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Spartacus & Cassandra
The 8th Annual Panorama Europe Film Festival played at my New York City home borough of Queens, at the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI), in Astoria, with additional screenings on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at the Bohemian National Hall. From May 6 through May 22, the slate was an impressive nineteen feature films, fiction and documentaries, including nine New York premieres and many filmmakers attending the screenings.
That’s 19 of the 28 member states of the European Union: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Kosovo, Lithuania, Malta (its first film in international distribution!), The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. While there are people in Queens who speak the native languages of each of these countries, as noted by the EU’s Deputy U.S. Delegate to the United Nations in his Opening Night remarks, films are shown with English subtitles. But there were many enthusiastic people in the audiences who didn’t need the subtitles.
Reflecting a broad range of European concerns past and present: there was historical epics, even in animation, to the plight of Romani (Gypsy) children, the ongoing crisis of refugees and migrants, and several focusing on women under extreme personal stress, caught in many different kinds of love from mothers to obsession to lesbian discovery, to hip hop. Comedy, mystery, drama – and even a horror flick.
Anna (Per amor vostro)Star Valeria Golino introduced the film and participated in Q & A with MoMI’s Chief Curator David Schwartz. After the film, the audience, including delegates from the 19 countries, enjoyed Chef Turi's pastries and treats, courtesy of the Italian Cultural Institute.
Golino’s star power helped Gaudino just b-a-r-e-l-y cobble together the funding for his first fiction feature in over a decade. The vivacious actress laughed how the "chaos" of the production was creative as well as financial, as cast and crew collaborated to unfold the story simultaneously on three levels within the head of her central character. Wife (of a brutish lout), mother (of three teens including a deaf boy), newly promoted (and constantly sexually harassed) cue card girl on a TV show, “Anna” doesn’t just express the passionate dialogue through quick shifts into three languages -- Italian, Neapolitan dialect, and signing (presumably Italian Sign Language). Channeling Fellini’s muse Giulietta Masina, her wide eyes sees three levels of reality in dizzying imagery (and won her the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival).
Anna is everywhere surrounded by the clamor of suffering from financial crises - lay-offs, evictions, her kids asking for money, and her husband’s usury, in the aftermath from banks leaving the city to even more nefarious lenders. All around Naples, from the sea to the volcano, her quotidian world is in black-and-white. Her psychological fears are in deep colors blown by loud threatening storms, and the winds of lust push her towards the seductive soap opera roué with a serious gambling problem. Spiritual symbols ricochet her from demons that turn her commuter bus into a water-logged circle of Dante’s Hell, to folkloric Catholic rituals that lift her up as portraits of saints, sardonically rewarding her for her penitence and her bravery for finally breaking free of limbo.
All this stunning action is narrated in song by Epsilon Indi’s updated take on a traditional Neapolitan folk opera style. The soundtrack is downloadable on Amazon, a hummable souvenir of a rousing cinematic experience. Cinematographer Matteo Cocco also photographed the pan-European travels of Babai in the festival.
Spartacus & Cassandra - presented by the Cultural Services of the French EmbassyWhat is it like to grow up Roma (aka Gypsy) today when their insular communities in Europe not only face entrenched discrimination, but their traditional traveling ways are now caught in the backlash against migrants? And what will be their future?
Ioanis Nuguet’s strikingly intimate debut feature grew out of an idea to document Roma camps after French President Sarkozy delivered an anti-immigration speech in summer 2010 announcing they were about to be dismantled. But Nuguet got so immersed in their culture, while recording positive traditions like weddings and christenings, over several years he learned their language and moved in to his own trailer in the camp. He befriended two young siblings who suggested he film their lives, even though they had never seen a movie.
Spartacus Ursu, at 13, and his ten year old sister Cassandra Dumitru participated in every aspect of the almost year and half filming. They enthusiastically followed suggestions to keep dream journals so their fantasies could be cinematically recreated in Super 8, grabbed Nuguet to come over when they were in the midst of confronting their non-French speaking alcoholic father and mentally distressed mother, and recorded the useful voice-overs during a year of editing. Composer Aurélie Ménétrieux’s evocative score re-mixes loops of actual sounds Nuguet recorded on the film.
The brother’s sparse introduction sets the tone with intense close-ups: “When I was one year old, I was already walking. At two, I was eating dirt. At three, my father was in prison. At four, I begged with my sister. At seven, I came to France. At eight I was stealing car radios.”
What changes their trajectory from stereotyped failure is the mysterious angel he met at age nine – Camille, a young independent circus artist whose performance and organizational skills attract children to her small Big Top in the middle of their compound and gives them a creative outlet to channel the stories of their lives. But when police scarily surround the caravans and the children are threatened with a foster home by a judge, she finds herself, at only 20, agreeing to take them in when their parents can’t acculturate to French strictures and angrily take off.
Cassandra blossoms with school and structure, but will she be able to resist the importuning of her weeping mother who insists she needs her daughter to sell dawn-picked flowers in the streets and to shield her from her violently abusive husband? Spartacus has great difficulty adjusting to school and his settled classmates, and the suspense builds if he can settle down. Just when the school, the police, the judge, and the parents all pile on with demands, the amazing Camille, even when financially strapped, packs them both off to a country idyll of swimming, climbing trees, and fixing up a derelict farmhouse into circus artists’ haven. A very French fresh air camp!
Left unsaid onscreen is that as the sole camera and microphone moved back for wider views of their changing context is what Nuguet has said in interviews -- that he moved in with them. He has taken them along as the documentary has played on the festival circuit, starting by swimming in the Mediterranean when the film debuted at Cannes. Nuguet calls it their version of therapy; the audience witnesses profound empathy.
History’s Future - presented by the Dutch Culture USA program by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New YorkFor almost 20 years, Dutch artist Fiona Tan has exhibited film and video installations in art museums and exhibition settings. Premiering at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), her debut feature opens in a theater, but at “The End” of a film with the audience leaving. Then it rewinds to see how Europe got to what she called "rolling catastrophes" since 2008. Like a rueful take on Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the ravages of war and capitalism are seen from the perspective of a victim/guide.
On a dark street, a man (the linguistically adept Mark O’Halloran) is so viciously attacked, a la the dystopian future of A Clockwork Orange, such that when he awakes in a hospital in The Netherlands, he has amnesia. A woman identifying herself as his wife fetches him and brings him home to their comfortable middle class house. But when he ventures out, the sameness of suburbia confuses him, so he ends up attaching himself to another family. “Where am I?” turns into acceptance: “Does it matter?”
Going past “Have You Seen This Man?” posters, this “Missing Person” (MP) wanders, with slightly different neatness of appearance that changes how people perceive him in different places. He goes ever farther, through railroad stations and airports, taking advantage of those drivers at arrivals terminals holding up businessmen’s names for pick-up. Humorously, wherever he goes people seem to recognize him or “MP” is able to keep his conversations (in many languages) sufficiently vague and encouraging so that people think they’ve met before, a commentary on urban anomie and loneliness.
Tan shot film as she was location scouting, as well as using archival clips, of abandoned buildings, stalled construction projects, homeless migrants, blowing trash, and protesters battling riot police in the streets: Barcelona, Detroit, Dublin, Leipzig, London, Newcastle, Paris, as well as scenes from Greece and Japan around the Fukushima plant. She joked at MoMI that she lost count of the number of countries she traveled through; the languages in interchanges with “MP” are at least Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Portuguese, and Spanish, in bars, gardens, and a shopping mall.
Precisely written in elliptical dialogue, the script was shaped with help of British film critic Jonathan Romney, each encounter is a gem of a short film enlivened by a notable international cast. Besides “MP”s facility at picking up lonely women wherever he goes, the philosophical highlight is Denis Lavant as a blind French lottery ticket seller like a modern Diogenes. In Dublin, the taxi driver is Brian Gleeson, as redheaded and talented as his father Brendan and brother Domhnall. Not having worked with actors before other than for voice-overs, she said her biggest surprise was how helpful the actors were, especially in their willingness to try retakes in different way.
Surrounded by a metallic score emphasizing technological change, written and performed by Ray Harman, Leo Anemaet, and Michiel Weidner, a cacophony of visual images goes by: “MP” filling a storage unit with souvenirs; “Children in Spheres on Water” who reminded me of the climate change protests of The Yes Men Are Revolting; and Native American imitators (identified in the credits as “Hobby Indians”) teaching children the old ways. Frequent masterworks of art hark back to Europe’s past heights of civilization. Besides close-ups of the obvious allegories of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, she returns repeatedly to “Portrait of a Kleptomaniac” by Théodore Géricault, which was commissioned for the first mental hospital in Paris, until the amnesiac becomes him. Earlier this year, Tadhg O’Sullivan’s beautiful The Great Wall, at the Museum of Modern Art’s Documentary Fortnight, dealt with similar pan-European themes through architecture. Fiona Tan, for all the high-concept structure and intellectual imagery, keeps her focus on the individual.
Lampedusa in Winter - presented by the Austrian Cultural Forum New YorkAustrian director Jakob Brossmann first went to the Italian island of Lampedusa, about 127 miles south of Sicily and about 81 miles east of central Tunisia, when he was an art student in Vienna thinking of making a short film about the refugee experience in general, inspired by his own family's flight from the Holocaust, as explained at MoMI by just-as-young Co-Director of Photography Serafin Spitzer. Then he saw how the media flock there in the summer, like the tourists, and just briefly report on the huddled masses from Middle Eastern wars and African turmoil who survive the storms or the wretched refuse who don’t. He met charismatic environmental activist Giusi Nicolini, and when she became mayor, he determined to return with a small crew in the off-season. Arriving just as the inhabitants’ lifeline to the outside, a commercial ferry, burned down in front of them, their sharing in the mounting tribulations this caused helped win the locals’ trust over four months there for revealing cinema verité.
Coming off a long Coast Guard tour with young sailors tensely following reports of stranded boats (and relieved to not face another unfortunate rescue), he finds onshore people who are also dedicated to helping. Volunteer human rights lawyer Paola tears off the cemetery plaques put up by the previous mayor for “the Africans of black color” buried there to put up more considerate ones, and sympathetically advises the last group of hunger striking Eritreans protesting on the church steps that disfiguring their fingertips just delays their transfer off the island. Two gloved and masked scavengers picking through the detritus of lives in abandoned wrecks turn out to be curators of a museum of maritime tragedies so careful to be respectful that they seek out those who can translate letters and diaries.
But daily life struggles on without international attention or assistance. The local news and weather is reported by an upbeat D.J., and the very Friday Night Lights-like junior soccer team coach works hard to instill striving, cooperation, and good sportsmanship in his players, even when they face dominant opponents – a symbol of what the islanders go through in dealing with the Italian government bureaucracy, let alone the decisions of the European Union about refugee policies.
As the last of the summer refugee stragglers are taken away by airplane, pent-up tensions erupt over the ferry disruption. When the unresponsive private ferry company first lags in getting a replacement boat, then finally comes up with a small, rickety alternative, the fisherman lead a strike. Already incensed because an essential public transit function has been left to private incompetence, the rugged, long-time fishermen can’t get all their catch out to Sicily, just when their catch has already been limited by national and international government regulations. All the striations and personalities in the community play out before the camera, and the difficulties of community organizing. Negotiating with all sides, the mayor is a stirring example of responsive leadership within a crisis.
While winning awards at many European film festivals since premiering at Locarno, Brossmann was most proud to screen it in April for the European Parliament, after a heated panel discussion on the need for safe, legal migrant routes. When he comes to New York City to re-screen the film later this year, he hopes it will continue to raise consciousness about the issue, even as antipathy to migrants has risen in his home country.
Simshar - presented by the Arts Council Malta New YorkRebecca Cremona incorporates Lampedusa while making a big splash in deftly crossing two real, dramatic tragedies in the Mediterranean: a Turkish vessel that was stranded by international indecision when the captain chose to rescue a boat load of Eritrean migrants, and a Maltese fishing family capsized from the titular boat in a storm waiting desperately for assistance. With an accessible touch of suspense and heart, she humanizes migrants while poignantly illustrating the ongoing impact on area fishermen and ships.
At MoMI, she told of learning how to best combine artistic vision, social significance, and audience appeal from masters filming in Malta – working as an assistant on Munich, interfacing between director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, so she felt prepared to take on a politically and physically challenging production on land and sea. The Maltese native tells the first authentic Malta story on film, primarily in Maltese, featuring Maltese professional actors within an international cast, local people portraying their real activities, and crew who up to this had been secondary on big Hollywood movies where their island masqueraded as many other actual and fictional locales through history (at least they left the largest water tank in the world she used to thrilling effect).
Though the story of the fisherman was a well-known cause célèbre, she was able to spend a considerable time interviewing him to elicit a unique perspective in developing a broader script. Set within an intimate and colorful portrait of Maltese families, financial struggles, religious festivities, and mutual solidarity, Simon (played by Tunisian actor Lotfi Abdelli) brings along his father and ten year old son (yes, Adrian Farrugia as young Theo pulls on heart strings) to risk finding a catch beyond the usual limits, helped by a hard-working Muslim immigrant from Mali (French actor Sékouba Doucouré). The plight of the merchant vessel is linked through Maltese officials who have to go on board, beleaguered military liaison John (popular local comedian Chrysander Agius) and his best friend a doctor Alex (Mark Mifsud), whose reluctance and impatience are softened by a passenger translator (French actress Laura Kpegli). Nature, from the sun beating down on the exhausted migrants to the stormy waves rocking the desperate fishermen, ratchets up the tensions and anxieties, as humans struggle to cope – who will survive?
After playing in Malta for three months, and entered as Malta’s first submission to the Academy Awards, Simshar traveled to film festivals around the world, and is now available on many VOD platforms. But a small screen may diminish the view of this beautiful film by a new director who seems ready to succeed Spielberg.
Next – overview of the second weekend of Panorama Europe 2016.
A team of international stars, and a prominent Iranian producer, made the tough decision as to who got what in this year’s competition. Filmmaker George Miller served as president of the jury and he was joined by French director Arnaud Desplechin and Hungarian director Lazlo Nemes.
There were many actors on the jury: Kirsten Dunst from the U.S.; Italian actress, director, writer Valeria Golino; Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen; French actress Vanessa Paradis; and Donald Sutherland from Canada. Joining the crowd was illustrious Iranian producer Katayoon Shahabi.
From the smallest to Biggest: Well, not really small, just short. The Palme for best short film went to “Timecode” directed by Juanjo Gimenez, with a special mention to Joao Paulo Miranda Maria for “The Girl Who Danced With the Devil.”
The Camera d’or for best first feature film, was awarded to “Divines,” directed by Houda Benyamina. First films from any section of the festival (not only the official competition) are eligible for this award. “Divine” was shown in the Directors’ Fortnight/Quinzaine des Realisateurs.
Best Performance by an Actor went to Shahab Hosseini, in Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman.” Farhadi also won the screenplay award for his very particular take on Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”
The female acting award was taken home by Jaclyn Jose for her perfomance in “Ma Rosa,” the latest film by Filipino cinema powerhouse Brilliante Mendoza, who seems to make at least one film a year.
Andrea Arnold took home the Jury Prize for “American Honey.” This was her third Jury Prize for her third film in the Cannes competition. Nice to get an award, but here’s hoping Andrea can claw her way up the palme food chain next time.
There was a tie for best director. The award was shared by Cristian Mungiu for “Graduation,” and Olivier Assayas for “Personal Shopper.” The Romanian director Mungiu made his third trip to the stage. He won the Palme d’or for his drama “Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days” in 2007 and won the screenwriting prize for “Beyond the Hills” in 2002. Assayas, on the other hand, snagged his first award after having shown five films in the competition.
The Grand Prix went to Xavier Dolan for “It’s Only the End of the World.” Dolan won the Jury Prize a few years ago (sharing it with Jean-Luc Godard). Notice that his prizes get closer and closer to the top prize; Arnold is kept in a holding pattern. But Dolan is certainly working his way up to the Palme d’or. Speaking of which, Ken Loach won his second Palme d’or for “I, Daniel Blake.”
The documentary award, cutely titled the “L’Oeil d’or,” was given to the Brazilian film “Cinema Novo” by Eryk Rocha. Honrable mention went to Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya for “The Cinema Travelers” from India.
President of the documentary jury was Gianfranco Rosi (“Sacre Gra,” “Fire at Sea”). He was joined in deliberations by filmmakers Anne Aghion and Thierry Garrel, actress Natacha Regnier and Brazilian critic Amir Labaki.
This was just the second year for the documentary prize. And it hasn’t reached the big time yet; the award is given out in a separate ceremony the day before the competitions winners are announced. Perhaps one day we’ll see documentaries awarded on the same stage as the competition.
I, Daniel Blake
Some film performances attract attention for being over the top. The lead performance of the father in Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” comes to mind. It’s a good performance, and you can’t help but notice it. However, sometimes actors are so quietly invested in their characters that the performances are extremely subtle and thus very moving and thoughtful.
Dave Johns in “I, Daniel Blake” gives the kind of low key, modulated performances that rarely get noticed in the likes of Hollywoodland. Johns is a stand-up comedian who has appeared on British television, but director Ken Loach’s treatise on the bad treatment of the indigent by public services is his first feature film role. And, I would bet, his first dramatic role.
Johns plays the title character, one Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old carpenter who is unable to work after a heart attack. He is caught between the classic rock and hard place: the medical establishment won’t give him an OK to work until he has recuperated, but in the meantime, social services won’t give him benefits until he’s tried to find work. And that’s putting it mildly.
Loach shows the bureaucratic establishment to be one stop short of a horror movie; there are so many catch 22’s that your head could spin. But the really devastating thing is when you realize that’s just a day at the office; these people don’t realize they are destroying people’s lives – they thing they’re helping.
As Daniel, Johns maintains an absolute calm and dignity about him, even as he tries to reason with people to help him as well as a destitute young mother. He is a guiding hand, but has nowhere to guide people (or himself) to. Yet he is a rock for others. He is kind. Even when you can sense the anger rising, he is an upright gentlemen. A gem of a performance. May Johns see more dramatic roles in his future.
“Paterson,” directed by Jim Jarmusch, showed me an Adam Driver I hadn’t seen before. Or maybe I had seen before, but didn’t care until the character of Paterson came my way. (To be clear, Paterson is the main character of the film, as well as the New Jersey city in which Paterson works. A typical Jarmuschian move.)
Driver’s Paterson is a bus driver (another Jarmusch tease?) who spends his off time writing poetry. He really has a poet’s mind, because not all is written. Paterson sees poetry in much of his mundane existence, so all is well. His is a reserved character, who sees poetry in everything, even the humdrum driving of a bus. But he takes in a wealth of ideas, information and, yes, poetry, from those he encounters on his daily run.
Paterson lives with a stay at home partner (played by Golshifteh Farahani) who lives in her own dream world. She bakes cupcakes and dreams of becoming a country music star (without benefit of musical knowledge). Paterson takes it all in, and deals with her in a loving, kind way. He never sees the need to tell her that her dreams may not come true. It is in this soft, taking it easy approach – that is also pure Jarmusch, by the way - that Adam Driver captures our hearts.
Ruth Negga is the exception to my rule that quiet characters don’t get Oscar nominations. In Jeff Nichols’s film “Loving,” Negga and Joel Edgerton elegantly and quietly dance their story. It is a still dance, when you see a couple on the dance floor who are so taken with each other that they simply sway, not moving. The story, now well known, is of the interracial couple whose desire to live quietly set off a court battle and landmark legislation.
As Mildred Loving, much of Negga’s performance is in her face, particularly in her eyes. Every emotion shows up there: love for her husband and family, rage at the injustices, fear as she is pulled from her bed and made to wait, pregnant, in a jail cell for a judge to deign to let her out on bail. Through all the tribulations, there is a beauty in her face and eyes that keep you riveted.
Joel Edgerton does much the same with his character of Richard Loving, but the intensity spreads through his entire body. You get the feeling that this man cannot say everything that he means, everything that he feels, but we see the emotion in the way he moves, perhaps hard at work fixing a car or the outside of their house, or perhaps putting his arm lightly but assuredly around his wife’s shoulders. This is a man who cannot articulate his feelings, but with simple statements and movements, he speaks volumes.
“The Death of Louis XIV” is Albert Serra’s one-man showcase that he has gifted to the iconic Jean-Pierre Leaud. Playing the dying monarch, Leaud is on screen for virtually the entire film, and lying down in bed at that. In addition he balances an enormous wig on his head that looks as though it could be the cause of his demise.
The Sun King does have some lines, but they are all delivered with the voice of one who is fading away. And as various doctors try different cures on him – each new concoction stranger than the last – Leaud grunt, groans and slurps his way into history. Low lighting and very close camerawork gives us an up close and personal view into his last days.
But lest one thing this is a dramatic, depressing performance, it is really anything but. Humor comes through constantly – by Leaud as well as the few supporting cast members. These are death throes that you want to enjoy.
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds
Seeing the word “classics” applied to a film festival program would have you believe you will be seeing a bevy of old films, perhaps restored. But Cannes regards those involved with film through the years to be classics; hence a collection of recent documentaries about cinema luminaries.
There are cineastes you can listen to for hours, captivated by their opinions and their knowledge. Martin Scorsese comes to mind. “A Journey Through French Cinema” is Bertrand Tavernier’s treatise on where we’ve come from cinematically. (And I use the universal “we,” since it really all began with French cinema.)
Although it seems like a stream of consciousness exercise, the film is very finely structured, covering many moments in the evolution of the medium. The sense in watching it, however, is of having a conversation with Tavernier over drinks in a café near the Cinémathèque Française. And if you think you know everything about French film, be advised: you don’t.
In “The Cinema Travelers” Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya take a loving look at the Indian film lovers who move projectors around the country to share the experience of moving going with all, even those in far-flung locations.
They explore and investigate: getting a look at audience members, who are grateful for their time in the dark with their favorite movies. And they look at those who make it possible; particularly touching is the man who keeps old projectors going with spit and promise.
“Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” is a loving home movie by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens. This mother and daughter act (and they actually do an act together) let a lot hang out. They argue, they bitch and moan, but they really love each other.
Bloom and Stevens let us in on the highs and lows. And Reynolds and Fisher are particularly open to the camera. Perhaps it’s their nature, but still these are lovely moments. We see the ordinary moments, but we also see what makes them so special to us.
“Gentleman Rissient” is directed by Benoît Jacquot, Guy Seligmann and Pascal Mérigeau. I have written about Pierre Rissient before, and this is not the first film about this film renaissance man. But here, the three filmmakers let Pierre have his say pretty much all the way.
Rissient has worked in so many aspects of film: Distribution, public relations and also those important parts of film that may not have a name. He has advised Clint Eastwood and Jerry Schatzberg, among others. (Regarding Schatzberg, Rissient will admit that his first three films were great, but the rest went downhill!)
Thierry Fremaux, head of the Cannes festival, refers to Pierre as “Mr. Everywhere.” And it’s true. He shows up everywhere, and rumor has it that Rissient is the only human being on earth who can walk up the red carpet in sneakers and a T shirt. Because that’s what he wears!
Filmmaker Esther Hoffenberg introduces a new generation to Bernadette Lafont, the unique French actress in her documentary “Bernadette Lafont: And God Created the Free Woman.” This striking and talented actress had a career that spanned the New Wave and lasted to her final years.
Raised in a very free way by her mother, Lafont led the same kind of life as an adult. She had children, which caused some work problems (back in the day before birth control when she was supposed to choose film over family): François Truffaut told her that she had chosen to have a life, so he couldn’t work with her.
It’s a lovely story, told by Hoffenberg but through the eyes, words and memories of Lafont’s granddaughters. The seamless interweaving of her career, love, and life shines a light on how many of us still could lead meaningful lives. Did she see her life the way her granddaughters did? Probably not, but it is the different views that make her life so intriguing.
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