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Around the World in Seven Days

Eliminate: Archie Cookson

The 35th Montreal World Film Festival

There are a lot of movies made every year in countries other than the US. We get to see very few of them, and that’s a shame. (It’s as big a shame that so many filmgoers utterly refuse to make the effort to watch films with subtitles, an inconvenience you can easily adjust to, but that’s another topic.)

It’s our loss not just because movies provide some much-needed exposure to other cultures and peoples around the world, but because the opportunity they provide is so accessible. Why do Americans think that films from other countries are going to be dry and boring? Do we think that we’re the only people who like to be entertained when we go to the movies?

Many, if not most, of the films shown at the Montreal World Film Festival (383 of them at the recently concluded 35th edition, from 70 countries) were not made with the intention of being seen all around the world. They were made for their countrymen, as a reflection and exploration of their shared culture.

That may seem to be obviously what films do. But consider: In most countries, American films dominate the box office. When people in Turkey, Argentina, Burkina Faso, Norway, New Zealand, or most any other place go to the movies, they’re more likely to see Americans than themselves. (Worse, they see an image of Americans that has little to do with the way the vast majority of us actually live our lives.) In most countries of the world, national cinema is an endangered species.

Montreal’s film festival may be overshadowed by Toronto’s, with its partying movie stars hawking the movies that will be in theaters next week and forgotten by the end of the year, but it does much more to bring the popular art of other people to North America for us to share. This chance to peek at how other people live their lives, at a time when American newspapers and television increasingly ignore the rest of the world and “foreign” films in American theaters are limited to movies from Britain (none of those nasty subtitles!), is not only welcome, it’s crucial.

Among the more enjoyable and/or notable of the 20 films I saw at Montreal:

CHINESE TAKEAWAY—If you frequent the independent film houses much, you’ve probably seen the Argentine actor Ricardo Darin, star of The Secret in Their Eyes, Nine Queens, and Son of the Bride, among others. He’s consistently funny as the curmudgeonly owner of a hardware store who spends his time, when not alienating customers, counting the number of screws in boxes to see if he’s being cheated by his supplier. Into his life is thrown (literally) a Chinese immigrant in desperate straits. What follows isn’t entirely unpredictable, but it finds unusual ways to get to where you know it’s going

FIVE SQUARE METERS—That the housing crisis and financial opportunists aren’t strictly an American problem is demonstrated in this Spanish drama. A young couple who are planning to marry put their savings and some borrowed money down on an apartment in a seaside building under construction. But as time goes by and the building first falls behind schedule and then is cancelled, they fall into a financial swamp that consumes the man. Director Max Lemcke works social critique into an audience-pleasing paranoia thriller, and some American filmmakers should have a look at it: There are certainly enough people here who have lost either their homes or the value of them to form a sizeable pool of ticket buyers.

ELIMINATE: ARCHIE COOKSON—There are probably fewer English-language films in Montreal than at any other non-specialized North American film festival. This independent British film, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the spy thrillers of the 1960s. stars Paul Rhys as a washed-up MI5 agent serving out his career as a translator. When he accidentally acquires some tapes incriminating a pair of top agents who have been working their own schemes, he is forced to pull up whatever reserves and resources he has left to survive the assassin they send after him. Fans of John le Carre and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold may get a few more jokes than the rest of the audience, but there are plenty to go around.

PA NEGRE (BLACK BREAD)—This year’s big winner at the Goya Awards, Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars, this dark examination of Spain’s post-World War II personality crisis bears comparison to the both Pan’s Labyrinth and The Conformist. When a man in a small town is accused of murder, his son refuses to believe that he did it. He learns that, like the nearby woods that harbor so many dark secrets, the adults around him live in a darkness of their own, haunted by what they did or didn’t do during the war. It’s a comparatively mainstream film from Agustí Villaronga (In a Glass Cage), but that’s a tough standard: For most tastes this is a dark and challenging film, though compulsively watchable.

Siberia Monamour

SIBERIA MONAMOUR—If movies are the next best thing to visiting a place, then they become more enticing the further they wander off the map of places you could ever actually get to. This film by Siberian native Slava Ross takes place in only a small corner of that vast, largely unknown land, and its bleakness is appropriate to our imagination of it. An old man and his grandson are the only inhabitants of a deserted village on the edge of a forest terrorized by a pack of feral dogs. Like they few others with whom they come into contact, they are as remote emotionally from the rest of humanity as they are physically. It’s not a film I will probably ever want to watch again, but I’m glad I had a chance to see it at all.

BLACK THURSDAY and THE MOLE—Two Polish films that wrestle with that country’s still fresh memory of life under Communism. “Black Thursday” refers to the date in December 1970 when, in the port city of Gdansk, 45 protesters were shot and killed. The film concentrates on the events leading up to that day, and for non-Polish viewers who don’t know that this day was the beginning of a consciousness that led a decade later to the Solidarity movement, it illustrates a corner of history that deserves to be remembered on its own merits. The Mole approaches the fall of Communism from the other end, looking back and asking: Who are the guilty who went unpunished?

CHE BELLA GIORNATA (WHAT A BEAUTIFUL DAY)—I won’t say that I was a big fan of this comedy, a huge box office hit in Italy, but it was interesting to see what cracks them up in Roma. This vehicle for popular TV comedian Checco Zalone is billed as a “politically incorrect comedy,” with its plot about a dunderheaded security guard unknowingly aiding the efforts of terrorists to blow up a church, but it’s pretty tepid stuff, with Zalone firmly in the school of lovable slob comedians that dominate American comedies. The new Roberto Benigni he’s not.

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