with photographs and personal mementos, Desplechin manages to convey a great deal of the emotional riptide that is a far more common experience of family holidays than the saccharine tsunami generally on offer in conventional Yuletide fare. A Christmas Tale shows him in excellent form.
In Hunger, a chronicle of Irish nationalist Bobby Sands’ 66-day hunger strike in 1981, first-time director Steve McQueen tackles the similarly unpromising conventions of the biopic to startling effect. The film has a simple, clean look, the shots less composed than pared down to absolute necessities. Visually, the film never stops reminding you that this is life reduced to its rudiments. But the film succeeds nearly as well as a sound piece, from its meticulous recording of prison life to the use of Margaret Thatcher’s voice making its facile declarations. McQueen has an Italian Renaissance painter’s feel for the particular beauty of suffering, or rather, suffering made into art. The film turns on an extended conversation on the meaning of a life between Sands (fantastically embodied by Michael Fassbender) and Father Dominic Moran (the excellent Liam Cunningham), a riskily prolonged exchange shot in what looks like the natural light of a prison visiting room. McQueen uses the meager setting to emphasize the men’s remove from the workaday world; prison becomes a kind of philosophical testing ground, even as we know what the outcome will be. When he later includes Sands’ remembered scenes of childhood runs in a forest, they feel of a piece rather than supplemental. McQueen conveys Sands’ mental strength and its ability to vanquish the physical reality in which he found himself. Yet there is no redemptive moment. Instead, Hunger shows a reckoning in constant flux, leaving us to draw not only our own conclusions but also contemporary parallels.
Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah concerns itself with incarceration by other means. Various levels of corruption in Naples connect six narrative strands, each with a direct link to the city’s Camorra mafia, whose network encompasses all of Italy and beyond. Death is everywhere in Gomorrah, from an opening massacre to the ant-farm-like housing projects in which most of the Camorra workers, among them children and women, live. Frequent raids and skirmishes, some with the police, mean that even coming out of your apartment is a gamble. Based on the novel by Roberto Saviano, a Neapolitan who put in careful, often life-threatening research, Gomorrah leaves no aspect of the Camorra domain unexamined. The film snakes from the street level, where children perform many of the courier tasks, to the externally respectable businessmen who legitimize large-scale operations such as toxic waste dumps. Gomorrah shows a with-us or against-us world. Harshness and brutality infect every frame of this film, a bitter antidote to the familiar bella Italia images to which Hollywood and much of Italian cinema gravitates. Though specific to Naples, Gomorrah is also a dossier on the failings of the various incarnations of Berlusconi (currently in his fourth go at prime minister), as toxic a politician for the beleaguered peninsula as Team Bush was for the United States.
Finally, there was Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool, a startling and demanding film that puts this Argentine director at the forefront of the most chancy current cinema. Farrel (Juan Fernandez), a merchant marine in his late forties, takes advantage of a few days in port to make the trek to his town deep in snowy Tierra del Fuego. With vodka his only steady companion, he hitches and walks to the cluster of buildings surrounding an old saw mill that he apparently called home where even indoors looks cold. This is less a town than an outpost. Aside from his bedridden, non-speaking mother, he finds his twentyish daughter, who is even less enthusiastic about him than he is about her. What would be key turning points in a conventional film are virtually asides here. Alonso uses ordinariness as his center (there are echoes of Chantal Akerman), with the traditionally dramatic marginalized, sometimes simply left out. Detail fills in for representation. You can, for example, nearly smell the closeness of Fernandez’s cramped, neon-lit cabin, where socks dry on a dangling line amidst pin-ups, over a tangle of bedclothes. With his body, Fernandez expresses all the hesitations and feints of a life spent avoiding reality. What little dialogue there is offers almost no exposition. With his weary gait and stricken face, Fernandez musters a subtle, interior projection, more manifestation than performance. Alonso has affinities with Bela Tarr, but even more with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s chronicles of male despair and failure. Fernandez is often a speck in a spectacular, unwelcoming landscape, a surprisingly effective means to show the (unnamed) thoughts that torment him, summed up with dark humor by the talisman that gives the film its title. Alonso spent many months on location, which gives Liverpool a localness. The film’s washed-out look captures the oppressiveness of small lives lived in large spaces. Even the indoor scenes look cold, and the town feels like the end of the world. I mention the other filmmakers simply by way of reference: Lisandro Alonso more than holds his own in their company. The AFI jury did their festival a daring favor by including Liverpool, which seems a good portent for bolder choices in the future.