Late night at the Montreal film festival
It's World Film Festival time in Montreal, and for the first year since we've lived here, we've actually been in town during the festival -- so we bought a coupon book of ten tickets, used it up, and are well on our way to finishing a second. The movies are being shown in theaters an easy bike ride from our place, and every one we've seen has been memorable. The problem is picking from the hundreds of films being shown. Here's our list so far:
1. Full Breath - a Russian film shot in a fishing village in the Crimea, about two couples, both of whom are mismatched in age, and the lure of country life for city people and vice versa. Not a great film, nor a great screenplay, but I loved being taken to a place I'd never seen before - and to listen to Russian being spoken for two hours! The director was there, and at the end he stoodin the door, stooped and hopeful, as we all filed past him: he spoke no English, and all I could say was "spasiba."
2. Los Borgia - Italian/Spanish, a costume-drama, elaborate set, big production film about the Machiavellian intrigues of the Borgia family in Renaissance Rome: the father who was Pope, the sons who were a general of the Vatican armies, a cardinal, and a drunken fool cuckolded by his brothers, and, of course the daughter, Lucretia.
3. The River - a Canadian film by a new director, shot in Saskachewan, about two young people who are misfits in their small city because they're both artists who dream of being in Paris or New York like the people they admire - Joni Mitchell or Jack Kerouac, to name only two. They become friends, and support each other in their first steps toward art, and it gets more complicated from there. The audience burst into applause ta the end, and when we walked out, there was the guy who played the lad int eh movie, talking to filmgoers just as he had playing the young writer in the movie: "No, really, tell me what you would have changed about it, what didn't work for you?" This one was preceded by a short film commemorating Bosnian Muslims who were massacred their Serbian neighbors on a bridge in a small town in 1992.
4. The Knot - a hugely ambitious Chinese film that follows the lives of two people - and the history of China and Taiwan - for six decades. It's a little self-conscious, but the cinematography was breathtaking, the acting terrific, and an excellent story and screenplay.
5. Proshaj, Yuzhny Gorod (Goodbye Southern City) - Ajerbaidjan - a very depressing, bleak film about the influx of Armenian refugees from Iran into Ajerbaidjan, interreligious tension, and thuggish Russian self-interest, manipulation and violence. I'm not sorry I saw it, but it was a difficult one and also quite confusing to figure out who was who and why they were acting the way they were.
6. Wal-Mart Nation - A Canadian documentary that focuses not on Wal-Mart itself, but on the people who devote years of their lives to opposing it. Pretty good and quite nuanced and homegrown, when one now filters "documentary" through a Michael Moore lens. I think it will play well in Canada, and less well in the U.S. because it is both gentler than American society expects and, like I said, more nuanced, but I much hope lots of people will get to see it. One of the film's strongest points were its interviews with people who've written books about Wal-Mart or mega-corporate culture and its effect not only on domestic American society but the world; Joel Bakan, writer of the documentary The Corporation, raised the important point that to some extent Wal-Mart, because of its size, ubiquitousness, and success, has become the scapegoat for huge corporations in general. The director, Andrew Munger, was sitting in our row and this was his world premiere, which was pretty cool; we talked to him afterwards. Very nice guy.
7. Lezioni di Volo (Flying Lessons) - my favorite so far. A beautiful story about two unmotivated rich Italian teenagers who flunk out of school and go to India together for no real reason except to escape their nagging families, though one is an adopted Hindu who's never been to his birthplace at all. Within 24 hours they’ve lost all their money, passports, phones, and clothes --- and the movie gets progressively more interesting from there. In Italian; I hope this will get wide North American distribution - it ought to.
8. A Winter's Tale - A Canadian picture, about violence in the black community in Toronto, that has gotten some of the most appreciative buzz during the festival. Again, the director was present. It reminded me how fiction can sometimes do more good than documentary/non-fiction by telling a human story rather than preaching with facts: this film will do a lot to illuminate the human cost of the influx of gangs and drug dealing in one of the most non-violent North American cities. Made by blacks, it raises issues about black family culture and male attitudes toward education, women and money, as well as tension between people of African and West Indian origin. I know it will help here in Canada where these problems are not yet endemic, but I hope it gets distribution in the U.S. as well.
9. 53 Days - A Spanish movie about 53 days in the lives of three people, each of whom faces a challenge that requires making a large change. I found this one fascinating, especially in its portraits of women. It's such a quiet picture I can't really describe it. Thinking about it this morning, I realize the whole movie used muted and neutral colors; I don't remember any bright color in the whole thing. Very good.
10. Mutluluk (Bliss) - Turkey - The largest crowd we'd been part of during the festival was at Theatre Maisonneuve last night for the screening of this Turkish movie about a young village woman who has lost her virginity under unknown circumstances; the family, commanded by the village's tribal leader, calls on the woman's eldest cousin to kill her and end the shame she's brought on the family. He takes her to Istanbul but finds he can't carry out his task, and the two of them embark on an odyssey that, predictably, brings out the conflicts between modernity and tradition in present-day Turkey. That predictability was the film's biggest weakness, I thought. The movie had some good aspects - beautiful scenery and an appealing heroine - but I found it unbelievable and the most Hollywoodish of all the films we saw - it will probably get worldwide distribution and do its part to perpetuate Western stereotypes of uneducated Islam. It was odd how this big-budget film's lack of nuance was so apparent after a week of seeing smaller-budget films. After most of the others, I was moved by the creator's vision and determination to illuminate some aspect of human behavior and emotion. After this one, incredible images remain - of Istanbul, sheep herders in rocky villages, snowy mountains, blue coves in the Mediterranean - but I felt manipulated.
It's been a busy, somewhat stressful work week for us, and we've gone to most of these late at night, riding home up the Berri bike path at midnight or even later, then getting up early to continue working. I'm definitely short on sleep and feeling sorry I no longer can drink caffeine. Today, though, I got my hair cut (Veronique again) first thing in the morning and then J. met me and we went to two movies during the middle of the day, joining the hard core film buffs who sit on benches inside and outside the theaters with their complicated horaires (schedules) planning their day at the festival, because you can only exchange your coupons for tickets one day at a time.
I love the blinking, disoriented, slightly illicit feeling when you emerge from a dark theater into midday sunlight, and rejoin the oblivious world that has been bustling outside, while holding inside your head the sensations of the cinematic world you've just been so engaged with. And then you walk around with it in the daylight like a secret, an affair, without the slightest anticipation of loss.