The 15th Annual European Union Film Festival begins its final week at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
Part I reviews. Part II reviews. Part III reviews. Part IV reviews. Part V reviews.
The Fairy (La Fée) (Belgium, 2011) is a big dumb silly funny movie, and far be it from me to try to convince you that the world can’t use a few more of those. The filmmakers, Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, and Bruno Romy are undeniably talented performers, and they have a consistently friendly, funny and gracious world view. What they’ve come up with here is what would happen if Aki Kaurismäki, Blake Edwards and Jacques Tati collaborated on a remake of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ as a love story; it’s a very rarified, efficiently presented form of Nerd Slapstick. The fluffy-twee romance between a beleaguered hotel clerk (Abel) and a less-than-magical fairy / genie / guardian angel (Gordon) is enlivened by some very earthy and well-executed physical comedy, and they know what they’re doing visually and technically. But all you’ll really remember afterwards is how much better this kind of thing is done by the people Abel, Gordon and Romy got all their ideas from.
‘The Fairy’ screens on Friday, March 23rd at 6:00 P.M. and Tuesday, March 27th, also at 6:00 P.M.
There are a number of admirable things about The Phantom Father (Tatal Fantoma) (Romania, 2011), but not nearly enough. Director Lucian Georgescu collaborated with American writer Barry Gifford on this tale of an American scholar returning to Romania to track down the history of his father’s family, and they’ve nailed the sense of the outsider in an unfamiliar culture without resorting to having wacky fun at the culture’s expense, or making the Romanians out to be some kind of sinister xenophobes (the few spots that do rely on that involve characters that have already been made out to be somewhat cartoonish). The film is beautifully shot by Liviu Marghidan, and Johannes Malfatti’s musical score is lush without falling into sappy or manipulative. But what Georgescu and Gifford haven’t done is create a remotely compelling protagonist. Robert Traum (Marcel Iures), having seemingly planned the trip for quite a while, doesn’t seem to be all that prepared for, or enthusiastic about, anything else surrounding his self-interested goal. He consults a Romanian historical archivist, Tania (Mihaela Sirbu), whom then accompanies him from small town to small town trying to track down a friend of his father’s. She chooses to do that, ostensibly, to teach her jealous boyfriend a lesson, and she and Robert eventually warm to each other and become a couple. But I didn’t believe for a second that their connection was real; Georgescu and Gifford make Robert far too lamely appeasing, and sometimes too flat-out disinterested, for us to see what on earth the grounded and resourceful Tania might see in the guy. And the narrative is just too fractured, with too many people talk past each other, for us to ultimately care about the revelation that arrives near the film’s end. I may be the lone ranger here, but I have no idea what the ultimate point of any of this was. This was a real disappointment.
‘The Phantom Father’ screens on Friday, March 23rd at 8:00 P.M. and Saturday the 24th at 5:00 P.M.
This week, two films I thought I’d enjoy were disappointments, and one film I sort of dreaded turned out to be very good. Michael Glawogger’s documentary Whore’s Glory (Austria, 2011) focuses almost exclusively on the female sex workers in three establishments in three different cultures. “Let’s pray so we’ll get lots of clients,” suggests a Thai girl to her fellow workers at a small Buddhist shrine outside The Fish Tank in Bangkok, Thailand. “Give us money, luck, and all things good and beautiful.” The Bangkok massage parlor culture is depicted here, and it’s a very clean, urban, commercialized enterprise. In Faridpur, Bangladesh, the brothels are populated by women just trying to survive, with very few other practical options in their strict Islamic culture; The ‘City of Joy’ is essentially a tenement, and has over 600 prostitutes in a large multi-story building, starting conversations and tugging on the shirtsleeves of the men they mill around in the narrow hallways with. Reynosa, Mexico’s ‘La Zona’ is a stretch of dirt streets with row after row of what look like motel rooms, dotted by a few bars, where men cruise past in their cars and trucks ‘window-shopping’ the girls in the doorways. The women here are much more hardened and businesslike, and more likely to be feeding drug habits. But in all three locales, they are all, in their way, trying to hold on to their own shredded sense of dignity and self-possession, they’re all surprisingly religious, and they’re all fully conscious of the reality of their role in the male-dominated global marketplace, which is a vastly different reality from how politicians and businesspeople promote the benefits of that same global marketplace. Free-market economics isn’t outrightly amoral; it simply knows no morality. “Men don’t realize how we sacrifice our sense of shame for money,” states a Bangladeshi woman. Glawogger is an admirable veteran filmmaker who alternates between documentaries and fictional films, and relies on the rock-solid continuing collaboration of cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler and editor Monika Willi (who often works with Michael Haneke). The film eschews any kind of viewpoint, in the Frederick Wiseman mold – the camera merely witnesses and records. But, of course, anyone who knows Wiseman knows there always a viewpoint, no matter how subtle or unintended – recording any observed activity creates its own context. The language is as explicit as you think it might be, throughout, and there’s a bit of hardcore near the end that will be tough going for many viewers. Nonetheless, Glawogger’s film is fascinating and successfully un-exploitative. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen on the subject, and is well worth checking out.
‘Whore’s Glory’ screens on Friday, March 23rd at 8:00 P.M. and Tuesday the 27th, also at 8:00 P.M.
Another cold, hard look at morality and our human capacity for transcendence, both toward and away from what ‘morality’ might be, comes from the challenging French filmmaker Bruno Dumont. Taking place in a smallish stretch of rural France that’s not too far removed from the 19th-century landscape paintings of Jean-Baptiste Camille-Corot or Gustave Courbet, Hors Satan (Outside Satan) (France, 2011) follows the interactions of a young girl coming into adulthood (Alexandra Lemâtre) with a mysterious but unthreatening (to her, anyway) drifter who lives in the fields (David Dewaele). The man barely speaks, and seems to observe the world around him pensively but dispassionately, until he shoots the girl’s abusive stepfather; until he beats to death a persistent suitor for the girl’s attentions; until he cures another local girl of possible possession; until he has sex with a promiscuous hitchhiker, and it’s unclear whether she’s been assaulted or saved. Avenger – healer, counselor – phantom, celibate – rapist, predator – angel; Dumont leaves it up to us to decide who or what the man is, and what he’s imparting to those who are affected by his presence. There’s an argument to be made that he’s simply a manifestation of the fates others are imposing upon themselves, but I think Dumont is giving us far more than just a symbolic device. Most of his films develop slowly, with long takes and quietly insistent performances from his predominantly non-professional casts. I found this to be a rewarding film despite some disturbing episodes (which I found to not be gratuitous deal-breakers), and I recommend it to filmgoers with an avid taste for thoughtfully serious ideas about the malleable lines between the sacred and the profane in our lives.
‘Hors Satan’ screens on Saturday, March 24th at 2:45 P.M. and Wednesday the 28th at 6:00 P.M.