I attended just three of the films this year, but it’s always exciting to see new talent in this venue. The films are shown at the Walter Reade Theater of the Lincoln Center Film Society, and at the Museum of Modern Art. It is a serious festival, and the filmmakers almost always appear for an interview and questions from the audience.
“3/4” is the second feature, and first narrative, of Bulgarian filmmaker Ilian Metev. Actually, I can’t remember seeing another Bulgarian film, so it has to set the standard for me.
The film is a delicate, leisurely view of a family in contemporary Sofia. The three members are Niki, a thirteen year-old boy, his fifteen year old sister, Mili and their father, Todor, a physics professor. His wife, the mother of the children, is barely mentioned. She is “struggling” in some distant place, but practically removed from their lives.
Mili is a serious piano student, and is preparing for a concert that may result in her going to Germany to study with a prominent teacher. But she is emotionally torn between the excitement at developing her talent and the thought of leaving her family. Her piano teacher, a patient but demanding woman, tries her best to get Mili to focus on her playing; it is a difficult program.
Niki is distressed at the prospect of her leaving, and has trouble expressing this. Mostly, he just teases her and engages in foolish behavior. Todor, however, is quietly supportive in spite of his sadness. But he is also too uncomfortable to talk about his feelings directly, and changes the subject, often clumsily, when talking to her.
While simple and slight, the story holds us for its short duration (82 minutes) because of the appealing and natural performers, all non-professionals. The film opens on Niki, playing with other boys in the schoolyard. It seems like aimless schoolboy antics at first, but slowly we learn about Niki’s family and that something is troubling him. Later, in a long tracking shot with Mili and Niki walking together on the street, we discover it is Niki’s distress at his sister’s likely departure for Germany. Sometimes goofy, yet with repressed pain, the boy is clearly uncertain about how to express his love for her. Todor is mostly confused by the boy’s behavior, but we see that his own conflicted feelings hold him back.
We see that Metev prefers to tell the story in short, obliquely revealed details that are buried inside life’s commonplace routine. We can sense his roots as a documentary filmmaker from this.
Despite its short duration, the film still feels padded. Niki’s extended antics with the other boys don’t add anything after the first scenes. But all the characters are underdeveloped, and the film ends rather abruptly; Metev cuts off scenes whenever anyone seems about to reveal their emotions. The climax of the film, when Mili and her father go searching for Niki, who has disappeared, suggests a resolution of this conflict. But it is simply too oblique, and a little frustrating.
Still, the film delivers real cinematic pleasures, and was worth my time. It is refreshing to see such natural, unaffected performances. These people have charm galore, and the long, slow takes allow us to share intimate feelings with them. Julian Atanassov shot the film, with many outdoor scenes, using as much natural light as possible, which is a rarity in today’s super-processed filming. I was reminded of the delightful, rather meandering Czech films of the sixties, especially Ivan Passer’s “Intimate Lighting”.
The second film seen was Ana Urushadze’ “Scary Mother”. It is the first film I can remember seeing from a Georgian filmmaker.
It made quite a contrast with “3/4”. Allegories, in general, have never proven popular. And when they are as relentlessly obscure as this, you can expect a hard time from both critics and audiences.
So I’m playing devil’s advocate when I find some solid qualities in it. Tantalizing, frustrating and unresolved, true; but also assured, well-acted and, sometimes, witty.
Mañana, a middle-aged married woman with two teenage children, a boy and a girl, is clearly a very troubled person. Although not impoverished, the family lives in a small apartment in an ugly, fortress-like complex. Her odd behavior, though, seems to be more from an unknown, deep-rooted psychological trauma than shabby living conditions. She is withdrawn, possibly hallucinatory and obsessed with finishing a novel that is a thinly disguised condemnation of men who have abused her, especially her husband, Anri. But when she reads a portion to her family, they are appalled and disgusted. Anri is outraged, and calls it pornography. Even worse, Nukri, a local shopowner, comes to the apartment to declare her a genius and angrily accuse Anri of being insensitive to her needs. Anri throws him out, but Mañana soon follows him. She goes to live in a corner room in Nukri’s shop in order to finish the book without her family’s disapproval. Anri comes to take her back, apologetically, but she is unmoved. In the meantime, the book, as yet unfinished, is sent to Jarji, a “translator”, who also happens to be Manana’s father. He says that he is genuinely impressed, and surprised, by the talent she reveals. And yet, there are things about it that truly disturb him. In a long, tortured diatribe, which is the last scene of the film, he explains his “criticsal reservations”.
Three themes are quickly established in the story: a feminist revolt against male abuse and oppression; the salutary effects of artistic creation, as well as its threat to the established order; the severe damage to a woman’s emotional health caused by sexual repression and the lack of affection.
While these themes are familiar, Urushadze sets up the conflict in an intriguing way. The cast is strong and her direction is focused. The trouble is that the characters exist more as symbols than fully realized people, so that the dramatic “confrontations” she sets up don’t resolve anything. It feels like the third act of a play, and not a bad one. But what in the world has happened to make these people so miserable?
The three main male actors are solid: Dmitri Tatishvili, as Anri, outwardly sensitive but maddeningly controlling; Ramaz Ioseliani as Nukri, absolutely terrified of intimacy; and Avtandil Makharadze as her father, desperately trying to prevent exposure of the past.
Best of all is Nata Murvanidze as Mañana. It is easy to believe that she is an esteemed actress in Georgia. Although often silent, she dominates with an inner confidence, her impassive face seeming to quiet all opposition. She enigmatically projects scorn, obsession and even sensuality. If a director uses such a face selectively, as Urushadze does, it can be riveting. Think of how Pasolini photographed Maria Callas in “Medea”.
The third film was “A Violent Life”, from French filmmaker Thierry de Peretti. It concerns the deep-rooted criminal culture in Corsica, where Peretti was born, and how it draws so many young men into a life of crime and, very often, an early and violent death. Peretti shows a flair for gritty realism and violent action, and sets up those scenes well. But he has ambitions that go way beyond that.
His goal seems to be an epic, on the order of “The Godfather”, that dramatizes the exploitation of Corsica by France, its long-standing struggle for independence and how the criminal lifestyle was seen as the way to achieve it. It also goes into the dominance of machismo as a rite-of-passage for Corsican males, and how women have had to accept a submissive status as part of that culture.
That’s a tall order, and I’m afraid he falls well short of it. But the story did have potential.
It opens with a genuinely shocking scene of violence. Two unidentified men are lured into a car, then are quickly shot by two other men, who set the car on fire. We discover that one of the men, Chistophe, was the brother of another man, Stephane, who is in Paris hiding out from the same gang that killed Christophe.
The story is about Stephane, played by Jean Michelangeli, and why he then decides to return to Corsica. Most of the film is flashback to the brothers’ early days, when they were part of a proto-patriotic gang that was in turf wars with more vicious criminals. We see how these young men, and their women and families, have long accepted a culture of violence as inevitable; to the point of being casual about it.
Unfortunately, the many domestic scenes, which detail how the characters struggle to have normal lives, are rather dull. There’s lots of familiar macho drinking and partying, a wedding, a funeral, with little different from so many similar, better films. The women seem resigned to being sex objects or obedient wives. A late scene of several wives making small talk about their dismal fate – while they eat lobsters – is plainly ridiculous. Peretti shifts to a more serious tone when Stephane’s mother tries to convince him to flee the country with her. But again, the actors seem under-rehearsed and stiff.
In general, the action scenes are much better, including one where a rival gang crashes a party to kill Stephane. The chase through the narrow, ancient streets of the city is exciting.
Two other scenes have some impact. In a late flashback, Christophe leaves a tearful farewell message to Stephane on a street phone. He will meet the men who have kidnapped his godson, knowing that they will almost certainly kill him. And the final scene is dramatically satisfying. We hear Stephane’s interior monologue as he walks, fully exposed, through the city, knowing that it may be the last minutes of his life.
But Stephane fails to assume the stature of a hero. The Corsican political cause is remote and unclear; Stephane and his gang too often seem like familiar macho thugs who enjoy being criminals.