With so many films shown, both in and out of the competition, it was hard to discern a theme, a pattern, a hook, un je-ne-sais-quoi. Most of the time, the world turns as usual: the filmmakers in the quiet bourgeois West keep making technically accomplished film about our personal problems – like my all-festival favorite, Betty Fischer And Other Stories – while their colleagues from the countries with unresolved political and economic problems keep making "important" films of, well, film-school quality. And yet, unless you’ve been completely Disney-brained into believing Africa to be a huge backlot for The Lion King and China for Mulan, you should see at least some of these. Did you know there was a anti-Soviet guerrilla war in the Western Ukraine as recently as early ‘50s (The Undefeated)? Have you ever seen what an Albanian village school used to be like (The Slogans)? Or what is it like to be in the midst of an Algerian civil war (The Other World)?
Artistically, most of these films don’t amount to much. The Undefeated looks like it was copied from a Soviet WWII movie, with the SS sadists replaced by the KGB ones, and heroic Soviet partisans, by heroic Ukrainian guerrilla fighters. The Slogans has a potentially funny premise: Albanian village teachers are pro- and de-moted on the basis of the political slogans they write (though to someone working in an American big-city school system this might not sound that odd), but the director’s unbearable gravity of storytelling makes it all but unpalatable. Ditto for The Other World, whose director Merzak Allouache’s stumbling narrative style made a mess of a fairly conventional story of a young girl traveling to find her lover in the killing oases of Algiers. Actually, to make an "important" film, you don’t even have to be technically of the Third World. Denis Chouinard is a Quebecer, but his L’Ange de Goudron, a somber story of Algerian emigres in Montreal, is so laden with politically correct cliches that not even solid performances from its cast, especially its star, Zinadine Soualem, cannot save it from yawning predictability. (After writing this, I learned it had won the price for the best Canadian film, which doesn’t change my opinion one bit.)
The non-Western filmakers have better luck when they are not conspicuously trying to be "important" and "relevant." Case in point is Saso Podgorsek’s Sweet Dreams (a rare case when the title of the movie delivers 100%), a story of a teenager growing up in a small Slovenian town. Podgorsek’s set of quirky characters and his narrative style are Emir Kusturitsa Lite, but it serves him well. Kusturitsa himself flew into town briefly, to play two sold-out concerts with his No Smoking Orchestra and to introduce Super-8 Stories, his documentary of touring with the above band (he plays bass guitar). It’s the same jazzed-up Gypsy music that we heard in his last two films, Underground and Black Cat, White Cat, and it’s a lot of fun.
History still matters in Europe more than in the States (save for That Generation), and many filmakers are struggling with the past. The Polish film Keep Away from the Window will have a hard time finding a distributor in the States – at least because its plot is too similar to the recent Czech movie Divided We Fall. A Polish couple living under the German occupation reluctantly takes in a Jewish woman who escaped from the camp. The plot bears a striking number of resemblances: just like in a Czech film, the couple is infertile, and there is a nosy collaborator putting moves on the wife. But where the Czech film takes a light ironic tack, the Polish one is grim and hopeless – the direction is uneven, too, making the film harder to take. In a plot twist reminiscent of the recent The American Rhapsody, the refugee escapes leaving behind her baby daughter. But there is no salvation here, either in the postwar Polish village, where the girl’s father drinks himself to death, or in the comfortable city of Hamburg, where the refugee settles. No heroes here: the tragedy has wrecked everybody’s humanity. One can wonder (though it goes beyond the scope of this article) to what extent the differences between the two films reflect those between the wartime experiences of Czech Republic and Poland (what with the recent revelations of Jednubie massacres).
The German filmakers, extensively represented at the festival, can’t get enough of the war and the Holocaust, either. Joseph Vilsmaier, whose lackluster Stalingrad made a brief appearance on American screens a few years back, this time brought Leo and Claire, yet another based-on-true-story romance between a thoroughly respectable elderly Jewish businessman and his tenant, a super-Aryan young photographer, in the ‘30s’ Nuremberg. True or not, it is good solid material, and as a heterosexual love story, one more likely to succeed commercially than the last year’s Aimee and Jaguar – but Mr. Vilsmaier piles up the cliches so haphazardly and so mercilessly that one forgets to care. I haven’t seen the Nazis so mean and stupid since, well, Hogan’s Heroes. Besides, the "Claire" of the title is Leo’s much-suffering Jewish wife who spends only half as much time onscreen as his Aryan lover. Did anyone notice?
The popular favorite was Roland Suso Richter’s Der Tunnel, another German film that deals with more recent history. In 1961, as the Wall dams up the border between the two Berlins, a group of dedicated refugees in the West decide to dig a tunnel to smuggle out their relatives remaining in the East. You sort of know without reminders that it’s – you bet – based on a true story, but the story is dramatic and competently told; so it does not matter that the scriptwriter actually had to merge the stories of two different tunnels (there were many; moreover, the hero of this one, Harry Melchior, once a champion German swimmer, later turned into a professional people smuggler). The plot has a big cast – the refugees, the Stasis, and even the American TV company – and as many zigs and zags as the tunnel itself. You will grip the arms of your seat and reach for your hankie at the end.
Finally, I’ll have to admit that my favorite film at the festival was as "unimportant" and "irrelevant" as they come. Betty Fischer And Other Stories is a Claude Miller (Garde A Vue, The Accompanist) film based on a Ruth Rendell detective novel. It starts out as a richly nuanced melodrama – the eponymous heroine’s little son dies in an accident – but then her obnoxious mother decides to go out and simply steal a six-year-old boy in a city project. The plot roars into a nonstop thriller quickly but seamlessly, with Mr. Miller switching gears with the finesse of a Formula One racer. Not a frame or a line of dialogue is wasted, yet this is not a star-anchored product from a Hollywood factory: the action is always character-based, and everybody in the cast is a sharply drawn distinctive individual. The acting is spectacular, with Sandrine Kiberlain, Nicole Garcia, and Mathilde Seigner all splitting the Best Actress award. This is the kind of the movie you just watch, with your penlight and notepad forgotten. I sincerely hope it will get a distribution deal in this country: we need to be reminded that one can still make a thriller involving three-dimensional people and deep human emotions, without a single fistfight or a car chase. How ironic that this lesson comes to us from France.
David Gurevich is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in The NY Times, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Criterion.
Web site for the Montreal World Film Festival: http://www.ffm-montreal.org/
Web site for the Montreal World Film Festival: http://www.ffm-montreal.org/