Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival
Cinema Junkies Convene!
Eric J. Iannelli
Editor’s Note: This text originally appeared in Eric J. Iannelli’s weblog, Diderot’s Diary.
From time to time I’m still beset by the aftershocks of the addictive cravings I used to get when the annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) took place. Several weeks of round the clock movies, many of which were new, rare or outright groundbreaking… very few events lend themselves to so much indulgence. The intervening 330 days or so was just enough time for my eyes to readjust to daylight.
After leaving the city in 2001, I felt as though I’d never have the chance to have so much fine cinema so close again. So it was to my great pleasure that I stumbled upon the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival, now in its 52nd year and just a 15 minute tram ride west or south of where I’m living at the moment. This year, the festival started on November 20 and ran for nine days. Those nine days featured work by mostly debut or up-and-coming directors from all over the world, plus a special homage to Raoul RuÃz.
Somewhat closer to home for stateside Ink 19 readers is the Sundance Film Festival, which kicked off Friday, January 15, in Colorado and will run until January 25. At least two of the films reviewed here have since moved on to appear at Robert Redford’s brainchild after prior screenings at the M-HIFF. In those cases this ought to amount to a rather convenient pre-review.
Imitations of Life
The phrase has been used countless times: by historians of Russian drama, Douglas Sirk and R.E.M., to name only a few examples; but for the Canadian director Mike Hoolboom, “imitations of life” is most closely associated with Plato’s allegory of the cave. The moving shadows on the wall – in this instance, those sent to us from Hollywood – are but a partial representation of reality, not the thing itself. To confuse the shadow with the original, Hoolboom argues (or would appear to argue via his chosen medium), is at the root of our contemporary discontent.
Imitations of Life has been described in some places as a “cinematic essay.” To some extent it is. Comprising ten individual parts (“In the Future,” “Jack,” “Last Thoughts,” “Portrait,” etc), it relies equally on the verbal and visual to raise some timely, provocative questions. Have Hollywood’s fairy tales replaced our ability to dream? Why are science fiction settings always dystopias? What exactly is gone when we lose the innocence of childhood? In at least two of the ten parts, the narration or subtext reminded me of the impassioned, intelligent think pieces like those often published in Harper’s magazine. Most parts, however, reminded me of the bloated portentousness of Don DeLillo’s writing. Visually, Imitations of Life is a thematic pastiche, borrowing scenes from Metropolis, Sunset Boulevard and The Abyss, among many others, as well as incorporating home video, stock and found footage. This works extremely well in the philosophical musings of “Jack,” the longest segment, but is pretentious and nonsensical in the orgy of water-related clips entitled “Last Thoughts.” The director’s intent is manifold. And while I felt that this unconventional, occasionally thoughtful film was supposed to serve as a reminder of Hollywood’s pervasive influence, I also had the impression that Hoolboom somewhat quixotically expected the audience to rise up and storm the box office in demand of better quality fare.
Ultimately, Imitations of Life negates itself. Hoolboom rails against the exaltation of images by using images, many of which are the same ones we have supposedly unduly exalted. He’s an iconoclast wielding his own set of icons. Adding insult to injury, the director incorporates the same rhetorical devices used in advertising to drive this point home – viz. the Microsoft (just one of the corporate megaliths subject to Hoolboom’s invective) slogan “Where do you want to go today?” appearing between images in the company’s TV commercials. Three seconds of text reading, “What will the future be?” sandwiched between apocalyptic clips from blockbuster movies isn’t much different. Experimental film or software commercial, the desire to persuade, to manipulate is the same. This is what will alienate the audience Hoolboom hopes to reach. Otherwise it’s a case of preaching to the choir. Or is it quite the opposite? Were the many disappointed people who walked out during the film to face the sunlight of reality acting in better accordance with the director’s wishes than those who remained inside?
J’ai toujours voulu être une sainte (I Always Wanted to Be a Saint)
There is a scene in I Always Wanted to Be a Saint in which the young protagonist asks herself, “What did I do to be punished like this? I must have upset the balance.” Both I Always Wanted to Be a Saint and Levity are films about restoring the balance, and in a larger sense personal redemption, whether that comes through atonement, forgiveness or compensation, each a way of righting wrongs and meting out justice.
In the first film we have 17-year-old Norah de Ghiever (Marie Kremer) of Luxembourg. She has never determined why her mother abandoned her as an infant, and is warned not discuss the matter around her hardworking, compassionate, but emotionally fragile father. On top of this, Norah holds herself responsible for the death of a famous rally driver, Nico Marcuse, four years prior, having momentarily forgot her superstitious vigil and uncrossed her fingers just minutes before his death was announced on television news. In the other film, we have Manuel Jordan (Billy Bob Thornton), a convict who has not come to terms with his crime, the murder of a young boy during a convenience store robbery, and cannot invent a penance strong enough to clear his guilt. Youthful characters in movies are often spoiled by their transparency. The inability of actors to fully reinhabit the naïve, stubborn insecurity of adolescence – I’m reminded here of Elizabeth Bowen’s quote describing an attempt to reclaim innocence being as futile as a “picnic in Eden” – produces some appalling caricatures. This is a nagging problem in Ed Solomon’s otherwise admirable Levity; so it is a coup of sorts that Geneviève Mersch, director of I Always Wanted to Be a Saint, and Marie Kremer have given us a lifelike protagonist whose confusion makes her kind as well as loathsome.
The movie avoids the usual pitfalls of portraying teenagers as one-dimensional, hedonistic cretins-in-the-making or misunderstood martyrs. Instead Mersch navigates through the ambivalence inherent in the subtleties of personality. Thus Norah’s clumsy maternal gestures toward the little girl in her after-school teaching workshop are not portrayed as wholly good; nor is the angry blaming of her father for her mother’s decision to leave portrayed as wholly bad.I Always Wanted to Be a Saint is also rarely predictable, somehow capturing the whim, rashness and chance that determine any given course of events. Norah’s journey in search of her mother comes long after she is notified of her whereabouts, for example, and she makes some uncharacteristic advances toward her male friend in a nightclub. None of this seems contrived for the sake of the plot. They are brief and, I would argue, necessary vignettes that help to round out our impression of Norah as a human being. If I had to fault this film, it would be in the reversal of the usual feminist complaint – that is, the three male roles (e.g., Norah’s father, her boyfriend and the little girl’s mother’s abusive suitor) are underdeveloped and disappointingly ancillary. On a more niggling level, there are some oversights in wardrobe consistency (these, I have to admit, escaped my notice; my wife pointed them out afterwards).
Mersch’s film has the additional benefit of a plausible, semi-happy ending, as opposed to the formulaic happy ending of Levity. Solomon may have been tempted by his commercial cinema experience to tie up all possible loose ends in a painfully obvious, syrupy way; whatever the reason, he ends this film about ten minutes too late, because it is in this short time that his youth characters undergo a miraculous revelation and turn away from their self-seeking past. Likewise, the burden of two decades of regret floats off Jordan’s shoulders, revealing almost instantly his buried sense of humour.This heavy-handedness and sentimentalism are a real shame. Thornton is arguably at his best since Slingblade (though I can’t say the same for Morgan Freeman as the shady itinerant preacher Miles Evans) and there are some especially inspired uses of old Hollywood devices, such as Jordan’s dialogue with his victim. In most cases this is done without sliding into pathos and is all the more moving for it. But Solomon underestimates his audience and overplays his hand. If Levity represents the writer-director’s break with the world of Charlie’s Angels and Men in Black, it sadly isn’t complete. For the equally mainstream Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man, Get Over It, Drop Dead Gorgeous) the transition to more meaningful filmmaking goes a bit more smoothly. She gives a fairly strong, natural performance as the daughter of a burnt-out former pop star, contrasting the many teenagers who are out-of-the-box stereotypes – for instance, Luke Robertson as the young Abner Easley.Levity has many praiseworthy moments but is made uneven by Solomon’s capitulation to fears of a dim audience. I Always Wanted to Be a Saint is less timid when it comes to understatement and grey areas of motive and behaviour. Of these two films concerned with balance, one puts the concept into practice far better than the other.
Murad Mazaev’s 38-minute film (apparently, the first-ever Chechen feature) earns very high marks for effort, but a failing grade in content. A Chechen Muslim named Mikhael joins up with fellow rebels and goes off on a reconnaissance mission through the Caucasus Mountains. He’s killed in a skirmish with a Russian unit and his body is brought home. In the final melodramatic still, his angry, vengeful young brother is shown tearing the blue bandanna off a camouflage cap. Anyone searching for added depth and poignancy is going to be sorely disappointed.
On the part of the Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival organisers, preceding a Russian-made film with a Chechen political statement was either devilishly provocative or all in good fun – at least, that is, as much fun as a devastating war of attrition will allow.
If it weren’t based on Franz Kafka’s immensely popular short story, Russian director Valerie Fokin’s Metamorphosis would have been an amusing, visually sumptuous oddity and not much more. The narrative is interlarded with too many superfluous dreamlike flashbacks and surreal vignettes, somehow forgetting that what we’re dealing with here is a man who has been physically transformed into a repulsive insect (already sufficiently dreamlike and surreal, no?), but has not, unbeknownst to his horrified family and employer, experienced a similar transformation of mind and soul.
As one director’s cinematic interpretation of Kafka’s story, however, this stands up to scrutiny rather well. No doubt the exceptional performance of Evgeny Mironov as Gregor Samsa helps pull off this especially tricky adaptation. Mironov not only looks the part of Gregor, his writhing, fidgeting insect pantomime is both absurd and moving as well. My sole complaint is that his rendition of a civil servant is too much like Mr Bean, methodical and petty. By encouraging us to laugh at Gregor in this way, either Mironov or Fokin is robbing him of the quiet humanity that will grant his metamorphosis the tragic element of the tragicomedy.Metamorphosis is worth watching for a number of reasons, most salient among them the excellent ensemble work between Mironov and Igor Kvasha, Tatyana Lavrova, Avangard Leontyev and Natalya Shvets (we can tell from their interaction that Fokin is coming from a theatre background), and the marvellous photography, which borrows but doesn’t imitate the style of Jeunet. This is just one of several films listed under this year’s “international discovery” rubric, and based on his work here, Fokin seems to be quite a find indeed.
Mille soja (Buongiorno Italia)
Because of a paltry budget, an inability to obtain travel visas, a cast of actors who were regularly jailed, released and jailed again by the Sri Lankan authorities, and the ongoing bloody Tamil Tiger insurrection, among numerous other setbacks, it took Boodee Keerthisena five years to make Buongiorno Italia. With this knowledge of the hardships faced by the director and cast in filming this movie, it’s difficult to give his second feature film the whipping it deserves.
Buongiorno Italia surpasses existing benchmarks of badness. In the first few frames, there is one stabbing and no fewer than five terribly choreographed fistfights. There will be many, many more to follow. There are two overlong, Bollywood-style song-and-dance romantic interludes, as well as about three overlong, poorly synched music videos, some with painfully wistful air guitar solos. Scenes of gruesome carnage are bookended by outrageous slapstick comedy. For some inexplicable reason, there are two rough cartoon animations (also slapstick) thrown into the film. The plot is straightforward and relatively easy to follow, but the characters are a hopeless tangle of names and faces. At least two characters simply disappear from one shot to the next. The quality of film changes in the same take. This list of amateurish flaws and muddled creative vision is positively endless.What suggests to me that external factors are not the only reason this film suffers is that the self-description barely resembles the film itself. I watched a group of friends, some of whom happened to be in a band, try their best to live a normal existence in the midst of the Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war. Only out of desperation and the additional allure of material wealth did they undertake the perilous, expensive, illegal journey to Italy via Eastern Europe. Apparently, the band was supposed to feature as a kind of collective protagonist, and Bob Marley and the “vitality of reggae” were intended to be a prominent metaphorical focus of Buongiorno Italia. I have to say, I missed this. In hindsight it seems to be more of an attempt to impose order on disorder than an accurate synopsis of the movie.
Buongiorno Italia has a good heart and equally good intentions, and firing all these criticisms at it may seem unnecessarily malicious, rather like tearing apart a young child’s drawing of his family because it isn’t anatomically correct. But many films of the past few years – ivans xtc, 28 Days Later – have been done and done well on pitiful budgets using digital technology. Retakes are cheaper, editing and enhancements are easier, and the equipment is easier to come by. Some electronics manufacturers are even keen to loan the equipment to budding directors in an attempt to drum up wider support for the technology. Had Keerthisena taken his film down the digital route, he might have had an improved, more coherent movie on his hands. As it stands, however, Buongiorno Italia is an overambitious, rickety pastiche of every known cinematic genre and a very peculiar memorial to all the lives lost or ruined because of Sri Lanka’s dire political situation.
Khamushiye darya (The Silence of the Sea)
For most of us, our financial resources are finite. Only through the economic phenomenon of credit can we spend more than we have, and once even this abstract negative exhausts itself, the outcome is rarely good. It is the job of a good financial advisor to prevent this from happening.This has its parallels with sympathy and the cinema. A good director functions to some extent as an emotional accountant, ensuring that we, the audience, never run into the red, that at no point during the film does our sympathy for the protagonist dry up. Credit is no good here; and the consequences of forcing viewers to dip into an empty supply of pathos can be artistically disastrous.
In The Silence of the Sea, his second feature film, Iranian director Vahid Mousaian gives us a protagonist who sucks this resource dry in the first half hour. Shiavashi (Masoud Rayegany) is an Iranian refugee who has abandoned his parents and fled to Sweden where he has settled, married a Swede and a begun a family. But guilty memories of his long-suffering parents, now dead, pull him back to his homeland to make partial amends. If he is caught crossing the Iranian border, he will be jailed. If he does not return to Iran, he will live out the rest of his days with the burden of regret. This is Shiavashi’s dilemma. The entire film is concerned with his indecision and inaction as he looks longingly across the waters of the Persian Gulf from the free island of Qeshm to the mainland.Watching a man in psychological agony is enough to evoke compassion in nearly anyone. Watching a man in psychological agony for nearly ninety minutes is something better suited for masochists, and this is where Mousaian’s film goes limp. There is little else to The Silence of the Sea other than Shiavashi (or Sia, as he’s known) trapped in the inertia of confusion, pacing the beach and receiving or making calls on his mobile phone. As the producer solemnly pointed out before and after the film, this latter activity is a metaphorical and poetic gesture on the director’s part; but it makes unpleasant viewing nonetheless. At least the similarly static Phone Booth had some measure of suspense. Furthermore, the chronic use of the mobile phone as a means of communication (and an annoying one at that) begs the question: Why couldn’t Sia just call his Iranian family from Sweden? Alternatively, why couldn’t they phone and arrange to meet on the neutral ground of Qeshm before it was too late to do so?
I have no qualms with Rayegany’s performance. He does well with the role he’s been given and he manages to convey the mental and emotional tumult of his character, nostalgia and regret and discontent all vying for first place in his heart. But I believe that film – even film with enchanting cinematography like this – is the wrong medium for the story Mousaian was trying to tell. The novel, with its natural omniscience, would be better suited to the task, and the reader more forgiving toward the absence of physical action. As a cinematic endeavour, The Silence of the Sea fuels itself on the sympathy of its audience and the scraps it offers in return are not enough to replenish it.
O Vasialias (The King)
Vangelis (Vangelis Mourikis) is a carpenter by trade, has a girlfriend named Maria, and he is persecuted by frightened, powerful men in spite of his good deeds and desire for peace. Some people have likened this bearded, long-haired wanderer to a king and a martyr, and his semi-loyal friend Petros repeatedly vouches for his upstanding character.Wait. Haven’t we heard a tale like this before?In spite of its claims to be “structured like a classical Greek tragedy,” Nikos Grammatikos’ second full-length feature film mirrors instead of one of the most popular tragedies in literature, one that is more Roman, you might say, than Greek. Like Khorma [reviewed below], it speculates on a contemporary Second Coming with some fairly obvious hints to its artistic intent.
After a spell in prison, Vangelis comes to the conclusion that he is not cut out for the corruption, greed, violence and petty rivalries of society. He takes his father’s woodworking tools and makes his way to the abandoned Edenic town of Paradise, inhabiting the house that his grandfather once owned. The neighbouring town kingpins, all of whom are on the take, have been eyeing the land and resent him living there. Thus begins a long, harrowing mission to drive the stranger out. Soon after, Maria crashes in with her own troubles, making matters worse for Vangelis. Having left one tangle of violence and greed, he finds himself directly at the centre of another one. But Petros, the town policeman, recognises Vangelis’ good heart and tries to protect him from himself as well as the hostile mob.The King is a very good film, but it feels fragmented. Several strongly rendered, wholly enthralling scenes are separated by jerky transitions and poorly explained motives, or they are marred by dangling details, conversational non sequiturs and the “spot the Biblical allusion” game.
All this makes The King the sum of great parts instead of something more.Mourikis’ acting is solid, as is the rest of the cast’s. The camerawork is traditional without being stale or hackneyed, and the ratio of drama to action is well measured. More understatement with the symbolic and less of it where plot was concerned, compiled with some smoothing out of rough edges during post-production would have given Grammatikos a near flawless film. If nothing else, his shortfalls here should only increase the anticipation for his next project.
On to Part Two…