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Thread: The 2008 Miami International Film Festival

  1. #16
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    SCRAMBLED BEER (CHILE)

    Vladimir, a fun-seeking slacker who gets serially evicted from apartments, runs into Jorge, a high school classmate he hasn't seen in years. Jorge is a neurotic nerd with a hot girlfriend who works at a chemical lab. He needs a roommate so he invites Vladimir to move in. When Vladimir agrees, one expects Scrambled Beer to turn into a new version of The Odd Couple. Then Vladimir begins to experience severe time disorientation, waking up a week ahead or behind actual time. This could develop into a type of metaphysical comedy like Groundhog Day, I thought, or a time-travel fantasy. Once Scrambled Beer becomes a dark comedy about murder, it became obvious I was watching something derivative and uninspired. It's seemingly aimed at a young crowd who hasn't seen excellent examples of the genre like Eating Raoul, The War of the Roses and Serial Mom.

    The title refers to a drink made by mixing malt beer, sugar and one raw egg that Jorge shares with his friend. Scrambled Beer was co-written and directed by Cristobal Valderrama, making his filmmaking debut. Given the stereotypical, superficial characters, it's no surprise to learn that he is a former cartoonist. It's possible I imagine to take these characters, which also include one appropriately and simply described by the director as "a goth freak", and make something fresh out of it. But the Santiago, Chile setting is not enough to put a new spin on a stale, recycled narrative.

  2. #17
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    THE OTHER (ARGENTINA)

    This unassuming miniature, written and directed by 34 year-old Ariel Rotter, won the Jury Grand Prix and the award for Best Actor (Julio Chavez) at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. The fact that it's become routine for Argentine films to garner awards at festivals worldwide speaks volumes about the consistent quality of a national cinema that has experienced an unprecedented revival over the past decade.

    The Other is a character study about Juan Desouza (Chavez), a 46 year-old lawyer. The opening scene depicts that middle-age rite of passage of finding out you need eyeglasses. Then Juan visists his ailing father, with whom he has a very warm relationship. Juan gives his father a bath, a scene of supreme terderness reminiscent of Sokurov's Mother and Son, because the old man refused to let the nurse assist him. Juan has an intimate moment with his wife before departing on a business trip to the provinces. After completing some legal paperwork for a recently deceased man, Juan goes to the station and decides not to leave. Over the next two nights, he checks into two hotels using the name of his client and, subsequently, that of a man who died while sitting next to him on the bus. He wanders around the town and surrounding areas being someone other than himself, as if taking some sort of existential vacation.

    The Other has a rigorous first-person point of view as Juan appears in every single scene. Rotter's filmmaking is unblinkingly austere, never calling attention to itself. The camera stares at him, and Chavez is a fascinating actor to watch, and follows him wherever he goes without feeling the need to explain and interpret his behavior. Juan is having to grapple with his father approaching the hour of death and, as it was initially subtly hinted and later confirmed, his impending fatherhood. His days in a provincial town under assumed identities amount to a period of reprieve or adjustment to new realities. Some will no doubt find the film a bit too cryptic and tight-lipped. Count me among those who find that The Other provides more than enough rationale for the protagonist's actions. It's an engrossing and fascinating character study with a superb performance by Julio Chavez as its core.

  3. #18
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    IZALINE CALISTER: LADY SINGS THE TAMBU (NETHERLANDS)

    This hour-long documentary directed by Miluska Rosalina is structured around a concert consisting of songs from George Gershwin's musical "Porgy and Bess" at a theater in Amsterdam. It opens with the chanteuse from the Caribbean island of Curacao backstage prior to her performance. The middle portion is primarily concerned with her learning, arranging, and rehearsing the chosen numbers with her quartet. The climax is, predictably, her excellent renditions of two of the songs in front of an audience on the opening night of her Gershwin tour.

    We also learn about Ms. Calister's development as an artist beginning with her recording of boleros and ballads when still in primary school, followed by recordings in her native Papiamentu language, her affinity for Brazilian popular music, and her more recent embracing of American jazz. What about the tambu? This talented lady actually does not sing the tambu, a call-and-response music form with African roots. We watch her discussing her fascination with tambu with a veteran of the genre and Calister's musician father but her attempts to learn it indicate the highly improvisational tambu is not suited to her talents. However catchy, the title of Rosalina's documentary is deceiving. One also wishes Izaline Calister: Lady Sings the Tambu would provide an idea as to the singer's degree of recognition and popularity around the world. Through my own research I learned, for instance, that she embarked on a 3-week tour of Mexico and that she's performed in faraway Indonesia. The documentary spiked my interest in Ms. Calister but it didn't satiate it. Perhaps making a feature-length documentary on her was not an option for Rosalina due to funding or broadcasting limitations.

  4. #19
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    GETTING HOME (CHINA)

    Director Zhang Yang's Shower (2000), about the owners and patrons of a traditional bathhouse set for demolition, became one of the most widely distributed Chinese films. His success continued with Quitting and the highly ambitious family saga Sunflower. Yang's central theme is the clash between rural and urban, tradition and modernity. That main concern remains evident in his latest, Getting Home, although Yang seems here to be more consciously aiming to please the general public, with mixed results.

    Zhao and Liu have, like millions of rural Chinese, emigrated to the city in search of employment. They have worked together as construction workers for four years and become best friends. We meet them towards the end of a drinking binge, when the slight and short Liu seems to have passed out. The corpulent Zhao carries his buddy on his back and boards a bus. He has realized before we do that Liu is dead and that he must, as promised, take him to his faraway town to be properly buried. The trip will be rich in incident and adventure, comedy and tragedy, as Zhao is determined to fulfill his commitment to bring Liu's corpse to his relatives_the film's Chinese title is based on the proverb: "A fallen leaf returns to its roots". Along the way, Zhao will meet some who will ease his burden and help him get closer to his destination, and others who will do the opposite. What emerges is a reasonably varied portrait of contemporary China.

    Almost by definition, road movies like Getting Home are episodic. It's a bit of a disappointment how some very effective sequences are surrounded by others that succumb to excess. A lot of genuinely funny bits are generated by the various ways Zhao attempts to transport the corpse, including placing it inside a huge tractor tire. Yang ridicuously elongates the scene as if wanting to exhaust the comic potential of a man rolling inside the tire. A chapter involving a rich but pathetically lonely man who hires mourners to stage his own funeral is both hilarious and moving. One featuring a hysterical, heartbroken truck driver verges into schmaltz. Zhao's encounters with a homeless woman who earns a living by selling her blood, and a family of urban exiles turned beekeepers are very successful. Another involving a gang of repentant thugs requires too much suspension of disbelief.

    Getting Home is wildly inconsistent. What smooths the ride through the rough spots is the winning performance by the enormously sympathetic Zhao Bensham, a stage comedian seen previously in Zhang Yimou's Happy Times. May we see more from him soon.

  5. #20
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    AMAL (CANADA)

    Expanded, feature length version of a short film by the same title released in 2004 by Toronto-born brothers Richie and Shaun Mehta. The eventful narrative was inspired by their encounter with a surprisingly honest motorized rickshaw driver during the one year they spent at college in Delhi, India.

    The narrative kicks off with a brief voiceover by an old man who relates how, just prior to his death, he learned a valuable life lesson from a rickshaw wallah named Amal. The old man, Suresh (Roshan Seth), is apparently nothing but a cantankerous, quarrelsome, ailing hobo. He is later revealed to be a millionaire hotel chain owner who changes his will during his last days and leaves everything to Amal. The angriest among his relatives is Suresh's younger son, who has large gambling debts. The lawyer in charge of the large estate has 30 days to find Amal, but she unwisely enlists Suresh's business partner (Naseeruddin Shah) to assist in the search. Meanwhile, Amal is trying to collect money to pay for an operation for a street girl who stole a purse from one of his passengers and got hit by a car while running away.

    Amal is a pleasant, well-made film that benefits enormously from a first-rate cast and on-location shooting in the crowded streets of Delhi_ a particularly difficult shoot because of the enormous popularity of veteran thespians Seth and Shah. The narrative is nicely paced, maintaining a consistently forward thrust. Some plot developments might be improbable but not incredible. Amal is decisively simplistic from an emotional and intellectual point of view. Realistic milieu aside, it's a fable that uses fairly archetypal characters like the virtuous, humble rickshaw wallah to illustrate how "the poorest of men can be the richest".

  6. #21
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    A WORKING MOM (ISRAEL)

    Narration in Hebrew introduces Marisa Villozial, a native of Cochabamba, Bolivia who has worked in Tel Aviv cleaning homes and apartments for the past fifteen years. We observe her working, visiting Jerusalem for the first time in her life, and having a farewell dinner with a dozen compatriots. We learn she left her three year-old son and baby daughter under her parents' care and hasn't seen any of them for 15 years. The narration stops and it becomes clear A Working Mom's subject is not Marisa's time in Israel but her return to Bolivia and her attempt to become a mother to her kids again.

    What ensues packs the emotional punch of fictional family drama, made even more devastating by our awareness that none of it is fabricated. The kids have built certain expectations based on culture and environment about the concept of mother that Marisa fails to meet. The parents await the return of the submissive, dependent girl who left at age 22, not the 37 year-old self-reliant, emancipated woman Marisa has become_they make serious and apparently baseless accusations against the Bolivian boyfriend Marisa met in Israel who is coming back to join her. Marisa has seen a different way of life and questions norms and mores no longer familiar to her. Moreover, she sent as much money as she could from Israel to have a small house built and a bank account opened for the kids' college education, and the money was, to some degree, misspent or mismanaged.

    Powerful material, well-presented by director Limor Pinhasov, who met Marisa in 1995 when she was assigned to clean her film production office. However, A Working Mom single-case scenario touches on global themes. Lower-class people working in foreign lands is an important and growing phenomenon. Remittances from those working abroad, mainly in Chile, Argentina and the US, amount to close to 10% of Bolivia's gross domestic product (that figure is roughly doubled for smaller countries like Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Honduras and El Salvador). I wish Ms. Pinhasov had placed Marisa's story within a larger, sociological context. It would have enriched the viewing experience.

  7. #22
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    COCHOCHI (MEXICO)

    The large State of Chihuahua in northern Mexico is a highly industrialized State but it's two of its agricultural communities that are the focus of recent Mexican films: the highly celebrated Silent Light by Carlos Reygadas (which will be reviewed later in this space), and this lower profile feature by writer/directors Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán. Both communities, Mennonites who emigrated from Europe and native Raramuri Indians, exist at the margins of mainstream Mexican culture and society. Their members speak, at least among themselves, languages other than the official Spanish. Both films utilize members of each community who have no acting experience. Silent Light, which already has a place in any serious cinema canon, is the most technically accomplished. But Cochochi is also quite special and I worry that it will be overlooked despite being selected by visiting film critics at Toronto '07 for the Discovery Award.

    Cochochi's plot is based on a simple premise: two boys are asked by their grandfather to deliver medicine to a old couple who live in a remote canyon in the Tarahumara mountains. The boys decide to ride grandfather's white horse rather than a donkey. Along the way, they tie the horse to a tree while exploring the area on foot. When they return, the horse is gone. They must find the horse and deliver the goods before returning home. Cardenas and Guzman, who hails from the Dominican Republic, have adopted the working methods of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa: become immersed in the community you are planning to depict, use a small crew (Cardenas and Guzman are also the film's cinematographers and camera operators), develop the story in close collaboration with the (non) actors, who are actually playing themselves or a slightly fictionalized version of themselves.

    Cochochi is both a road movie and a coming-of-age tale. It opens with a major rite of passage for Raramuri kids: their 6th grade graduation. This is, by choice or necessity, as much formal education as many indigenous kids will receive. Evaristo is very proud to be graduating and has plans to attend secondary school in the fall. It's ironic that his brother Tony, who decided not to go to the ceremony and doesn't plan to return to school, is the one whose academic achievement earns him a scholarship. The boys have contrasting views regarding the larger, mainstream society and different theories regarding what happened to the horse and what to do about it. The boys separate sometime after losing the horse and have distinct experiences based on encounters with both Raramuris and outsiders.

    Cochochi moves to the slow rhythms of its rural milieu and takes the time to contemplate the natural environment. Some stretches could exasperate audiences who might find the film lacking narrative urgency. The structure of the film allows for acquaintance with certain cultural aspects of the natives such as the making and consumption of teshuino, a fermented corn-based beverage, and the reliance on messages broadcasted by a local radio station to communicate and transmit vital information. These aspects are, however, neatly integrated into the narrative. They are organic to it rather than documentary asides. Cochochi is a work of anthropological rescue of a culture that's likely to eventually vanish. Its integrity to its themes and subjects is to be admired. But Cochochi is also a very beautiful, if conventionally lensed, movie that tells a story that seems slight at first but gains heft and complexity as it moves along.

  8. #23
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    ESTOMAGO: A GASTRONOMIC STORY (BRAZIL/ITALY)

    A large percentage of Latin American films are co-productions between a Latin American country and one or more European one. Typically, all the Europeans provide is funding and a limited distribution deal. On the other hand, Estomago (which means "stomach") is truly an artistic collaboration between Brazilians and Italians even though it's set in Rio and spoken in Portuguese.

    What will be most familiar to Brazilians is the protagonist, Nonato, an undereducated, fairly clueless native of the underdeveloped Northeast region who comes to the big city looking for a better life. He has just arrived when we meet him and he's hungry and penniless. So he enters a cafeteria, orders some food and ends up having to clean the filthy kitchen as a form of payment. His hard work and humble ways please the owner, who offers meals and a cot in exchange for help in the kitchen. Nonato turns out to have almost instinctual culinary talent. The working class patrons become enamored of his coxinhas (a fried snack food known in the US as "mock chicken legs") and other delicacies. Nonnato's biggest fan is Iria, a gluttonous, vulgar but sweet prostitute that can rightly be called "Felliniesque". He is lured away by the owner of a restaurant named, not coincidentally, Boccaccio '70 and introduced to gourmet cuisine. Nonato is smitten by Iria, who is more than willing to offer her services in exchange for his tasty food. Then Estomago flashes-forward to Nonato being taken to his jail cell, the beginning of a second story about how Nonato enters an alien environment and masters it thanks to his cooking skills.

    Co-writer/director Marcos Jorge shuttles back and forth between the two stories with expert assistance from editor Luca Alverdi (who Jorge met in film school in Rome). The first story is a mystery regarding how and why Nonato ended up behind bars. The second one generates suspense because a crowded Brazilian jail in which 8 criminals share a cell is a most dangerous environment. But, Estomago is, resolutely, a comedy, one based on the realistic predicament of an innocent, fish-out-of-water convincingly played by Joao Miguel. His performance evidences masterful comic timing but the role involves substantial dramatic material, which shows off the thespian's range (Miguel received his second Best Actor nod at the Rio festival in the past 3 years). The film's revelation is Fabiula Nascimiento, making her feature debut with a robust, confident performance as Iria. One can't fail to mention the contribution of composer Giovanni Venosta, whose music sounds like an update on Ennio Morricone's scores for spaghetti westerns, and DP Toca Seabra's slow pans and a bravura final shot that's the perfect bow for this gift to film lovers of all stripes.

    *Estomago's screening at the Miami International Film Festival is its North American premiere. The film will open in Brazil shortly, followed by theatrical runs in 12 other countries. It's likely to continue making the festival circuit in the US. During Q&A, Jorge expressed his hope that a US distributor will turn up. Audience response was enthusiastic, particularly regarding Miguel and Nascimiento's performances, the bizarre and brilliantly lensed final scene, and the clever way the two narrative strands are handled and finally brought together.

  9. #24
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    KATRINA'S CHILDREN (USA)

    World premiere of feature length documentary directed by Laura Belsey. It won the Jury Prize at the New Orleans Human Rights Film Festival in its original short version. Title is most accurate. Katrina's Children examines the effects of Hurricane Katrina exclusively from the point of view of kids between the ages of 7 and 13 from New Orleans and other gulf communities. It makes ample use of the children's artwork, particularly drawings which were subsequently animated by artists David and Courtney Egan.

    The interviews, set in the children's homes and schools, reveal that the effects are quite varied depending on a number of factors. Some kids who left the area in advance of the storm evidence minimal discomfort. It's encouraging to note that these kids are quite aware of their advantageous position relative to kids who witnessed tragedy and lived through terror. Like a 10 year-old girl, for instance, who states that "nothing will make (her sadness and anxiety) go away". The experience of loss of family, friends, home, and a sense of being safe in their world is palpable. As the film progresses, it becomes evident (although there's no narration or text spelling it out) that most of the kids exhibiting signs of post-traumatic stress are African-American. A couple of frank statements regarding race are most illuminating about how kids perceive the racial divide in America. Two interviews are interesting in showing how, when children attempt to assign blame, they often tend to point the finger at themselves no matter how illogical. A boy seems to be negotiating between contrasting impulses when he says: "Sometimes, I just wonder why it happened, why my house got taken away. I know it's not my fault, but I could have changed things. I could have quit being mean. I could have been more grateful for what I've been given. And I could have not took my friends for granted."

    This is engaging and important documentary material but, at 80 minutes, this feature length version of Katrina's Children often feels repetitive. There are also some scenes that add little to our understanding of the children's reactions to the tragic event. The material could be condensed into a nicely paced, hour-long film for television broadcasting.
    Last edited by oscar jubis; 03-13-2008 at 11:31 AM.

  10. #25
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    KONYEC (HUNGARY)

    The Hungarian Film Week is the only film festival I know that separates its Jury Prize into Best Auteur Film and Best Mainstream Film. Konyec, the directing debut of Gabor Rohonyi, won the latter and, as if to support the jury's decision, also won the People's Choice Award. It is, as that pedigree indicates, an extremely well-crafted, thoroughly enjoyable movie.

    Konyec tells the story of Emil and Heidi at two separate points in time. Black-and-white scenes relate how in 1959, when Emil was a chaffeur for Soviet communists, he hid Heidi from authorities who were searching her home. Later they fell in love and married. In the present, the 81 year-old Emil and 70 year-old Heidi are unable to live with dignity because their social security or pension check can't begin to cover basic expenses. When Heidi is forced to use her prized diamond earrings as a form of payment, a desperate Emil grabs an old gun he was allowed to keep when the Soviets left and robs a post office. It's the first of a series of crimes. Heidi is both concerned for his safety and excited by his courage. She regains her passion for Emil and eventually joins him on a crime spree across Hungary as they evade police capture. They are labeled "the blood money pensioners" by the press, become folk heroes to working class people and a source of embarrasment to the police. Andor and Agi, the cops assigned to the case are young, married and constantly bickering because of Andor's recent tryst with a whore at the station. The chase gives Andor the opportunity to make amends.

    Konyec feels like more than a "geriatric road movie" or another criminals-on-the-run yarn. Emil and Heidi's criminal motivation is deeply rooted in the plight of many retirees in Europe and elsewhere. Konyec has a humanist core and sustained romantic overtones. Reportedly the title means "end" in Russian. It might refer to what the end of communism in Hungary has brought on, or to the last stage in the life of a human being, or both. Anyway, there's no reason why anyone must see Konyec but it's hard to think of anyone who wouldn't be entertained by it.

  11. #26
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    BARCELONA (UN MAPA) (SPAIN)

    Veteran writer-director Ventura Pons suffers from the general underexposure to which intellectual/highbrow art is subjected in our current cultural climate. I don't mean to imply that Ventura Pons' films are difficult and inaccessible, but his are not the type of foreign films that receive wide distribution. The prolific, Barcelona-based Pons produces consistently ambitious work that is often quite accomplished_I like Wounded Animals, Food for Love, Anita Takes A Chance and Dear Mary. He often adapts acclaimed plays by Catalan authors. Barcelona (Un Mapa) is an adaptation of Lluisa Cunille's "Barcelona (Mapa d'ombres)" which premiered in 2004 to great reviews_it has been compared to Harold Pinter's "Moonlight" and James Joyce's "The Dead". The film develops some of Pons' preferred themes: the isolation and loneliness of urbanites, the lives of those marginalized because of sexual or political orientation, and cultural degradation.

    Barcelona (un mapa) is set inside an old house owned by 76 year-old Ramon (Jose Maria Pou), a former usher at the Opera House, and his wife Rosa (Nuria Espert), a reclusive woman raised in bourgeois comfort who, unlike Ramon, truly loves opera. Their marriage is based on maintaining a facade that hides a great deal of pain and trauma. Ramon's terminal lung cancer propels him into honest disclosure since he has "nothing left to lose". He also wishes for a more private, peaceful last chapter of his life so he decides to ask the three boarders occupying rooms in the house to leave. The 90-minute film is divided into five segments, each is a dialogue between two characters in a different room of the house. 1) Ramon meets with a middle-aged, highly cultured woman (Rosa Maria Sarda, the star of Anita Takes a Chance) who teaches French to disinterested teenagers and wishes she had a closer relation with her son, an architect responsible for the modernization of the city. 2) Rosa meets with a 30-something security guard and failed soccer goalie who's been entertaining revenge fantasies since his wife left him. 3) Ramon meets the third tenant: a pregnant waitress (Maria Botto) from Argentina (this is the only segment spoken in Spanish) who's considering giving the baby to someone who wants to adopt. 4) Rosa receives a rare visit from her younger, gay brother (Jordi Bosch) in which a couple of devastating family secrets are finally brought into the open. 5) Ramon and Rosa have a transcendental conversation in which they finally reveal themselves with complete honesty and confront the imminence of death.

    Ventura Pons "opens" the play by means of brief but highly suggestive flashbacks and a bracketing device: documentary footage of the public rally held to welcome Franco's troops at the end of the Spanish Civil War. One infers that Ramon and Rosa are (ex?) fascists who are perhaps pathetic but still worthy of compassion and understanding. "They won the war but lost the peace" said Pons, who was deservedly nominated for best adapted screenplay at the Spanish Academy Awards. It feels a bit unfair to single out any of the actors among such an excellent cast but the film showcases the full-bodied performances by veteran stage and film thespians Pou and Espert. Barcelona (un Mapa) is an intense drama of the highest caliber. It reminded me of Saraband, the late Ingmar Bergman's final film.

  12. #27
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    SILENT LIGHT (MEXICO)

    The reception received at Cannes and elsewhere by the third feature by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas leaves no doubt that he has entered the unofficial pantheon of modern practitioners of the art of cinema. Everyone who fashions himself a cinephile must partake of his films and weigh on their merits, or lack thereof. There are multiple ways to approach Silent Light from a critical standpoint. It raises a variety of issues that can't possibly be addressed in a single review, even a relatively lengthy one like the one you are reading. One consideration when discussing a new film by an "auteur" (a director with a personal vision who is clearly the overriding creative force) is: What makes it stand out from his previous work? It's apparent to me that unlike Japon and, especially, Battle in Heaven, Silent Light does not contain transgressive or subversive material. It's not the work of an enfant terrible out to rattle bourgeoise notions of "good taste" or to do battle with taboo subjects. It's a simple story with a magical ending; about Johan, a family man who loves his wife Esther and also loves Marianne and he experiences joy, pain and confusion as a consequence.

    Silent Light takes place among a Mennonite settlement_they speak a European dialect called Plautdietsch, living in Chihuahua, Mexico. Reygadas is not interested in the Mennonites per se. He likes the landscape there and the fact that they are a "uniform, monolithic" community that can serve as a blank canvas that won't detract attention from the essential story. We learn significantly less about the Mennonites during Silent Light's 142 minutes than we do about Chihuahua's Raramuri Indians in the 87 minutes of Cochochi, ironically a film Reygadas has singled out as particularly praiseworthy. The focus is on the universal aspects of the story rather than the specificity of the culture in which it takes place.

    That universal (we could call it cosmic) orientation becomes apparent in the opening image of a starry sky which becomes progressively lighter as the camera moves 180 degrees across the horizon and then meanders among the sights of sounds of nature. The 6-minute time-lapse sequence is matched by a similar shot at the conclusion of the film which reverses the order to return to the starry sky on its final image. In other words, Silent Light is bookended by sunrise and sunset, as if to suggest that the story takes place during the course of a single day. This concept of man being subservient to time, encapsulated, and even victimized by it, is central to Silent Light. No wonder the first people we see-Johan's family around the breakfast table-are reflected/trapped on the pendulum of a grandfather's clock that has stopped ticking from lack of winding. Johan wishes he could do just that when he makes love to Marianne for, maybe, the last time and explicitly expresses desire to reverse time so he can marry whom he now thinks is the woman better suited for him.

    Since the release of Japon in 2002, Reygadas has been very outspoken about the kind of cinema that has had formative influence on him. He is especially enamored of what's come to be known as transcendental cinema since the publication of Paul Schrader's not particularly well-written but insightful and highly influential "Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer" in 1972 (A style that is arguably experiencing a revival). It has since become de facto to include Andrei Tarkovsky, among others, as a maker of transcendental films.

    It's interesting to note the influence of these directors on Silent Light. What's Bressonian about Reygadas is his casting of non-actors and his handling of them. Reygadas: "I saw Gael dressed as Che Guevara. Then I see Benicio del Toro dressed as Che Guevara. In five years we'll see someone else. I almost feel they should lend each other the costume". He sounds exactly like what one would expect from Bresson were he alive today. Most of the male roles in Silent Light are played by Mennonites who run a country radio station, including disc jockey Cornelio Hall as the protagonist. Hall's real-life dad plays his minister father in the film. The women playing Esther and Marianne were recruited from less conservative Mennonite communities in Canada and Germany. They were asked to memorize their lines, but no rehearsals were held and discussions about character were kept to a minimum. "The one who has to think about the film and the characters is the director", Reygadas says. Bresson referred to his non-actors as "models". Reygadas fancies himself a pupeteer: "Sometimes I get down and tie strings to their legs to tell them when to say their line or to move". The timing is particularly crucial for a film like Silent Light characterized by sustained silent stretches between moments in which characters move or speak. The contrast between Bresson and Reygadas is that the latter doesn't drain the emotion of out the performances like Bresson, who shot dozens of takes until the performers were so exhausted they appear nearly catatonic. What Reygadas shares with Tarkovsky is a rare ability to imbue open spaces with meaning, to make them signify. In Silent Light, like in many films by Tarkovsky and Werner Herzog, Reygadas aspires to create a distinctive universe in which the film exists, like a self-containing sphere.

    The director's name that comes up most frequently in commentary about Silent Light is that of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968). I must, in the spirit of fair play, issue a spoiler alert at this time. One writer opined that mere mention of Reygadas' acknowledgement that the ending is an homage to Dreyer's Ordet is more than a reader who plans to see Silent Light should know. In Ordet, a man named Johannes is deemed half-mad by others within his religious community who believe God no longer works miracles. Then the prayers of Johannes resurrect his presumably dead sister-in-law. The most common interpretation of Ordet is that the conclusion represents the triumph of blind faith over dogma. Silent Light has raised discussions as to whether its ending, which includes Esther's coming-back-to-life, has religious connotations. It certainly can be interpreted as such, and one might feel so inclined by the Mennonites' Christian practices on view. Reygadas himself seems to regard it as belonging to the realm of the fairy tale by citing Charles Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty" as a source of inspiration. I personally found myself thinking of Ordet much earlier, during a scene in which a torn and bewildered Johan asks his father for advice regarding his dilemma. Another area of comparison is that Reygadas, like Dreyer and also Tarkovsky, often moves the camera in a very slow, deliberate manner in the form of lateral pans, particularly during indoor scenes. He stands, by all appearances, against the very much in-vogue tendency of covering a scene by moving those new, lighter cameras all over the place often without a sense of purpose.

    Now back to the story. What makes this love triangle particularly compelling and moving is not only that Johan genuinely and deeply loves both women_ as opposed to merely having an affair or a dalliance that can be neatly ended. What's truly sublime is that both women are so compassionate and generous of spirit that they acknowledge each other's grief. In Silent Light's most visceral and unforgettable scene, Esther dies of a broken heart, crouched against a roadside tree as a rainstorm rages and her umbrella is taken away and battered by the wind. Later, Marianne will witness Johan being consumed by pain and perhaps regret. Her life-giving kiss to Esther is an act of love and redemption. A sacrifice of a magnitude not seen at the movies since Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves about a decade ago. If cinema were dead, I'd ask Carlos Reygadas to kiss it on the lips.

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    DARLING (FRANCE)

    This second film directed by Christine Carriere is an adaptation of a novel by Jean Teule based on the true story of a battered wife who abandoned her three children. Darling is set in a farming town near the highway to Caen in western France. It's the story of Catherine (Marina Fois). Before we see her, we hear an emergency room doctor say:"there isn't a part of her body that isn't scarred", we hear her begging the doctor not to report it but our view of her is blocked by a half-open door, then the door is opened but she has absconded. Darling flashes back to just before her birth . "I hate this baby" her mother says. Dad wants a third boy or nothing. She growns into a chubby, tomboyish girl who is perpetually humiliated, belittled, ignored and beaten by her parents. They typically call her "barrel-chest" or "double-chin" rather than Catherine. Darling flashes-forward to a time in her late teens when her life takes a hopeful turn; she loses weight by running and gets a job at a pastry shop owned by a very nice, cheerful woman. Meanwhile, she dreams of leaving the town for good and vows not to become a farmer's wife. Catherine becomes a CB radio operator under the moniker Darling, meets a young trucker named Joel (Guillaume Canet). It's apparent to the audience but not to Catherine that her "Romeo" is a lecherous alcoholic. She gets pregnant, they marry, and a pattern of violence, degradation and abuse is set in motion.

    Carriere attempts to lighten the mood of this horrific and predictable story with a voice-over narration that includes humorous comments often tinged with sarcasm. However, the device is used excessively and the humor strikes me as inappropriate relative to the gravity of the events. The same thing can be said about the playful, lilting music score. There is nothing particularly interesting, and nothing objectionable, about the filmmaking. Marina Fois (Hypnotized and Hysterical), an actress who isn't very well-known in the States, was nominated for a Best Actress Cesar for this film. Her performing skills almost shatter the impression I had that at age 37 she's too old to play the teenage Catherine. Her scenes as an abused wife and neglectful mother are convincing and riveting though. Marina Fois is Darling's redeeming feature. I hope we get to see her in a better film in the near future.

  14. #29
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    Oct 2002
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    FADOS (PORTUGAL/SPAIN)

    The latest musical film by Carlos Saura is strictly a performance showcase like Flamenco ('95) and Sevillanas ('92). It lacks the fictional element he incorporated into Tangos ('98), his previous celebration of a music form. The fado was created in the slums of Lisbon in the 1820s by rural newcomers and immigrants from Portuguese colonies. It has continued to evolve into the present. Saura's film is a compendium of these styles and traditions. Its quintessential element is the expression of saudade, a Portuguese term for longing for what cannot be had and for the melancholy and solitude one feels when experiencing that longing.

    The fado thus gets "the Saura treatment". He splits a huge soundstage into smaller spaces by means of partitions, and transparency screens that produce shadows and silhouettes. He uses a variety of props, especially mirrors, and adds choreographed dances to several numbers. He plays with a variety of lighting schemes and covers the action with cameras that moves as fluidly as water_this time he uses two directors of photography, Jose L. Lopez Linares and Eduardo Serra, in place of Vittorio Storaro. He uses backstage projection of archival footage, most notably performances by legendary fado practitioners whom Fados pays homage, and footage of the street celebrations following the triumph of the "Carnation Revolution" in 1974.

    The variety of musical performances included here speaks volumes about the vitality of the fado. There are some traditional performances here that will please purists and others, especially from former Portuguese colonies Brazil, Cape Verde, and Mozambique, that mix the fado with African musical styles. There's even a hip-hop fado in the program. Another notable number recreates the most common way to experience the fado, in a Lisbon taverna while drinking a bottle of vinho verde. It's hard to think how Fados could have been improved within the strictures of the performance film. Carlos do Carmo's "Fado da saudade" received the Spanish Academy Award (Goya) for Best Original Song and the film was named Best Documentary by the Spanish Cinema Writers Circle.

  15. #30
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    Oct 2002
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    LAMB OF GOD (ARGENTINA)

    Lamb of God opens with the kidnapping of Arturo, a septuagenarian veterinarian, in 2002 when Argentina's economy was in shambles. His captors phone Arturo's 30 year-old grandaughter Guillermina to alert her they are holding him and will call again with instructions. Arturo's daughter Teresa arrives from Paris. She and her husband Paco were part of the underground movement against the military junta that governed Argentina. In 1978, Paco was killed in the streets and Teresa was arrested and then released with the condition that she leave the country immediately. Her father's capture forces her to return for the first time in decades. The kidnappers' demand an amount of money that forces the women to decide between selling the family home or borrow from a friend of Arturo with right wing connections. Teresa doesn't like either option and appears to lack any sense of urgency about raising the funds needed. Guillermina, who serves to some degree as audience surrogate, is mystified by Teresa's nonchalance. Teresa reluctantly agrees to an exploratory meeting with her father's friend and becomes disgusted when he attempts to force her not to testify to the Human Rights Commission collecting information about the Junta's abuses. Unresolved issues between father and daughter, rooted in the political turbulence of the 70s, begin to emerge.

    Lamb of God is the type of debut film its director simply had to make. It tells a story that has a very personal meaning for director Luisa Cedron, a Sorbonne graduate. After her father died under unclear circumstances in the 70s, the 4 year-old Luisa and her mother moved to Paris. It seems apparent that Ms. Cedron identifies with Guillermina, whose point of view takes precedent. The director dedicates Lamb of God to her mother. This is a very assured fictional feature debut. It not surprising to learn Ms. Cedron has previously directed a documentary, award-winning shorts, and a segment of the omnibus film 18-J which involves the reunification of an exiled woman and her son with her parents. One of the inherent challenges of the project was the casting of Teresa who appears as an adult in both 1978 and 2002. Instead of casting one actress and using make-up to age her, Cedron casts two different actresses, Malena Solda and Mercedes Moran, who collaborate in creating a complex, multi-faceted but unified character at two crucial times in her life. DP Guillermo Nieto separates the two time periods by slightly but perceptibly draining the color out of the 70s scenes. The indelible mark left by those years on the more recent past and the synergy between the personal and the political are conveyed with great narrative skill. Cedron could have chosen to play up certain aspects of the story and make a thriller (like last year's Chronicle of an Escape) or create emotionally cathartic melodrama (the Oscar winner The Official Story, for instance). She chose to make something more thought-provoking and ambiguous and probably less marketable. Lamb of God reflects a certain distance from the events that tore up Argentina during the 70s and consequently invites sober reflection.

    Lamb of God was chosen as the Opening Night Film of the 2008 Rotterdam Film Festival. The Hollywood Reporter states that Lamb of God "received excellent reviews. Other candidates for the Tiger Award did not get as warm a reception from press and public alike". Its screening at the Miami Film Festival is the American premiere of the film which will open commercially in Argentina next month.

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