Overkill dilutes the impact
The 46th Semana Internacional de Cine, in Valladolid, Spain, offered few challenges to the serious viewer, says GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.
``The Secret Vote'' won the Best New Director award for Babak Payami.
EVER SEEN a scared rabbit? So stunned that it runs straight at the gun? I knew exactly what the creature feels like on my first day at the 46th edition of one of Europe's oldest film festivals, the Semana Internacional de Cine (snappily, Seminci, October 26-Nov 3) in Valladolid, Spain.
As I slid through the crowds and stepped into the main Teatro Calderon for the inaugural, a 100 cameras exploded into blinding action. The poor lensmen had mistaken the woman in Kancheepuram silk for some exotic visitor, not a ``periodista'' (hack) from their own tribe.
Valladolid is not the best introduction to Spain, says the internet guide. Not quite right. The out-of-the-way town has picturesque streets, quaint eateries, and old architecture from Moorish to baroque. In every church and cathedral you see faith shaped into beauty. Senors and senorinas amble through the day, basking in the sunny plazas, sipping the long hours away with tea and coffee, or wine white, red and sparkling pink. Nobody goes to sleep here, the streets are busy until dawn, with bars to stimulate merrymaking. Lost after the late show? Don't worry. There are hombres enough to direct you back to your hotel.
English ``ees spik verri few". The helpful Barcelonian colleague will say, ``Vezzetariyaan? N-h-o p-hobhlayme, eat salmon in oleeve oyeeil fraiyed." Or do you fancy cow's stomach parts, may be baby lamb's hands and feet? Floods of multilingual gabble (with strangers from adjoining tables in choric bursts) and you end up with a boiled potato plunked atop a mound of lettuce and watercress. Others explore wine lists, you order a pathetic Coke.
As jury member for the Fipresci Prize of the International Critics Association, the Valladolid selection offered me no challenges. A bigger disappointment was that most of the films in the other sections had only Spanish subtitles. That ruled out the Italian maestro Luchino Visconti, whose retrospective had been a big draw for me. Sitting through his ``The Leopard''(Lampedusa's roman clef about the decline of the aristocracy) was a test in whether I grasped more stray words in Italian or in Spanish.
The press conferences were in Spanish, the directors themselves could speak anything from Farsi to Japanese. Lively exchanges with film-makers, delegates and press colleagues were not possible in the mono-lingual ambience. Worse, multiple languages distracted, as I discovered when I saw a French film with Spanish subtitles and English voice over. With a sinking heart, I realised that this festival is really for Spaniards, their window to the world.
The 18 competition entries came from countries as far apart as Argentina and China; by young directors (Dover Kosashvili, Israel, who had you yawning through long, explicit, unnecessary pornography in ``Late Marriage"); and the legendary 70-plus Godard. (After watching his``Eloge de L'Amour'' an impatient voice exclaimed, ``Why can't he retire decently?")
Factors which weakened the impact were fairly obvious. Michael Winterbottom's ``The Claim'' had epic sweep, but only in the camera. The brilliant cinematography of snowscapes was wasted in a tepid film about the Gold Rush in the New World. In another section, you had another big name from Britain, Ken Loach, to protest against privatisation of industry (here the railway) and how it destroys workers and work ethics. Teetering between documentary and feature, the film could not etch its characters with the clarity that it brought to the issue.
``Lost And Delirious''... cliched quotes and contexts.
Ditto Babak Payami's ``The Secret Vote'', which won the festival's Best New Director prize. To the consternation of the soldier duty-bound to accompany a``mere female", election day in Iran brings a woman agent to a deserted beach, determined to collect votes from the remote parts of that illiterate and semi-literate region. The situational comedy was telling, the dialogue sharp and witty. But the overstretched episode looked more like propaganda. Overstatement was common and offensive in dealing with real life problems, as in ``My Brother Tom''(Dom Rotheroe, Great Britain) depicting sexual abuse by the father. Or take ``Solo Mia''(Me Alone) by Javier Balaguer, Spain, about wife thrashing in civilised, upwardly mobile social classes. Angela's successful ad man husband gets more and more maniacal and perversely possessive. The law offers little protection to the endangered woman, only light punishments which make the aggressor secure in his attacks. Finally, the husband is immobilised in the sanatorium, and the wife is free to bring up her children on her own. Not funny, certainly not moving.
Overkill took other forms, as in Canada's ``Lost and Delirious" where director Lea Pool thought, erroneously, that her tale of schoolgirl lesbianism would plumb tragic depths with Shakespeare's verses. How could they when quotes and contexts were so cliched? The film also suffered from a blurring of perspectives. Was the focus on Paulie the raptor and Tory her prey, or on the mouse-like onlooker Mary?
You could lose your grip over the narrative by pitching your pace wrong. ``The Son of the Bride''(Argentina; Dir: Juan Campanella) dissipated its emotional build up in family ties, bonds of friendship and love, in the story of a man who shunned responsibilities, by simply lingering over the visuals overlong. An example of the common misconception that slow pace is mandatory for a serious film.
Sensitive studies? ``Maelstrom'', which bagged the festival's Golden Spike Award (Dir:Denis Villeneuve, Canada), plunges you into the chaos in the soul of a rich, beautiful, successful woman, driven to contemplate suicide when she kills an immigrant in an accident. In ``Little Senegal'' director Rachid Buchareb makes an old man retrace the journey of his ancestors from Africa by slave ship across the Atlantic. Simple, often sliding into the simplistic, the attempt emphasised the values lost in the New World where cultural roots are forgotten by the descendents of the Black slaves. They remain as trapped as their forefathers had been.
The film that lingers in the mind is ``Lost Steps'' by Manane Roderiguez, Argentina. Young Monica, cocooned by loving parents and a luxurious life in Spain, is forced to recognise the possibility of her being the grand daughter of renowned Argentinian poet Bruno Leardi.
Epic sweep only in the camera... ``The Claim''.
The couple, who brought her up may have stolen her after torturing and killing her activist Argentinian parents in a detention centre. Is her ``father'' the "Toad'' who specialised in torture and murder? Based on hundreds of similar real life incidents, even those where the ``children'' refused to face the truth and continued to live with their ``abductor parents", overlooking their fascist war time records, the film could not but chill you to the marrow.
But ``Lost Steps'' does more. It forces you to acknowledge that ambiguities, contradictions and shades of grey are more universal than black and white.
In that lies the possibility of salvation for the human race. The real parents may have put country and cause first, thus endangering their child's life. The torturer can be a loving father to the kidnapped child.
Explicit pornography added to the ennui in ``Late Marriage''...
There is hope despite the heartbreak when young people are able to opt for harsh truth over the convenient lie as Monica does. After initial resistance and revulsion, she decides to take on the challenge of discovering her new identity. She returns to Argentina, to her grandfather's home, realising she cannot shut out protest and politics in easeful, innocent pursuits.
To see the film was to know that lost steps are not irretraceable; and even when it is not a great work of art, an honest film can extend your understanding of the hard times we live in.
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