CIFF 2011: Eight Titles

Listed in order of preference. So far, the best things I’ve seen in the fest have been Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s DON’T GO BREAKING MY HEART (which I reviewed for the Chicago Reader) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA. I hope to post something soon on the latter.

Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne’s THE KID WITH A BIKE (Belgium)

Saturday (10/8), 5:15pm and Sunday (10/9), 5pm

In their patience, tolerance and political utility, the films of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers evoke the noble practice of social work, and their latest is no exception. The simple story concerns an 11-year-old boy abandoned by his no-good father and living as a ward of the state; as played by an amazing discovery named Thomas Dorset, he is a very real case study, arousing neither pity nor cooing sympathy. Cyril is given to running away and attacking authority figures: clearly he has never benefited from an adult who could teach him right from wrong. Things seem to take a positive turn when he finds a hairdresser (Cécile de France, best known here as the meteorologist in Clint Eastwood’s HEREAFTER) who agrees to be his part-time foster parent; but as this is Dardenne brothers’ film, nothing is so easily resolved. The kid remains a behavioral problem no matter how much attention he’s shown, and, in a shocking turn, a youth gang seduces him into some pretty bad trouble (it would lessen the movie’s impact, however, if you knew what it was going in). The Dardennes continue to practice a hypnotic, verite-inspired realism that’s almost without peer in contemporary movies. Consider the specificity with which they realize Samantha’s hair salon or the kitchen in which Cyril’s father works: in just a few shots they can convey exactly what it involves to earn a day’s wage. (They also continue to display a back-of-the-hand knowledge of Seraing, the working-class town where they’ve made most of their films, evoking a lived-in environment from the very first shot of the picture.) Yet the lasting power of the Dardennes’ work comes not from their documentary detail but their old-school faith in melodrama to humanize abstract social problems. In fact, THE KID WITH A BIKE often feels like a 21st century update of Frank Borzage’s classic YOUNG AMERICA (1932), and its call for more people to take compassion on our planet’s many, many abandoned children is no less stirring than Borzage’s. (2011, 87 min)

CORPO CELESTE (Italy)

Saturday (10/8), 4:45pm and Sunday (10/9), 1pm

This film’s writer-director, Alice Rohrwacher, likes to discover scenes from the inside out, generally beginning with the camera right next to a character’s head, then following her across a room or moving back to reveal the busy environment that surrounds her. She also likes to withhold key information about characters and conflicts until the drama develops an almost infuriating air opacity. The style–which may be described as an active, poker-faced curiosity–often resembles that of the great Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel; and her story, a sly parable about faith in the modern age, specifically echoes Martel’s THE HOLY GIRL (2004). But it would be unfair to call Rohrwacher a mere copycat: every filmmaker needs role models, especially when she’s starting out; anyway, this is not a style one comes by easily. It requires, for one thing, an ability to imagine any setting down to the square inch, so that the camera can sit anywhere within it and generate the same level of dramatic tension. Rohrwacher is capable of that task: the film’s lower-middle-class family and the lethargic Catholic church they attend are realized acutely; and every character displays her own variation of lumpenprole passive-aggression. One major story line involves the priest’s effort to ascend the ladder of Catholic hierarchy, to which he sets himself as though lobbying his general manager for a raise. Rohrwacher turns his bureaucratic servitude into a running gag: every church service gets interrupted by the ring of his cell phone. The movie is filled with garish juxtapositions of Catholic ritual and information-age banality (in the first scene of Communion class, the teacher quizzes her kids on the catechism to the theme from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire), but the humor really stings because Rohrwacher seems to take faith seriously. How can religion still impact ordinary lives, the movie asks, when they lack the room to accommodate it? Marta, the film’s 13-year-old heroine, spends the film trying to model her life after what she learns in religious school, and her sincere efforts result in one calamity after another. Rohrwacher has a wonderful sympathy for the girl, who’s too introverted and, at times, downright weird to seem cute in standard movie fashion; Rohrwacher is also spot-on in Marta’s strained relationships with her bitchy older sister (who’s turned 18 like many real teenagers do, by acting the petty tyrant whenever she’s around someone younger than her). Like Martel–or, for that matter, Jane Campion or Catherine Breillat–Rohrwacher excels at characterizing a particular form of cruelty that exists mainly between women: the hurtful critical assessment presented under the veneer of advice and delivered at the exact moment it can do the most damage. It’s one of the movie’s many little achievements; among the bigger ones is Hélène Louvart’s 16mm photography. Louvart has worked for Claire Denis, Jacques Doillon, and Agnès Varda; she’s apparently an expert at capturing fleeting light sources and characters in movement. (2011, 95 min)

FAT, BALD, SHORT MAN (Colombia)

Friday (10/7), 9:10pm and Saturday (10/8), 12:45pm

Another minutely observed comedy-of-manners from South America, which seems to have become the world capital of the genre in the past decade. Like several recent Uruguayan films (WHISKY, GIGANTE, NORBERTO’S DEADLINE), its theme is the disappointment of everyday adulthood and the tone is understated and sympathetic. What distinguishes it from other entries in the genre is that it’s been animated in the neo-Rotoscoping technology developed by Richard Linklater and Bob Sabiston’s WAKING LIFE (2001) and A SCANNER DARKLY (2005); while it isn’t as ingenious as those examples, it still uses animation to purposeful effect. The movie, set in anonymous modern environments like office buildings and meeting halls, recognizes the way a certain culture turns people into blots. The title character is a terminally shy notary clerk who’s still a bashful virgin at 46; when he’s presented head-on, he’s nothing but an amorphous white canvas with five small dots for eyes, nostrils and mouth. He’s a human doormat, laughed at by his colleagues and conned by his brother into paying him countless “loans.” The plot concerns his first steps towards self-actualization–which the movie realizes, like the character himself, modestly and sweetly–and it proceeds like a good short story, illuminating the generally overlooked moments whose small comfort make life fulfilling. (2011, 97 min)

MACHETE LANGUAGE (Mexic0)

Tuesday (10/11), 8:40pm and Wednesday (10/12), 7:15pm

Kyzza Terrazas, who wrote the script for Gael Garcia Bernal’s directorial debut, DEFICIT (2007), here directs his own screenplay, about radicals in Mexico City. It’s shot on HD video and mostly in close-up, which seems appropriate for a movie about characters this self-conscious and paranoid. Ramona is the singer and guitarist for a pretty-good punk band; Raymundo is an anarchist photographer or documentarian of some sort. They appear to be in their mid-30s, draped in a certain level of street cred but also seeming to have worn their youth thin. Life needs to take on greater meaning or else it will wither. Should they have a baby or blow something up? Over the course of the movie’s short running time, Terrazas’ aesthetic lays down a real nervy groove; the characters’ desperation becomes quite palpable by the end. In its gritty, somewhat show-offy performances and general pessimism about the fate of the radical Left, the movie feels like an update of the sort of early 70s Hollywood art movie that would have starred Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson. It’s a raw, inside view of counterculture despair; if it looked just a little scrappier it would feel a real dispatch from the void. (2011, 82 min)

KINYARWANDA (US)

Friday (10/7), 8:45pm, Saturday (10/8), 12:35pm, and Thursday (10/13), 1:45pm

This fictionalized account of the Rwandan civil war of 1994 scrupulously avoids sensationalism in its approach, and it’s commendable for this reason alone. It’s presented in short, titled chapters–some of them as short as only a few minutes–that accumulate like a mosaic. This seems an appropriate way to convey how immense the atrocity of genocide is: every segment suggests another life cut short by the war, and the arbitrariness of the structure implies there are as many stories to tell as there were victims. It’s a distinctly egalitarian work, devoting comparable screen time to both Hutu and Tutsi characters, warriors and peacemakers, children and adults. The director, an American named Alrick Brown, even tries to bring as much celebratory behavior into the movie as he can, so as to remind us just what is lost in the destruction of so much life. Dancing and chanting are major motifs: KINYARWANDA practically begins with a group of teenagers singing along (improbably) to “Islands in the Stream” at a house party, and it goes on to show men chanting, alternately, for the death of their enemies and the reunification of their country. The HD videography is only so-so, but it adequately captures the sunny climate of the movie’s setting. (2011, 100 min)

JOINT BODY (US)

Wednesday (10/12), 3:40pm, Friday (10/14), 6:30pm, and Saturday (10/15), 9:15pm

If you like the films of James Gray (and we at Cine-File certainly do), then you’ll probably be sympathetic towards Brian Jun’s blue-collar drama; that’s not to say you’ll admire it, however. The movie contains all of Gray’s awkward tendencies–and even a few of his strengths–but little of the ingenious craftsmanship that makes his work so important. As it stands, the movie is commendable for taking regular lives seriously without succumbing to shallow “realism.” Its main characters, a recently paroled felon and the stripper he befriends, speak with improbable eloquence, and Jun presents their downstate Illinois milieu with a careful (some might say too careful) aesthetic that emphasizes its tragic mood. Many shots are composed around narrow rays of overhead light meant to evoke Gordon Willis’ work in the GODFATHER trilogy (though, like quite a few other movies in this year’s festival, the HD video doesn’t live up to the film images it evokes), and they contribute greatly to the general portrait of regret. Jun uses genre movie archetypes much like Gray does, to bring a sense of universality to the story and characters; but he lacks Gray’s sense of nuance, and a lot of his ideas end up sounding like cliches. Still, there’s inherent value in any movie that asks us to sympathize with an ex-con trying to rehabilitate himself, and some of the performances are really something. Alicia Witt, as the stripper, shows a willingness to appear genuinely weary and beaten by life. (2011, 85 min)

SOUTHWEST (Brazil)

Friday (10/7), 8:15pm, Saturday (10/8), 12:30pm, and Tuesday (10/18), 2:45pm

CORRODE (India)

Saturday (10/8), 8:25pm, Sunday (10/9), 12pm, and Tuesday (10/11), 2:30pm

I remember commiserating one year with my fellow C-F contributor Josephine Ferorelli about having to slog through a number of festival titles we weren’t particularly excited about. The movies that were bringing us down weren’t even bad, necessarily. They were just so dispiritingly alike, regardless of their country of origin; it felt as though national film styles were being subsumed into a generically arty, festival-ready aesthetic. “It’s like the development of World Music,” Josephine observed.

There’s plenty of World Cinema at this year’s International Film Festival, but that’s not meant entirely pejoratively: it’s simply a reflection of the times. As such, it doesn’t seem coincidental that SOUTHWEST (2011, 128 min), from Brazil, and CORRODE (2011, 92 min), from India, should feel so similar. Both are features by first-time filmmakers, shot somewhat arbitrarily in black-and-white widescreen, containing relatively little dialogue and sequences of deliberately dream-like subjectivity. The fact that they’re in black-and-white widescreen is reason enough to see them on a big screen; however, I would recommend seeing only one, as you’re likely to experience a nagging sense of deja vu if you attend them both. Tellingly, each film is at its most interesting when it looks beyond its festival style (predominated by a general impassivity that refuses, for no particular reason, to suggest how you should interpret the material emotionally) to contemplate the location where it was shot. One can only do so much with universal themes: In narrative cinema, they ultimately have to happen in some place and befall somebody.

SOUTHWEST makes fine use of its rural setting, creating supple atmosphere from brambles, small islands, and big, shady trees. Eduardo Nunes, the director, likes to track slowly through this environment as though his camera were an invisible participant in the action. It’s a fitting enough realization of the film’s premise, a Ray Bradbury-like fairy tale about a woman who lives her entire life, from birth to death, in a single day. This raises some interesting questions about what gives life permanence and meaning, particularly in the scenes when the heroine interacts with her own mother. Where Clarice has been unrooted in time, her mother is in the middle of a mid-life rut on the day the story takes place. Who is the unluckier woman? The one who has to live indefinitely with her grief or the one who drifts right over it?

The film is at its least convincing when the characters attempt to discuss their situation: Nunes doesn’t seem particularly interested in dialogue or in giving his actors enough mannerisms to make them seem like fully observed personages. The same can be said of Karan Gour, the writer-director of CORRODE, though Gour’s attention to economic realities makes up for his awkwardness in other areas. Before the movie lapses into another retread of Polanski’s REPULSION, this provides some good insight into the lower-middle-class of Mumbai. The central couple, Chhaya and Avrind, worry constantly about improving their station in a manner that seems borne out of their environment. Avrind’s been employed now and then in the fitfully booming construction industry, but the money hasn’t given them anything to build on; Chhaya pines for motherhood, though doctors have told her she has little chance of conceiving. As Avrind foolishly attempts to start his own business (in cloth, which he knows little about), Chhaya begins to obsess over the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. She thinks Lakshmi will grant all her wishes if she can buy a large, expensive sculpture of the goddess; in the end, the obsession drives her mad. While this turn is utterly implausible (among this type of lumpenproletariat, the desire for advancement is stronger and generally more destructive than madness), it allows Gour to experiment with a lot of effects to suggest Chhaya’s mental state.

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