Bright Lights Film Journal

Theda Bara’s Eyes: The 40th Chicago International Film Festival, Part 2

Angelopoulos to Zhu: “This is an artistic film. You wouldn’t like it.”

Theda Bara may have come from Cincinnati, but as the logo muse of the Chicago International Film Festival, this ur-siren of American cinema belongs to the Windy City now. Under her hooded stare, as if pitying all those enslaved to the silver screen, the 40th iteration of the festival unreeled 54 shorts and 109 features in numerous categories.

What follows here are notes on another seven festival films presented — three shown as Special Presentations (Head On, Notre Musique, and Trilogy: the Weeping Meadow), one from the World Cinema section (Shouf Shouf Habibi! ), another from the New Directors Competition (South of the Clouds), and two in the International Competition (Stray Dogs and Nobody Knows).

Head On (Gegen die Wand), Germany: Fateh Akin

The steel-fracturing, glass-splintering collision that opens Head On echoes the impact of the film’s punk ethos smashing into its Hollywood rom-com chassis. No tuxedos or screwball heiresses in this winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival; instead, its star-crossed lovers — a mischievous runaway bad girl and a boozing headbanger numbing his grief over a past love — come from the youthful generation of scrappy Turkish-Germans who clench their fists and determinedly transgress against their roots.

Dashed romantic Çahit (Birol Ünel, batting the most liquid brown eyes since Giancarlo Giannini) ekes out a living collecting empty beer bottles at a seedy Hamburg dive until he meets Sibel (the fiercely nervy Sibel Kekilli, a onetime porn performer), herself nursing a broken nose courtesy of her tradition-minded brother. They meet cute in a psycho ward when he teaches her to cut across the vein if she’s going to slash her wrists; so, to escape her oppressive Turkish family (“I want to live and dance and fuck!”), she proposes a marriage blanc consummated only with a handshake. The newlyweds celebrate their wedding of convenience by snorting his-and-hers lines of coke, but the film’s game is to wait until these two square pegs acknowledge that they’re made for each other. Hence, they split on their nuptial night as she picks up a hunky bartender while he visits an old flame for some carnal rough-housing.

Considering the punk-is-not-dead aesthetic they share — their nights raw with drinking and rutting and drugging and jagged glass — their blunt masochism suggests equal parts amour fou and blood-soaked romantic comedy. Signs point toward the latter when she tidies his dank hovel of a flat (“It’s like a chick bar exploded in here!” is his reaction) and then cooks honest stuffed peppers in a pop-song-inflected montage of domesticity. But it makes an unruly love story, as both principals manage to get themselves beaten to a pulp, recalling the moralistic thrashings endured by upstart challengers of the status quo in 1960s British dramas.

It may not be Repo Man let alone A Clockwork Orange, never mind its brutish bar fights and the hero’s rave dance with blood streaming down his upraised arms, but Akin’s film still crackles with spiky energy and caustic humor. The director, himself Hamburg-born, wastes little time on capturing his native city, saving his evocative panoramas for the minarets of Istanbul and the flowing Bosporus, backdrops for bittersweet chapter dividers performed by musicians arrayed on oriental rugs.

Hard upon momentary betrayals and enforced separations (plus a downhill slide into opium), Sibel and Çahit follow their bloodlines back to Asia Minor, but for all the committed work by the attractive cast, these hedonists could use more complexity beyond the libidinal, and the director’s last-minute bending of genre conventions to breaking point doesn’t really work. When Sibel makes a surprising decision, Akin stabs at greater depth yet coyly withholds essential information, a misfired ambiguity that makes the conclusion a bit of a cheat.

Shouf Shouf Habibi, Netherlands: Albert Ter Heerdt

“Tulips for brains!” is one Moroccan guest worker’s verdict about his Dutch hosts in this comedy-sketch-thin but intermittently funny culture clash of headscarves and wooden shoes, dirhams and Euros, which locates anti-Arab bigotry among the windmills. Written by Miamoun Oaïssa (who also stars), the film is even harder on his countrymen (one difference between a Moroccan and E.T., he says, is that E.T. actually wanted to go home). The talented Oaïssa plays the smart-mouthed scion of his family, living with his parents and collecting welfare while surveying the paltry field of acting jobs open to Arabs (one counselor asks if he expects a role in Saving Private Saddam).

Predating the ethnic tensions that torched the Netherlands on the heels of the assassination of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, this box-office hit in Holland cannot be simply dismissed as a feel-good comedy, given that it lurches into an unsavory display of Muslim machismo, paints crude caricatures of officious Euro-bureaucrats, and then pursues a hangdog subplot of glum multi-culti wife-swapping. Still, one can safely dismiss its flippantly inconsistent sitcom-ready characters, plus its lame bank robbery episode (which produces no consequences), not to mention the pedestrian compositions and low-budget bluish lighting that betray the director’s TV origins.

Notre Musique, Switzerland: Jean-Luc Godard

As if to celebrate natural balance, flowers gradually assume a prominent role in Notre Musique, but only after the director has worked his way through purgatory in his tripartite Dantean conceptual plan. Hell comes first, a pageant of human savagery by and against ancient Greeks, Africans, Amer-Indians, Jews, and Arabs, recovered images of violence that includes eyeblink clips from Throne of Blood, Alexander Nevsky, and even the exploding house from Kiss Me Deadly. “It’s amazing that anyone’s survived,” says the voiceover. (Is this montage-inferno a sarcastic tweak of Steven Spielberg, long derided by Godard, a riposte to the much-remarked artificial D-day slaughter that opens Saving Private Ryan?)

Purgatory takes the most time, encompassing much intellectual inquiry into the human propensity for war from participants at a conference in Sarajevo called European Literary Encounters. With assistance from an Egyptian-born translator and a French-speaking Israeli journalist, Godard argues that truth comes from oppositions, text to image, fiction to documentary, Israel to Palestine, shot to reverse shot. Indeed, two and one are themselves opposed, as “The dream of the individual is to be two. The dream of the State is to be one.”

Dense with paradox and astringent logic, though less flinty than last year’s Éloge de l’Amour, this film directly addresses the impact of violence. (“The trust in the world that terror destroys is irretrievable”). Conference participants like Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo add their viewpoints, while distinguished Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish debates the Israeli, arguing with a subtle knife-twist that “We Palestinians are famous because you are our enemy. The interest is in you, not in us.”

More duality makes this akin to a cognitive action movie as Godard’s customary stream of epigrams counterpoints his formal experimentation: Music plays (Sibelius and Tchaikowsky), but abruptly falls silent in the midst of a scene. Background sounds rise, then subside. One character walks out of an extreme blur into perfect focus and then continues out again.

Glimpsed in open markets and street-corner displays, the flowers of Bosnia seem to represent our purgatorial existence in all its beauty and fragility. We see the director himself in Switzerland, tending his own flowerpots, and then the camera tracks closely across fields of geraniums and marigolds. That might seem like paradise, but when he gets around to heaven, Godard fashions a quick but sardonic nosegay.

South of the Clouds (Yun de nan fang), China: Zhu Wen

Sifting the ashes of the Maoist experiment following its collapse into state fascism and final surrender to capitalism, novelist and screenwriter Zhu Wen focuses on a pensioner, a veteran of the old system, uneasy in retirement and beset by reveries about missed opportunities. Sensing the end approaching (“That’s real retirement!”) and seeking some kind of resolution, he turns his back on the extended family he supports under his roof (no more government promises of an “iron rice bowl” of economic security). Confounding them all — including a daughter who wants to use his hard-won savings to open a weight loss center (“with so much hunger in the world!”) — he sets out for remote Yunnan province, to an area noted as the Kingdom of Women, on a quest for individualist liberation.

No master pictorialist, Zhu Wen nevertheless makes effective use of his modest underground resources with a visual plan that first sketches the smoggy colors and grey skies of the urban landscape, then employs the darkness of a tunnel as a passageway to another reality. When he emerges in an idealized landscape of verdant greens, the pristine surface of Luzu Lake mirrors the fleecy cumulus clouds and penetrating blue sky overhead.

As this patriarch wanders around this mysteriously dreamlike matriarchy, he encounters a bong-smoking priest, then pursues an Amazon horsewoman in and out of a maze, ending with a great gulp of exposition wherein he lays bare his youthful ideals and the compromises that stifled them (his wife’s pregnancy trapped him: “the rice was cooked, as they say”). The director also echoes his debut film, Seafood, in the protagonist’s escape to a distant provincial hotel and a subsequent contretemps with police and a prostitute, but without that story’s overt surprise that ricochets back through the narrative. Instead, this plot seems to erase itself as it unfolds in the crystalline wilderness air, the characters reacting with unhurried relaxation as the hero’s freedom expands around him.

In occasional quirky vignettes, Zhu checks in on the daughter’s continuing affair, both financial and physical, with a mysterious lover identifiable by the giant stuffed panda he carries everywhere. Though Art Carney or Jack Lemmon wouldn’t be out of place playing this decent widower on a road trip to fulfill himself, the film is not exactly formulaic, picking up surreal flavor as it evades traditional shape and clarity. It remains persuasive thanks to the sympathetic performance of Li Xuejian as the honorable everyman (he played in Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s classic The Blue Kite). In fact, Zhuangzhuang himself shows up, both as a producer on this film and an actor, doing a nicely autumnal turn as an unpredictably laid-back chief of police who confides, “My grandson won’t go to sleep without holding my beard.”

Zhu edges closest to direct social critique when his hero explains to a yuppie travel guide: “You don’t know how lucky you are. Years ago, we were rooted like trees. Now you can go where you want.” More typically, the finale vacillates in every possible direction: our gentleman looks out to sea, then starts to cry, but this turns to laughter, the final shot petrifying into a freeze-frame. How indeterminate, as if the director were satisfied to hum a tune instead of singing a song.

Stray Dogs, Iran: Marziyeh Meshkini

While picking through rags and refuse in a wintry Kabul, a little girl rescues a button-eyed white puppy trapped in a smoking hellhole, where tormenting urchins wave a fiery circle of flaming torches above as they displace their accumulated aggressions on the sooty pup (“The dog’s looking for the Taliban!,” “She belongs to the Russians!.” “She was with the Americans! They killed our fathers!”). The girl and her brother carry the grateful animal to the women’s prison to spend a freezing night with their incarcerated mother, burning books on the stone floor to stave off frostbite. In this Afghanistan brutalized by oppressive religion, medieval morality, and western militarism, where humanity has been exfoliated down to its final layer, they are condemned to scramble for survival.

Facing possible execution, their mother sends them to the men’s prison to beg her forgiveness from their Taliban father. Her crime? Five years after he disappeared during the war, she married another man, now also dead. “What will we do if they kill Mom?” ask the frightened children. The father replies, “I went to war for God’s sake but your mother married. Good, now they can make love to each other in hell.” But here even the dead cannot be buried unless the gravediggers spread flames to heat the earth so that the pickaxe can get through the frozen gravel.

Seeking shelter in a burnt-out madrasa, the near-starving children learn that their father’s friends have been taken to American prisons at Guantanamo Bay. Near a town dump bonfire, they find an abandoned Volkswagen Beetle fitted out with a TV where they uncomprehendingly glimpse footage of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center. The owner of this technological setup stands in the rubble, shaking his fist at an airplane passing far overhead, shouting, “Come down! The toilet is right here! You threw bombs and killed my wife! Come down and I”ll wash your ass with water!”

So contradictory are the values in this monstrous moral wasteland that imprisonment means not punishment but a refuge for the homeless in the encroaching darkness. The children contrive to get arrested, trying to steal from a burqa-shrouded woman who herself has become a beggar to feed her own starving baby. In desperation, they consult a cinema showing De Sica‘s The Bicycle Thieves (does this play a lot in Kabul?), although the ticket seller advises against it: “This is an artistic film. You wouldn’t like it. Every night after this damned movie, I go to my brother’s cinema to see a Hollywood movie.”

Far from Hollywood — in fact, the rosy dawns and parched landscapes were shot just outside Kabul — Marziyeh Meshkini adds another star to the crown of Makhmalbaf Film House, run by her husband Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar). Making good on the promise of her debut (The Day I Became a Woman), this decisively directed Iranian production achieves unsentimental clarity (and relevance to burn) with surprisingly elegant visuals to support its anger and scorching pathos.

Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai), Japan: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Forget the commandments: listening to your mother definitely has its limits, especially if she’s a dippy quasi-hippie who smuggles her children past a disapproving landlord by hiding them inside the luggage. When she abandons her brood of four for extended periods, nobody knows that the apartment is inhabited, so they are left to survive as best they can, without benefit of schooling or even outings.

Japanese auteur Kore-eda indicts the penchant for order and obedience encouraged in Japanese society as instigating the family tragedy of Nobody Knows, but his gentle sensibility sweetens the true-life record. The placid brood, poorly equipped for life without guidance, become prisoners of the promises they made to their wayward parent never to reveal their presence. One daughter’s birthday treat consists of actually leaving their cocoon, walking in teddy bear shoes that squawk with each step, for a brief tour of the forbidden outside world.

Gradually — it takes two and a half hours — discipline breaks down and the increasingly thin and shaggy youngsters spiral into disorder, with their house stinking of garbage. Reduced to homeless conditions, they wash in public restrooms and consume past-dated sushi, finally simply eating paper. While the innocently natural performances bespeak the trust that Kore-eda built with his cast of non-professionals, his narrative ranges with Dickensian leisure all over the place. In particular, the older boy’s attempts to connect to public life via shoplifting and baseball lengthen the movie more than deepen it, and an irresolute thread about a teenaged schoolgirl who offers her body to help the children seems to come from another movie altogether.

With his refined eye for striking images that wring emotions from absence and death (unforgettable in his cult favorite debut, Maborosi), Kore-eda crafts surprisingly conventional visuals, inexplicably indulging a penchant for isolating close-ups of hands and feet. At worst, the affecting story sustains us even when the gentle guitar music eventually cloys, and there’s a notable feeling for how children inhabit urban Tokyo’s parks and shops and busy streets. But Nobody Knows may live as the film that introduced fourteen year-old Yuya Yagira, who bagged the Best Actor prize at Cannes and could be poised to become Japan’s Gael García Bernal.

Trilogy: the Weeping Meadow (Trilogia I: To Livadi pou dakryzei), Greece: Theo Angelopoulos

To match Greece’s geography, where it’s said you cannot travel an hour without reaching the water, Theo Angelopoulos has devised a kind of sea-level cinema, with Adriatic and Aegean waves that lap over the quays where steamers load and disgorge voyagers. We can almost taste the salt air as majestic shots sprawl across the horizon, while the extended long takes feel like deep breaths.

Opening with a tableau of 1919, when Greek expatriates arrive back in the motherland, fleeing the Bolshevik takeover of Odessa, Angelopoulos lines up the refugees across the wide screen to confront us as they advance en masse, hefting battered suitcases and holding their children’s hands. They form only one diaspora from Europe’s uprooted populations, and Angelopoulos has been their Homer, his films witnessing both their suffering and resilience (Ulysses’ Gaze wrought poetry from the trans-Balkan displacements, but as the present title indicates, Angelopoulos proposes two further installments, with shooting planned in Uzbekistan, Siberia, Italy and New York). In fact, this saga deploys all the means of transport used for migration: huffing locomotives, bouncing trucks, hulking ocean vessels, and humble rowboats.

Two of these refugee children grow up to be lovers, with their fortunes throughout the twentieth century providing the film’s framework. First composing an Oedipal triangle, with his father betrothed to her, they then become pawns ensnared in the parallel burgeoning of homegrown fascism and rampant militarism, followed by the General Strike and the crushing of union activism, ending in the Nazi occupation and the devastation of the Greek civil war.

Angelopoulos moves his forces like a juggernaut to stage formidable set-pieces, coups de théâtre that impress with their vast scale without necessarily engaging our emotions. In his most remarkable feat, he constructs a low-lying town in a dry lakebed only to drown it for a spectacular inundation. There follows a floating funeral on a water-borne raft, players posed beside the open coffin, as a flotilla of boats proceeds with a flourish of black flags. Prows part the water as the camera glides ahead, like a courtierpreparing the way, but a sudden change of angle confronts us with a massive phalanx of figures reflected in the floodwater, with blue skystreaking the top of the frame.

While primal drums beat, village women dance around a flaming bonfire bearing icons, turning to superstition to lift the “dark curse” that sent torrential floods. Later, a demonstration of tribalist revenge puts dozens of dead sheep hanging from a tree (the camera panning down to the blood mingling in the mud). More than before, Angelopoulos here succumbs to a cosmic miserabilism, allowing the churning dark clouds above and the mud below to seep into his work.

Only the consolation of art helps, but not for long. As an accordion virtuoso, the hero “can make even the trees dance” when he plays a “Green Eyes” rumba, and Angelopoulos refashions the Thessaloniki opera house as a refuge for the homeless, who partition the space into hundreds of cubicles by hanging linen between the loges, but the forces of oppression proceed implacably. Indeed, fields of white sheets rippling in the wind become a signature image of purity here (but where do they dry the pillowcases?).

Throughout, Angelopoulos observes from an exalted height, literally from an Olympian camera position but also figuratively from his artistic pedestal. Holding his couple at a distance, he waits a full half-hour to give us a good look at them in close-up, while the spectacle works to upstage their drama. Locked into a troubling fatalism above ideology and beyond idealism, he dwarfs his lovers into two hollow victims who seek only to be left alone.

After enduring imprisonment and the fragmenting of her family, a final wave of injustice engulfs the fevered and overburdened heroine. She despairs in a delirium-driven monologue that reaches the cumulative intensity of a raga, peaking to the primal scream of Greek tragedy. Notwithstanding this burst of purifying catharsis, the film lacks the unifying focal strength of a charismatic star (as Harvey Keitel, Bruno Ganz, and Marcello Mastroianni provided in his past films). Equating all politics to treachery (the heroine cries, “Only the uniforms change!”), the uncompromising Angelopoulos seems to signal his full retreat from the hostile world as he rages against the tides of history.