New York Film Festival: 50th Anniversary

Backed by the largest film society in the US which has now more than 7000 members and Lincoln Center’s supportive management the New York Film festival has emerged as the most important US film festival.  Over the last 25 years under Richard Pena’s direction few if any compromises in the main selection and side bars were made. Pena shifted the festival’s Eurocentric orientation and introduced cinema from Asia, Latin America, and Europe, offering among many other superb films features from Iran, Taiwan, Tunisia, Turkey, Romania, and Israel. This festival offers no awards and still restricts the main selection to comparatively few films, showing this year 30 films. In our period of multiplying film festivals now numbering close to 7000 globally and rapidly growing number of productions, the New York film festival has gained a sharper profile presenting outstanding films from all over the globe. Pena leaves with the 50th edition of the fest with new side bars, mind bending reflexive productions and sold out performances.  He goes out with a bang and style offering diversity and challenges in an act that will be difficult to follow.

In addition to the customary avant garde films, short programs and special events the film festival offered several new sidebars. Masterworks included restored, revived  and rediscovered  films  like Federico Fellini’s Satyrikon,  Pierre   Chenal’s  Native Sun, Alfred   Hitchcock’s  Marnie ,  Lawrence Olivier’s Richard III, and 13 other  significant features.  Men of Cinema featured   23 classics drawn from INA’s collection covering John Cassavates, Erich von Stroheim, Luis Bunuel and others. Cinema Reflected programmed documentary essay films about films and their creators as well as reflexive films about other art forms. And lastly Midnight Movies had three films with eco-horror, creepy and yakuza themes.

Barbara, Germany, Christian Petzold

Petzold provides a superb reconstruction of Communist East Germany in 1980 and control of dissident’s everyday life by the secret service Stasi.  In this story a medical doctor played by famed Nina Hoss who requested to leave the country is punished by sending her to a small provincial hospital surrounded by people who may be informers, except for the patients.  Hoss presents in this complex narrative a complicated multi linear character who decides to stay in Communist Germany, though given the chance to escape; she passes the opportunity to flee to one of her patients, an abused pregnant teenager.  As a woman with professional standing the attraction to join a rich western business man is relative. His offer of a comfortable hedonist life, though attractive, pales compared to the moral issues she faces as a doctor, not to speak of her growing but subdued attraction to fellow medical doctor.  There is silent heroism and bravery not to speak of stellar performances by the actors who improvise the ending of the film, not following the script.

Araf – Somewhere in Between, Turkey, Yesim Ustaoglu

A well constructed and poetically framed story about the affair between a young waitress and a driver she encounters at the truck stop. The action takes place in a small desolate city midway between Ankara and Istanbul during the fall and winter seasons.  She turns pregnant with neither her poor family nor culture providing an apparent prospect for the future and hides her condition.  Falling ill she aborts in a hospital bathroom and is traumatized, withdrawing into silence. The story ends with a reality television program filming her marriage to an old friend in a somber prison ceremony.  As the title indicates, the parties are in limbo, experiencing in the words of the director “neither hell nor heaven”.  The film production is striking because visual imagery prevails and the scarce dialog becoming secondary.   Still the story is fully contextualized by providing a seemingly ethnographic presentation of the social economic background and culture of the families involved. The viewer gains a clear insight into the characters and their development.   Yet an after image that prevails is the abortion sequence from the hospital sparing no detail, probably the most disturbing and upsetting visual depiction I can recall from the many films I have seen this year.

Beyond the iklkls HillsHills, Romania, Christian Mungiu

This production is based on press reports about exorcism in a small orthodox convent resulting in the death of a young woman. Mungui fleshes out the skeleton story by providing a detached non-judgmental presentation of a small group of nuns, their priest and the two principal characters of the story. These two young women are closely emotionally attached since they have grown up together in an orphanage.  They try to save each other. One arrives at the convent as a visitor and is allowed to stay if she embraces its strict rules. She seeks salvation for both of them in a complete separation from the monastery and from the religious conviction and wants to leave with her friend for work in Germany. But her friend, who entered the monastery after the orphanage seeks salvation in faith, leaving the secular and presumably sinful life. For the other nuns and the priest exorcism solves the problem of deviation from the Holy Scriptures.  The story is encapsulated in the abject indifference Romanian institutions, educational, social or medical, show for the development of individuals. Individual identity is not feasible in stern authoritarian settings.   The rhythm of the films is determined by long sequenced shots with an incredible precision achieved through extensive rehearsal and a large number of takes.  There is no question that the film is firmly anchored in the superb performance by the two lead actresses. Outstanding dramatic language and superbly set portraits of the nuns reinforce the story lines.

Memories Look at Me, China,   Song Fang

In this minimalistic film the viewer is exposed to a subdued but very effective presentation of Son Fang’s recollection of child hood. It gains poignancy since Song Fang plays the daughter in the film closely interacting with the mother.  Past experiences are s reconstructed through the dialogue providing telling insights into aging, ailments and dying and the hard life of the mother’s generation. Nevertheless a longing for non-material traditional values transpires as does the affirmation of family ties. Virtually all exchanges are taking place in a small apartment using only one camera, few angles and few staged frames and relying on ambient sound.  The script is based on actual experiences and shot in a documentary fashion.

Tabu, Portugal, Miguel Gomes

This is an extraordinary story about the passage of time and memory. The colonial life in the Portugal colony Mozambique and its aftermath is reconstructed with the psychological impact on the people presented. Starting with a lonely character who travels the bush in vain search of his love, the story’s narrative frame is presented by an elderly gentleman who fails to reach an octogenarian woman in Barcelona at her request just before she dies.  Fifty years earlier he had as a musician an affair with her, the wife of a colonial farmer, just before the colonial war started.  Told through a voice over rather than dialogues and shot in black and white the film uses standard square film ratio customary before the advent of television. The director succeeds in the main part of the film in creating an amazing ‘silent’ period film with a voice over, an original narrative and visual structure. The actors improve rather than following a set script. No rehearsals took place and the voice over was written while the film was shot.  Given its execution and original approach including the structural clarity the of the black and white sequences Gomes created a superb film, a  coda to traditional film making now shaped by digital technologies. As he noted in a Wall Street Journal interview with Steve Dollar producing this film “…is one of the last opportunities because cinema is at the end, and this film is dealing with cinema and memory. Cinema is memory too.”

Amour, Austria, Michael  Haneke

Haneke produced a most sensitive and intense film which has an uncompromising perspective on the passing of life.  Through brilliant acting Jean-Louis Trintigant and Emanuelle Riva   reveal the relationship   of an aging married faced by death.  The wife develops a disabling lethal disease and the husband is taking care of her using strength derived from their love.  Gradual changes over months of suffering and devotion set into question the meaning of life and death. The progress of the illness, the loss of her physical and mental abilities are set in a secular setting without any reference to spirituality not to speak of religion and results in progressive self-imposed seclusion. Thus for Haneke death is an isolating act and not a communal or public event. The husband retains his intellectual sharpness in encounters with caretakers and daughter yet eventually cuts off all ties. The camera never leaves the apartment. At the end we see him with flowers and supplies to literally seal off the apartment from the outside. Time and space is reduced to the essentials. This is a most disturbing and austere master piece framed in simplicity of dialogue and images. As Haneke points out there was no need to prepare the actors given their quality, as he put it “they should act the situations rather proving interpretations of their parts”. Amour continues Haneke’s work as outstanding intellectual director, a directors’ director. It is telling that Haneke refuses to provide the audience with a Gebrauchsanweisung (user manual) for the films interpretation.

The Gatekeepers, Israel, Dror Moreh

Interviewing six former directors of Israel’s Shin Beth,  Israel’s internal secret service a  sobering picture of Israel’s political leadership is presented  whose decisions are shaped by tactics but bereft of any strategy,  do not take into account Palestinians nor are concern issues of morality. There is an apparent appeasement of the orthodox religious camp which equates Palestinians with terrorists, supports illegal settlements and engages in violent acts without effective response by the authorities. With the assassination of Rabin history changed dramatically since the peace process was abandoned and illegal settlements expanded dramatically.  The former Shin Beth heads do not see serious attempts to pursue the idea of the two state solutions. When queried about possible openings, Moreh does not recognize any effective leadership by Palestinians or Israelis and rests his hope in on pressure by the United States and the International Community.

Holy Motors,  Leos Carax,  France

A virtuoso performance is offered by Denis Levant in a film which comes across as a production that could be fashioned by David Lynch and a post-industrial Jean Cocteau.  Leaving his family in the morning as a business man Monsier Oscar, the principal character, travels in Paris to nine ‘appointments’.  Changing his appearances in a large limousine  he plays  in each appointment  a radically different role, his repertoire  includes a captain of industry ,   a gypsy,  a cave dwelling brute, female and male characters as well as young and old ones. Ending his work he joins at night a family of orangutans with whom he apparently lives.  One can select between widely different interpretations of this shape shifting surreal action film which qualifies as much as a film noir as it does as a horror film or as a sex fantasy, or whatever the viewers sees in it. The roles or characters played by Monsieur Oscar could be favorite scenarios of Leos Carax, fragments of films he never made, or his multiple hidden identities.   Holy Motors is an original celebration of film making. With its chameleon lead, discontinuities and illogical stance   it deserves its place in the main selection and is truly one of the most appealing films introduced this year.

Two films demonstrate the quality of the sidebar programs.  In Cinema Reflected Liv and Ingmar, (Norway), by the Indian director Dheeraj Akolkar deserves serious consideration. Akolar offers a personal yet most enlightening dissection of the life of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman.  This is a cogent introduction to the understanding of this actress and clearly shows how her conflictual, ‘painful connection’ and creative partnership with Ingmar Bergman, with whom she lived for 5 years, shaped her. Her identity is developed through intense periods with Bergman characterized by love, rage, pain, separation, and longing and resulted in a profound deep friendship. In Bergman’s word, as an actress Ullmann was ‘like his Stradivari’, leading to  some of his best films, yet as Bergman surely realizes the beautiful music  from such instrument  depends on its construction and practice.   Full restoration of Native Son, (Pierre Chenal, US Argentine, 1951) in the Masterworks section gives access to an important political film.  The original version of Richard Wright’s novel depicts race relations and the prosecution of a poor Afro-American worker for the murder of a wealthy heiress. Given the sensitivity of the story  and the realistic depiction of US race relations in the fifties , the production was filmed in Argentine and promptly censored when exported to the States, removing thirty minutes of the most controversial and critical sequences on race.

Depth and quality of the 2012 New York Film Festival program make the 50th edition one of the best, if not the best, ever.

Claus Mueller

filmexchange@gmail.com

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