Triumph at the Montreal World Festival

Montreal’s World Film Festival opened with a film–L’Ange de goudron–by a Montreal native, Denis Chouinard. For a festival occasionally berated by the local press for ignoring Quebecois talent, this was a decision of strategic, as well as of esthetic, importance. Whatever the opening night audience (which proved polite if not particularly demonstrative) actually thought of Chouinard’s political melodrama, no one could deny that it addressed questions of Canadian national and ethnic identity. The film’s opening scenes depict the travails of an Algerian immigrant, Ahmed Kasmi, whose loyalty to his adopted country includes a willingness to sing along with the stirring strains of “O Canada.” The ironies of a naively patriotic man besieged by a racist environment are well wrought, but complications set in when Ahmed’s son collaborates with the Montreal chapter of the anarchist group, “Reclaim the Streets.” The anarchists emerge as cardboard buffoons and the father’s protracted search for the wayward son, whose flight from the city yields tragic results, is ultimately wearisome.
Of course, the allure of the World Film Festival, like most events of its kind, lies with the possibility that the resourceful visitor will ferret out the gems and avoid the dross. Tracking down Montreal’s many Asian and Middle Eastern films (and avoiding Hollywood ‘Indies’) was one good, if not necessarily surefire, method for avoiding cinematic turkeys at this occasionally overwhelming event. As is the case on many stops on the festival circuit, Montreal’s Iranian films proved especially rewarding. Masterpieces might have been in short supply, but Majid Majidi’s Baran and Abolfazi Jalili’s Delbaran were salient examples of the recent trend in Iranian films to feature Afghan immigrants as key protagonists. Majidi’s previous films blended an impressive visual palette with some of the most cloyingly saccharine moments in contemporary Iranian cinema. Baran is relatively free of sentimental baggage and explores the clash of Iranian and Afghan cultures in a subtly allegorical fashion that addresses sexual politics as well as ethnic strife. On a disorganized construction site where workers suffer from the whims of a tyrannical boss, an Iranian worker named Kaleef views a young Afghan colleague’s ineptitude with undisguised contempt. When the clumsy Afghan laborer turns out to be a fetching young woman, Kaleefs hostility is replaced by infatuation and the machinery of a slightly cumbersome, if still charming, fable emphasizing the importance of tolerance becomes apparent. The more experimental Delbaran is less interested in pleasing the audience; its account of a fourteen-year-old illegal Afghan refugee who survives by doing odd jobs as an auto mechanic lacks the facile narrative are of Majidi’s Miramax-blessed crowd-pleaser. Oblique in both its narrative and editing strategies, Jalilil does not offer viewers the easy solace of humanist bromides or cute love stories. Delbaran is, perhaps unsurprisingly, still without a North American distributor.
The cutting edge of Chinese cinema was also well represented with Wang Chao’s sparsely attended, but critically acclaimed, The Orphan of Anyang. The plot outline of Wang’s humorously austere film sounds preposterously simple–an unemployed factory worker ends up adopting a baby and becoming romantically involved, despite himself, with the child’s prostitute mother. The interest of this film, however, which occasionally seems to be reinventing neorealism in a Chinese context, resides in its minimalist but playful style. Not as much of a landmark as Jia Zhang Ke’s Platform, the most innovative Chinese film released last year, Wang’s film is nevertheless an important indicator that Chinese directors have moved away from much of the flashiness displayed by their Fifth Generation elders and are engaging in a much more subtle form of social criticism.
Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There? was a much different sort of stylistic coup. Less explicitly concerned with social and political issues than other Taiwanese critical favorites, such as Edward Yang and Hou-Hsiao-hsien, Tsai’s films are tinged with both despondency and whimsy. Yet when contrasted with what remains the director’s most penetrating look at Taiwan’s disaffected youth, The River, whimsy triumphs over despondency in What Time Is It There? Tsai’s favorite actor, the deadpan and at times nearly affectless Lee Kang-sheng, plays a watch seller who becomes smitten with a woman who, for unfathomable reasons, is more interested in the vendor’s own watch than in him or any of his wares. After this unattainable woman –a Taipei Beatrice–departs for Paris, the watch- seller’s unrequited longings collide with the brute fact of his father’s death, his mother’s mourning period, and Tsai Mingliang’s own preoccupation with Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. As a product of a late phase of Taiwan’s own New Wave, the film was viewed as charming by many and annoyingly inconsequential by a vocal minority.
Because of either geographical inaccessibility or inadequate PR, Kazakhstan’s industrious auteurs receive much less publicity than Taiwan’s. In any case, Jol (The Road), the latest film by the former Soviet republic’s most distinguished director, Darezhan Omirbaev (and one of contemporary cinema’s least-known major directors), proved both an enjoyably languid road movie and a self-reflexive meditation on the difficulty of making films in Kazakhstan. Omirbaev–once nicknamed the “Bresson of the Steppes”– makes films whose austerity is frequently tempered by sly humor. Jol, although not quite up to the standard of his previous work, nevertheless combines rigorous cinematic craftsmanship with a penchant for controlled lyricism. This introspective film a clef focuses on a frustrated filmmaker named Amir. When Amir learns that his mother is seriously ill, a circuitous trip to her home provides an opportunity for unimpeded self-examination that always seems on the verge of transforming itself into self-flagellation. A comic nightmare, in which a kung-fu movie is mistakenly shown to a crowd assembled for the premiere of Amir’s new film, pithily demonstrates that serious filmmakers, whether in the U.S. or Kazakhstan, have no choice but to stoically accept–and even embrace–their marginal status.
Emir Kusturica has an enormous following in Montreal and this year’s festival catered to his devotees by including both an alfresco performance by his rock band, the “No Smoking Orchestra,” and a documentary chronicle of the band’s recent European tour, Super 8 Stories by Emir Kusturica. Akin to a cinematic doodle churned out between major projects, Kusturica’s diary film is initially diverting but eventually degenerates into a tedious concert movie. The “No Smoking Orchestra’s” idiosyncratic ‘Gypsy Rock’ is of more than passing musical and sociological interest; it’s difficult not to be a little intrigued by an indigenous Balkan pop culture that rejects the cliches of American ‘Top 40’ pabulum. Unfortunately, Kusturica is, in the final analysis, more interested in celebrating the juvenile–and for the most part painfully unfunny high jinks–of his raucous buddies.
Asian films were among the most rewarding offerings at the World Film Festival, but few could have been surprised that Montreal’s Francophone audience welcomed the presence of new work by, among others, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Godard’s Eloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love) and Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux destin d’Amelie Poulain (released commercially in the U.S. as simply Amelie) are certainly peculiar bedfellows. Jeunet’s film, touted by Miramax as its next foreign megahit, is a suffocatingly cute paean to its supposedly irresistible, waiflike heroine. There is nothing particularly offensive about Amelie (played with energetic insouciance by Audrey Tatou) and her relentless pursuit of love, but Jeunet’s mercilessly frenetic style transforms what should have been a straightforward homage to Parisian l’amour fou into an interminable assemblage of steadicam shots and ridiculously skewed camera angles. Godard’s latest essay film (with perfunctory narrative trappings) is his most lucid and artistically satisfying effort in many years. Assailed by some critics for its supposed “anti- Americanism,” In Praise of Love is actually a lyrical meditation on the worldwide commodification of cinema; it is not Godard’s fault if Hollywood and Steven Spielberg are the foremost representatives of this trend. Godard’s melancholy tirade is accompanied by sumptuous black-and-white cinematography in the film’s first half and strikingly effective color Digital Video as it reaches its bleakly beautiful crescendo.
While festivals often rely on stalwarts like Godard for their programming, Montreal, by showcasing short films by younger filmmakers alongside features, provides filmgoers an opportunity to discover new talent. Toronto- based director Lara Fitzgerald’s Scenes d’enfants was by far the most impressive of these shorts. Opening with an epigraph from Proust, Fitzgerald’s wide-screen memory film explores the aftermath of a pianist’s cycling accident by juxtaposing the immediate impact of this traumatic event with recollections of childhood reverie.
For many weary film buffs, the World Film Festival reached its zenith with a restored print of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Far from merely another screening of a tired old chestnut, the Munich Filmmuseum’s restoration–at 147 minutes the print was at least twenty-five minutes longer than the versions familiar to most audience members –revealed the contours of an essentially new film. As film scholar Tom Gunning observes, Metropolis “functions primarily as a political parable about class and power divisions.” Lang’s penchant for alternating between profundity and kitsch makes this off-derided epic one of the most incongruously entertaining political parables ever committed to
film. And the restoration reveals a somewhat less clunky epic. Large chunks of exposition anchor Lang’s more ludicrous sci-fi flights of fancy in a more coherent context. No longer does the apocalyptic climax seem rushed; we are given tangible glimpses of the pastoral world above the hellish underground city where faceless proles toil without hope of redemption. Best of all, a longer Metropolis offers unassailable proof that Brigitte Helm was one of the most versatile and charismatic of all silent screen actresses. She is astonishing in a challenging dual role–as both the saintly Maria and her evil doppelganger, the ‘false Maria’ robot created to foment chaos among the oppressed workers.

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