Bright Lights Film Journal

New York Film Festival 2011: First Highlights

Surely it’s a good sign that the Lincoln Center Film Society seems to be shaking things up a bit with this year’s festival. In part because of the new venues at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center (just opened this summer), the 49th edition of the New York Film Festival feels a little riskier than usual. Not so much the main slate but in the variety of special screenings such as a “Masterworks “tribute to Nikkatsu studios; a special events section that includes Chaplin’s Gold Rush and Nicholas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again; a substantial avant-garde section composed of marquee names (Ernie Gehr, George Kuchar, among others) and NYFF newcomers; dialogues with directors, among them Wim Wenders; and a wide range of ancillary panels, including a chance to hear from the (largely stable) selection committee. Inevitably, movies that have plenty of cachet (Roman Polanski’s too-tame Carnage, Michelle Williams’s Academy Award courting turn in Simon Curtis’s My Week with Marilyn, the opener and centerpiece) grab the spotlight, but the new venues and wider choices show a festival in lively transition and making a concerted effort to spoil its audience for choice.

Among the stand-outs, so far:

David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, an elegant inquiry into the closeness and alienation between Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung (Michael Fassbender) as mediated and observed by Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), Jung’s first “talking cure” patient. The first-rate cast and Cronenberg’s attention to detail make this anything but standard costume fare, though a little background reading (even Wikipedia will do) adds to the thought-provoking enjoyment of this film.

Set in contemporary New York, Steve McQueen’s beautiful, sad Shame follows sex addict Brandon (Fassbender again) over the few days his sister (Carey Mulligan) lands in his apartment. At least as important as the two leads is the city itself, shown here at its most luxuriously indifferent, the only real high what’s out of reach.

Among the newest names to watch, Alice Rohrwacher stands out. With a background in documentary, Corpo Celeste is her assured first feature. The story of a 13-year-old (delightful Yle Vianello) adjusting to life in Calabria after a Swiss childhood, Corpo Celeste has none of Matteo Garrone’s overt Gomorrah violence, yet it paints an equally devastating portrait of life in southern Italy’s urban periphery.

Nader and Simin in A Separation

Not that life is easier in Iran, as Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation makes clear. Its subtle thriller-construction reveals problems both universal – a young couple’s (pitch-perfect Leila Hatami as Simin and Peman Moadi as Nader) thorny choice between caring for his senile father or moving out of the country to widen their daughter’s opportunities (the excellent Sarina Farhadi) – and particular to Iran in the form of his father’s devout new caretaker (the equally adept Sareh Bayat). The characters vacillate between sympathetic and maddening, sometimes within the same scene, the complications ably reflected in Mahmood Kalari’s sensitive cinematography.

Similarly vital is Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film. Collaborating with his friend and colleague, Panahi spends a day doing what has not (yet) been forbidden by the current Iranian regime. (He stands accused of collusion and therefore barred from formal filmmaking.) Shot with an IPhone and a digital camera, it’s testimony to Panahi’s ability to make of the scraps available — a bit of news footage; clips from his own films; performative readings of his unrealized script; encounters with neighbors; phone calls; even a roll of yellow masking tape – an engaging, quite affecting picture. Relying on the audience to play along, he creates something ephemerally substantial, not so much what’s on the screen as what’s in your head.

Béla Tarr and Agnes Hranitzky’s Turin Horse begins in history’s margins: in 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed a Turin carriage driver whipping his horse. He ran to the animal, his arms around its neck for protection, then collapsed. Nietzsche spent the rest of his life in and out of clinics and in nearly total silence. Focusing on the horse and his master (János Derzsi), Tarr and Hranitzky show a form of dark folk-tale. The driver shares a desolate house with his young adult daughter (Erika Bók), their conversation limited to absolute necessities about eating and sleeping. Once again profiting from Fred Kelemen’s expert cinematography, Tarr and Hranitzky use long takes and black-and-white (more accurately, ebony-and-grey) to construct a parallel world both strange and eerily familiar.

Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) is an African teenager trying to reunite with his mother in Akira Kaurimäki’s Le Havre. Set in the port city and played entirely in French, it’s the story of Marcel (André Wilms), a renowned writer who’s opted out of life in Paris. While his wife (Kati Outinen) convalesces, Marcel does his gently subversive best to help Idrissa. Kaurismäki’s familiar muted colors, his frequent quotes from Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Marcel Carné, to name a few, helps to emphasize the “fraternité” spirit the filmmaker sought to convey. By summoning those shadows (not to mention Jean-Pierre Léaud), he makes delightfully serious correspondences between the enemies of the Resistance and their contemporary immigrant-shunning counterparts. Deftly acted and often very funny.