All last year, a steady stream of rumors poured out of the Festival internazionale del film di Roma concerning Marco Müller's fights with the city’s power brokers and politicos, while the attitude toward him among the center-right mainstream press remained mostly hostile. This was to be expected after the lukewarm local reception to last year’s edition, due in part to some strategic mistakes by Müller. Italy's glitz-mad middlebrow crowd didn’t look kindly upon his hinting at attracting big-name talent (i.e., Hollywood royalty) and then failing to deliver. (The Twilight pack wasn't hot enough for them.)
This year, the Venice Film Festival may have changed the equation, if only a little. Even the bourgeois press coverage that lauded the Lido selection seemed to understand that something was missing. At Rome, some of the more senior critics may have had doubts about a program in which Eli Roth's right-wing anarchist-exploiter The Green Inferno found a place next to Antoine d'Agata's Atlas, a disturbingly beautiful and monstrously miserabilist trip into the gutter of civilization; Jan Soldat's The Incomplete, a minimalist portrait of a self-styled slave; and Joaquim Pinto & Nuno Leonel's staged Bible reading The New Testament of Jesus Christ According to John. But they didn't need to like these films to understand that it might make sense to show them at a festival. And for the younger, more Internet-affiliated press, Müller delivered unequivocally, with many asserting that they’d skip Venice next year in order to attend Rome from beginning to end.
Because I Was a Painter
Müller might not be able to secure many of the “hot” European and U.S. art-house premieres, i.e., the sales agent–controlled output that Berlin, Cannes, Venice, and Toronto run on, but he does score films from old haunts not yet under the sway of that particular cabal, where friendship still counts for something—Russia and other former Soviet republics, the Chinas, Japan, and India, as well as the Middle East and North Africa. With some of Müller’s finds, you have to wonder how they didn’t end up at other festivals considered to be more prestigious. Highlights included Christophe Cognet's Because I Was a Painter, a measured reflection on art created inside Nazi concentration camps or by their survivors, in which Cognet asks whether something created under such circumstances can ever be an object of beauty; Tayfun Pirselimoğlu's I Am Not Him, a fine Kafka-esque tale of changed identities and lives lost; and Andrei Gruzsniczk's Quod Erat Demonstrandum, an allegory about life under state-agency surveillance, and the choices this kind of psychological duress forces upon an individual. Berlin, particularly its Forum and Panorama sections, would have killed for any of these films.
I Am Not Him
Quite a few pieces of crude, crowd-pleasing rubbish still soiled Rome’s selection, but that's always to be expected. Even more annoying was the mess the Cineteca Nazionale made of the retrospective section, making Italian film culture seem like a banana republic; in future this sidebar should be organized with much more curatorial circumspection. Yet overall, this year’s program was a splendid celebration of cinema in all its diversity and genius. The festival's flagship was, of course, Aleksei German's posthumous monument Hard to Be a God, which was flanked by an intriguing selection of other Russian treats: Fedor Bondarčuk's 3D épopée Stalingrad, which was impressive, astonishing, a muddle, and a failure, all at once; Aliona Polunina's unnervingly hilarious documentary comedy about two Communist politicians, Nepal Forever; and Andrej Silvestrov and Jurij Leiderman's second avant-everything/post-nothing collage of surrealist skids and sketches, Birmingham Ornament 2, which exemplified Müller's programming vision and strategy.
Two names in the lineup that might have come as the biggest surprise, at least to those who remember, were Vítor Gonçalves and Kamal Swaroop. Both filmmakers made a mark in the late Eighties with their debut features but then fled into the academy. Gonçalves’s 1986 debut A Girl in Summer is widely regarded as a milestone in Portuguese cinema, while Swaroop’s mind-blowing, extremely controversial 1988 solo debut, I Am Door By Door, was widely censored and likewise considered a watershed. Both achieved legendary status at the film schools where they taught, and both can boast at least one pupil of major standing—Pedro Costa and Amit Dutta, respectively. (Dutta’s latest, The Seventh Walk, screened in Rome and is his finest film in a long time—a true tour de force of color, structure, and rhythm developed out of contemporary artist Paramjit Singh's works in oil and charcoal, an amazing synthesis of painting and cinema.) Gonçalves’s The Invisible Life, the story of a young man facing the death of an older colleague while reconnecting with a love from the past, was one of the competition's highlights. Rendered in demi-tones, calm whispers, and sidelong glances, the film is greatly reminiscent of Tourneur. The protagonist struggles with his memories of the undead, futilely searching for answers in Super-8 films of the departed, and is slowly lost to the world around him. The Invisible Life is pure chamber cinema, meticulously crafted, deeply felt, discreet, tactful.
The Invisible Life
Swaroop's Rangbhoomi has the particular charms of a series of happy accidents, an outgrowth of a different work. For many years now, the filmmaker has been studying the life and art of Dhundiraj Govind “Dadasaheb” Phalke, the director of India's first feature film, Raja Harishchandrai, which was made in 1913. His scholarly/artistic obsessions often merged with his teaching job: Swaroop organized workshops on Phalke that resulted in shorts and a hefty half-art-book, half-monograph called A Journey: Tracing Phalke: The Man and His Time (1870-1944). Rangbhoomi is also at least two things in one: a very loose adaptation of Phalke's eponymous, autobiographically based 1920 stage play, and a quest for the places and spaces where he lived, especially during his stay in Benares. For Swaroop, often seen here walking around with A Journey under his arm, his research has turned into a pilgrimage, and reflection has turned into homage. Rangbhoomi mirrors this nature-in-flux in its formal approach: straightforward documentary turns into video art while musings about Phalke's filmmaking get cut short by the staging of a scene from the play (all of which recalls the narrative strategies Swaroop used in 1976’s Ghashiram Kotwal, co-directed with Mani Kaul, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, and Krishnan Hariharan). Mischievous housewives, recalcitrant students, and grumpy archivists add color, comic relief, and an element of wonder and surprise—the same way, maybe, that the handcrafted special effects did in Phalke's films, not to mention silent moviedom's secret stars, the “chance animals.”* In all these ways—and one notices so much more only after repeated viewings—Rangbhoomi presents cinema as an ongoing experiment that isn’t obliged to produce results.
Sorrow and Joy
Another blast from the past was Sorrow and Joy, the latest film from Nils Malmros. Some might remember that name: in the Nineties, several of his films screened in Berlin; further back in time, he was even deemed Cannes material, if only briefly. (One of the new film’s best lines, delivered by his cinematic alter ego speaking to his unhappy wife over the phone: “How can I make you laugh when I am in Cannes?”) Like almost all of Malmros’s films, Sorrow and Joy is rooted in an episode from his own life, which makes for an especially uneasy viewing experience here, as at the film's heart is a case of infanticide. In a moment of spiritual sorrow or psychological distress, Malmros's wife killed their baby. (They are still married and have had no other children.) One doesn't need to know this to find Sorrow and Joy gut-wrenching and edifying, but it is worth pointing out because a few disparaging commentators judged the story improbable and difficult to believe. (That said, it’s a matter of how it's told that counts, not whether an event actually took place or not.) In any case, the film is not strictly autobiographical but instead uses the filmmaker’s experiences as a basis for something more essential. Malmros relates the story in a straightforward manner without any adornment whatsoever. The images have a sober, self-effacing beauty, the acting is subdued, and the fatal deed itself is never shown. The murder was the result of small misunderstandings and vanities, slightly off-key tones of voice, misinterpreted glances, and accidentally inflicted emotional wounds. Nobody here had ever had any bad intentions, and if in the end a child is dead, other lives need to carry on. To do so, one must understand what has happened, and look at oneself as if at a stranger, and with goodness and forgiveness. Sorrow and Joy is a deeply Protestant melodrama about grace—a small miracle in today’s cinema.
* An expansion of the term “chance dogs” (Zufallshunde)—the dogs seen in early silent cinema who strolled onto sets by chance.
Top Ten | Rome
1. Hard to Be a God Aleksei German, Russia
2. Sorrow and Joy Nils Malmros, Denmark
3. The Incomplete Jan Soldat, Germany
4. Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon Tsui Hark, China/Hong Kong
5. The Seventh Walk Amit Dutta, India
6. The Invisible Life Vítor Gonçalves, Portugal
7. The Face Gustavo Fontán, Argentina
8. Rangbhoomi Kamal Swaroop, India
9. Tales From the Dark 2 Gordon Chan, Lawrence Lau, Teddy Robin Kwan, China/Hong Kong
10. The Chimney Laila Pakalnina, Latvia