The crowd has a thousand eyes
The words come from Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang, referencing his unique tribute to the cinema in Goodbye Dragon Inn, but any film festival supplies an occasion for moviegoers to gather in the darkness once more in a new community.
For the 39th time, the Chicago International Film Festival cemented its reputation as the cornerstone of the cinematic year by unreeling over 100 new features and numerous shorts from 43 countries, and spectators did their part by flocking to buy tickets for all manner of film rarities. Even the weather helped by gracing the event with autumnal sunshine and balmy Indian summer breezes, no small matter when arctic winds could quickly turn the city into a frozen Alphaville, capital of pain.
Filmmakers, both veterans and newcomers, arrived to shop their newly minted masterworks and to hobnob with their audiences, who rubbernecked to spot the more visible luminaries such as Anthony Hopkins, Campbell Scott, Tsai Ming-liang, and Peter Greenaway, while Robert Downey Jr., Taye Diggs, and Robert Benton deplaned to pick up career achievement awards.
With such a variety of entries, each representing a different strain of cinema, it’s misguided to search for consistent themes, yet many of the choices below somehow revolve around absent fathers but conclude with individuals hoping to turn disasters into new beginnings. From the festival’s embarrassment of riches, the following 14 films proved rewarding as upwellings from the collective unconscious of cinema.
Has any film introduced its heroine with more beautiful imagery than South Korea’s Oasis? Here, a snow-white dove darts into a tenement window and flutters through the rooms, but a sudden cut reveals that the bird’s movements are actually reflections of light dancing on the ceiling. Then, when the camera angles toward the source of the light, we see the heroine sprawled on the floor, trying to manipulate the mirror in her clenched, spasming hands, unable to walk from cerebral palsy. Penetrating beneath the surface limitations that control her physical state, director Lee Chang-dong edits to connect us directly to the woman’s thirst for beauty. The hero’s problems, apart from his recent stint in prison, include a mental deficit, but Lee boldly roots us in his head, winning the audience’s total identification with the wiry youth’s quest for human connection, his survivor’s intelligence pulsing with a young man’s hormones, never mind his inappropriate behavior and sometimes poor choices. The sharp, achingly intelligent Oasis became South Korea’s top box office hit, perhaps because it reimagines the cinema love story in an unsettling new form, complete with its own love song. These lovers live with deficits that become prisons, turning simple actions into agonizing impossibilities, where even slamming a wheelchair into a wall does not communicate its message, and where sawing down the branches of a tree can become an obliquely touching expression of love. With its muscular camerawork, the film also casts an unblinking eye on the embarrassment of the abled, and the ways families can exploit the disabled. Plot twists ultimately reveal unexpected layers of meaning in seemingly transparent events, which then ripple and grow in the mind with reflections on communication, criminal guilt, and the abuse of the defenseless. Putting aside the tricky time/memory structure of his Peppermint Candy, Lee again guides the stars of that powerful film, Sol Kyung-gu and Moon So-ri, into boldly original work that keeps us nailed in our seats. Now that this director has taken office as South Korea’s Minister of Culture, will his country flower with cinematic blooms?
A scrawny mouse struggling to free itself from a strip of sticky paper becomes a metaphor for both protagonists of Distant (Uzak), two cousins who enact a country mouse/city mouse polarity while trapped in their own circumstances. One is a lean, languid, fastidious photographer accustomed to indulging his refined tastes (his intellectual friends squabble over Tarkovsky). The other is a young village man laid off when the local factory closes, leaving him only with a desire to see the world and a responsibility to send home money. Snowy vistas of Istanbul alternate with stunning Anatolian landscapes as attention shifts from one man to the other. The photographer pursues his career, reluctantly tends his ailing mother, and still more reluctantly faces up to his own shortcomings. Meanwhile, the cousin’s goal of a seafaring life proves to be a pipe-dream, as wrecked as the massive ship on its side that forms one splendid image, while he longs to connect with a woman yet cannot make a decisive move. With no dialogue at all for the opening 15 minutes, and much natural sound thereafter, including wind-chimes tinkling and discreet passages of Bach, director Nuri Bilge Ceylan lets the contrasts between the men build, leaving Turkey’s economic downturn as simply a jumping-off point to trace the nuances of alienation in his characters. Eventually, personal frustrations boil over in the arena of sharing the photographer’s sterile electronics-filled apartment, with the camera moving into intense close-ups to support the sincere, thoughtful performances of the two stars, who shared the Best Actor prize at Cannes. Despite the polished photography, playing with shallow focus to divide visual planes, the epic widescreen seems too expansive for the two self-absorbed characters, while the emotional content eventually thins out as both men prove too tactful for blunt confrontations. When Ceylan withholds details about how the intellectual contributed to the failure of his marriage, or about what provoked the villager’s final decision, this ellipsis may seem modish and sophisticated, but life and meaning live in those details. Considering that the film won the Grand Prize at Cannes, its concluding image of loneliness — the cold sea splashing across the stormy waterfront with Angelopoulos-like drama — falls somewhat short of the intended resonance.
The magnificently civilized A Talking Picture more than keeps the promise of its title, proceeding via a stream of cultivated discussion of history, largely through the person of an elegant history professor from Lisbon University who is taking her seven-year-old daughter on a cruise through the magical ports of call that established civilization on the Mediterranean. Like Vasco da Gama, they are two Portuguese seafarers, and with the same destination of India, to meet her husband, an airline pilot. Both teacher and mother, answering the child’s questions she becomes the vehicle for Portuguese auteur Manoel De Oliveira to reconsider first principles: What does civilization mean? What’s a myth? Why are people so wicked? What do we mean by “nature”? What’s a mosque? From the Acropolis to the pyramids at Giza to a market in Aden, the golden sunlight illuminates the discussion, while the director notes mysterious correspondences: a dog pulled on a leash in Marseilles is mirrored by a similar figure in a mosaic in Pompeii. It wouldn’t be a De Oliveira movie without performance elements, so a majestic shot introduces the Greek theater where Antigone and Medea first played, and later Irene Papas performs a folk song for the passengers aboard ship. At the captain’s table, John Malkovich speaks in English, Catherine Deneuve in French, Stefania Sandrelli in Italian, and Irene Papas in Greek, with the conceit being that they all understand each other (and even remark on the fact). Love, women, politics, and language are the topics, presided over by Malkovich, who is surely the most effete sea-captain known to cinema. Those seeking an eventful narrative must wait for the final ten minutes, where the writer-director deviously changes course and convulses expectations, casting an entirely new context for the hundred minutes that have gone before, but only a 94-year-old director could get away with ending on such a supremely audacious note.
A Thousand Months (Mille Mois) revisits a particular moment in Morocco’s history, the entire month of Ramadan in 1981, just before fundamentalism took root throughout the Muslim world, when young women could still wear short skirts. Director Faouzi Bensaidi concentrates not on the hardships of fasting but on the struggle for survival in a mountain village, at a troubled time of ruinous drought, government repression, and punishing labor that has already driven one villager mad. At the center of attention is a little boy, a reluctant teacher’s pet who has to tote the instructor’s chair to school every day, carrying on his head the full weight of this symbol of civil authority. Used as a go-between by his smitten schoolteacher, the boy has to deliver (and recite) love letters that voice sentiments like “Next to you, other women look like hairy apes.” The boy’s father has been imprisoned (without trial) as a militant, but his mother and grandfather maintain the fiction that he is working in France. The village’s free spirit, the qaid’s progressive daughter, wears blue jeans and make-up, smokes cigarettes, leads student demonstrations, and seems a touchstone of integrity. Controlling the means of communication becomes a concern, as the engineer who runs local TV transmission cuts off a popular soap opera for the entire village, except for his beloved’s house so that only she will know how it ends. The boy’s performance, whether playacting at martial arts postures after seeing a Bruce Lee movie, or realizing in one piercing epiphany of mortality that “I’m going to die!”, betrays not the slightest self-consciousness. Bensaidi’s historical perspective functions as a shield that permits a scene where the boy, annoyed by a madrasa-student who won’t stop reciting the Koran, proceeds to beat him on the head. Similarly, when guards forbid a prison visit, the wife’s protests are met with physical intimidation and bruises, and we later see her succumbing to despair as she lets a band of beggars snatch away her money. Whatever pressures constrained the director, the film does seem insufficiently shaped, with the tone wobbling from vignette to vignette among elements that could just as soon turn comic as tragic. Then, when an extended wedding party turns disastrous with drunken revelry, with frustrations vented, secrets uncovered, and ending in suicide and flames, a strikingly composed shot sends a horseman riding through the flames as the wedding tent burns and falls apart before our eyes.
The jazz runs hot in the delightful opening of The Triplets of Belleville, a retro variety show of mid-1930s stars, who perform for all the swells at the Swinging Belleville Rendezvous nitery. Django Reinhardt strums his guitar with one hand and one foot, Josephine Baker wiggles her famous skirt of bananas, which are plucked off by a band of lewd monkeys, and Fred Astaire gets attacked and devoured by his own dancing shoes. But the top act is the eponymous Triplets, sister divas who sing and swing with tireless exhilaration. These three parallel another trio of endearing characters: France’s most unconditionally supportive grandmother, her orphaned grandson training for the Tour de France, and Bruno, their ungainly, slobbering, lovable dog. When nefarious gangsters kidnap the cyclist, it’s Granny and Bruno to the rescue as they pursue the culprits across the ocean to a megametropolis called Dogville ….errr… .Belleville. You might recognize the place from the roly-poly Statue of Liberty standing in its harbor, or from the tubby citizens who survive on hamburgers as their staple food (even the infants are shaped like Botero figures). The now aged Triplets live as confirmed eccentrics, subsisting on a diet of frogs, in a vividly drawn tenement amidst inexplicable treasures like a bagpipe and a row of chubby Academy Awards, but retain undiminished enthusiasm for their art. Together with grandmère, they conspire to liberate the nephew from a life of slavery hidden behind the official facade of the French Wine Center. With beguiling wit, the movie proceeds to supply everything one requires in the cinema: speed, music, fireworks, sports, explosions, humor, and spectacle (including a stunningly detailed “perfect storm” sequence), yet still finding room for both Jacques Tati and Canadian piano icon Glenn Gould. The brainchild of Sylvain Chomet, this smash hit in France involved years of animation work in Brussels, Montreal, Paris, and Riga (Latvia), to chart a third course: not the prettified faces and chipper moral lessons of Disney, not the sub-adolescent focus and arbitrary spectacle of animé, but a bravura mix of 3D computer graphics styled with the flair of different artists, from the pulp newsprint orange and green of Tintin comics to the watercolor-washed inkings of Edward Sorel. In no way identikit Disney — in fact, one of the villainous henchmen sports ears that look suspiciously Mousketeeresque — the bracingly droll satire takes sardonic potshots at a target-rich world. While good-naturedly poking US-stereotypes in the ribs, Chomet saves special relish for mocking France’s national foibles and enthusiasms, not to mention the typical Gallic physiognomy, from the grandson’s shark’s fin of a nose, to a van driver’s squashed onion head, honking red nose, and perpetual cigarette stub. Not least of the joys here is the snappy music, including a song in Portuguese and even a witty mock-theramin passage to accompany a doggy nightmare. Gallophiles will treasure touches like the Tour de France’s official chanteuse who is called “la Fée de l’Accordion”, while Gallophobes in the end may want to emulate General De Gaulle and kiss auteur Chomet on both cheeks.
Fans of Alexander Sokurov will not be surprised by the occasional stylized dreamscapes in Father and Son, with their filtered light bending in distorting mirrors, or by allusively religious dialogue like “A loving son lets himself be crucified”. Creating the same trance-like intensity as the director’s haunting Mother and Son (soon to be joined by a third title in a family trilogy), this new film evokes the same sense of love isolated in a private poetic world. Here a rooftop becomes the privileged space where the title duo work out their charged relationship in a series of baiting challenges and insistent provocations, a tug of war not for dominance but separation and independence. Combative action and feverish intimacy continue at the son’s military academy, where blond recruits push body against body in testosterone-fueled games. Playing with the dangers of instability and the risks of heights, the director stages movement and even fights on a plank casually thrown between two windows over an abyss. If Sokurov made the world hold its breath throughout the 95-minute unbroken shot of Russian Ark, here the director fissures a scene where the son’s mistress ends their affair, citing a liaison with a new lover, with dynamic montage of overlapping cuts. Embarrassment about this film’s humid intimations of incest apparently inspired the cold shoulder shown it by critics at Cannes. While Sokurov chided them for being out of touch with physicality, the erotic signposts are unmistakable: two hunky males, one twenty years older but hardly believable as such, soulfully gazing into each others’ eyes in long intense close-ups. The very opening has the men’s muscular arms entwine during a turbulent, disturbing dream, but later when a third character arrives in search of his father who disappeared, he can only briefly penetrate the household. With all its poetic refinements — its arresting images shot in locations in both Russia and Lisbon, full of discreet underexposure and overexposure in buttery sunlight, all underscored with wisps of Tchaikowsky and inventive electronics — Sokurov’s film cannot be reduced to its sexual meaning, but the heavy-breathing claustrophobia belongs to the Cocteau of Les Parents Terribles.
Sexual Dependency sets out to indict machismo on two continents, from the forced frolics of spoiled rich kids in Bolivia to the homoerotic jock-play of drunken frat boys in upstate New York. Teen revelry is open 24 hours here, with a centerfold-ready cast of 15- to 17-year-olds burning pure adrenaline in crowded clubs, flashbulb-strobed fashion shows, and university theater stages. Sex, it turns out, is rather an ordeal, whether for the working-class schoolgirl (whose father threatens, “I’ll kill you if you get pregnant”), or the shy Colombian teenager pushed into a brothel backroom for his initiation to manhood, or a hunky underwear model who can’t own up to his same-sex attraction and so hangs around longingly in locker rooms. With few parental units in sight, the jailbait cast feel free to disrobe often, encouraged by director Rodrigo Bellott, who brings his cameras into a public shower to soap up alongside the football team. There’s no plot per se, just loosely connected characters in successive mini-dramas, each with its own title, but this nonlinear approach allows Bellott to double back, recycling earlier moments from a fresh viewpoint. The narrative complexity consistently exceeds the psychological insight, though, and then the movie brakes to a standstill for an extended monologue that involves an heirloom mirror, a dismembered Barbie doll, and a parking lot rape. At his best staging flashy scenes of kinetic movement, the energetic 24-year-old director tries to pump up visual interest by splitting the screen, the two frames showing different angles or occasionally counterpointed scenes, though less to pursue an experimental agenda than for sheer novelty. However admirable his intention to fuse North and South American cinema, the director is mostly shooting blanks with these vacuous delinquents.
In the opening moments of Time of the Wolf (Le Temps du Loup), a family arrives at their country cottage only to have their world of bourgeois security destroyed by a single shock cut and a single gunshot that kills the father. Some unspecified and unspoken darkness has fallen over the world (“Don’t you really know what’s going on, or are you just stupid?” asks the killer), allowing Austrian auteur Michael Haneke to pull at the skin of civilization that covers the western world, stripping it of electricity to plunge the characters into the same hellish conditions that prevail in postwar Iraq or much of the third world. Forced into a makeshift existence to survive in a new post-apocalyptic wolf-age, the mother (Isabelle Huppert) leads her two children in quest of safety and relief through the menacing backwater (she keeps asking about the city, seeking other urban dwellers). Enclosed in primal darkness and silence, they are reduced to primitively burning clumps of hay for some transient, flickering light or traveling by the light of bonfires that consume carcasses of cattle and sheep, dead from contaminated water. In images that are precise but not airless, cinematographer Jürgen Jürges — collaborator with Fassbinder and Wenders, as well as Haneke (Code Unknown) — provides memorably striking visuals: the pitch-black night stretches across the widescreen, extending the darkness of the theater onto the screen, relieved only when torches proceed along the top of the screen, or day dawns with an almost impenetrable veil of white smoke shrouding the countryside. With no power, movement ceases (even a bicycle has become useless: there is nowhere to go), and technology appears like the privilege it is for most of the world. Never romanticizing the mother’s emotional responses (in fact, others criticize her), Haneke soon shifts the film’s center away from the nominal star to the children, both in highly sensitive performances, and then outward to peripheral characters, probing at the human capacity for violence, until all humanity seems to be on trial. In extremis, people cannot help but reveal their essence as human beings, but thieves and control freaks have also survived, as have class divisions and bigotry. With dualities of dark and light, living and dead, Haneke’s cinema of anxiety builds an austere atmosphere of sensory deprivation where a few bars of music sound unbearably precious, yet for once this most unnerving director allows that charity and sacrifice are also realities. When the father’s presence resurfaces, suggesting a challenge to the finality of death, the finale mounts toward a gesture of hope and generosity from one stranger to another, before the powerfully enigmatic final tracking shot (but be forewarned that several animal deaths are depicted).
“It’s the cortisone,” says the doomed hero of Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold, to explain his lumbering bearlike body. This could be a memento of a wartime injury, for he is an army veteran, and “the medication slows him down,” according to his pickpocket colleague. When a robbery goes wrong near the beginning of the film, we see his death but rather than acting as a plot spoiler, this deepens the subsequent flashbacks, where he lives like the walking dead. As played by real-life paranoid schizophrenic Hossein Emadeddin, this pizza deliveryman, zooming his motorocycle around the traffic-clogged highways of Teheran at night, is a great creation. Perhaps it’s his puffy face and the dark shadows under his eyes, or maybe it’s his Thorazine shuffle and inability to summon any affect, but — consonant with Iranian film’s aesthetic of shunning emotional indulgence — his lack of emotive response (and Panahi’s impassive camera) forces us to dig below the surface to x-ray his actions and words. Funny when he pragmatically distributes unused pizza to some cops, humane when advising a 15-year-old soldier that he’s too young for the army, and patient when he politely asks his desperately chattering fiancée to ” Please stop talking,” he seems neither saintly nor childlike, and the director resists turning him into a clinical case. With no dramatic underlining to push our responses, the impact of each daily humiliation accumulates in our minds as we measure the man’s vulnerability. Dogged by social invisibility, he feels insulted at a jewelry store by the patrician owner (“He didn’t even look at us”), and he stands next to a wealthy playboy who tells his telephone caller “there’s no one here.” The creator of The White Balloon and The Circle, Panahi was famously arrested by American officials last year and held in chains for 16 hours at JFK Airport in New York for resisting Immigration personnel’s demands that he get a transit visa merely to change planes. Nor has he flourished in Iran, where homegrown cultural tyrants have banned this film, no suprise given its portrayal of repressive entrapment by police. Secretly staking out forbidden parties with young people, the police are shown wielding their power with irrational authoritarian aggression, arresting men and women as they leave, as well as parents arriving to pick up their children. The humanism of the torn-from-the-headlines script by Abbas Kiarostami, the director’s mentor, makes its point when the hero asks the young soldier what he does for fun: nervously looking around, the boy replies without irony, “What’s fun?” Lying in darkness in his modest room, his beefy torso overflowing his modest bed, the proletarian hero can only brood while outside another police raid rounds up more people who protest their innocence. What a contrast to the palatial penthouse duplex that he visits, with its fountains and pool, grand piano and balcony, a showcase of the glaring economic disparities within the Iranian theocracy. As the playboy freshly back from the U.S. keeps repeating, “This is a city of lunatics!”
André Téchiné’s Strayed (Les Egarés) opens with b/w footage of walls collapsing, then of horses stumbling and falling, tripping up horses behind them. It’s June 1940 and desperate evacuees from Paris, trucks piled high with their belongings, are in flight through the countryside. From the treetops, a tracking shot cranes down a line of vehicles until the camera stops on the anxious face of Emanuelle Béart. She is a schoolteacher, a widow trying to drive her son and daughter to safety, yet she refuses a ride to a pleading soldier (it’s “everyone for himself,” she explains). In the chaos of a Stuka attack on the refugees, they are joined by 17-year-old Yvan, a near-feral survivor who patrols the forest, looting corpses (“The living might as well have it”). The magical note is struck when he is introduced almost subliminally: first there were three people fleeing from the burning car, then there are four. He leads them into what we come to realize is an enchanted forest, away from the chaos of war and suspended in time, where the quartet set up housekeeping in a deserted manor house where the clocks have stopped. But why does Yvan cut the telephone lines and conceal a radio? He evades questions about his background, then his inability to read a wine bottle label reveals that he’s illiterate. No moralist, director Téchiné is interested in framing the unexpected relationships free of everyday constraints, in a fairy tale structure, not in judging them. The mother embodies the proper bourgeoise, mortified that she wet her skirt with fear, protective of her family, opposed to entering a stranger’s property, but no one listens to her. Not her tough-minded 13-year-old son (“You give us fine speeches but you do the opposite!”), nor her little daughter, who rejects a bedtime story, preferring to play with the boys. Unable to sleep and plagued with a recurrent nightmare when she does, Béart’s reserved schoolmistress succumbs to wine and lassitude, becoming a kind of Unsleeping Beauty. She barely rules in the home, but when she finds a revolver that Yvan has stolen, she buries it and refuses to tell him where (“Death scares me. I’m civilized”) for as long as they live together as a community. As master of the countryside, Yvan provides game and fish for food, and just as the possibility of a sexual relationship arises, two survivors from a doomed infantry regiment appear and proceed to restart the clocks. As Yvan’s concern about the gun takes on a new meaning, the film could veer down several different paths, but the development followed is sharp, sophisticated, and dark. Balancing the images of wartime dislocation and instability, Agnes Godard’s tracking camerawork moves freely through the radiant fields and forests brimming with summer abundance, but with the same tensile strength that she brought to Beau Travail.
“They say this theater is haunted” are the first words spoken in Goodbye Dragon Inn, a full 45 minutes into Tsai Ming-liang’s feast of minimalism. While Dragon Inn, Tsui Hark’s desert swordplay spectacle, unfolds onscreen, its dryness becomes a witty counterpoint to the director’s longtime obsession with water. As the scratchy music of the 1966 movie booms around the nearly empty Fu-Ho Grand Theater, one of this film’s first images shows the backs of two heads, exactly as you would see them in the row ahead of you. Instead of celebrating the onscreen Hong Kong fantasy, Tsai studies the audience, the receivers of the celluloid myths, who are conceived here as ghosts, vampires, and wraiths inhabiting the theater. Tsai teasingly watches patrons we’d rather not sit next to, ones who make too much noise rattling their bags and eating (including a hilarious deadpan scene of a sluttish woman, legs slung over the seat ahead, cracking seeds in her teeth with deafening sound), while others have designs on their neighbors’ bodies. This cinema is a place where outsiders gather for community, yet connection is fitful at best as people remain closed inside themselves. Unafraid of slow scenes, Tsai draws out whatever action that transpires to lengths quite beyond reason, building and sustaining tension so that the merest turn of a player’s head amasses unaccustomed significance and, as often as not, absurd humor. Even when a much prolonged shot, such as the cashier desultorily picking at her fuschia-colored steamed bun, brings no pay-off, it still destabilizes our sense of film time, preparing us for the next attempt. Tsai’s longtime onscreen counterpart Lee Keng-sheng plays the projectionist in this anti-Cinema Paradiso. When he collects water from two pails, he pours it into one big pail, and then tosses the water out the window, into a driving rainstorm: this is very funny, but why? The Taiwanese master uses offscreen space, sometimes opening on an empty frame that a character enters at one plane and then exits at another, and defines onscreen space when the cashier, dragging her clubfoot, walks and climbs and walks endlessly, showing the audience every seed-spattered inch of the cinema, like Sokurov leading the audience through the Hermitage museum in Russian Ark. When she finally exits the frame and the shot of the empty theater persists longer and longer and still longer, Tsai provides only a whisper of ambient sound, enlisting your unwitting neighbors as interactive participants with their natural sounds. Like Buster Keaton adrift alone on an ocean liner in The Navigator, Tsai makes deadpan poetry out of vast open spaces. If the camera rarely moves in his cinema of stillness, each multidimensional composition presents an image dense with striking detail, like the cashier’s face illuminated by light streaming through pinpoint dots of the screen. When the end credits roll (the production’s two cats get top billing), nature pours rain over a woman with a red umbrella while a pop song throbs with nostalgia: “So much of the past lingers in my heart, half bitter, half sweet…Can’t let go, can’t let go.”
Out of the closet of past masterworks, Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum shone a retrospective light on Benilde or the Virgin Mother, a 1974 rarity from Manoel De Oliveira, one that signaled a new surge of prolific output from this preeminent doyen of living directors. From a controversial 1947 play, the film tests its characters by their reactions to a young woman’s claim that God has impregnated her in a miracle of divine grace: her father tries to control her, her aunt confesses indiscretion and madness in her own past, her fiancé claims he took advantage of her while she was asleep. Who is lying? Can we know, and does it make a difference? With creamy whites plus richly saturated technicolor, with stormy shadows and leaves swirling, De Oliveira recalls Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, in the service of intensely dramatic questions: Did the heroine’s mother die insane? Is Benilde really bearing a child? Can the social structure around her absorb a miracle? With unapologetic theatricality, the camera never moves outside the home, but to complement the ambiguities, De Oliveira inserts the occasional mysterious shot: a vase of roses, an overhead shot pointed down a chimney looking at the fire, and a balcony door forced open by a cyclonic wind, as well as some aural counterpoint with the wailing of the village idiot (never seen onscreen). Retaining the play’s division into acts pointedly underlines the performance aspect, but despite its surface lack of action, this film is paradoxically cinematic, as stage cannot reproduce this experience of De Oliveira directing us to watch the listener’s reactions as entire speeches are spoken off-camera. The miracle question suggests both Dreyer’s Ordet and Rossellini’s Il Miracolo (and nudges at Pasolini’s Teorema), but De Oliveira nimbly steps aside just far enough to avoid being pinned down.
For event programming, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert brought Japan’s sole professional benshi narrator, the distinguished Sawato Midori, to perform her art on Ozu’s 1932 smiles-and-tears classic I Was Born But…, the delightful silent comedy of two mischievous little brothers who live in an innocent world where power comes from schoolyard attitude and strutting. When they see their father making funny faces for his boss’s home movies, they revolt. Why does their father defer to him? “Because he pays me,” answers the father. “Don’t let him pay you! You pay him!” they cry. Too young to understand that wealth and status control the adult world (“a problem they’re stuck with the rest of their lives,” says Dad), they still learn just enough for the family to rebalance itself into harmony. Ms. Midori’s Japanese narration added a unique dimension by voicing different styles of address for male, female, and child characters, coloring and shading stretches that usually pass without intertitles, increasing both the humor and the emotional investment despite the linguistic barrier. Though benshi-type narrators developed in other countries (such as Mexico), Japan developed the practice to an art, valuing the benshi’s social purpose in interpreting the unfamiliar cultural content of foreign films for Japanese audiences. As a scholar who has researched Ozu’s world and then composed original dialogue for the film, Ms. Midori herself can claim auteur status of a sort, or at least active participation in the tatami-mat master’s vision.
The Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Wilmington revived Elia Kazan’s 1961 Wild River, the evocative look back at the flooding of the Tennessee Valley in the 1930s, with Montgomery Clift romancing Lee Remick in the full splendor of classic Cinemascope.
Still more from the festival: Cinerama Adventure.
When all ballots were counted, the Golden Hugo for Best Film was awarded to Crimson Gold, with a statement by jury president Klaus Eder saying that “We hope this prize might help keep the director working and help the film get distribution in Iran.”
Acting awards went to Ludivine Sagnier for Best Female Performance in Claude Miller’s La Petite Lili and to Pierre Boulanger for Best Male Performance in Monsieur Ibrahim.
The Silver Hugo, a Special Jury Prize, was awarded to Distant for “its intense and elegant depiction of overwhelming loneliness,” and a Gold Plaque to Goodbye Dragon Inn for its “highly distinctive vision.”
The Gold Hugo for Best Documentary Feature went to Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect (USA), with secondary awards to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Ireland/Venezuela), S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (France), People Say I’m Crazy (USA) and Jonathan Demme’s The Agronomist (USA).
The “outstanding cinematography” awards went to Denmark’s Reconstruction, with FIPRESCI first-movie awards to Jérôme Bonnell’s Olga’s Chignon and Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April, the latter also voted as the audience favorite.
The complete list, including additional awards for short films, can be found here.
Distribution: The Triplets of Belleville and Crimson Gold will open commercially, along with the festival’s more mainstream offerings, including The Barbarian Invasions, The Human Stain, My Life Without Me, Mambo Italiano, Pieces of April, Shattered Glass, The Singing Detective, and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, and even the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Petition your local megaplex to show the others.