Montréal’s Festival des Films du Monde (or World Film Festival, if you opt for the less regal-sounding Anglo handle) has for many years now occupied an awkward, inauspicious niche in the festival circuit. Tucked into the final weeks of August, just as the industry rests up for the juggernauts of Venice and Toronto, it runs straight through the Labour Day long weekend, when much of the city has either fled to the hinterlands, or are playing bongos or performing medieval reenactments on Mount Royal. And because the FFM, despite being located in one of Canada’s longstanding cinematic wellsprings, has chosen to make “world cinema” its focus (if we can call this vaguest of categories a focus), the inevitable result is a program of films that are often most notable for having been rejected by Venice and Toronto. The FFM is a haven for elder auteurs past their prime, emerging talents playing it safe, middling vehicles for American almost-stars, and slick, pedestrian prestige pictures about the Holocaust or World War II in general. Thankfully, there are also a handful of precisely the sort of stronger titles that tend to slip through the cracks.
Michael Haneke’s Amour, which seems to have screened just about everywhere other than the FFM, is a work of undeniably exquisite craft, an unlikely hybrid of harrowing corporeality and good taste, starring some of France’s greatest living actors, but it isn’t nearly as moving or imbued with stubborn vivacity as another new Austrian-directed film about an elderly couple, one half of whom is dying. Writer-directors Sabine Hiebler and Gerhard Ertl’s Anfang 80 looks like the cuddlier, crowd-pleasing cousin to Amour—because that’s exactly what it is. But it’s also the rare film that’s willing to explore erotic desire, irresponsibility, and adultery among the elderly, which puts it closer in spirit to Paul Cox’s Innocence. Its central characters (played by Karl Merkatz and Christine Ostermayer) are reckless and their actions have consequences; the initial thrill of mischief gives way to brutality, accident, and devastating loss. Nursing homes are neither demonized nor rendered desirable, and the question of one’s ability to choose how to die is integral to the film’s sobering closing notes.
Anfang 80 is none too sentimental about family, but it’s a love-fest next to Georgian-born writer-director Dito Tsintsadze’s German film Invasion. Josef, a lonesome, aging widower (played by Burghart Klaußner, last seen in Haneke’s The White Ribbon), watches as his vast and largely uninhabited country manor is gradually taken over by his long-estranged, oversexed actress niece, her uptight, Kendo-practitioner adult son (the two of them share a relationship not entirely different from that between Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill in Cyrus) and sundry other eccentric parasites. The extended family’s descent on Josef’s home and their impact on his psyche is depicted with a disciplined, almost anthropological detachment that at times veers into deadpan black comedy. The fact that its resolution is totally absurd is not necessarily a flaw; I just wish his proposed renovated family model wasn’t quite so in keeping with the timeworn tropes of aging patriarchal fantasy.
Where the Fire Burns
Turkish writer-director Ismail Günes’s Where the Fire Burns won the Grand prix des Amériques and the FIPRESCI prize at the FFM (where I sat on the FIPRESCI jury), and it did indeed tower over everything else in competition, both in terms of its aesthetic integrity and its resonance with contemporary anxieties around religious fundamentalism and, once again, family values. The final installment in Günes’s trilogy about violence begins as an ensemble drama that offers an engrossing clash between urban, institutionalized modernity (in the form of a city hospital) and orthodox Islamic rural culture before gradually revealing itself to be a road movie. Turning into a two-hander, the film chronicles a journey taken by Ayse (Elifcan Ongurlar), a pregnant teenage girl, and Osman (Hakan Karahan), the otherwise loving father who has determined to kill her—and thus redeem his family’s honor. Günes’s camera drifts almost ghost-like through scenes, its fluid, serene movements akin to those of Ayse, who seems eerily resigned to her fate. Yet as Osman’s initial tenderness and frantic concern gives way to primal rage, exacerbated by a spate of epileptic seizures, Where the Fire Burns becomes more and more focused on precisely the character with whom audiences will find it most difficult to identify. It’s an audacious shift that pays off.
The farther Osman and Ayse travel from home, the more Osman’s sense of mission is re-contextualized, partly because of the sheer amount of time spent with his daughter on the road, partly because a chain of small mishaps and outright contrivances conspire to keep him from carrying out his plan. The film’s greatest strength lies in its use of landscape as a psychic mirror, of the road trip as internal journey, with movement and time a way of healing wounds. Nothing feels rushed or forced. Haste is antithetical to wisdom. Thus it is only by the unnervingly ambiguous end of Where the Fire Burns that we have a clear sense of just how deeply textured this journey we’ve taken has been.