Report on the 42nd Karlovy Vary Film Festival (June 29-July 7, 2007)
Tales of Suffering and Ecstasy
by Massoud Mehrabi
The main reason for my third trip to Karlovy Vary was neither its old and creditable festival, nor its great film program, but it was the magic of Karlovy Vary which enticed me. Without any doubt, many correspondents, film critics, and guests, who arrive in the city every year (to pay pilgrimage to it), are more infatuated with the city than its film festival, though they may say nothing about it in their reports. Only one single visit to the city is enough to make its beauty as well as spas and scenic specters part of your dreams even when you are wide awake. It is a fact that the city is cinematic than its festival.
Karlovy Vary is located 110 km west of Prague. The old and historical part of the city is located in the bottom of a valley flanked by relatively high hills and surrounded by lush forests. A river passes through the city and its bed has been designed into small cascades. Therefore, the sound of water is heard like a soothing music which calms down human soul. On both sides of the river, there are buildings which are quite balanced in terms of number and stories, external decorations, paintings and their classic architectural style. The first feeling that sweeps over you in the first glance is that you are standing among a magnificent historical film décor. Not only external view, but internal components of that décor indicate high artistic tact. It is for the beautiful location of the city that, thus far, more than 100 short and feature films have been made there.
The city owes most of its fame to spas. Apart from special baths inside or on the side of hotels, the water from mineral springs is directed to several pools that are located along the main boulevard of the city via canals where tourists can drink the water or pour it in something and take it as souvenir. Karlovy Vary, which is located near border with Germany, has drawn many courtiers and royal families from all across Europe and even Asia and Africa to its spas in late 18th and early 19th centuries, including Iran’s Mozaffareddin Shah who visited the city in 1900. The city is not simply famous because it has been visited by kings and emperors, but such dignitaries as Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Ludwig van Beethoven have also visited it while Friedrich Chopin, Karl Maria Weber, Richard Wagner, and Nicolo Paganini have lived there for a time. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms, Anthony Dvorak, and even Karl Marx have been there. Presence of masters of world classic music in the city has, undoubtedly, been due to the effect of the city on their creativity. Other things have also contributed to make the city more famous. One of them is a crystal factory, which still produces the finest crystals in the world. All told, the climate is heavenly. The Republic of Czech is the roof and garden of Europe and Karlovy Vary is the roof and garden of the Republic of Czech.
Karlovy Vary Film Festival is 62 years old and has gone through many ups and downs. Its first edition opened in July 1946 as an international, but noncompetitive event simultaneously in Mariánské Lázně and Karlovy Vary. In 1948, the festival moved to Karlovy Vary and a competition section was added to it where films could win prizes. Later incidents were influenced by political developments following domination of communists on the country in February 1948. Thereafter, especially during the Cold War, the festival paid more attention to political, rather than artistic, films. Even worse than that, the festival was broken in two parts as of 1959: it was alternatively held in Moscow and Karlovy Vary! Therefore, this year’s festival was its 42nd, and not 62nd, edition. Karlovy Vary was established concurrent with film festivals of Cannes and Locarno and is the second oldest film festival in the world after Venice Film Festival. However, internationalist decisions made by the leftist authorities prevented Karlovy Vary Film Festival from being appreciated for all its capacity.
The festival’s standards took a nosedive in 1970s and movie buffs lost interest in it. Therefore, some thought that Karlovy Vary was not a good place for a film festival and it should be transferred to the capital city to attract more viewers. The tug-of-war continued until 1994 when a new festival opened in Prague and started its work just before the 30th edition of Karlovy Vary. However, they failed to marginalize Karlovy Vary and it was the new festival that gradually vanished.
At present, Karlovy Vary Film Festival is a full-fledged cinematic event. During this year’s festival, about 260 short and feature films from 58 countries were screened in 20 main and subsidiary sections. There were films for almost all tastes. Therefore, all sections of the festival including competition section, documentary films section and even retrospective of Bretislav Pojar (the grand master of animation) attracted special audience. Ordinary movie buffs chose their favorite films out of catalogues and watched them. However, choosing was more difficult for us, the critics and correspondents, who watch films from a professional slant. We were naturally attracted to films in the competition section, most of which were screened for the first time. We consider them unexplored treasures and are too eager to watch them, though most of them turn out to be disappointing. In reality, we already know what would be the result and then ask the same repetitive question: “How many good films, do you think, are made in the world every year?” Well, their number can be counted on fingers. The same happens in all festivals with small differences, but the grumbling critics never learn from the past!
Interesting things happen on the sidelines of Karlovy Vary Film Festival. Each day, a group of music players appear on a short stage on the side of the festival palace to play rock, pop, jazz, country and metal music. In nine days, about 25 groups from different countries (most of the residents of Czech) took to the stage and played their pieces. The success of every group could be measured according to their audience, which varied form 10-15 people up to few hundreds. The market next to the festival palace attracted a large population, especially on weekends. They did not come for the festival and most of them just passed the time of day. Vendors had erected tents (as protection against Sun and rain). Most of them sold fried sausages and bears. Czech sausages and beer is world-famous and a major export item. The Czechs are so fond of eating sausages that they say, “Everything in this world has a single beginning and a single ending except for sausage which begins and ends twice!”
Under other tents people could throw darts, pedal fixed bicycles and throw rings. At the same time, skillful painters draw portraits. The market was good for those who were tired with watching uninteresting films and needed some rest and stroll in an interesting place.
Now let’s get inside the theater and listen to stories that penetrate deep into our souls. I start with the competition section films; those unexplored treasures!
The Art of Negative Thinking was the first feature film to be made by Bard Breien from Norway, which combined documentary frame with a structure borrowed from televised films. His film tries to be a mixture of psychodrama and black comedy though it is based on an apparently true story. Positive reaction of the audience (blasts of laughter after comic scenes combined with sadness when watching sorrowful scenes) and their applause at the end of the film showed that he had been large successful. Films about psychiatric patients are usually welcomed by the common audience even if they fall short of the standards, perhaps because they provoke human feelings and elicit a sense of sympathy. The Art of Negative Thinking is one of those films which focus on the physically disabled people and ways of helping them. The protagonist is a 30-year-old man called Geirr who has been paralyzed during a car accident two years ago and is now bed-ridden and confined to his wheelchair. Therefore, his wife, Ingvild, invites a group of the disabled along with their psychotherapist (who is a lively woman) to their house in a bid to save their marital life, hoping that their presence will cheer Geirr up. Geirr, who loves rock songs of Johnny Cash and war movies, is very reclusive. Faced with their presence, he revolts against that uninvited influx of the so-called “positive energy” and tries to remain in command by relying on his honesty, which is sometimes very cruel. However, it costs him very dearly. Before the finale, the film story is like other familiar Scandinavian dramas. However, its bitter end shocks viewers and makes the story linger in their minds.
It could have been a better film if the director had gotten rid of the soap opera structure, although the latter is currently more popular.
Technical quality of films, from shooting to editing to techniques used by actors and tempo, have been clearly defined and follow set standards which are used by serious film critics as means of evaluating various films for being artistic or simply commercial and worthless. However, there are other criteria which make a film story more appealing. If you were not among fans of non-narrative cinema, you would go to cinema to listen to a story. Apart from technical quality our criteria for appreciating a film is to what extent it gets close to our real lives.
Conversation with My Gardener, a work by Jean Becker (born 1938), the son of the great director, Jacques Becker, is one of those films which would be appreciated according to mood of the audience. Conversation with My Gardener is good for the middle-aged. Not that younger people will not like it, but I mean that the first group, which has had its share of life experiences, is the audience of choice for the film.
A thriving painter, who is fed-up with life in Paris, leaves the city for the village where he was born more than half a century ago to experience new surroundings. Their desolate house has been left after death of his parents. Trees are not trimmed and weeds cover the garden. Knowing nothing about gardening, the painter hires a gardener and is very surprised when one of his old friends from schooldays applies. Despite they had opposite viewpoints back in childhood, they become intimate. The gardener, who is leading a somehow ascetic life, gradually changes the painter’s attitude to life and the world and at the same time, slowly brings the deserted garden back to life. When the gardener dies of cancer, the painter has achieved a totally new lifestyle and a different view of love and plants. His formerly grey and soulless paintings give way to vivid ones which are full of bright colors and pleasant-looking plants.
The story of Conversation with My Gardener is so straightforward that needs no clichéd interpretation. The main thing which makes it a pleasant film is artistic subtleties introduced by Jean Becker during multilayer characterization of the painter (Daniel Auteuil) and gardener (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). Those layers should have been experienced to be understandable. Conversation with My Gardener is a pleasant journey to the interior of most middle-aged people.
Unlike Conversation with My Gardener, When She Jumped is apparently very complicated and labyrinthine, so that, reaching its depth, if there is a depth, seems impossible. The film is full of symbols whose understanding, under the best conditions, is something like arranging the Rubik’s cube. Have you ever seen anybody trying to sort out Rubik’s cube in cinema? I don’t think so.
Director, Sabrina Farji (born 1964 in Buenos Aires) has tried in When She Jumped to review the life of Argentinean youth and has endeavored without success to make it an international film through symbolism. The story, which you can understand after reading the festival’s catalogue, is this: the 26-year-old Ramiro, who has failed to find a job as actor in commercials or showman, is constantly daydreaming. When a girl called Angela (who has two wings on her shoulders like angels) commits suicide by jumping off a roof, he is there. Ramiro finds a dairy and a CD in her handbag which contains Angela’s voice. Then he meets, Lila, the twin sister of Angela. Lila has passed herself as Angela to be given her job at a bar and keep memory of her sister alive. Despite the fact that you cannot be sure that what you see is real or just imagined by Ramiro and what has been the role of that snail and crystal ball and the mystic man, beautiful cinematography and score of the film (which is common in South American films) is somehow relieving.
Karger is the first feature film by Elke Hauck, and is reminiscent of modern German cinema in 1970s. It follows the same documentary-like format which characterizes Bertolt Brecht with the same bleak atmosphere. The life of Karger has been monotonous and predictable up to now, when he divorces his wife, whom he had loved since they were children, and after his father passes away, he reaches a critical point. Having never stepped a foot out of his birthplace, he decides to ignore problems. However, ephemeral solutions are short-lived. Karger feels an increasing need to change his life, but the more he tries, the less he succeeds. Elke Hauck (born 1967) has been inspired by true story of his old classmates who have divided their lives between the factory and their bleak houses. Difficult shooting in wintertime under grey skies and good performances by actors are major points of the film. Every time that a filmmaker appears in Germany, his/her first film takes the audience by surprise, but most of them vanish after a short time. Has anybody heard anything about Jain Dilthey, director of the surprising Des Verlangen, which won a Golden Leopard from Locarno Festival (2000)?
A man working at a genetic research laboratory is desperately looking for evidence to explain the origins of his small daughter’s brain disease. In parallel, we see a detective who is investigating an old man’s death who has been leading a mysterious life at the cellar of his house. The case, which seems simple at first, turns complicated and is finally linked to death of a four-year-old girl some 30 years ago. While trying to mend fences with his addict daughter, the detective finally succeeds in finding the murderer by risking his life and doing two illegal exhumations.
This is summary story of Jar City by Baltasar Kormakur from Iceland who became famous after appearing in Fridrik Thor Fridrikson’s films. He started as director in 2000 and two of his films have been already screened in various festivals and have won various prizes including a FIPRESCI award. The motif of Jar City, which is an adaptation of a detective story, is to renounce misuse of genetic information. The thriller has become popular mostly for the mysterious air which governs both stories. Shooting the film from the air has helped the tense story and vice versa. Internal scenes, however, are disappointing. Although known clichés have been followed for psychological characterization of actors, they are in general, believable. The most clichéd character is the detective’s daughter who is severely addicted to drugs. It is not clear why perseverant detectives in most films should have a problem inside their families? Perhaps, the answer is to deepen various aspects of their personality. However, repetition is the main thing which makes clichés banal. Apart from some flaws, there is a problem with the film which cannot be overlooked: the constant music which is played all the time and does not allow the ears and minds of the audience to rest.
War, violence, massacre, natural disasters, political and economic crises, and most recently, suicide attacks have created waves of immigrants who look for a safer place; of course, if they made it alive. Forced immigration has been a common theme after the World War II. Due to increasing human violence, this theme has been developed into a major genre during the past decade: “immigration genre”. Michael James Rowland’s (born 1964) first film, Lucky Miles, belongs to that genre.
The film opens with remarkable credits, which reveals the essence of immigration to the audience from the very beginning: photos and short footages of Vietnam War, bombardment of Phnom Penh in 1972, massacre of Cambodians, brutality, death and devastation followed by slow movement of camera over black and white maps of cities and countries and immigrants who seem to be swept over the map into the sea as well as a cut to a sailing boat in 1990 somewhere along the Australian coast.
An Indonesian fishing boat which is carrying illegal immigrants from Cambodia and Iraq reaches Australian coast and its passengers are planning to enter Australia illegally. Despite early promises, they find themselves faced with a big desert where the nearest city is 300 km away. They break up after a few hours and go in different directions in groups of three or four. We follow Youssif (an Iraqi engineer who has survived the Persian Gulf War) and Arun (a calm but determined Cambodian). Arun is looking for his Australian father. A third person joins them. He is a fisherman called Ramelan whose main talent is to draw all kinds of calamities toward him. After great suffering, Youssif leads them to their dream city; a no man’s land which seems to be a bit of the same black and white map which has not been worth the suffering. They reach the conclusion that nowhere is better than home.
Michael James Rowland has narrated this political theme of our time using an intelligent satire which stems from absurd situation of characters without ignoring humanitarian issues. Superb cinematography of the film which banks on visual attractions of horrible deserts of Australia, has given an end-of-the-world dimension to the journey undertaken by three characters (which can be generalized to all illegal immigrants). Since the director is also a writer and has thus far produced three books, the screenplay is professional, but he has not been thrifty in editing the film whose tempos seem to be slow and dragging in certain parts. The interesting point about the film is subtitles. Instead of being put in their traditional place (under the film), they are put over suitable parts of the picture. For example, in a dialogue between Youssif and Arun, sentences spoken by each of them are written near them. It is something like writings in comic strips.
Although more than one decade has passed since disintegration of the communist block and some of its former members have now acceded to the European Union, their films are still far from joviality and social problems of those years. As the new films show, transition from socialism to capitalism has been marked with its own problems. Krzysztof Krauze’s Savior’s Square from Poland is one of those films, which has a familiar theme.
Bartek is under heavy debt after selling his small house and before his new, bigger apartment is finished. Therefore, he asks his mother to let him and his family live with her for a while. Later, we come to know that the company building the apartment has gone broke and his money is gone. Since Bartek has to rely on his mother’s income, his problems are made worse. Different interests of main characters, who have to live together, lead to unpleasant conflicts. Beata, the wife of Bartek is very upset about having lost her privacy. While she has to take care of her two children, her conflicts with her mother-in-law escalate to the extent that Beata finally asks herself who is to blame for that situation; family or society? She then swallows some pills after giving them to her children, but they are saved in the last moment by passers-by.
Krzysztof Krauze (born in Warsaw in 1953) made his first feature film in 1988 and his films have been frequently appreciated in various festivals. His previous film, Muj Nikfor (2004) was especially successful and brought him the Crystal Globe of Karlovy Vary and Golden Hugo of Chicago film festival.
Simple Things by Alexey Popogrebsky depicts another facet of social relations in the current day Russia. Sergei Maslov is an anesthesiologist who is underpaid by the hospital where he works. His daughter and wife have left him and Sergei is concerned about their situation. He finds an extra job by taking care of an old actor. Once a famous actor, he usually scoffs at Sergei. The crisis reaches its peak when the actor tells him that he will bequeath a valuable painting to him.
Simple Things is the first independent film made by Alexey Popogrebsky (born 1972) who made his first film in cooperation with Boris Khlebnikov. His film is generally optimistic, but highlights the sorrowful side of everyday life, especially the ability of common people to adapt to unexpected situations.
Black comedy is so prominent in the works of some East European directors that similar movies can be seldom found elsewhere. Even now (after two decades of political developments in those countries) their caricatures and designs are still the most surprising and impressive artistic works. All you have to do is to look at the works of the Czech caricaturist, Miroslav Bartak, on the Internet to be both surprised and know what kind of satire I am talking about. When you see them you would know why this satire cannot be explained.
Empties is the admirable work of Jan Sverak from the Czech Republic, which has its roots in the said inexplicable satire and greatly impresses the audience. Unlike Savior’s Square and Simple Things, the film is not about people who have fallen victim to political and social systems, but goes beyond that to cast a painstaking psychological look at simple relations among lay people and their frail moralities. Empties is a thoughtful comedy about an old man who faces new challenges after retirement.
Josef is retired after working for many years as a teacher. He is an easygoing person who is dissatisfied with silent environment of his home, especially after his stay at home gives rise to unusual tensions with his wife, Eliska. Josef, who wants to prove that he is still young and energetic, looks for a new job. After comic failures as a mobile book vendor and postman, he reaches the conclusion that such works need a strong body and he is just a little old for that! Therefore, he finds a part-time job as a clerk receiving empty drink bottles at a supermarket. He creates a new and interesting world in his new workplace and is in control of grotesque-like events. Later adventures, especially his affair with a widow, undermine his marital life after 40 years. Their marriage is turning 40 and it is a good opportunity for Josef to appease his wife, who is rightfully indignant. However, new adventures lie ahead of him.
Jan Sverak (born 1965) is among the most successful contemporary Czech directors. He won Oscar of the best foreign film for his Kolya in 1996 and gained international fame. He is the son of Zdenek Sverak, the popular Czech actor and screenwriter who has shown excellent performance in Empties and has also helped with its remarkable screenplay.
David and Tristan Ulloa (two Spanish brothers) came with Pudor, which was based on a novel by Santiago Roncaglielo Alfaguare and was screened in the competition section. The film is about complexities of family relations; relations which never meet like parallel lines. In a Spanish family, everybody has their own secrets and show them off in front of the others. Julia is grappling with a crisis that characterizes middle age and is having a hard time. Her mother has just died and she is not very happy with Juan. Sergio, the youngest family member who has been adopted, lives in his childish world. His adolescent sister, Marisa, cannot tolerate him. Marisa tries to find the reason for her problems. Grandfather Salvador is dissatisfied that he is living with his daughter like a dead weight. Is there anything to improve the situation? The sudden death of grandfather improves the situation and helps family members to pay attention to common grounds.
Pudor is a medium ranking film from Spain whose most prominent feature is showing challenges with which Spanish families are faced in their struggle to choose between modernity and tradition.
Out of 14 films that took part in the competition section, I missed The Good Night (Jake Paltrow) from the United States and Dolina (Zoltan Kamondi) from Hungary. I don’t know whether I have lost something important. Two other films of that section, that is, Pruning the Grapevine and Saturno Contro, were like beautiful but empty shellfishes. When you put them to your ear you cannot even hear the sound of a river, let alone the seas.
The motif of Pruning the Grapevine, made by Min Boung-hun (born 1969) in South Korea, is promotion of Christianity in a Buddhist land. The theme is of no objection because every director is free to choose whatever subject they like. The problem was the propaganda which accompanied the film. It would have made no difference if the director had focused on Islam or Judaism instead of Christianity because it is like advertisements about putting on, choosing or drinking “only” a single commodity; as if the audience does not understand anything.
Soo-hyeon is studying at a catholic school but does not know whether to become a priest or to go for his love, a girl called Sue. Although the girl has left him quite recently, he still loves her. He uses an opportunity to meet his ailing mother and looks for Sue. But Sue rejects him and Soo-hyeon decides to remain at the catholic school. There he makes the acquaintance of a nun called Helena, who looks like Sue and reanimates Soo-hyeon’s feelings. He is in doubt once more. Finally, he chooses for salvation and ends up a faithful priest.
The film is perfect from technical viewpoint. The cold tone chosen for scenes that have been shot in rural areas of Korea and inside the monastery are unbelievably in coordination with simple and informed directing of the film. The protagonist is the rising Korean star, Seo Jang-won, whose performance is steady and helped by score music which has signs of anxiety and doubt. This is the third film by Min Boung-hun after Flight of the Bee and Let’s Cry, which has been appreciated in various festivals. Boung-hun has noted that his films are parts of a trilogy about the phenomenon of panic.
Sometimes is becomes difficult to understand films made by filmmakers who have double nationality. Although their thoughts, characters, worldviews and languages (as the means of communication) have developed in their homeland, they have to accept conditions imposed on them by another country and language when making a film. The result is frequently a film which does not conform to standards of either country; an uneven mixture of two cultures, histories and identities. The problem becomes more complicated when one country is in the east and the other one in the west.
Born in Istanbul in 1959, Ferzan Ozpetek left for Italy to study history of arts and cinema when he was 20. After working as assistant to some Italian directors like Ricky Tognazzi and Massimo Troisi, he made his first film in 1997, which caught the attention of critics at Cannes Festival. He made Facing Window in 2003, which earned him a director’s prize from Karlovy Vary. I cannot judge his unseen films. My explanation was about his latest film, Saturno Contro, which is copycat of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. The latter depicted a gay relationship between two cowboys (Ennis and Jack) and this film is about a similar relationship between an intellectual called Lorenzo and a thriving writer, Davide. Here, one of the two personalities dies and the other one goes down with mental breakdown. Then they try to change other people’s attitudes and get along with destiny.
Weakness of the film in showing internal desires of characters, unbelievable sympathy for those superficial and intangible characters, as well as resorting to sensationalism indicate that the director had not fully believed in what he has been making a film about. Another incompatibility is about the score. It is a Turkish rhythm with mystical undertones, which sometimes tries to take viewers from Italy to tomb of Mowlana in Konya and among whirling dervishes!
I love the Italian cinema and films like Saturno Contro cannot dissuade me. The film will be appreciated by its fans. Most Italian films are imbued with love for life which is special to this cinema and is seldom seen elsewhere.
I watched five more Italian films: three films in “Focus on New Italian Directors” section and two films in “Open Eyes” and “Horizons” sections. The first film I watched was One Hundred Nails by Ermanno Olmi who has announced that this would be his last feature film before starting to make documentaries. Ermanno Olmi, born in Bergamo in 1931, is among acclaimed Italian directors and has many good films on his track records like his The Tree with the Golden Clogs (1978), which earned a Palme d’Or from Cannes.
The last feature film by Olmi cannot be compared to his past works. Despite remarkable frames and believable characterization, the film is not thought-provoking. We see that the maestro has been impatient when making the film and wish he would regain his past zeal. The film is about a young, but creditable filmmaker who rises against all that he has learnt and faithfully taught for so many years. He nails 100 valuable manuscripts to the grounds at the library of University of Bologna and disappears. He finds a shabby hut outside the city and starts a primitive life away from everybody. He finally becomes so intimate with locals that, at the end, he decides to help them like the Christ resurrected.
In Memory of Myself by Saverio Costanzo (born in 1975) is so similar, both in its philosophical theme and wandering personality, to Ermanno Olmi’s film that it can be considered as the first episode of One Hundred Nails.
The world, with its limited resources can be an attractive place and yet, it can give rise to wandering and anxiety. This is the main thing that has preoccupied young Andrea who muses about his future until he finds out about it (like the young philosopher in One Hundred Nails). Out of curiosity and weariness, he enrolls at a big monastery where young men are trained for priesthood. The curriculum is difficult and young men should undergo difficult and austere spiritual exercises which include concentration and reflection about oneself by living in silence for weeks on end. Andrea, who cannot cope with that situation, finally escapes in a moonlit night.
The film, which is based on a novel by Furio Monicelli, is the second film of Costanzo after Private, which earned him a Locarno Golden Leopard in 2004. Unlike One Hundred Nails, In Memory of Myself is full of details and cinematography is superb, especially when shooting labyrinthine passages of the monastery that sometimes take the place of the leading character and play a great role in conveying the concepts of the film.
What the Hell Am I Doing Here! and Turtles on Their Backs showed another facet of the Italian cinema. What the Hell Am I Doing Here! is made by Francesco Amato (born 1978) and focuses on a familiar subject which is repeated in many places and times and is very popular. It is about adolescents who leave home, face many problems, go through spiritual and physical development, and finally return home (or achieve their goals) after gaining a lot of experiences, some of which may be horrible. Such films have been frequently made in various countries and will continue to be made like eternal stories.
The story has been made into a film using light satire and a tinge of summer, sea and holidays. The main feature of What the Hell Am I Doing Here!, is that it amounts to revisiting the jovial and lively Italian society which radiates warmth and exhilarates the audience.
Turtles on Their Backs is the first feature film of Stefano Pasetto (born 1970), which in addition to sharing the lively atmosphere of the previous film, its story is not about outright and classic love. The film is like sorting out a puzzle, which needs guessing and is difficult, but enjoyable. The story is told through frequent flashbacks. Although this storytelling technique has become rife in cinema, Stefano Pasetto has used it in a totally new way. Unconventional storytelling as well as suspension and problem solving in addition to apparently inorderly sequences make the audience vacillate between doubt and certainty up to the very last scene. In conclusion, the viewer would find out that how his/her unconscious mind has been a partner to creation of the film without feeling deceived. The feeling that they are a partner to an artistic work will be much more pleasant to them than common, and sometimes affected, “identification” with people in a movie. The story explains this new and different model to some extent:
The man is in prison and whenever his wife goes to see him they play a game of “scrabble”. Every game is a trip to past and future. They gradually find missing parts of their lives and put them together; both the times they have spent alone and those times they spent together. Both of them behave like aliens who do not like to give in to ordinary rules of life. The woman has left medical school while the man has been temporarily employed here and there and sometimes has worked as an experimental photographer. Both of them find communication with the outside world difficult. Despite their passion for each other, they have never had easy relations and have always been looking for an excuse to cut relations with other people. In fact, they have found each other quite accidentally and destiny has parted them after a short period of happiness.
It is not only Turtles on Their Backs whose innovative narrative method keeps up our interest in the Italian cinema. A film like The Golden Door, which s one of the best products of the Italian cinema in the past decade and has won a Silver Lion from Venice Film Festival (2006) also increases our enthusiasm for the Italian cinema. I don’t recommend that you should forget about all films that you have seen about immigration to the United States, but The Golden Door is unique and will bring to life memories of good films of the past. Valuable screenplay, impeccable characterization, brilliant and believable performances by actors and skillful cinematography can all be seen in some past films, but what differentiates The Golden Door is its documentary and profound approach along with an unheard interpretation of the story. Common motif of most immigration films is that immigrants have lost their identity. However, tragic depiction of spoiled identity of Salvatore and his family in this film is unparalleled and very impressive.
The film starts in the 20th century Sicily. Salvatore is a village man who is a widower, but still young. He hears strange stories about happy life in the United States and believes them. He then decides to sell his property and take his children and old mother to land of dreams. Before embarking the ship, which is taking in hundreds of other immigrants like herds of sheep, Salvatore comes to know a young woman called Lucy who claims to be a British noblewoman. In later scenes, which depict their difficult journey to the United States, Salvatore defends her against a couple of feudal lords and falls in love with her. The third part of the film is when they reach Ellis Island, which is similar to foggy scenes of Fellini’s And the Ship Sail on. After arriving on land, the immigrants have to go through painful tests and examinations some of which are inhuman, to make sure that they are qualified to go through the golden door.
But what qualification? The Salvatore family and many other immigrants have been stripped of their human values in the course of a trip which is reminder of the corridor mentioned in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Behind the golden door and before entering the new world, they suffer the worst form of humiliation with shattered personalities whose examples have seldom been seen in cinema. They qualify to enter the modern times only when all values, beliefs and lifestyle of the old world has been buried. It is moving from a civilized primitiveness to a primitive civilization.
Are you downbeat with this sad story? What can be done? It is a nasty world in which we are living, so what else can we expect? Anyway, try to be patient because I’m almost finished with this report. I also watched four or five important films in other sections whose details may interest you though it may not diminish your sorrow.
Private Fears in Public Places, the last film of Alain Resnais (born 1922), is one of them. You know him. He is one of the most acclaimed French filmmakers in the second half of the 20th century whose films have had great impact on narration in cinema. His track records indicate his commitment to social and political issues and his indefatigability in penetrating deep inside human hearts. His recent films are a combination of intelligence and understanding; a rich satire added to some strangeness.
The story of Private Fears in Public Places goes on in Paris. Six urbane and good-looking characters are hiding their concerns behind artificial smiles at beautiful and ornate places. Dan and Nicole are planning to find a condo in downtown but it seems this would only make their shaky relationship worse. Gaelle is a romantic personality seeking love, but comes across Dan. Thierry, the brother of Gaelle, is living with a young woman and is afraid that the woman may leave him. He is shocked by finding out about a dirty secret which has been hidden by his colleague, Charlotte. However, he shows many houses to Dan and Nicole as a real estate agent. These strangers come across each other in wintery days quite by accident. The story is told vividly and with some Bunuelesque strangeness. However, the main sense which lingers is one of depression which underlies the whole story.
Flight of the Red Balloon, which was to be a tribute to Albert Lamorisse and his brilliant The Red Balloon neither lived up to Hou Hsiao Hsien credit, nor was a proper tribute to Lamorisse. The main problem with the film is lack of strong connections among characters which bewilders the audience. There are four main characters in the film: Simon is a seven-year-old boy who is followed by a mysterious red balloon all along the way from school to home; his mother, Suzanne, loves puppet shows and is preparing a new show; and a Chinese student called Song Fang who is studying cinema in Paris and helps Simon with housework. The Red Balloon, Simon, Suzanne, and Song Fang are separate stories and this has stripped the whole work of needed coherence.
This film was the first of a collection which has been presented by D’Orsay Museum of Paris on the 20th occasion of its establishment. Hou Hsiao Hsien says that after he received the order from museum, he met various people, has read books about Paris and has found out about Albert Lamorisse’s film (how belatedly!). He has had the opportunity to combine his discoveries about Paris with the unique film of Lamorisse and his own love for puppet show; but he has not been very successful. Hou Hsiao Hsien, who has been born in China in 1947, is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of Southeast Asia. During 1980s, he gained international acclaim for making A City of Sadness and A Time to Live, A Time to Die. His interest in puppet show is evident in In the Hands of a Puppet Maser. In his films, he mostly reflects on the history of Taiwan in the 20th century through autobiographies and emotional themes; the country where he immigrated along with his family when he was only one year old.
Like his other films, in Born Equal, Dominic Savage (born 1962) is critical of contemporary Britain and has focused on social inequalities. At first, he wanted to make a film about the homeless, but the subject was further extended and problems of the homeless were discussed on the side of other problems.
The story goes on at a shelter where the homeless and other people banished from the society are living. Michelle is pregnant and has taken refuge at the shelter along with her daughter to avoid her violent husband. Robert has been just released from prison. Yemi, who is a journalist, has fled from Nigeria to save himself as well as his wife and child. Mark is a 40-year-old wealthy man who feels guilty when he sees other people who are not as fortunate as him. Therefore, he decides to start working on the streets.
Born Equal is a bitter movie which moves the audience. Dominic Savage had appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon as a child. He was a pioneer documentarian for years before making his first feature film in 2005.
Tuya’s Marriage was another remarkable film, which has already won a Golden Bear from Berlin Film Festival in 2007. It is about a love affair between two shepherds. The leading actress is a Mogul woman called Tuya who takes care of her two children and paralyzed father. She also grazes sheep, which are their sole source of income. One day, a bitter cold kills the sheep and Tuya wonders how she should support the family. Although she is in love with a poor man, she is forced into marrying a rich old man. When asked about why he had chosen that story, director Wang Quan’an (born 1965) told reporters that Moguls are the biggest ethnic group in Inner Mongolia, which accounts for 12 percent of the area of China. “The place where my mother was born is not far from the location. Therefore, I have always loved Moguls. I came to know their lifestyle and music when the industrial development was turning their pastures into desert and local officials drove them out of their homes. I decided to make a film to record the way they live before they are uprooted.” Tuya’s Marriage is the third feature by Wang Quan’an.
The Banishment by Andrey Zvyagintsev (born 1964) from Russia is the last film which I will discuss here. Enthusiasts were looking forward to seeing it. It was made by a director whose first feature, The Return, was widely acclaimed and earned him a prize from Venice Film Festival in 2003. The film is based on a short novel by William Saroyan called The Laughing Matter (1953). The film is about a family in crisis and takes us to an unknown time and place (it has been shot in Moldavia, Belgium and France). The main characters are Konstantin Lavronenko and the Scottish movies star, Maria Bonnevie.
Alex takes his wife and two small children out of the city to spend a few days at the house where he had been born. The house is located in a remote place outside the city. In the meanwhile, his wife Vera tells him that she is pregnant, but not from him. Alex, who is greatly upset, insists that she should abort the child. He sends his children to a friend and, helped by his brother, Mark, who works with mafia, arranges the abortion. But there are tragic consequences to this adventure.
The Banishment is not as powerful as The Return, but is impressive and memorable. If you have not seen The Return, The Banishment would look a good film to you. Unlike The Return whose time frame (105 minutes) played an important role in its aesthetics, The Banishment (150 minutes) is somehow longer and this has reduced psychological impact of the film. The main feature of the film is its striking cinematography by Mikhail Krichman (who was also director of photography of The Return). Every picture reminds one of fascinating paintings of the great Russian painter, Vasili Grigorievich Perov (1834-1882).
That’s all. Forget what you have heard. Now, we can stand up, leave the elegant theater, go down its marble steps, cross the old bridge over the singing river and, on the other side, just 50 meters from the theater go up the steep forest road which is flanked by fragrant flowers and wet leaves. After passing by spruces, willows and poplars, we would reach the peak of a hill wherefrom you can have a bird’s-eye view of all houses, all cities and the entire world. You can see and listen to all the people in the world and be fascinated by their tales; tales of suffering and ecstasy.