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Thread: San Francisco International Film Festival 2007 (50th anniversary)

  1. #16
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    ZULI ALADAG: RAGE (2006)

    ZULI ALADAG: RAGE (2006)


    OKTAY OZDEMIR, ROBERT HOLER

    A film more provocative than convincing, about important issues


    Rage
    (Wut) is a film made for German TV about Turks in Germany. It was written and directed by a man born in Turkey who has lived in Germany most of his life and studied filmmaking there, just as the younger winner of the top prize in Berlin in 2004, Fatih Akin of Head-On (Gegen die Wand), was trained in the arts in Germany but identifies with the Turkish minority. While Akin's approach is complex and ironic, Aladag treats the German-Turkish conflicts schematically and simplistically.

    Can (Oktay Özdemir)-- pronounced like "John" -- is a cocky Turkish youth with bad teeth and a ponytail who has it in for Felix Laub (Robert Höler), a "nice" German boy who plays the cello and lives in a big modern house with a swimming pool. Felix has apparently bought some dope from Can, so though Can, surrounded by his little posse, steals his fancy sneakers and roughs him up and extorts money from him on a daily basis, Felix tries to conceal these things from his parents and goes on thinking Can may be his "friend." Felix's father Simon (August Zirner) is a university philosophy teacher (soon to be promoted to full professor) who dates his young girl students, and his mother Christa (Corinna Harfouch) sells real estate and is having an affair with one of Simon's best friends. Simon finds out about the stolen sneakers and the daily extortion and gets pretty angry.

    The practical question is: what do you do in such a situation, since any action against Can and his gang might lead to reprisals? Felix may be wise to take the beatings and give the money, but he's in a dangerous situation. And Can, of course, is full of rage, and that's why tormenting Felix provides him with so much pleasure. Needless to say, there are other ways of expressing discontent with the kind of social inequities Can experiences, like growing up and trying to campaign for one's rights. But Rage simply exists, without hopeful solutions, within a context of the failure of Germany's "guest worker" program and the roiling discontent of the large Turkish minority of which both Can and Felix are victims.

    Rage skewers middle class liberal German families that try to be "nice," aren't overtly racist toward the large Turkish minority, and turn the other cheek when they are attacked, due in part in Simon's case to what his son calls his "Hitler complex." The film, which ignores the fact that Turks are more often the victims than the attackers, suggests the practitioners of such liberalism as the Laubs' are spineless and sissified; and it even questions Simon's masculinity, or at least his physical courage, though not Felix's. Simon fails again and again to control Can and late in the picture almost commits an act of terrible cowardice, but still ends by exacting revenge. Presumably there are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Simon's philosophy, and these include knowing how to give someone "a good hiding," as the subtitles somewhat primly put it. He eventually gets Michael (Ralph Herforth) -- who he is soon to discover is his wife's current lover -- to deliver the "hiding" to Can for him. Can's behavior is so provocative (as is the film itself, at the cost of subtlety and even believability) that one wonders if they have court orders in Germany. The Turkish guy not only is a danger to Felix, but enters the Laub house repeatedly and menaces and abuses them and breaks things.

    But before matters have reached that point Simon goes to Can's apartment and asks his father, an older man, to make Can return the sneakers. Can brings them right away, in a bag, but this is when he first enters the Laubs' house and prances around abusing and mocking them. One wonders if Aladag hasn't spent some time studying the films of Michael Haneke. The climactic sequence at the end in which Can gets truly nasty seems as if it may owe a good deal to Haneke's 1997 Funny Games. In that, a pair of punks torment a family and make them play sadistic games with each other. Can doesn't need a sidekick: he does just fine on his own. The young Oktay Özdemir deserves credit for playing Can with great boldness and conviction. On the other hand the ethnic German principals are, as written, cardboard figures. Christa is a stiff, bitchy wife, full of innuendoes about her husband's spinelessness; Simon indeed seems incredibly wishy-washy, and poor Felix is a ridiculous good boy, polite to his parents, but equally eager to be Can's "friend" and too easily taken in when Can with obvious mockery says they are "brothers." Felix inexplicably has no real friends.

    When Simon has reached his limit with Can, he manages to get him arrested for drug dealing, even though Felix was one of the customers he spied and in the police station Felix refuses to bear any witness to Can's criminal activity. Generations are in conflict, even though Felix and Simon don't fight. Can's father disowns him and Can weeps when he realizes this -- his sole moment of weakness.

    Rage makes its points economically. The screenplay is swift-moving and pointed. The film tends to seem crude and exaggerated; there is no nuance in it. Conversely it is enormously effective in its clear aim of making viewers uncomfortable and illustrating the titular rage of young Turks.

    Though there's no indication that Can's dignified, older father (Demir Gökgöl) is really poor, it's also clear that he's less well off than the Laubs. (Apparently the reason an associate professor has such an impressive spread is money from the couple's parents.) Aladag has stated that for him Can is a hero, but this is a sad thing to know. Can is a prancing bully. Akin's anti-hero in Head-On, Cahit, also wants to destroy himself as Can ultimately does, but the reasons are more complex, and in the performance of the immensely charismatic Birol Ünel, Cahit is funny and appealing. Two different approaches, each perhaps with its validity. If Aladag's Rage arouses worthwhile debate of issues Germans have been unwilling to speak of, it will have had a positive value. But it feels like a film that would mostly just polarize or repel people.

    Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007. The director was present for a Q & A after the public screening May 1.

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    PHILIPPE FALARDEAU: CONGORAMA (2006)

    PHILIPPE FALARDEAU: CONGORAMA (2006)


    OLIVIER GOURMET, PAUL AHMARANI

    A droll gemütlich comedy of connections, inventions, and origins


    Congorama is a complicated, gemütlich comedy by a Canadian filmmaker about an eccentric Belgian engineer. "You're number one when it comes to modernizing facilities," a supervisor tells the film's eccentric protagonist, Michel Roy (Olivier Gourmet, familiar from some of the Dardennes brothers' powerful films), "but inventing isn't your cup of tea." Michel goes in search of his origins. Where does he come from, and where does he belong? One perceptive viewer suggested this is a metaphor for the Quebecois of Canada, who don't resemble the Anglos any more than little Jules resembles Michel.

    Michel lives with Jules, his son, a cute little Congolese boy (Arnaud Mouithys), and his Congolese wife, Alice (Claudia Tagbo). He takes his papŕ, Hervé (the late Jean-Pierre Cassel), paralyzed from a stroke, around with him. From a packet of papers Hervé gives him, Michel learns he isn't Hervé's son and he isn't Belgian. He was adopted in Canada, and his birth parents are unknown. He goes to find them.

    In Quebec, an old lady tells him his birth parents were named Legrand, but in the town he finds only Legros. He eats some bad French fries (Belgium is famous for its fries--not Quebec) from a stand, "Legros Hot Dog." Michel spends time with a minister, then gets a ride with a man named Louis Legros (Paul Ahmarani) and dodging an emu they have an accident in Louis' car and Louis ends up in a permanent coma. This begins a flashback about Louis, whose father also turns out to have been an inventor, perhaps a more important one; and there are curious direct, or nearly direct, intersections with Michel's life, including links with the Congo. Events take us back to the Brussels World Fair of 1958. It's there that the Congorama was to be found: an exhibition where Louis was born. It's also the name Michel gives to his electric car in honor of his wife. And the name of a book Hervé has written, illustrated by Jules.

    Congorama is a droll, offbeat kind of Ińárritu film, jumping back and forth between past and present, slipping by odd moments when lives and paths collide. People think of Ińárritu or Tarantino, because they think only of films. Somehow this seems on the whole a more literary than cinematic narrative; it might work very well as a novel. It takes a while to get going, but it's quite ingenious. Its way of tying things together gives one a feeling of satisfaction at the end, like finishing a puzzle, but a puzzle full of humanity and humor, leaving behind rich material to ponder.

    Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-14-2007 at 03:03 AM.

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    KIM ROSSI STEWART: ALONG THE RIDGE (2006)

    KIM ROSSI STEWART: ALONG THE RIDGE (2006)


    BARBORA BOBULOVA, KIM ROSSI STEWART

    A line that will make you weep


    Italian title: Anche libero va bene (Sweeper's okay too).

    Kim Rossi Stewart is a well known actor in Italy. Recent notable performances: Criminal Romance (2005, Michele Placido), The House Keys (2004. Gianni Amelio). In this, his superb directorial debut, the subject is childhood and dysfunctional families, a difficult one to deal with in a fresh way, perhaps, but the situation of newly free-lancing photographer Renato (Stewart), his 11-year-old son, Tommaso/Tommi (Alessandro Morace), and Tommi's older sister Viola (Marta Nobili) does emerge as different, yet true to life. Tommi, the main character, is a somber boy, shy and quiet, a good swimmer. Viola is the bright light in the house, a cheerful soul. It seems Renato is a single father, and a troubled one. He's a rageaholic, borderline bipolar, who often screams at them for little foul-ups in the house. Then one day the wife and mother of the family, Stefania (Barbora Bobulova), turns up, tearful, cowed, terrified of Renato's rage. She's comes and goes, we learn, remaining, apparently, unable to be faithful to one man and also involved with a rich guy. Renato is very reluctant to take her back. He also inappropriately involves the kids in the decision about this, and lets them hear the foul words he applies to his wife.

    As time passes Renato becomes more emotionally stable at home with Stefania around, though he seems unable to cooperate on a job, trying to tell the director to photograph a camel when he needs a shot of a car, then walking off the set, and already having cut off his former employers.

    Tommi is the realistic one. He knows Stefania will leave again, and hence finds it hard to give her affection. His freedom is to go up on the roof and look down through a pair of binoculars. This is his refuge. He has a friend now, Antonio, son of rich neighbors. He takes Antonio up to share the roof with him. Tommi dominates the film with his sad eyes in an impassive face. His heart seems to threaten to become frozen, and sometimes when it opens, it quickly shuts again. Despite too much pushing from his father, he still does well in swimming, though it never seems as if he cares. In class he chooses to stay seated next to Claudio, a new boy who has reacted to the trauma of his father's death by becoming mute. Tommi writes "I love you" to a girl he's next to in ceramics class, but when she finds the note, denies that he had anything to do with it.

    Stewart gets excellent acting from everyone, most remarkably from young Morace, who doesn't seem "actor-y" at all but completely genuine. The direction in other ways is not as inventive or fresh as it could have been. The camera-work is mechanical in following people around. But the deeply touching story makes that unimportant.

    One gets a strongly particular sense of the family here, of its instability and sadness, especially Tommi's; the film seems to have less ability to open itself up to the outside world and show the characters' relationship to it, in spite of scenes at Tommi's class at middle school.

    After Renato's rejection of Tommi for giving up the swim team, a contrast comes when his friend Antonio's father invites him to go fishing, just the two of them, Antonio being in Naples with his grandmother for the day, and Tommi has dinner with Antonio's family to share the fish they catch. This father isn't judgmental but helpful, and the family is a serene and happy one.

    As always it is disturbing to see children being subjected to a family life that is only wounding them, and which they will at best survive. Things are particularly bad when Tommi drops out of a swim match and finally declares he doesn't want to swim any more (we know he always preferred to play football). "Who gives a damn!" Renato declares. You're no son of mine." What a child needs is first for both parents to be present in their life and second to have unconditional love and support. They often don't get either. Along the Ridge is courageous in showing parents who fail and a child who somehow manages to deal with that.

    As things get worse for Renato, Tommi's life takes on a tragic dimension and the film gains some of the resonance of the great Italian neorealist films. Those who've grown up in a dysfunctional family will understand the cold comfort Tommi feels escaping from his father's meltdown on a sky trip with Antionio and his cheerful, decent parents. The title in Italian refers to a reconciliation between Tommi and his dad. He's going to let Tommi play football after all and the position Tommi favors is midfielder, but dad likes sweeper. "Sweeper's okay too," says Tommi. In context, it's a line that will make you weep.

    Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-08-2007 at 03:33 AM.

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    VERONICA CHEN: AGUA (2006)

    VERONICA CHEN: AGUA (2006)


    NICOLAS MATEO

    Swimming, life: levels of the game

    Another narrative feature with a semi-documentary approach, Agua (Water) blends footage of actual competition and high quality training swimming with dramatized scenes of the two principals, Chico (a determined pool swimmer) and Goyo (an outdoor long-distance swimmer). Both have arrived at moments of trial and uncertainty in their lives when the intensity of their dedication has left them ill equipped to deal with anything else and totally bereft when the sport lets them down.

    Chino Bengoechea (Nicolás Mateo) is the younger one. He has a pregnant wife, Luisa (Jimena Anganuzzi), and was an orphan who grew up with his coach Roque (Pablo Testa) as his family and virtually lived at the pool throughout his youth. Goyo Blasco (Rafael Ferro), a man in his mid-thirties who was dubbed by local fans "Il Tiberon del Rio," The River Shark, is an ex-champion in the famous local marathon swim disgraced when after winning he was disqualified for doping. Returned to Santa Fe after an eight-year sojourn in the desert, Goyo cannot reconcile with his ex-wife, Maria (Gloria Carra), and their daughter doesn't even know he exists. For one reason or another, neither Chino nor Goya has much else besides swimming,and that, unfortunately, includes the women in their lives.

    Agua superbly captures the beauty of swimming, the physical perfection of competition swimmers, the symmetry and grace of their movements, and the feel of the water itself as few films have done, using an austere, largely wordless approach that lets the water and the bodies speak for themselves. The sparingly used underwater photography is exceptional. No music, just the sound of water from inside it: "Time….rhythm…reach…time…reach…time…turn…" Chino's voiceover speaks during one particularly nice passage. These moments are like a meditation. Chino's brief voiceovers comment occasionally on where his life is at successive moments. They keep his viewpoint a constant presence, but are understated.

    The film shows the uncertainty of almost everything else about the two men's lives because the discipline of their training has left them ill suited for other concerns and responsibilities. Agua conveys the tension and extreme focus of a match, the way the admonitions and warnings of the coach ring out in the ears of the young team members with the intensity of Moses delivering the Ten Commandments.

    Chen's film is distinguished by a certain rhythm, which might be defined by the regular contrast between the comforting (but also a little scary) silence under water, on the one hand, and the cacophonous echoes above at a big pool, on the other. A heartbeat sound against silence is stopped when the camera cuts to handlers above watching the swimmers, with the splashes of the water, the shouts, the echoes, and we go back and forth. This is nothing unusual in itself, but Agua does it with unusual simplicity and clarity and the underwater images are particularly nice because they are so straightforward, nothing tricky. In the earlier swim sequences, the eye gets a chance to grasp and savor the rhythm of the strokes. In the later ones, we get closer to the swimmer himself, his semi-blind concentration, his breathing, his immersion.

    In the competition he's been training for, Chino is badly defeated by the champion and comes in fourth, so no Santa Fe swimmers qualify for the national team. He knows he ought to focus on Luisa and the coming baby now, but he can't. Nothing seems to matter any more. For him, success in international competition might have been a bridge out of poverty. We see him go to work carrying carcasses in a slaughterhouse, and Goyo is urged by an old mentor to train for the Santa Fe-Coronda Marathon again, told he ought to have won it: he did win it, but the title was taken away for use of a forbidden substance. And so Goyo decides to compete again in the 57 kilometer river swim from Santa Fe (a real race) and Chino is eventually prevailed upon to man a backup boat for him.

    The film spares us Goyo's training and skips straight to his competition. Here, the filming of Goyo's swimming becomes more intense and expressionistic, close up on his head with no sound but his almost gasping intakes of air on each downstroke and the splash of the water around his arms followed by almost abstract close-ups from under water that express Goyo's complete mindless abandon to the effort. You couldn't get much closer to a competition swimmer than the film does at this point. "He is an animal," Chino has observed in voiceover earlier. "He is not aware of his body." Chino's approach is more self conscious and hence less total. Little problems that come up along the way heighten the intensity and bring Chino and Goyo into a symbiotic relationship.

    The beauty of a documentary approach to narrative feature which is partly at work also here is that settings and contexts are allowed to speak for themselves. The potential drawback is that we may lose a sense of urgency about the characters. In this elegant film, with its intense focus on competition in relation to the two men, that does not happen. In the end, though, it isn't about the competition. The story does not lead there but moves on to somewhere else. And yet in some sense a baton has been passed.

    A winner.

    Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-08-2007 at 03:34 AM.

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    TARIG TEGUIA: ROME RATHER THAN YOU (2006)

    TARIQ TEGUIA: ROME RATHER THAN YOU (2006)



    Going nowhere defiantly: a rough manifesto from an unacceptable civil state

    "Kafka says that the Statue of Liberty has a big stick in her hand, " says Zina (Samira Kaddour). "For him to talk like that, it's certain that his visa was refused!" answers Kamel (Rachid Amrani). This sprightly young couple in Algiers grew up in the middle of warfare between government forces and the Islamist opposition so constant over the last decade they're hardly aware of the danger as they talk about leaving the country and go looking for a means to get out. In what director TeguIa calls "a slow-motion road movie" they wander around in a borrowed car along nameless streets, in industrial lots, in houses of friends or acquaintances, or in nearly empty houses. One house has a corpse in a bath, and a couple of abandoned passports. Before that, they get hauled in to the police station for nothing other than having a coffee and sitting in a bar with a friend. Zina's independence of manner and dress are provocations, but she gets away with them. The cops try to seize the car Kamel has borrowed from his uncle. While out driving they get stuck because of the curfew and stay with friends and party and get drunk. Later on a road outside town they're close to gunfire. They're still on the road, going nowhere in particular, when the film ends.

    Kamel made pizza in Milan. We see him make it for a friend. There's a scuffle in the dark, near the port. Another guy talks of leaving illegally. Kamel and Zina discuss passports. He's bribed a sailor to get him out on a boat and wants her to come with him. During the curfew they go to visit an older man who says he was assigned to guard Eldridge Cleaver while he was in exile in Algeria during the 1970's. "You're fleeing slaves," he says, alluding to their desire to leave the country. "That's not my line." He cites D.H. Lawrence: "America is a republic of refugees," and says typically they know what they're fleeing, but not what they're seeking.

    The director suggests his film (Arabic title Roma wa la n'touma) is "happy," not a "tragedy," "a film without guilt, about the simple joy of being alive even if the life here only amounts to a supposed good mood of the characters who cross an urban desert."

    Some scenes are cut off abruptly and the continuity between them is not especially good, images are a bit murky, and the audio is uneven. As a short review of Rome Rather Than You on a government-sanctioned Italian Catholic film website (ACEC) says, the film wasn't chosen to be shown in Venice in September 2006 for "the precision of its mise-en-scčne or for its production values. It's a kind of manifesto film, a declaration of a state of emergency from a state whose civil order can no longer be discerned." The film, this writer points out, is an assertion that borders are not real limits. It's a portrait of a state of mind, young, defiant, hopeful but ironic.

    Shown in the New Directors series in competition for the SKYY Prize at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-06-2007 at 03:51 PM.

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    XIAOLU GUO: HOW IS YOUR FISH TODAY? (2006)

    XIAOLU GUO: HOW IS YOUR FISH TODAY? (2006)



    Engaging meta-fiction tale about writing and murder in changing China

    In How Is Your Fish Today (Jin tian de yu zen me yang?), a screenwriter called Rao Hoi, the protagonist, who, to make things even more self-referential, is the film's actual author playing himself, ponders Lin Hao (Zijiang Yang), his protagonist in a screenplay he's trying to write. His producer wants something like a mainstream US thriller -- Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, maybe -- which he certainly isn't going to get. Rao Hoi, a bespectacled smoker -- though he does go to the gym and has a personal trainer -- sits in the restaurant downstairs in his apartment building that he calls his "office" and eats his favorite meal, "Chairman Mao's stewed pork," thinking and re-thinking what to do with Lin Hao. All this in quiet, meditative voiceover, as the images (both of Rao and Lin) unfolds in a manner both soothing and stimulating.

    As Rao tells Lin's story or the fragments of it that occur to him, he comments on the requirements of the narrative. When Lin meets a woman at a deserted train station, Rao narrates that Lin is lonely now and needs company, but adds that he needs someone to get his character to Beijing. Lin has killed his girlfriend -- at least that's the idea -- and has gone into hiding by wandering around up north, running into various people including a fat, obnoxious salesman and a policeman (who causes him to flee from the boarding house he's stopped at), and ultimately winding up at the far northern point of Mohe. The woman he meets waiting with him alone by the tracks, who might have any kind of name but whom he calls Mimi, is played by Xialu Guo, the director. This isn't just economy: it's more meta-fiction. And Mimi is as mysterious and wreathed in red scarves and cigarette smoke as any Wong Kar Wai lady, even Maggie Cheung.

    Lin's journey to the area known as Mohe from southern China is told in flashback by Rao Hui; but he is going there himself. He wants to use this location because he's always been curious about it.

    This film came directly out of a documentary. Xialu Guo went to Mohe to make a film about this northernmost point in China for a British company. When she got there, the place seemed too poor and dreary -- despite the Northern Lights -- to provide adequate material, and the documentary was never completed. She was left with footage not only of the place but of passengers on a train heading there being interviewed about it.

    In How Is Your Fish Today? there's also footage of Xiaolu Guo, Rao Hoi, and their filmmaking cohorts gambling and parying at Rao's home, where they like to gather regularly, his omnipresent voiceover tells us, because he's the only one who's not married with kids. That worries them a little as he is in his thirties now -- but they like getting together there.

    At the same time that much of this is documentary or autobiographical footage, through the skillfully interwoven invented narrative it continually develops its appealing romantic meta-reality. And the DV cinematography is consistently fine as it depicts lives and places in the chaotic world of contemporary China.

    Just as the filmmaker's documentary project on Mohe morphed into this fiction, Rao Hui begins to express some doubt that his murderer character Lin Hao could ever really have killed anyone. And the woman, who could have any one of many names, stays with him (with Lin Hao, that is), or he stays rather with her, in a Beijing apartment.

    When we see the flashbacks where Lin Hao goes to Mohe, where Rao Hui has always wanted to go and where Xiaolu Guo was supposed to make the documentary, this film reminds me of another film about Patricia Highsmith in which she checks into the same hotel where Tom Ripley is staying, and as she speaks and is interviewed about her famous amoral hero, it's intercut with dramatized key scenes from the Ripley novels, notably Ripley Underground.

    Xiaolu Guo's film is an engaging and adept blend because of its excellent photography, the ceaselessly various voiceover narration, nice music, and of course most of all fine editing. The filmmakers have learned how to make movies. Rao Hui teaches film occasionally and he mentions showing his students films by Rohmer, Pasolini, and Fassbinder. (He shows them Rohmer's Le rayon vert and then they vanish, escaping the after-screening discussion.) In fact stylistically perhaps this is more literary and sophisticated and indebted to western cinema than the work of powerful younger Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke, though it doesn't seem to have as much to say or to have quite the emotional resonance of Jia. But this in itself may be highly expressive of a kind of exhaustion engendered by China's overwhelming exponential growth rate; and resonance is where you choose to find it. Xiaolu Guo evokes so many pleasant memories of filmgoing, while showing us a new China, that the experience of watching How Is Your Fish Today? can be quite enchanting -- especially for a film lover. Anybody who can make simply driving through Beijing so informative and fresh has a way with a camera and a narration, and the final segment makes Mohe, which seemed too mundane and poor to make a documentary out of, into an intriguing mixture of drab moments and pure poetry.

    Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007. A SKYY Prize contender.

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    MARWAN HAMED: THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING (2005)

    MARWAN HAMED: THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING (2005)


    HIND SABRY, MOHAMED IMAM

    A kitsch but lively modern Cairo social panorama

    "They" say it's overly faithful to the bestselling novel by Alaa Al Aswany which I have not read. For Egypt, Yacoubian Building is the most expensive film ever (quotes vary). Director Hamid was 28 when he made it and is the son of the screenwriter who did the adaptation. The film is an ambitious and promising if under-edited piece. Perhaps it ought to have been in parts like Marco Tullio Giordana's The Best of Youth/La meglio gioventů, to which it has been compared. But instead it's a somewhat sprawling 172 minutes and feels at times like a smashed-together telenovela.

    Hollywood Reporter says the film may "offer a revealing window into the secular world of a modern Islamic country -- its indulgence in alcohol, sexual promiscuity, political corruption and personal betrayals. From such 'deformities', the movie argues, Islamic fundamentalism gains its most passionate adherents." But we can do a little better than this crude analysis. Moroccan-born western-educated novelist Laila Lalami points out the book (and consequently the movie) is full of prejudices against gays; resembles the old "large-scale melodramas" produced by Egypt's "huge film industry," with their "young idealists, desirable ingénues, old predators, and so on"; and is crudely moralistic -- with almost every character forced to make choices that "ultimately result in either their downfall or redemption." It's also full of heavy-handed emotional manipulation and cliff-hangers. Alaa Al Aswany is no Naguib Mahfouz. Aside from the prejudice against gays, we're told that mixed marriages produce confused children; that all women love sex enormously; etc. It's important to realize that however engaging the film is and notable the actors are in the Egyptian film world, it's made out of dross, not gold.

    The titular Armenian-owned, Twenties Yacoubian Building in the once elegant, restricted central zone of the city "became home to Cairo's rich and powerful when it opened," Lalami writes. After the revolution, however, "storage sheds on the rooftop were rented out to poor families--a sort of sky-high slum." This allows for a story about the building's residents that spans society. The action is set in the 1990's. And the basic panorama goes something like this:

    In the foreground is Zaki Bey El Dessouki, or "Zaki Pasha" (weathered charmer Adel Imam), a superannuated playboy kicked out of the family apartment by his mean, half-crazy sister. He may seem seedy, but he's the house aristocrat. Fanous (Ahmed Rateb) is his faithful manservant. Dawlat (Essad Younis) is his nutty, vindictive sister, who has always resented his fun loving ways and now is out to get him. Hatem Rasheed (Khaled El Sawy) is a gay editor who takes Abd Raboh (Bassem Samra), a good-looking soldier from the country, as his lover. Rasheed isn't mincing, but he reflects an Egyptian discomfort with gayness; still, an attempt is made to understand him. He likes dark Nubian men because they remind him of an early experience with a family servant. The film's treatment of the sexual aspect of Hatem's relationship with the soldier feels like something made in the 1950's. In general sex is a burden for the people in this movie, either a risky temptation or an ordeal. It gets nasty, and then the camera shrinks away.

    Haj Assam (Nour El Sheriff) is a self-made millionaire (through a chain of stores selling modestly-priced women's clothing) with political ambitious. He wants to get into politics -- to be elected to the People's Assembly (Majlis al Sha'ab) for access to power, but he is made to pay dearly for it. Along the way, he takes a penniless young widow with a young son, Soad (Somaya el Khashab), as a second wife and forces her to have an abortion. As Lalani puts it, Assam "is the nouveau riche to Zaki' Bey's aristocrat." The brothers Abaskharon and Malaak (Ahmed Bedire) are Coptic Christians who save every penny they make, by legal and illegal means, in order to finally afford a room on the roof.

    On the roof are Taha (newcomer Mohamed Imam) the son of a bawab. A bawab is a doorkeeper, more like a concierge or a super in New York rather than a "janitor" as it's translated. With such a lowly father, Taha is turned down by the police academy as not socially adequate to become an officer, and adopts a "plan B," to major in political science, which leads him to sympathy with the university religious fanatics, who like him come from poor families, and he eventually becomes an Islamic fundamentalist. His girlfriend Buthayna (the lovely Hind Sabry) leaves him when he becomes religious. She's previously been sexually harassed in every job she's had -- as we're shown in a lurid scene. Perhaps she feels too defiled to be worthy of one so innocent and decent as Taha, and she seems hardened. A reader has pointed out that she is much poorer in the book than here. "Egypt's young men are easy preys to religious extremism," Laila Lalami says, "while the country's young women are victims of sexual exploitation." Eventually Buthayna goes to work for Zaki, who's reformed after being robbed by a whore and kicked out by his sister and treats her well. Their May-December romance is the film's only niceness -- except for the relationship between Zaki and Christine (singer Youssra), who runs and sings in the most elegant restaurant in town, where the songs of Edith Piaf are revived. (One of the film's most magical sequences is a long pan through downtown Cairo with the voice of Piaf herself in the background.) Taha is imprisoned and given Abu Ghraib treatment to de-islamicize him. It doesn't work. To get revenge, he trains as a terrorist -- a chain of events that looks frighteningly up-to-date.

    The film has little details any Cairo downtown resident will know -- like Zaki Pasha yelling angrily because another resident has left the door of the antique elevator open on their floor so no one else can use it. Though this isn't Naguib Mahfouz, like him it attempts to draw a richly representative picture of a whole society. It's a rather sad picture with its disapproval of the present and nostalgia for the past. And again, despite the three, or perhaps six, million dollars spent, some exterior sound is awful, the wrong kind of lens is used to pan up and down the city buildings, and some of the Islamicists' beards look pasted on. But with all that's going on, it holds your attention.

    Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007; a SKYY Prize contender. Earlier in the year one of the Film Comments Selects series at Lincoln Center, New York.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-08-2007 at 04:00 AM.

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    KARIM AINOUZ: LOVE FOR SALE: SUELY IN THE SKY (2006)

    KARIM AINOUZ: LOVE FOR SALE: SUELY IN THE SKY (2006)



    Lackluster abandon

    Love for sale, following Aďnouz's moody, unusual Madame Sată, is again about a marginal, uncertain character, a young woman who flirts with prostitution while left with the raising of a young child, but this time the result is less of a success, though the Brazilian director does achieve a raw neorealist flavor and the images, though sometimes grainy, are colorful and well-lit.

    Hermila (Hermila Guedes) leaves Săo Paulo and returns to the little town she came from expecting Mateus, her boyfriend, to follow. He never does, and she stays with her grandmother and her young aunt or hangs out with her young friend Georgina (Georgina Castro), who turns tricks. When Mateus doesn't turn up and she learns he's disappeared, she switches from selling raffle tickets for a bottle of whisky to selling ones for herself, or as she calls it, for "a night in paradise," planning to use the money she raises to go as far as she can away, somewhere in the direction of Porto Allegre. An old boyfriend, Joao (Joao Miguel) starts making love to her and says he's mad about her, and Hermila goes along with it, but she's not really interested. When her grandmother finds out about the raffle tickets she gets rough and Hermila leaves for a while; grandma and auntie take care of Mateus junior. Hermila turns a trick or two and eventually gets together enough money to leave town, and she leaves Mateus junior behind. Joao rather pathetically follows the bus on his motorcycle for a bit, then circles around and comes back. And that's about it.

    It's not too clear what Aďnouz was trying to achieve in this film.
    Visuals are sometimes striking in their evocation of heat and a relentless sun and capture authentic scenery and people, but the action is desultory at best. Madame Sata had a big advantage: a colorful main character, based on a real person, Joao Francisco dos Santos, with an interesting story and a go-for-broke performance by the remarkable Lazaro Ramos in the lead. With her elegant cheekbones and beautiful body, Hermila Guedes is convincing enough as someone men would buy raffle tickets for, and she projects a range of emotion from despair to wild abandon, but her character is unformed and uncertain and the meandering story focused on her provides little to react to or ponder.

    Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-08-2007 at 04:08 AM.

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    PAVEL LOUNGUINE: THE ISLAND (2006)

    PAVEL LOUNGUINE: THE ISLAND(2006)



    Portrait of a saintly trickster

    Former rock star Pyotr Mamonov gives a committed and intense performance in this visually elegant wide-angle lensed film about an eccentric healer. Anatoly (Mamonov) has been guilt-ridden for many years over being forced by German WWII soldiers to shoot his boat captain (seen in an introductory segment). He has become a monk but lives apart from the others on a little permafrost-covered island, obsessively stoking the coal furnace that heats the nearby monastery. Word of his ability to heal the sick, cast out demons, and foresee the future has spread abroad, and people regularly turn up seeking to be helped by him. A scene where he heals a boy with a rotting hip and then chastens the mother is particularly strong. Also watch how he brings down the father superior, Filaret (Viktor Sukhorukov), to size for his softness -- and finally drives out a demon from a young woman who seems crazy. It's her father who provides the tormented Anatoly with relief that makes him feel ready to die.

    There is an undercurrent of rough humor in all this. Anatoly is a cantankerous and wily prankster and the tall young Father Job (Dmitry Dyuzhev) openly despises him. The film is episodic, but focused constantly on Anatoly. He is striving to relieve his guilt by living as a hermit in conditions as harsh as they are squalid, but he is not loath to visit his own sufferings on others.

    Comments on the film usually dwell upon the lovely wide-screen visuals, in muted color, of the unusual landscape and the iconic monks by Andrei Zhegalov, which may at times evoke the Russian film classics. Sometimes the musical background (piano with orchestra), though sparingly used, seems a little too light and New Age for such an austere setting and intense tale. The screenplay by recent film-school graduate Dmitry Sobolev, is well paced, but a bit on the simple side, and resolves things a bit too easily at the end.

    The Island seems in contrast to most of the work of Lounguine, which is very much about current people and issues. He said this is the beginning of a series of "lives of saints." And from what he says the focus on the spiritual is meant to fill a felt need in the materialistic Russia of today.

    Mamonov was also featured in Taxi Blues (1990), Louguine's first feature, which won a special prize at Cannes; his The Wedding (2000) won the Cannes Best Acting Ensemble prize.

    Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-14-2007 at 12:34 AM.

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    LEE YOON-KI: AD LIB NIGHT (2006)

    LEE YOON-KI: AD LIB NIGHT (2006)



    Death in a family, seen through an outsider

    Like Hong Sang-soo (Woman Is the Future of Man, A Tale of Cinema, Woman on the Beach), Lee Yoon-ki is skillful here at using extended dialogue among a group of young people to develop character and situation. In this story of a girl who's brought to stand in for a lost daughter for a dying old man, the dialogue spreads out to a whole extended family. Two young men start talking to the young woman (Han Hyo-ju) on a Seoul street where they've found her. Myeongeun, who was always strange, went away to school, and then a few years ago simply disappeared. Gi-yeong (Kim Yeong-min) is convinced this is Myeongeon. She denies it. But then he persists, asking her if she would be willing to come and make the dying man happy by posing as his long-lost daughter. It's not really clear to us whether this girl is or isn't Myeongeon. This uncertainty provides a kind of tension throughout the film.

    The first third of the film is full of discussion and argument, first to persuade the girl to come to the house, then when she does, among other family members over whether this idea of her impersonation is proper.

    The argument goes on and on among family members and others sprawled on the living room floor. Some of them split off; and later still guests come to visit the dying man and a meal is served outside on this warm summer night.

    One of several striking coups de theatre comes during the big family debate, with everyone sitting on the living room floor. An older woman has taken the girl aside right away, and after giving her tea, despite all the argument, she solicitously leads the girl through the living room: and suddenly everybody realizes. It's done.

    Ad Lib Night's middle section, which drifts from group to group, with attention drifting away from the girl, and some people chatting in bedrooms or kitchen, others dining on barbecue outside, could well use some tightening up. But the tension of a large gathering around a drying man, whose wealth various people are obviously interested in inheriting, is nonetheless well maintained. There's an ironic sense in which the girl seems almost the only one who innocently cares about the dying man, even though she appears to have no particular connection with him.

    And then too through all this the girl (Han Hyo-ju) remains quiet and mysterious. She's taken up to the real girl's old room to rest, and puts on her socks. Is she the runaway girl? Or is she trying to take on her persona?

    Ad Lib Night lives up to its title: it's an actors' feast, with tons of interpersonal and group dynamics going on from scene to scene. And though this may be a low budget film, a good camera (and good cameraman) and seamless editing mean smooth and attractive visuals and nice transitions. The final sequence of the girl being driven back to Seoul at dawn is particularly subtle and handsome, with blue reflections slithering across the windshield -- as the girl provides a final revelation, that explains her presence that night, if not her relationship to the family.

    There are many factors that make this an adept and interesting film. It's like a good play that preserves unity of time and place. Its "long day's journey" takes us into a rich picture of family dynamics. Its subtleties and mysteries are thought-provoking.

    Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007. North American premiere.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-14-2007 at 12:32 AM.

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    JEANNE WALTZ: A PARTING SHOT (2007)

    JEANNE WALTZ: A PARTING SHOT (2006)


    CHRISTOPHE SERMET, ISILD LE BESCO

    Delicate collision: tough turns tender


    Ia small mountain town Isild Le Besco's character, Fred (Frederique) is an angry young woman working on the night shift at the hospital. As a nurse, she's efficient but remote. She's fed up with her life. Says she "can't take it any more." When she talks to her cop ex boyfriend Andre (Christophe Sermet) about leaving town, he makes her even madder when he admits he's already got a new girl living with him. In reaction she picks up two men in a bar and has quick sex with one after the other. "Couldn't you be more tender?" the first asks her.

    "Have you heard? I'm not tender," she tells the second ("T'as entendu? J'suis pas douce.") That's the film's original French title: Pas Douce. Not Tender.

    Fred is a crack shot, a champion marksman when she was younger. She's also mad at her dad (Philippe Villeumier), a commanding presence and a supervisor at the firing range where she practices. As striking an actress as she is striking looking (when she's properly used), Le Besco is as obsessively angry here as she was obsessively adoring of the famous singer in her role as a naďve fan in Emmanuelle Bercot's 2005 Backstage, but here, though still just in her mid-twenties, she has more authority.

    Next, just when Fred seems to be getting ready to leave town as she's told Andrďż˝ she's about to do, throwing away her junior marksman silver cups, she suddenly takes up her rifle and goes out. She's on a hill in the woods when a bunch of school kids walk by below her. Two aggressive boys are yelling at each other. One has a slingshot. He shoots a bird, then when the other boy protests, shoots him and hits him in the eye. Impulsively Fred swings her rifle toward them and fires, hitting the boy with the slingshot in the knee after grazing the boy holding his eye. An ambulance comes. She rushes after it in her car.

    The boy with the damaged knee, Marco (Steven De Almeida), is put in the ward where Fred works. After some rough moments on both sides, Fred commits herself to being Marco's chief caregiver. This development is justified in the plot by the fact that he's so hostile and difficult no other nurse wants to deal with him. A relationship develops that tempers the rebellion of both individuals. Fred's plan to leave town goes on hold; she still has to decide what to do about her legal culpability. As Marco's care proceeds, both he and Fred soften. Fred opens up emotionally, listening to Marco's divorced parents, including a mother Eugenia (Lio) returned from Portugal, and his dad with whom he lives (Yves Verhoeven). The history of family problems Marco comes from is deftly sketched in, as are several other occupants of the hospital room, always with a corresponding alteration in Marco. Marco and Fred relate in part through PlayStation. She's good at that, so she's cooler than he thought.

    If you asked what makes A Parting Shot different from something on an American TV series, the quick answer would be Le Besco's breasts. As in Jacquot's recent Untouchable, they're seen and they are beautiful. But there's more to it than that. The initial rebellion is outlined rather quickly for both characters, but the short (83-minute) film still manages to be subtle at showing the emotional changes in both these wild children after the shooting. Perhaps the best thing about the film is that despite its economy -- there's not a wasted moment -- it doesn't tie up all its threads neatly as a TV drama might.

    Le Besco's pouty manner can be irritating sometimes, but this is a role made to order for her. De Almeida is also excellent. His Marco is a handful but also, behind the anger, winningly vulnerable. Ultimately A Parting Shot, far from not tender, leaves one with an impression of surprising tenderness.

    A Parting Shot/Pas douce
    was awarded the Fipresci (international federation of film critics) Prize at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007. This is the Swiss-born Waltz's first feature-length film, and with its elegant concision and emotional intelligence it promises good things to come.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-13-2007 at 07:08 PM.

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    CAMILA GUZMAN URZUA: THE SUGAR CURTAIN (2006)

    CAMILA GUZMAN URZUA: THE SUGAR CURTAIN (2006)



    Memoir of a lost paradise of youth in post-revolutionary Cuba

    When the Berlin Wall came down and then the Soviet Union fell, Cuba had the rug pulled out from under it. More totally dependent on Russia than they knew, Cubans in the 1990's faced a time of devastating scarcity they call the "Special Period." This meant hours waiting for a bus or a loaf of bread; no longer making enough to pay for basic necessities; no longer having security or hope for the future. Camila Guzman Urzua made The Sugar Curtain/ El Telonn Azukar to represent her experience and that of members of her generation -- who regard their youth in the 1970's and 1980's as a halcyon time of idealism, happiness, and hope. When the "Special Period" came, Guzman Urzua and many others of the best and brightest of her generation left Cuba. This personal documentary is their story, their reminiscence, with a look at people and things in Cuba today filmed for comparison.

    "It has been twelve years since I left Cuba," Guzman Urzua writes in a statement to go with her film, "yet it is always on my mind.. . Now I go back and the old country has disappeared." Revisiting Cuba with a camera, Guzman Urzua talks to family and friends and films her old schools and examines photos and documents and historical footage to fill in the background on three decades. If it provides a good deal of general information for non-Cubans along the way, The Sugar Curtain still isn't formal history or polemic. Though she covers good and bad aspects of "her" Cuba, Urzua is not concerned with abstract critiques, ideological debates, or political analysis. More than anything, her film is the memoir of a childhood and the portrait of a faded dream.

    Born in Chile, Guzman Urzua was brought to Havana by her parents after the coup against Allende when she was two. Her parents believed in the ideals of the Cuban Revolution and were enthusiastic participants in its life. She grew up in Cuba, left in 1990 at age nineteen; lived and studied in Spain, England, and Chile; and for the past seven years has studied and worked France.

    "We were raised according to 'revolutionary ideals,'" Guzman Urzua says in her statement, "in a place where we all felt equal and where material values had lost importance. We were part of a huge laboratory, full of good intentions, in which the 'new man' that Che Guevara had imagined was being built. . .We lived with a somewhat precarious daily comfort, used to the rationing or lack of certain products. But in Cuba, still today, people have always improvised (inventar we say)[;] every problem has and still has a solution. . . It came naturally to us to receive medicine and education totally free; we considered it our right. All basic necessities were accessible to everybody. Unemployment didn't exist, everybody had a roof over his head.. . .I remember a sense of solidarity everywhere, and also the constant reminding of the fact the country could be invaded at any time. . . " (But she adds in the film that she doesn't remember ever being afraid.) "Now. . .when I see [Cuba's] reality today I feel an immense emptiness inside. . . there is nothing left, only some of my dear friends, the buildings' facades and the sea. I feel as if my childhood has been torn away.. . The intention of this film is to rescue that reality we had when we were children.."

    Paradoxically, when Guzman Urzua films students and classrooms in Cuba today, they are still full of the revolutionary ideals -- and as cheerful and happy as in the past. Otherwise everything is different: people feel the need to cheat and steal to survive, one woman says. There are two economies, of the peso and the dollar, and people think ceaselessly of money -- never a concern of in the 1980's. The film makes no predictions. It only asks what will happen. The filmmaker says Cuba didn't have "real communism," because its economic situation was artificial, due to the combination of the US blockade and Russian support. The sense of equality and solidarity her generation talks about however was real, in her view. Neither socialism nor capitalism rules Cuba today, she says; both are present. Will western capitalism take over, or will there be a new Fidel-style capitalism? All that's clear to Guzman Urzua is that revolutionary Cuba has been reduced to a shell of its 1970's and 1980's self.

    Guzman Urzua's parents are separated and her father lives in Spain. Her mother, who remains in Havana, speaks only very briefly to the camera (with Guzman Urzua seen in a mirror), haltingly expressing an enduring sadness about the coup against Allende and an equally enduring gratitude toward Cuba for the home and security it provided to them, along with citizenship, as it did to many others. The director has a friend who's in a musical group called Habana Abierta, who does a lot of talking; some of his group also speak, and we see them perform one political song at a concert.

    Despite the film's sense of a lost paradise, paradoxically the filmed present-day Cuban schoolchildren still unmistakably seem happy. This is notable in classrooms, in school hallways, and most of all on a work-study summer vacation in the country much like the ones the filmmaker experienced at the same age. The saddest moment of the film is when Guzman Urzua and a friend remember the names of several dozen of their good friends, who have all gone, to Chile, Argentina, Brazil, London, Paris, Rome, Milan, Canada, and on and on. One begins to suspect that whatever the voices in Miami may say, the Cuban Revolution nonetheless, for many, for three decades, was a time of great hope and no small accomplishment. Though the camera-work may be clumsy at times, the arc a bit inconclusive, the value of this personal documentary is its emotionally convincing portrait of a vanished childhood and lost ideals.

    This first feature by Camila Guzman Urzua, who studied film in London and Paris, was shown as part of the San Frandisco International Film Festival 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-13-2007 at 07:09 PM.

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    FRANCISCO VARGAS: THE VIOLIN (2006)

    FRANCISCO VARGAS: THE VIOLIN (2006)


    DAGOBERTO GAMA, DON ANGEL TAVIRA

    The authenticity of age

    Francisco Vargas's The Violin is an intensely rich tableau of rural conflict in Mexico in the Guerrero region in the 1970's. The pictures of country people with their poverty and rugged faces are as vivid and convincing as the FSA dust bowl photographs of the American poor of the depression era, and the rich, grainy black and white cinematography with many intense close-ups heightens the period realism, while also evoking cinematic antecedents like Italian neo-realism.

    Focusing on an old man, Don Plutarco Hidalgo (played by 81-year-old Don Angel Tavira), who plays the violin despite a missing right hand (as does the actor himself, subject of an earlier documentary by the filmmaker), The Violin tells the story of an incident in which peasant rebels were driven from their stronghold and then tracked down and killed. The opening titles accompany a prelude that shows from ground level a scene of brutal torture.

    When the narrative proper begins, we see the wrinkled, poor, but dignified Plutarco, accompanied by his son Genaro (Gerardo Taracena) and grandson, Lucio (Mario Garibaldi). working as street entertainers to earn a few pesos for tortillas and cheese.

    Later, the three are forced to split up when they go into the country and witness an army attack on their home. Don Plutarco ultimately displays exceptional coolness under pressure as he manages to charm a field commander of the military (Dagoberto Gama) and spirit out ammunition, and then eventually (the area bristling with armed guards) is trapped. He hides the fact that his son is one of the rebel leaders. The narrative arc is simple; but though it contains moments of considerable tension and suspense, The Violin is more important for its texture and its viewpoint than for the dramatic aspects of its action. Vargas, who with this film won the SKYY Prize for a first independent feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival, shows above all a sure hand with his non-actors and an ability to recreate his rural milieu flawlessly, while combining, as the award noted, a distinctive aesthetic with a strong political point of view.

    Tavira makes Don Plutarco into a surprisingly understated hero, finding courage inside a dry, aged heart. The action in some ways is rather like a conventional western with good guys cut off at the pass. But it's not about that: unlike a more mainstream, conventional film, Vargas' is politically committed, deeply rooted in a particular place and specific humanity, a song of the Mexican common people. The black and white images will remain a pleasure to look at for a long time to come. But the film stands or falls on the unique interest of the lean, somewhat sphinx-like Don Plutarco. He is its strength and its weakness. He is an interestingly ineloquent figure, but the focus on him makes the story rather more a footnote than an epic. This is no Battle of Algiers, and is, of course, not meant to be.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-14-2007 at 01:02 AM.

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    REHA ERDEM: TIMES AND WINDS (2006)

    REHA ERDEM: TIMES AND WINDS (2006)




    A lovely little package

    A sanitized and aestheticized image of village life is the limit of what Reha Erdem's Times and Winds (Turkish title Beş Vakit) shows us, but not without emotional conflicts--jealousies, resentments, secrets, with a focus on twelve- to thirteen-year-olds. They wear blue smocks, like French schoolchildren. The tranquility is well captured, to the point that the film may seem to lack a pulse. There's life under the surface but mostly we don't get to see it. What we do see is a little panorama of physical and mental abuse. One boy, Omer (Ozkan Ozen), whose father is the local imam (Bulent Emin Yarar), is beaten by him and plots his death. Yakup (Alibey Kayali), his best mate, resents his own father too, for always preferring his younger brother. Two adult brothers are abused in turn by their father for being bad farmers. In fact all the parents in Times and Winds are mean to their children. A horse is also beaten.

    Sex and love are not missing from the picture. Yakup is madly in love with his young schoolmistress, and another female character is an older girl named Yildiz (Elit Iscan), whose life is touched on from time to time. Yildiz cares for her baby brother, hears her parents making love; is aware of and troubled by sex. Late in the film, she has a mishap, which may make us think there will be more. There is an illness. And a birth.

    And that is the message: people are born, they go to school, they grow up, they have trouble and endure hardship, have squabbles, have kids, grow old, and die. Not a simple message, but not one you're likely to be surprised by. The restrained, episodic structure further distances the viewer from deep emotional involvement, while perhaps awakening a vague sense of nostalgia or a pleasure in the exoticism and remoteness of the world depicted.

    The skillful widescreen cinematography by Florent Herry and the music of Aarvo Pärt are almost too potent a combination. The film has been called hypnotic and stunning. The images of landscapes and skies are overwhelming, the sense of the rhythms of time and life are meditative. The Turkish title, Beş Vakit, means "five times," and refers to the five times of the day in which devout Muslims are expected to pray: fajr (dawn), dhuhr (noon), 'asr (afternoon), maghrib (sunset), and 'isha (evening).

    Pärt's strong, recurrent orchestral music makes you feel like you're in a concert hall. But the sweet exoticism and prettiness don't compensate for the failure to take any aspect of the action, the girl's awareness of sex, the boy's crush on his teacher, the brothers' rivalry, the older men's squabbles, mean anything, cause any lasting conflict, create any situation in need of being resolved. Similarly there's a failure to look forward or backward. A portrait of the texture of village life (an old woman gets a shot, a cow starts calving) isn't a portrait of any villager's life. Erdem sets his simple, lovely rhythms going masterfully. But he also seems to suffer from an unwillingness to look really deeper. (The music imposes a greater sameness on the action than it would otherwise have.) But this is the dissenter's view. Times and Winds played at Tribeca and now at the SFIFF. And there is a festival audience that adores such things.

    Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-14-2007 at 12:47 AM.

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    JULIE BERTUCELLI: OTAR IOSSELIANI...(2007)

    OTAR IOSSELIANI, THE WHISTLING BLACKBIRD

    (Otar Iosseliani, Le merle siffleur)



    "I should learn to cut more"


    This little documentary by an open accolyte celebrates the quirky filmmaker Otar Iosseliani and was made when he was shooting his latest, Gardens in Autumn (included in the NYFF 2006 and SFIFF 2007) The Georgia-born Iosselioani, who's now seventy-two, came to Paris 25 years ago and started making films there after being banned at home.

    Iosseliani's first feature, November (1966) won him the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes. His 1972 Pastorale disappeared in the Soviet archives and was held back from distribution. When Pastorale was a hit at the Berlin festival in 1982, he emigrated to France. He's won prizes in Berlin and Venice five times since. He's made about eighteen features.

    In this documentary, Iosseliani comes on reciting Pushkin, and, perpetually, smoking cigarettes. He discusses the film and there are segments of earlier ones. The essence of Iosseliani is a certain joie-de-vivre, and there are always shots of lovely feasts and people living well. The house may be a shambles but there will be a good bottle of wine. There are also elaborate scenes with movement of people but no dialogue. Gardens in Autumn is about a man who is a civil servant, loses his job, and then has another life. It's like playing hookey. This is Iosseliani's spirit. Perhaps what people most remember of Gardens in Autumn is seeing Michel Piccoli in drag with a prim gray wig, dancing and knitting. His film is unruly, it goes on too long, yet we see here that he makes dozens of beautiful sketches (rather like classic 1960's European cartoon drawings) and plans scenes down to the second. It's just that he doesn't like to cut, or to watch a film after it's been cut. And there are elements that he prefers not to plan.

    Iosseliani's wall is covered with the French equivalent of post-its, strips of paper printed up with phrases for things he'd like to get on film: "a complete idiot who's a wonderful violinist," "to die young due to stupidity," "a bender" ("that one I can do!" he comments), "The bigger they are, the harder they fall." "A burglar ceremoniously received." And so on.

    He argues gently with his producer, Martine Martignac, who is frequently exasperated. He wants more time for preproduction. She says the money isn't available for that. But he gets Russian money too! And dollars. But Mme Martignac is omnipresent: she's his worst nightmare, and he's hers. If you insist on seeing Gardens in Autumn, you can guess why. Some of the production is pretty elaborate, and the sets are many, and the scenes go on, and on, and on, and on. "The film will be long, that's all. But we'll see," Iosseliani says to her, when they're in the middle of the shoot. "Maybe that's not bad. Or maybe it's very bad. One doesn't know." (Or one does.)

    He smokes. And when he's not smoking he whistles. And he drinks. Vodka after vodka. The film is a bit lean on the "making of" aspects till half way through, consisting more of personal reminiscences, discussions with staff and production people, and some clips of earlier films showing the Iosseliani style as well as of Gardens in Autumn . But when the "making of" begins, it's fun too, as usual. There are some extremely droll set-ups of scenes, particularly one in which a couple of men are to be arguing in a coffin shop over the same coffin, for their own burial. "This will be very funny," Iosseliani says: and it is, at least the idea of it is. You get to see Iosseliani in a heavy downpour throwing food at some wild boars to make them stay in the frame. "I'm really wet to the skin. I'm so wet it's got to where I'm enjoying it. It's a long time since I've had this much fun," the director volunteers, smiling.

    And then there's Narda Blanchot. She is a priceless old lady like the late Margaret Rutherford, with the same bony energy and the same long jaw. He wants to use her, but she can't drive any more. Only we do see her whipping around in a bright shiny Alfa, top down, getting a light for her cigarette from a cop and then whipping off again. She can't walk. Hence Michel Piccoli in a gray wig, to take her place. "You know, the old ladies today, they're not what they used to be," Iosseliani says. . . But Michel Piccoli nonetheless agrees that if Iosseliani find s suitable real old lady by shooting time, he'll drop out.

    There are films that are better to talk about than to watch: Gardens in Autumn is such a film. See this; avoid the film itself. This is charming. Iosseliani is a delightful old cove. But don't try to produce one of his films. And in this case, don't try to watch it. (Some of his earlier ones have gained him a cult following. And you can't deny it: there are some drops of the blood of Jean Renoir in his veins. )

    Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-14-2007 at 02:48 AM.

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