Belfast Film Festival at 10

The Eclipse

10th Belfast Film Festival (15–30 April 2010)

It seems scarcely believable that Belfast Film Festival has achieved its tenth manifestation, but it continues to go from strength to strength, presenting over 100 events in 16 often-frenetic days from 15–30 April.

Opening the festival was Triage, the new film from Danis Tanovic, whose No Man’s Land caused such a stir a few years ago. Colin Farrell stars in the story of the horrors of an ugly modern war – on this occasion the Kurdish insurrection against Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime in Iraq at the end of the 1980s. Farrell plays an ambitious and gung-ho photojournalist, who seems to be oblivious of risk in his attempts to reveal the horrors of this murderous conflict. His sidekick, and friend, is far more reticent, and after a near miss, elects to return home alone. Eventually and inevitably he is injured and returns to Ireland where his girlfriend/wife recognises the onset of post-traumatic stress syndrome, and calls on her father (Christopher Lee, no less), a psychiatrist and former employee of the Nazis to try to find a route to serenity.

Farrell’s performance is excellent and Lee’s is extraordinary, and Tanovic is clearly a fine director, but the film lacks emotional clarity and the ‘mystery’, when it is revealed fails to shock as it should because we have been too desensitised by what has gone before.

The closing film, Tetro, by Francis Coppola, also, for me, fails to fully cohere. This visually impressive, largely black and white drama is set in Buenos Aires and stars Vincent Gallo as a would-be writer (the eponymous Tetro) who lives the life of a bohemian, installed in a small flat with his partner, and has stopped writing. He is visited by his half-brother, Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), whom he disowns. The film neatly reverses the normal cinematic convention and has flashbacks and memory in colour with ‘reality’ in black and white. It also has the courage to play with aspect ratios – as most of the colour scenes are presented in 5:3 while the rest of the film is in scope at 7:3.

Visually it is extremely impressive, especially the section in Patagonia, and one never doubts that the film is being made by a master of cinema, but, in spite of fine acting by the entire cast, the ‘drama’ fails to impress – or really cohere. What has occurred to me since the screening is that it looks for all the world as if it were written a decade and a half ago with the intention of casting De Niro, DiCaprio and Brando in the three main roles (Klaus-Maria Brandauer has the ostensible Brando role of the ageing father). As it is, we have a film that aspires to the operatic, but struggles to be dramatic.

Of course, why seek to be operatic or dramatic…much better to be cinematic! And, whether by accident or inspired design, there were two films in the main festival programme that had close affinities with the opening and closing films and were both exceptionally cinematic. Staying in Argentina, I was close to knocked out by The Tango Singer by Diego Martinez Vignatti. Usually films that are embroiled in ethno-musicology leave me cold, but here we have so much more than music. Indeed, it is not about music at all. At the centre of the film is Helena, a beautiful but vulnerable tango singer. She sings magnificently poetic tango songs in an unremarkable provincial club. As the film commences, she is about to discover that her lover is unfaithful and her affair is doomed. The film, and her music, takes her to an acceptance of her new status in a life-enhancing and totally cinematic way.

The Tango Singer
The Tango Singer

It is difficult to capture the poetry of the film in words. Watching the film, it is the work of Antonioni that first comes to mind (The Red Desert would seem to be the most obvious reference point). Visual textures merge and contrast to give an unerringly resonant, impressionistic, view of Helena’s mental turmoil. Barren seascapes, rooms dominated by blood-red décor, misty landscapes – these all paint a vivid and beautifully layered picture of her pain. But there is wonder in the narrative and dramatic structure as well, especially when she goes to visit her brother in Northern France. Vignatti, the film’s director, started his career as a cinematographer, and he has not forgotten how the loudest words in the cinema are spoken by the camera. I’m not sure it merits the term masterpiece, but I am sure that is was the finest film that I saw in this year’s festival. I do so hope that it will find a wider audience.

Triage, too, had it’s ‘equivalent’ – Lebanon – fresh from its success in carrying off the Golden Lion in Venice. Like Triage, Lebanon, a (largely) Israeli film by Samuel Moaz, is set within the environment of a bloody war in the 1980s – here the Israeli incursion into Lebanon. Moaz hit on the idea of filming ‘the war’ from the inside of a tank. Not only is it cheaper, but also the oppressive claustrophobia of the confinement adds immensely to the dramatic tension. Here the tank crew have a new recruit, and are detailed to clean up after the bombing and shelling of a border town suspected of being a centre of Hamas belligerence. Through the driver’s porthole and the gunner’s sight we see both the atrocities handed out by the invading forces and those suffered by them, cruelty and compassion.

Lebanon
Lebanon

It will not persuade anyone of the rightness or wrongness of any cause in the Middle East, but it doesn’t seek to. We may, however, become rather more aware of the moral and psychological pressures on those whom we may in the past have assumed to be unfeeling killers. There is little poetry here, but the human condition, or part of it, is well illuminated by a powerful and somewhat painful spotlight.

Nestling alongside Lebanon in the main section of the Festival were three films about political power – Vincere – about a little-known aspect of Mussolini’s early political life, Moloch Tropical set in the dying days of a corrupt dictatorship in Haiti, and Tsar which clearly shows why Tsar Ivan was called ‘the Terrible’. Vincere was the creation of Marco Bellocchio, an Italian auteur of some reputation, who sprang to prominence with Fists in the Pockets in 1965. Covering, the period between 1914 and the mid ’30s, it chronicles the tragic story of a love affair and marriage between Mussolini and a wealthy woman, who bankrolls his political ambitions. As potted history, the film is fair enough, but it pretends also to be a love story, and here it noticeably fails. We get no real sense of what is suggested as a smouldering romance, nor do we get any sense of why Benito dumped her so suddenly. Where it excels is in its depiction of the change in Italian society and its sense of creeping corruption and violence.

Vincere
Vincere

Moloch Tropical is even less impressive, the corrupt president seems to be living in a dream world, but the visual plan of the film is uniformly flat. The film is directed by Raoul Peck, who was culture minister in the country in the late ’90s. Its over-riding impression is of a chamber piece illustrating the descent into madness of someone whose life has become disjoint from reality.

The connection between madness and power is totally central to Tsar. Without even the slightest nod to Eisenstein’s monumental diptych about Russia’s 16th century ruler, Tsar is impressive enough as a glimpse of medieval tyranny. As the film starts, the already ageing Tsar calls for an Orthodox bishop to be summoned from the far reaches of his empire as his ‘metropolitan’ – some sort of spiritual leader. But Ivan has lived by torture and fear, surrounding himself with an entourage of madmen and sadists, and the bishop is minded to oppose the Tsars cruel excesses. What is lacking is any sense of logic or meaning, but as a bloodletting ride, it has its moments.

Early in the Festival we were treated to two excellent and entertaining works with very similar themes. Adrift, by Heitor Dhalia, is an excellent multi-faceted coming-of-age drama. Laura Neiva is impressive going on stunning as Filipa, a mid-teenage daughter of a novelist father (Vincent Cassell). It is the long summer vacation near the glorious beaches of Brazil’s northern coast. Her parents are clearly unhappy in their marriage and Filipa flirts provocatively with one of her male companions. Into this melting pot comes a sophisticated foreign woman. When Filipa discovers that her father is having an affair with the interloper, major family crisis ensues in which we discover that all is not as it seems.

Director Dahlia has a keen eye for visual detail and the ability to extract wholly authentic performances from his cast. Particularly impressive was a climactic scene in which Filipa runs away along the cliff-top in the almost pitch black night and all we can see is the starlight occasionally glinting off her dress. It is a very fine film from a very promising talent.

Coincidentally, or not, the higher-profile Lymelife, by newcomer Derick Martini, presents us with a very similar situation. Set in the rural northeast of the USA in the early ’70s, Rory Culkin stars impressively as Scott, the 15-year-old son of property developer Mickey (Alec Baldwin). Scott is secretly in love with the beautiful Adrianna, daughter of his father’s business partner Melissa (Cynthia Nixon), who in turn is saddled with a husband suffering from Lyme’s Disease. When Scott realises that Mickey and Melissa are having an affair, events take a dramatic course.

Lymelife
Lymelife

What elevates this above the average potboiling melodrama is its unforced humour and unwillingness to present its characters as stereotypes. The festival programme compared it with The Ice Storm, which is somewhat flattering, but it is still a very fine work.

In a festival so jammed with events, one is bound to miss out on some and I much regret not having seen Leaving (directed by Catherine Corsini and featuring a highly praised performance by Kristin Scott Thomas) and Greenberg (directed by Noah Baumbach, and starring Ben Stiller). This latter particularly rankles as instead I opted for Guy & Madeleine on a Park Bench – a film which seems to admire the style of John Cassavetes, but makes the mistake of imagining that he simply brought his cast and crew together and asked them to make up action and dialogue as they went along. What emerges is, with the exception of a few song and dance numbers, irrelevant, tedious, unstructured junk. There were other disappointments as well, most notably Bluebeard from Catherine Breillat which wasn’t believable at even a rudimentary level.

Irish cinema was mainly represented with Five Day Shelter and The Eclipse. Neither film greatly impressed, but The Eclipse had its moments. Ciaran Hinds, who was in Belfast to collect a ‘Sink’ – the festival’s small ceramic trophy given to those deserving of it. The Eclipse will not, I suspect, go down as one of the actor’s finest performances. He plays a widower bringing up his two small children, while helping out at the local literary festival in Cobh. Visitors to the festival include a priapic novelist Nicholas (Aidan Quinn) and one of his literary conquests – Lena (Iben Hjejle). The results are not unexpected, but the genteel yet prickly atmosphere of such events are well caught. Hjejle, best known for her role in High Fidelity , acts everyone else off the screen.

Two ambitious European films greatly impressed: Protektor is Czech and tackles the difficult question of the rights and wrongs of collaborating with corrupt regimes. Emil is a journalist who loves his beautiful film star wife Hana in her late 30s , even though she may not be entirely faithful. With the Nazi take-over, the main newsreader on the radio finds the propagandist messages too unpalatable and quits, leaving an opportunity for Emil. In spite of his distaste for the Nazi philosophy, Emil collaborates as he thinks that this will allow him to save Hana, who is Jewish, from the Nazi death camps. It is an interesting moral dilemma brilliantly presented in an exciting and original visual style, and funny too in a rueful sort of way, from time to time.

Finally, for this section, there was a very challenging work that finally won me over. Un Lac is the latest from Philippe Grandrieux. In spite of being described as ‘challenging’ it was also presented as being the filmmaker’s most accessible work. I would not be in a hurry to see some of the less accessible ones. The single word that comes to mind for this remarkable, but difficult work is ‘earthy’. In some unspecified era and place, a poor family live by a lake adjacent to a huge pine forest. They live by woodcutting. There is a young teenage son (Alexi) who has severe epilepsy, and a slightly older daughter (Liv) who is clearly in need of male company. A stranger appears and, after helping a bit with the woodcutting, seduces Liv, and takes her away with him. There is very little dialogue; in spite of largely Russian-named characters it is in French. The landscape resembles northern Canada more than any other place I can think of (though it was shot in the Rhone Alps), but the strangest thing about the film is its style. Footage by Brakhage edited by Bresson from a script written by Bergman in the early fifties is the nearest I can come to a description. It is tough to watch, especially the first 35 minutes, which is largely shaky hand-held images of nothing very certain, but patience is rewarded and it moves from bizarre to enigmatic and finally poetic. It is one of the few films of this year that I am really anxious to see again.

Un Lac
Un Lac

Alongside the festival’s main section there is a documentary competition. I chose just two of the films in it – both having as their subject American visionaries of the late 20th Century who died young. American: The Bill Hicks Story is British, and uses photo-animation to give a sense of the American stand-up comic’s early life which augments extracts from filmed sections of his stand-up routines. Hicks died of cancer in 1994, but not before he had become the most outspoken and original American comic of his generation. This is a great primer for anyone unfamiliar with his humour.

The Bill Hicks Story
The Bill Hicks Story

The generation before Hicks was the flower power generation, and Tom DiCillo in When You’re Strange makes a convincing case that The Doors, and specifically that Jim Morrison was the defining contributor to the youth culture phenomenon which flowered between 1966 and 1970. Johnny Depp narrates, using the accounts of other members of the band and eyewitness testimonies to fill in the gaps to demonstrate the ‘genius’ and destructive power of Morrison’s drug- and alcohol-induced psychosis during the meteoric rise of the band. Morrison’s baby-like stare is a haunting image that, as he wreaks havoc in his friends and colleagues, sends shivers down the spine.

The Doors
The Doors

Irish Shorts

I always like to see as many short films as I can in the festival, as any new talent is often evident amid what is, perhaps inevitably, mainly dross. Short fiction is a genre in itself, and originality is not difficult to see. Winner of the Short Film Competition was Andrew Legge’s The Chronoscope – a very well-made mockmentary about a fictional Irish female physicist in the early 20th Century who invented a cine camera which could look into the past. Legge uses similar technology to that Woody Allen used in Zelig. Playful and clever in a non-pejorative sense, it is an audacious film that has the courage of its convictions. The Chronoscope is a very professional film, but nowhere near so compared with Through the Night, by Lee Cronin. This is a brilliant psychodrama set in a somewhat futuristic room in an un-named city. A couple go to bed for the night, but the man soon realises that something is not quite right. Thematically there is nothing here, but the sheer film-craft of wordlessly communicating the sense of unease and finally panic is better than I can remember having seen for many a year. If this doesn’t get Cronin a ticket to a major feature in Los Angeles or London, I will be much surprised and disappointed.

The Chronoscope

The main sin of the worst shorts in the programme was excessive earnestness, usually in an attempt to be meaningful. However, the most thought-provoking film in the section, for me, was also the funniest. Tufty by Jason and Brendan Butler was a joy to behold. A small boy, entranced by a teddy bear in a store, hypothesizes where they come from. This is teddy bears’ picnic meets The Deerhunter, hilarious and totally original – a joy to behold.

Tufty
Tufty

Good though each of these three films were, they paled in my view next to Blood Coloured Moon. Early in the morning on Good Friday in 1967, a cheerful and romantic young man arrives by car at an isolated rural pub in search of a drink. With excellent characterisation and beautifully expressive visuals, director Marc-Ivan O’Gorman has crafted an exquisite little parable about love, poetry and optimism.

Finally, it was evident that many of the shorts used child actors. There was an element of tweeness in much of this, but one film really managed to turn this on its head. The film was Tara, by Joe McStravick, in which a husband leaves his wife and child for another woman. This sounds for all the world like cliché, but it refreshingly escapes it as the mother, instead of victim, becomes villain and the child develops a murderous strategy to get her father back.

Michael Open

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