Doing the Continental
At the best of times (i.e., not now), the cinematic expressions of Europe and the Americas would flow freely past national borders, making a festival of new works from the countries of the European Union superfluous. In reality, the movement seems to go mostly one way, with Hollywood pushing our products across the pond but pulling back only a sliver of what’s available in Europe. It took the combined efforts of most of the continent’s consulates and institutes with a presence in Chicago, as well as the city’s invaluable Gene Siskel Film Center, to bring together 43 new or hitherto overlooked films from the various homelands, which premiered in a noncompetitive showcase to appreciative audiences.
Among the best received films were Pete Travis’s Omagh (Ireland), Martin Koolhoven’s South/Het Zuiden (Netherlands), and Paolo Virzi’s Caterina in the City (Caterina Va in Città) (Italy). Ten more worthy selections are covered below.
With winning merriment and generous clips, Frédéric Sojcher’s Born to Film (Cinéastes à Tout Prix) explores the oeuvre of three Belgian pioneers of outsider cinema (the U.S. counterpart might be Chris Smith’s American Movie). These dime-store DeMilles practice a cinema that’s home-made and a hundred percent hands-on. The 78-year-old Max Naveaux, for one, even develops all his own films in equipment he himself invented. Hiding behind no fig leaf of intellectual experimentation, Naveaux vigorously mines his beloved war film genre in such unsung and largely unseen features as Hell Patrol and Maquis Contra Gestapo. For his part, retired economics prof Jacques Hardy favors cut-rate spectacles like César Barbarius in Southern Belgium that make ample use of horned Viking helmets, with fantasy scenes where strands of spaghetti rise sinuously off the plate and erotic harem dreams recall the fanciful 8mm extravaganzas of America’s Kuchar brothers. The third auteur, who insists on taking the name of populist philosopher and foe of governmental restraints Jean-Jacques Rousseau (only “without the hyphen!”), appears throughout clad in black leather, his face concealed behind a ski mask (above). In his prodigious output of 34 features (so far), “Rousseau” applies his absurdist aesthetic to a political agenda (in his The Gulag of Terror, for example, communists defeat the Nazis), but Spielberg had better stay on guard because Rousseau declares a state of war against American action films, and has even devised a theme song for the struggle (to the tune of “The Internationale”). The film follows these three veterans of DYI filmmaking as they revisit old locations (including the red-light district of Liège) and reassemble their past actors and crews (who are every bit as quirky as the directors, with a surprising number recounting tales of defying their families, who discouraged or suppressed their film aspirations). One of the secondary players says it’s good that Rousseau resisted the suicidal impulse to throw himself down a quarry when “there are so many other pain-in-the-ass filmmakers.”
Portugal, S.A. (Americans would say Portugal, Inc.) uses a sensational telenovela format seething with sex and blackmail to expose the chicanery of the ruthless power brokers who vie for the spoils of the “free market.” These include bankers, journalists, clerics, and the government officials who serve them. Longtime Brazilian leftist Ruy Guerra, a founding father of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, musters little idealism about religion (“Priests earn their living listening to poor people’s complaints so they can pass them on to the rich”), but stops just short of implicating the story’s priest character in the bed-hopping, leaving him the task of interjecting Machiavelli’s maxims about power. Any romantic idealism the public might invest in their government representatives blisters away in the heat of raging venality and total self-interest on display here, though Guerra saves especially pointed barbs for Portuguese financial sharks who run for refuge to Brazil every time the law turns against them. Sharply lensed in convincingly glittering corridors of power, a world where sleek Jaguars and Mercedes whisk the players to their strategic liaisons, this film seems unthinkable in terms of American (or Australian or British) politics. It would require a West Wing that brings to the surface all the administration’s secret corporate interests, excising none of the greed or corruption, to match both Guerra’s nerve and his achievement here.
In Millions, maverick director Danny Boyle forsakes the marauding zombies of his surprise hit 28 Days Later, turning to hirsute medieval saints who visit a wide-eyed suburban youngster. Instead of the digital video grunge suitable for his horror film, Boyle builds a fairy-tale ambience with the dynamic comic-strip style he used in Shallow Grave, hyper-saturating the colors and sharply delineating the edges, then pinballing suddenly between extreme angles. The title exaggerates the contents of a mysterious bag flung from a passing train onto the boy’s cardboard box playhouse, but the parcel does contain several hundred thousand pounds, and there’s a deadline to spend it before the UK converts all cash to Euros. Some sequences, such as an extended school Nativity play and the child’s fantasy visitations from the great beyond, may well test the sucrose tolerance of some viewers, not helped by a hastily sketched villain and a last-minute rush to resolve the plot, but Boyle’s attention to the performance of pint-sized, freckled Alex Etel largely succeeds, and he manages to soft-pedal the tale’s New Age vapors, ending on a pleasing lesson that with wealth comes the responsibility to fund good works.
In the City (En la ciudad) opens with a young Barcelona couple waking up in bed, then visits another horizontal couple, then a third, with all these thirty-somethings grounded in their credibly realistic apartments throughout the Catalan capital. Without so much as a single touristic view, director Cesc Gay’s hometown looks vibrant and sophisticated, its colorful cafés an ideal setting for affairs to wax and wane and then reconfigure. Paying patient attention to his handful of urban yuppies, including a teacher warily involved with a perky underage student and a wife tempted to explore her same-sex impulses, the director sidesteps the twin pitfalls of hearts-and-flowers romanticizing and tidy moralizing, much as he succeeded doing in Nico and Dani. If emotions largely stay at room temperature, the clear-eyed Gay paints streaks of melancholy into the story as he pulls together the disparate narrative threads satisfyingly, defying reductive comparisons with Woody Allen (without the one-liners) or Rohmer (without the theorizing monologuists).
From France, trendy writer-director François Ozon offers 5 x 2, numerical shorthand for five key stretches in the ever-shifting relationship of two lovers, though it could just as well be called Promises, Promises. Famous for crafting cleverly artificial entertainments while infusing irony into established forms (most recently 8 Women and The Swimming Pool), the ever calculating Ozon trades in a kind of moral urgency sans direct moralizing. Instead of following partners as their marriage rusts into torpor, here the director begins at the end and jumps backward in time, giving his handsome couple crises of glamorous infidelity that involve much friction, both emotional and bodily, although the amatory activity blurs the line between a woman pressured into sex and one victimized.
Adding two parallel couples for contrast — a May-September gay pair who enjoy an open liaison and the heroine’s inveterately bickering yet tender parents — Ozon seems to argue that men are irresponsible dogs but women can stray too, and sometimes it’s best not to know too much or to dig too deeply. Whatever message he intended, one could just as easily conclude that an Italiana should never marry a Frenchman.
With backwards narratives becoming almost as popular as explicit sex in arthouse films (it’s a way to wrench a happy ending out of downbeat material), how soon before the two trends combine, starting with the post-coital cigarette and working back to the opening pickup line? Still, the reverse storytelling seemed more meaningful when Gaspar Noé pushed it from extreme brutality to blissful optimism in Irréversible (though Noé is nearly as humorless as Ozon).
Catherine Deneuve once famously said, “I am not sure whether Ozon likes women, but he likes actresses,” and he proves it here, elevating the tousled and voluptuous Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi to an icon of generous but vulnerable and wounded womanhood (although a scene where she reads a bedtime story to her young son evokes more magic than all the Mars-Venus tumult). With his precise framing and an evocative soundtrack of melancholy Italian pop songs, Ozon also supplies highly concrete detail (all the legal strictures for both marriage and divorce are reviewed for us with clinical detachment). Whether he intends it or not, this narrative of good-looking people both at odds and at play naturally positions itself as a high-class date movie, provocatively bittersweet and complete with stylish ellipses to fuel post-show dinner conversation.
When a yuppie Audi salesman, speeding through the German countryside, drops his cell phone, his eyes leave the road just long enough for his car to strike a child. That happens in the first five minutes of Wolfsburg, but after he instinctively flees the scene, the rest of the movie follows how his guilt burgeons until it crowds out everything else from his life. He rehearses a confession but several attempts to tell the truth get foiled by timing and circumstance, so he’s left nursing his secret moment of cowardice while he covertly tries to help the child’s mother. His hidden crime both motivates and defines their growing relationship as it moves to a physical conclusion, though only one of them understands their roles as offender and victim. Softening the schematic plot of man-caught-in-the-gears-of-fate, writer-director Christian Petzold steers his protagonist (blue-eyed Benno Fürmann) toward an almost romantic abandon while at the same time complicating our understanding of the woman, a maintenance drudge in a soulless food packing factory. The influence of Harun Farocki, Berlin-based film-essayist and critic of consumer culture (and Petzold’s teacher and occasional collaborator), may account for the formal compositions, the use of surveillance camera footage from specific workplace environments, and some rueful humor as well.
The Best of Youth (La Meglio Gioventu) could constitute a film festival all by itself, given its six hours running time. This big screen release of a 2003 TV mini-series lurches through the last 40 years or so of modern Italian life, but instead of plunging headlong into the passions of history, director Marco Tullio Giordana hesitantly dips a toe in the turbulent waters and hopes for the best, committing only to earnestly uncontroversial positions (pollution is bad, and so is abusive treatment in mental institutions), thus achieving the kind of Forrest Gump-like detachment that comes from watching events on TV rather than living them.
The underwritten script delivers exposition largely via postcards and letters, deployed with the subtlety of a brick through the window (to move from one arbitrary encounter to another, one character inexplicably writes, “I think I’ll get a job at a local sawmill” and then does). Glimmers of personal filmmaking, perhaps from an earlier version of the story, occasionally peep through the smoothly staged but often disappointingly pedestrian surface, notably in one professor’s vivid rant (“If you have any ambition, leave Italy while you can”) and an engaging encounter with a beehive-haired roadside prostitute who parks her gum on the wall while she plies her trade in a chicken coop.
Not entirely predictable, the saga of two brothers who take divergent paths certainly has effective moments, but relies heavily on brooding, meaningful stares by the actors, not least from Alessio Boni as the tightly wound Clint Eastwood look-alike who turns right-wing. What’s more troubling is the perception that Giordana and his screenwriters somehow address life’s political dimension. In fact, the scenario visibly strains to encompass the mafia, the Red Brigades, and corporate malfeasance, with historical events turned into clichés (the disastrous inundation that almost destroyed Florence cues sad flood music and an opportunity for male bonding). The film spends half its considerable running time punishing the sole person who actually challenges the status quo (although the wealthiest character says he dreams of “transparent banks”).
In the final scene, with its principals safely settled in gentrified comfort, the film concludes that “Everything is truly beautiful,” thus echoing both the title and selective uplift of Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust hit; that’s when we feel the vise-like grip of the leisured but starry-eyed middlebrow, a combination all too familiar from daytime television.
Now that Dogme 95 has officially closed its doors as a marketing hook, Denmark’s Susanne Bier is free to aestheticize her grainy DV photography, producing some remarkably handsome color-smeared images in Brothers (Brødre). As in her début film, Open Hearts, she delves beneath the imminent melodrama to study the unexpected paths taken when relationships develop or fail to develop. Contrasting the mist-sodden Danish landscape against the dust-clotted, rock-strewn Afghan desert, the story follows the titular siblings, one a military man, the other a volatile bad boy just released from a stint in prison for assaulting a woman, as the good brother and the bad one gradually exchange roles. A simple but stunningly shot helicopter crash, yielding roiling clouds of black smoke, leads to a heart-shriveling act of horror; one brother then proceeds to displace his anger onto his family, ending in a tear-the-cabinets-off-the-walls rampage. Writer-director Bier builds intensity with ultra close-ups as she charts the nuances and textures of moral failure, all distinctively acted by the always impressive Connie Neilsen and especially Ulrich Thomson, who negotiates the chasm between cheerful family man and tormented outcast of the Taliban.
Click here for the review of Not on the Lips.
As a kind of inventory on the State of the European Union, the portmanteau film Visions of Europe pulls together five-minute shorts representing all 25 nations in this new economic entity. No one expects one unified voice to emerge from the gaggle of languages and cultures yoked together here, but judging from this film, the future bodes ill for artistic collaboration in the EU. Even the bigger name directors stumble, with Peter Greenaway designing a pessimistic vision of corpulent nudes, with their national flags painted onto their bodies, crowding each other out under the dwindling spray of an overhead shower. No better is Jan Troell’s laborious satire of animals being plastic-tagged as property, nor the effort from German-Turkish wunderkind Fatih Akin (currently in the spotlight for Head On) who essays an unconvincing musicale alternating Schumann and electronica, while the sophomoric antics concocted by Dutch bad boy Theo Van Gogh barely amount to an unfunny comedy skit. Immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are regarded as a problem in diverse episodes from Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Austria, the best being Romany auteur Tony Gatlif’s anecdote of Africans smuggled into Paris, one of the few optimistic visions here and a satisfyingly complete narrative in its short running time. Béla Tarr moves a grainy tracking shot across the pore-intensive frowns of his fellow Hungarians marking time in an endless queue, but most striking is a copper-colored forest meditation by Lithuania’s Sharunas Bartas, where a fragile paper boat sails metaphorically over the edge of a waterfall yet bobs bravely back to the surface to float another day.