Seattle International Film Festival Report #10

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SIFF includes several archival presentations, and I took advantage of the opportunity to see two works by a filmmaker new to me.

Lots of Spanish-language films in this batch including something to please almost any taste. Alamar is a beautifully simple and poetically filmed story about a boy learning his ancestors’ ways while Altiplano is artier and more political but also beautifully shot. Backyard offers a traditionally dramatized take on the sex murders in Juarez while Agora gives the epic treatment to the story of the mathematician Hypatia and her encounters with Christian religious intolerance in 4th century Egypt. Drifting is a sensitive film from Catalan master Ventura Pons about a woman unable to adjust to European life after medical work in Africa, while Women Without Piano offers a look at a Madrid housewife driven to the end of her rope by the tedium of her daily existence. There’s also two documentaries—one a fascinating look at an unfinished film by Henri-Georges Clouzot (Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno), often called the “French Hitchcock,” and the other an emotion-drenched look at two attempts to scale Mt. Everest (The Wildest Dream).Then we have a Japanese film which somewhat improbably but fairly successfully updates a 1920s agitprop novel for the present day (Kanikosen) and two classic films (Mother Joan of the Angels and Night Train) by Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowisz who you probably haven’t heard of—but who you should definitely check out.

Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio draws on the tradition established by Robert Flaherty in Alamar which exists somewhere in the ambiguous middle of the continuum between documentary and fiction. It’s based on a true story and the three main actors are playing versions of themselves, but the film’s action is staged and its effectiveness is enhanced by scripting. The story is that of an Italian woman (Roberta Palombini) and a Mexican man (Jorge Machado) who had a brief relationship which resulted in a son, Natan (Natan Machado Palombini). Now Natan is five years old and will soon move to Italy with his mother but first his father takes him back to his ancestral village to learn something about his Mayan heritage. The selling points of this film, which has been scooping up international awards, are the relaxed depiction of the daily routines of the Mayan fishermen, unfussy performances by all the actors, and stunning cinematography highlighting the natural beauty of tropical Quintana Roo which includes the Great Mayan Reef, the second largest coral reef in the world.

Altiplano begins with a memorable sequence as the camera pans slowly over Bolivian Indians gathered to worship in a Catholic church, forming a fresco-like composition whose stillness is shattered when a statue of the Virgin Mary falls and is dashed on the stones below. There are more stunning tableaus to come but unfortunately they are not well integrated with the film’s conventional, ripped-from-the-headlines story of two women, one European (Jasmin Tabatabai) and one native (Magaly Solier, also seen in The Milk of Sorrow), brought together by adversity. In this case, both lost men due to mercury pollution from a local mine: the Indian man was poisoned by it, along with many of his countrymen, while the European, a physician, was murdered after he became the focus of suspicion for the mysterious illnesses afflicting the Indians. Altiplano (the name refers to the Andean high plains) is worth seeing for Francisco Gozon’s cinematography alone, but the film would have been stronger had directors/screenwriters Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth been a little less self-consciously arty (enough with the intersecting global storylines already!) and concentrated more on the local Indians rather than the much less interesting Europeans.

Female sex murders in Juarez are, sadly, an old story by now, but Backyard (El transpatio) by Carlos Carrera is the first fictional film I’ve seen which tackles this subject. It’s an old-fashioned feature with a number of well-defined characters and a clear point of view which overcomes occasional clunky writing with sincerity and a good feel for how to effectively present a story on screen. It’s also a paean to the power of the press as a local radio presenter (Joaquin Cosio) and a New York Times article play key roles in the story. Blanca (Ana de la Reguera) is a policewoman determined to investigate the murders her male colleagues prefer to ignore while Juanita (Asur Zagada) is a recent arrival from southern Mexico who lives with her cousin Margara (Amorita Rasgada) and works in the maquilas (factories) which take advantage of the low wages in Mexico as well as Juarez’s proximity to the U.S. You also meet the corrupt cops and public officials who through inaction as well as outright corruption allow the murders to continue and a Japanese industrialist who is just as happy to take his business to Bangladesh or Saipan if the price is right.

Agora, directed by Alejandro Amenabar, is a historical drama with more drama than history but which can still be good fun, especially if you retain a fondness for the old-style sword-and-sandals epics. It’s 391 AD, we’re in Alexandria, and Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) is teaching and making discoveries in mathematics and astronomy while the slave Davus (Max Minghella) and her pupil Orestes (Oscar Isaac) both lust after her. Meanwhile the Christians are feeling their oats and first destroy the great library then insist that everyone convert to their faith (they’re good disciples of St. Paul and hate both Jews and independent women). The whole film has too much of everything but is still enjoyable and it looks great, seamlessly combining on-location filming in Malta with CGI. And you know the rule about historical epics—they tell you more about the time in which they were made than the time in which they are set—and we certainly have plenty of both religious intolerance and scoundrels who use religion as the road to power to make this film relevant to our time.

SIFF is presenting the North American premiere of Drifting (A la deriva), a small-scale, beautifully perceptive film from Catalan director Ventura Pons, whose work deserves to be better known in this country. Anna (Maria Molins) returns from relief work as a nurse in Africa to a job as a security guard in an upscale hospital in Barcelona but can’t get the horrors of her African experience out of her mind and feels unsettled in her comfortable existence. She leaves her boyfriend and moves into a motor home borrowed from her amiable gay colleague Carducci (Albert Perez) and takes up a disconnected existence whose most stable elements are her night shift job and a troubling relationship with a mysterious patient known only as Giró (Roger Coma).

Woman Wthout Piano by Javier Rebollo exceeds the limits of my tolerance for minimalism. It begins by following Madrid housewife Rosa (Carmen Machi) as she goes about her uneventful daily routine—cleaning, watching television, going to the post office, operating a home electrolysis business. But come nightfall she waits for her cabdriver husband to fall asleep then gets duded up, takes her suitcase and heads to the bus station. She’s willing to go anywhere but all the buses have left for the day so while waiting for the morning she has encounters with various denizens of the night, including a sullen café clerk, a prostitute, and a Polish mechanic (Jan Budar). Oh, and Rosa keeps smoking in places where it is expressly forbidden—maybe that’s a symbol of her desire to transgress stated boundaries as well as her inability to do so meaningfully. Woman Without Piano won several awards from the San Sebastian International Film Festival and the American Film Institute, so maybe I’m just not deep enough to appreciate it, but I found the whole experience to be tedious despite stylish cinematography by Santiago Racaj.

There’s an unmistakable parallel between filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot’s approach to his unfinished film L’Enfer (“Hell” or “Inferno”) and the character of Marcel, the leading man in the film. Both were obsessed by the object of their desires and destructive as those obsessions turned out to be you can’t entirely blame them. In Marcel’s defense, who would not be crazed by the luminous beauty of a young Romy Schneider? As for Clouzot, he seems to have traded in the prospect of making an excellent film for the chimera of making the perfect one. Some of the blame belongs to Columbia Pictures for giving Clouzot an unlimited budget which allowed him to spend weeks shooting “experiments” while cast and crew gradually deserted due to Clouzot’s unreasonable demands and the lack of progress toward actually making a film. The story of Clouzot and L’Enfer, including many clips of the actual film (which, to be fair, are often stunning) is told in Serge Bromberg’s documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, which makes fascinating viewing as a story of great talent gone astray as well as a cautionary tale of why limitations can be a good thing when it comes to creating art.

George Mallory is famous for his snappy reply to a reporter who asked him why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest: “Because it’s there.“ He’s also remembered for leading three expeditions to climb Mt. Everest, dying during the third (in 1924), possibly after summiting. Mallory’s body was discovered by Conrad Anker in 1999 and someone thought that having Anker and a companion retrace Mallory’s route would make a good IMAX film. Hence The Wildest Dream, directed by Anthony Geffen and making use of interviews, re-enactments (too many), some real climbing footage and a lot of archival materials which don’t look that great when blown up to IMAX size. A fine voice cast including Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson adds some class to the proceedings but the film is ultimately undone by its melodramatic approach, overly dramatic score, baldly staged climbing and camp scenes and a lot of silliness about using replicas of Mallory’s clothing and equipment—silly because nearly every time we see the modern climbers they are wearing heavily logoed modern technical clothing and using kernmantel ropes.

The Japanese director Sabu, best known for his anarchic comedies, tries something different with Kanikosen (“the cannery boat”) based on a famous agitprop novel first published in 1929. The story is set on a commercial crab fishing ship in which the workers incredibly oppressed are constantly exhorted to work harder for the good of Imperial Japan. A brutal (and resplendently tattooed) yakuza acts as an enforcer, the company representative has more authority than the ship’s captain, and the military acts as the company’s ultimate backup against uncooperative workers. Then one day two workers are temporarily lost at sea and rescued by a Russian boat where, apparently, they are given the world’s quickest education in socialism because once returned to their own ship they immediately begin to foment rebellion. The film lurches bizarrely between straightforward endorsement of Marxist ideals and surreal elements which give the whole an ironic post-modern element, and although Kanikosen doesn’t really add up it certainly kept my interest, aided by strong visual design including a gigantic set of gears which recall Chaplin’s Modern Times.

SIFF includes several archival presentations, and I took advantage of the opportunity to see two works by a filmmaker new to me: the Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz, who was represented by his films Mother Joan of the Angels and Night Train. We didn’t get to see the newly restored versions (the official explanation had to do with strawberry jam being received rather than the expected hard drive with digital versions of the restored film—seriously!) so they screened DVD versions which didn’t bear being blown up to full-screen size. Still it was clear that Kawalerowicz (1922-2007) was a master of black-and-white cinematography and wasn’t afraid of broaching messy psychological issues in his films. Mother Joan of the Angels (1961) involves a priest brought in to exorcise the demons out of a group of nuns, particularly the Mother Superior, a.k.a. Mother Joan (Lucyna Winnicka), who does a regular Joanne Woodward when it comes to switching on a dime from angel to devil. It’s based on a “real” case of demonic possession (if such a thing can be real) which was also the basis for Ken Russell’s movie The Devils. Night Train is a psychological thriller about a man in dark glasses (Leon Niemczyk) and a blonde woman (Lucyna Winnika again) who don’t know each other but end up sharing a sleeper compartment on a train. Why the dark glasses—is he a murderer on the lam? What’s she doing with a ticket for a male-only compartment and who is that fellow who seems to be stalking her? Will that annoying conductor (Helena Dabrowska) ever just leave it be? These and more questions will be answered before the train reaches its final destination. | Sarah Boslaugh

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