SLIFF 2009 Preview | Joe Hodes

sliff_sm.jpgI found the films were still excellent, but smaller and more focused on the tension and occasional horror of just getting through life.







It is film festival time again, time to lose yourself in some of the best in international and domestic film; the ability to catch a great filmmaker when they are still an unknown; a chance to bask in the glory of international film, only a tiny portion of which ever make it to theaters (or even Region 1 DVD) in this country; or to take in the precious shorts and documentaries that are even harder to catch. Last year my choices seemed to encompass big themes and the fantastical, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Beaufort) to environmental apocalypse (Half-Life) to time travel (the excellent Timecrimes). This year, in addition to inadvertently reviewing most of the film noir sidebar, I found the films were still excellent, but smaller and more focused on the tension and occasional horror of just getting through life.

222.jpgThe standout performance and film were Nina Hoss and Yella (11/13 Frontenac 2:30 p.m., 11/16 Frontenac 9:30 p.m.). A multiple award winner from Germany in 2007, Yella presents us with quiet, downtrodden woman desperately escaping an abusive marriage. When a new employer’s shady dealings challenge her skills and morals, she rises (or lowers herself?) to the test. While filmmaker Christian Petzold can’t help throwing in a few scenes and themes perhaps best left out, overall the film is a gripping and rewarding ride. Hoss delivers a fantastic performance that holds the audience’s rapt attention. Audiences are conditioned to cheer on the meek as they come into their own. Perhaps Yella challenges that conditioning, or perhaps you’ll be quietly cheering her along. You can see if Petzold has continued to produce quality product with 2008’s Jerichow, also screening in this year’s festival (11/18 Frontenac 9:30 p.m., 11/20 Frontenac 2:15 p.m.).

Also excellent is the quiet film My Time Will Come (11/14 Frontenac 3 p.m.) from Ecuador. Multiple lives intersect in the city morgue where Dr. Fernandez (Manuel Calisto Sanchez, providing the other excellent performance I saw) is better at interacting with the dead than the living, especially his overbearing, upper-class family. Through his scrupulous care for his dead charges and the resulting interaction with their families and circumstances, he comes to reconnect with the living. The performances and novel locale (I have never seen an Ecuadorian film before) keep the film from falling into cliché as the interwoven stories weave and intersect. Given the spare state of Ecuadorian film and the lack of a domestic distributor, prioritize seeing this gem, for it may be your only chance.

my-time-will-come.jpgA pair of films documents the still raw emotions that flow from the Yugoslavian civil war of the 1990s. As a St. Louisan who interacts with Bosnians on a daily basis (and used to talk to some Serbians who worshipped at the Orthodox church in my backyard—St. Basil the Great on McCausland; look it up), it is important to understand the story and to share in some of the great, heartbreaking art that is one of the few upsides from the conflict. The excellent Grbavica (11/17 Tivoli 9:30 p.m.) answers the question, "What did Daddy do during the war?" and painfully explores what happens when myth and history collide for later generations. Living on top of the painful reality of the war (in a Sarajevo neighborhood that was an internment camp during the war), a struggling single mother tries to provide a life for her 12-year-old daughter. When the daughter learns some unwanted truths (are they true?) about her dead father, a presumed wartime martyr, she confronts her mother, only to learn some larger truths about how adults choose to process the painful past. Also on the schedule is Storm (11/19 Frontenac 4:15 p.m., 11/21 Frontenac 5 p.m.), a German courtroom procedural that follows an International Criminal Court prosecutor as she tries to pin down a Serbian commander for war crimes. The emotional topic and commitment to a certain level of realism (a lot of time is spent arguing in windowless conference rooms and judges’ chambers) keeps the work from being neither a standard procedural or improbable potboiler, but the leaden direction and occasionally overwrought writing drop it back to the second tier.

A trio of films from around the world (well, two from Argentina, one from the U.K.) explore the phenomenon of finding oneself in the search for others. The weakest of the three, Possible Lives (11/17 Frontenac 5 p.m.), follows a woman whose husband disappears in the rural expanses of Patagonia. In journeying to find what happened, she’s shocked to find a local man who is his husband’s doppelganger. The filmmakers should have concentrated more on the woman’s relationships and emotional state and less on maintaining endless answers to the mystery. The second film, Helen (11/14 Frontenac 3:15 p.m., 11/15 Frontenac 5:15 p.m.), the Limey of the bunch, follows a young woman who stands in for a missing girl, Joy, in a police reconstruction of her disappearance. Helen has lived in institutions for most of her life without family and strong emotional connections; Joy inhabited a dense web of relationships. Helen becomes obsessed with the case and the other girl whose life was so different from her own. The film has many strengths and is worth viewing, but it has one flaw common to independent cinema: the misuse of long shots of scenery and sunlit, introspective walks by the lead character. Improperly executed, as they almost always are, they feel like filler, artsy ways to pad a 60-minute story into a 90-minute film. For the proper use of scenery as an extension of the emotional life of the character, we present the last film of the trio, Argentina’s Liverpool (11/21 Frontenac 9:30 p.m., 11/22 Frontenac 2:15 p.m.). From the opening scene aboard a freighter as it traverses treacherous Antarctic waters, the film is a primer on how to use scenery and cinematography to convey emotion. A sailor disembarks in Tiera Del Fuego at the bottom of the world to find if his mother is still alive. Eighty-four engrossing minutes later and you can have counted the few words of the spare dialogue on one both hands while still having felt every moment of the film with the main character—a visually brilliant film and best seen on the big screen.

desdemona.jpgA trio of very different noirs (two by the same director) ends my inadvertent tour through that sidebar. The first, Philip Guzman’s 2:22 (11/21 Tivoli 9:30 p.m.), is as straightforward as they come. Some hard-bitten thugs try to rob a boutique at 2:22 a.m. on New Year’s Eve and nothing goes as planned. There are some enjoyable twists and turns as well as some clichéd ones, the whole thing leavened by some big-name cameos. Still, one wishes that we could root for somebody in this film. As different as night from day is the second film, Denmark’s Terribly Happy (11/13 Frontenac 9:15 p.m., 11/14 Frontenac 9:30 p.m.), which is the portrait of a cop, newly arrived in a small, rural town. He must quickly and successfully navigate the minefield of gossip, privilege and tradition that govern the town or he will lose his job, or perhaps his life. It is an excellent little gem of a film that follows somewhat in the tradition of the explosion of Scandinavian crime stories that have inundated bookstores (led by Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). The final film, also by Guzman, Desdemona: A Love Story (11/21 Tivoli 5:30 p.m.), could not be more different than the other two. Fine acting from the young cast and gorgeous cinematography and locations turn this noirish love story/kidnapping into something special. For the film aficionado, Desdemona demonstrates how important all the aspects of a film contribute to reinforcing (or failing to reinforce) the narrative. 2:22 is shot on choppy, handheld cameras provide a story that is difficult to watch filmed in a manner that is difficult to watch. You want to fall in love with Desdemona‘s languid border towns and desert vistas, and can easily see why the protagonists cling to each other in the desert’s magnificent desolation.

Mention should also be made of The Eclipse (11/15 Tivoli 9:15 p.m.), a strange Irish mélange of love story, ghost story and critique of the literary world from the noted Irish playwright Conor McPherson. Uneven and both confused and confusing, the film does have a few wonderful moments of domestic dread (I should not have watched this screener late at night in my old, dark house) and it features a standout performance by Ciarán Hinds, a fantastic character actor (one of those, "Oh, that guy, he’s been in everything" actors). Hinds plays a recent widower who must simultaneously grieve, take care of his kids and aging father-in-law, and perhaps fall in love again, all while possibly being haunted.

In summary, there is much to see and be delighted by at this year’s SLIFF. Of greatest interest is the crime/film noir sidebar. It is fascinating to see that film noir, a uniquely American style of film born of potboiler plots and low production values, given its name by the French, is alive and well across the world in a remarkable variety of styles and expressions. | Joe Hodes

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