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Montreal World Film Festival (1999)

by Eddie Cockrell


Selection of Films

Posted 10 September 1999

What follows are brief impressions of a selection of films caught during the Montreal World Film Festival from among the over 400 on offer:

Belfast, Maine (USA, 1999)

Nothing less than a mellow summation of his groundbreaking work to date, Belfast, Maine finds famed documentarian Frederick Wiseman at the top of his game, telling the four-hour-plus story of the sleepy town in transition without an ounce of visual fat. Set for U.S. broadcast in February, 2000, this four-hour opus (nowhere near the director’s longest work) is a cinema verite masterpiece.

The Amateur (Argentina, 1999)

This dramatically puzzling and emotionally uneven underdog saga, sort of a cross between Rocky and Breaking Away, fitfully follows the fortunes of two fringe dwellers and their attempts to get into the Guinness Book of World Records on the strength of riding a bicycle in a circle. Too introverted to work as a sports film and too muddy to provide a little-guy-triumphs-over-the-system payoff, The Amateur, in the end, sadly delivers on the promise of its title.

Dreams in the Middle of the World -- Ecuadorean Stories (Ecuador, 1999)

There aren’t many features from Ecuador floating around out there, which gives this omnibus feature a novelty value that lasts all of a half an hour. Debuting director Carlos Naranjo Estrella organized a screenwriting seminar with Gabriel Garcia Marquez nearly a decade ago, and the writer’s influence can be felt in Dreams’ world of glossy exteriors and gentle magic realism. Yet the whole is less than the sum of the three individual parts. 

Face to Face (Romania, 1999)

Among the lasting legacies of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu is a palpable sense of paranoia and guilt, as if the dead despot were still hiding under the bed of each and every citizen monitoring their every move. Writer-director Marius Theodor Barna understands this, and this often amusing new two-hander examines what might occur if a well-to-do couple, intellectual writers, awoke one morning to find one of them splashed all over the news as complicit with the dreaded Securitate forces during the dictatorship. Serban Ionescu and Maia Morgenstern have fun with this concept while never losing sight of the horrible toll these issues took on the average Romanian, creating characters whose lives are made up of equal parts tenderness and terror. 

Federmann (Germany, 1998)

Popular German bad guy Christian Redl expands his touchy-feely side as the titular working-class hero of this downbeat but mischievous 1998 made-for-German-TV drama. He plays a Berlin tram driver grieving over the death of his wife whose life is livened up by a mute young boy he thinks he’s hit while on the job. In short order the kid’s influence has broken up the emotional logjam between Federmann and the adoring barmaid (Teresa Harder) at his local pub and stimulated his ongoing discussions with his dead wife. Although much earthier in its humor and more mysterious in its motivations, Federmann isn’t too far removed from the sentimentality of the recent Czech success Kolya.

Goya in Bordeaux (Spain, 1999)

Moving only marginally away from the tango-themed films that have provided him with his greatest success in the North American market, esteemed Spanish director Carlos Saura continues his breathtaking technical collaboration with master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro in this complicated, impressionistic, prodigiously imaginative telling of the life of painter Francisco Goya as seen by the elderly artist on the eve of his death. Bringing much of his work to life in elaborate tableaux, the film depends to a large extent on the viewer’s prior knowledge of Goya’s life and achievements, indicating a tough sell to the North American market for this uncommonly intelligent biopic.

Hit and Runway (USA, 1999)

Winner of best screenplay awards at Outfest and the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, Hit and Runway is the sublimely funny saga of straight Italian Catholic Hollywood wannabe Alex Andero (director and co-writer Christopher Livingston’s performance partner Michael Parducci) and talented yet timid Jewish intellectual Elliot Springer (Peter Jacobson), who through an elaborately contrived yet completely believable series of circumstances are thrown together to write a big-budget action script on a tight deadline. Deftly mixing satire, sex and screenplays, Hit and Runway is a sassy delight.

Idle Running (Slovenia, 1999)

One of the freshest, most audacious yet unassuming feature film debuts in some time is director/co-writer Januz Burger’s Idle Running, which is sort of a black and white Animal House update set in a Sarajevo dormitory. Professional student Dizi (Jan Cvitkovic) is so lazy he ties pieces of string to his darts so he doesn’t have to get up to retrieve them from the target (“stranded halfway to adulthood,” says Burger). When a straight-laced student moves into his spare yet somehow cluttered domain, the relationship sparks Dizi’s eventual acceptance of the world outside. One of those modest films that always seem to get passed over during the distribution sweepstakes, Idle Running is worth seeking out.

The Junction (Poland, 1999)

Another small but precise gem from eastern Europe, The Junction stars charismatic, amateur newcomers Karolina Dryzner and Ewa Lorska as tempermentally mismatched best friends whose rural lives at a railroad crossing outside of Lodz, Poland are as unpredictable as they are humdrum. Writer-director Urszula Urbaniak has a sublime feel for the often nameless urgings of youth and the suffocating ennui of the job, blending these dramatic threads into a leisurely narrative spiced with flashes of earthy wit. And the work of the two leads is consistenly assured, leaving historically aware viewers in mind of the best of Italian Neorealism and the 1960s heydey of the Czechoslovak New Wave. 

Love & Rage (Ireland, 1998)

While undeniably intense, this new period drama from esteemed Irish director Cathal Black (who’s caustic 1984 drama Pigs was banned in Dublin for nearly a decade) fails to completely engage the audience, setting up the battle of wills between fiercely independent landowner Great Scacchi (seguing gracefully into older character roles in a clutch of new films from around the world) and raffish conman Stephen Dillane, only to spin into surreal flights of histrionic grandstanding as the two attempt to psyche each other out and win this odd battle of the sexes. The last third of the film becomes confusing, although their final showdown and its hideous toll is truly memorable.

Mansfield Park (UK/USA, 1999)

This initial effort from the London-based Miramax subsidiary HAL Films is an interesting—if not entirely successful—attempt to address the general dislike of the priggish heroine of Jane Austen’s novel by substituting her with a more pro-active character modeled on the author herself. So far, so good. Unfortunately, adapter-director Patricia Rozema, who has demonstrated a career-long interest in sexual politics and the creative process in such films as I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing and White Room (the latter still unreleased in the US), also inserts some post-modern meditations on lesbian themes and a more explicit approach to a slave trading subplot of the novel that tips the balance from elegant period drama to muddled tract. Against these odds, Australian actress Frances O’Connor is fine as the newly-energized Fanny Price, complemented by a solid supporting cast. Mansfield Park is set to open in New York and Los Angeles November 17 with a gradual rollout as Oscar season progresses. [Click here to read Patty-Lynne Herlevi's interview].

Muratti & Sarotti -- The History of German Animation Film 1920-1960 (Germany, 1999)

Produced by respected short filmmaker Kirsten Winter and directed by artist Gerd Gockell, this whimsical, meticulous documentary charts the development of animation techniques in Germany. Fuelled in large part by advertising subsidies (Muratti and Sarotti refer to cigarette and chocolate brands), artists such as Peter Sachs, Herbert Seggelke, Lotte Reinenger and Oscar Fischinger pioneered an imaginative, impressionistic form of film art. The momentum of this movement was severely impeded by the outbreak of World War II, only to be picked up by the immigrants who’d scattered throughout the world as well as a post-war Germany now split between the private-fuelled corporate creation of the west and the government-subsidized, more indulgent work in the east. This is fascinating stuff, lavishly illustrated with authentic clips, given new life by the eye-catchingly imaginative approach of Gockell and Winter.

Park (Ireland, 1999)

The aesthetic effects of digital filmmaking are only now being completely understood and deployed by moviemakers, and a subversive example of this is the odd Irish drama Park, based on a true story from recent Irish headlines, in which the sinewy prowlings of a jolly, elderly pedophile are chillingly recreated using intricate tracking shots through the titular greensward made possible by the compact, lightweight video cameras. Dramatically, the film is anchored by the truly bizarre performance of Irish soap opera and theater veteran Des Nealon as the jumpy caretaker who can barely contain his lust. Actress Claudia Terry does a fine job of playing the young victim Catherine at two different ages, and the film itself is admirably understated for such a sensationalistic subject.

Prague Stories (Czech Republic/France/The Netherlands, 1999)

Although principally a Czech production, Slovak filmmaker Martin Sulik (The Garden) steals the show in the third of four short stories loosely grouped around the capital city. Vladimir Michalek kicks things off with the dispirited story of a disillusioned journalist, followed by Michaela Pavlatova’s amusing vignette about a jilted man and woman whose telephone conversation may or may not lead to a new love. Sulik’s segment, “Pictures from a Visit,” is the best of the bunch, the whimsical tale of a young Slovak in Prague whose music teaching mother comes for a visit and can’t believe what she finds. Project producer Artemio Benki concludes the picture with the tale of a French couple who return to Prague after many years away but are unable to make an emotional connection with the city they used to know so well.

A Respectable Tragedy (Finland, 1999)

There’s nothing respectable about this absurdly serious drama from Finnish filmmaker Kaisa Rastimo, who so profoundly misunderstands the nature of her period story about marital transgressions that audiences may be forgiven for occasionally imagining the entire exercise to be a huge put-on, a la vintage David Lynch. Slogging through one of the oddest onscreen marriages in recent memory with absolutely no deftness or humor, Rastimo bulldozes whatever honest emotion the story might have generated into a pit of bleak despair. This is the kind of movie they’re talking about when they raise the cliché of Scandinavian darkness of the soul.

The Spirit of My Mother (US/Honduras, 1999)

Ali Allie’s beguiling story of a young Garifuna woman lost between two cultures often seems like more of an ethnographic documentary than a short fiction feature (78 minutes), presenting as it does long stretches of ceremonies and celebrations of the Garifuna, who were displaced from their West African coastal homeland many years ago and deposited on the coast of Belize and the Honduras by slave traders. Allie’s wife Johana Martinez leads an amateur but earnest cast as a domestic in Los Angeles plagued by memories of a disasterous liaison with an American soldier while continuing to receive advice and instructions from beyond the grave by her beloved mother. It’s hard to see a commercial future for this unique item, but images from it do tend to stay with you.

Under Hellgate Bridge (USA, 1999)

As disasterous as American independent DIY moviemaking gets, this slick but senseless goombah opera follows the ups and downs of some lowlifes in the eponymous neighborhood in the Astoria section of Queens as they argue over women and shoot each other up. Former soap hunk Michael Rodrick stars as a recently-paroled local who discovers his girlfriend Carla (Jordan Bayne) has been co-opted by local low-level mobster Vincent (Jonathan LaPaglia’s, Anthony’s low-rent brother). Things can’t end well and don’t, for them or us.

The Volcano (Germany/France, 1999)

Astonishingly enough, German actress Nina Hoss actually won the distaff thesp award in Montreal for her achingly one-dimensional turn as a conscientious thrush in this Cabaret knockoff about the adventures and intrigues among a group of German artists who migrate from Berlin to Paris during World War II. Long-time independent filmmaking vet Ottokar Runze falls far short of creating the gritty mood necessary for the proceedings, opting instead to people this limp drama with young models who look good in period clothing.

When the Dead Start Singing (Croatia, 1998)

A politically tinged screwball comedy about the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia (bet that lead got your attention), When the Dead Start Singing is by turns funny, insightful and outrageous in its telling of a couple of immigrants in early 1990s Berlin who hit upon a scheme to mail themselves back to the homeland as corpses in coffins. If that were all the film had to recommend it that would be one thing, but veteran Croat director Krsto Papic spends the second half of the film examining what happens to the hapless duo when they finally arrive, scoring howlingly funny points about the absurdity of war and the complexities of that whole conflict that underscore the irrepressible optimism of those who endure the constant heartbreak of that conflict.

Which Side Eden (Czech Republic/US, 1999)

Perhaps best known for the handful of distinctive movies he made before leaving his native Czechoslovakia just after the Soviet invasion of 1968 (a list that includes 1963’s Cassandra Cat and 1968’s Cannes-winning All My Good Countrymen), impish auteur Vojtech Jasny has returned to filmmaking with this unabashedly sentimental film about being able to actually go home again if you really want to. New York film professor Jan decides to return to his Moravian village (the same hamlet in which Countrymen was shot), only to discover that the contacts he’d thought long-broken remain strong in his heart. Perhaps too emotionally and technically raw to pick up a distributor in America, the film is chock full of recognizable faces from the fabled “Prague Spring” film movement of the 1960s and a refreshing change of pace from much of the cynicism and posturing that passes for entertainment today.

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