FESTIVALS: Bon Cinema; Montreal World Turns 25 -- Majidi Hits a Triple
by Eddie Cockrell
“Bon Cinema,” which translates roughly as “have a good screening,” is the general greeting among the mix of French- and English-speaking moviegoers here, a tagline so familiar that it even pops up on the festival trailer. And “bon” it was indeed: the 25th edition of the Montreal World Film Festival wrapped on a high note Monday, confirming the general feeling among press and the public that the 24-film competition line-up programmed by festival director Serge Losique was the strongest in recent memory (the festival began August 23rd).
Iranian director Majid Majidi won the Grand Prix of the Americas for the third time in five years, as “Baran,” his saga of Afghan refugees in Iran, shared the prize ex aquo with “Abandoned” (“Torzok”), Hungarian director Arpad Sopsits‘ autobiographical tale of growing up in Hungary. Previously, Majidi had won in 1999 for “The Color of Paradise” and in 1997 for “The Children of Heaven,” which went on to nab a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination.
In an overall program generally thin on American titles (indie or otherwise), Todd Fields‘ “In the Bedroom” was the only film to register with a jury, copping a Special Mention from the international organization of film critics (FIPRESCI). The group bestowed its main prize to veteran French director Claude Miller‘s noir-ish thriller “Betty Fisher and Other Stories” (“Betty Fisher et autres histoires”), a French-Canadian co-production and one of the festival’s handful of distinguished and well-received world premieres (“Betty Fisher” also garnered a Grand Prix for its trio of leading actresses, Sandrine Kiberlain,. Nicole Garcia and Mathilde Seigner). Both “Baran” and “In the Bedroom” are recent Miramax acquisitions.
Reflecting the strength of the new Latin American cinema in general and Argentina’s output in particular, Juan Jose Campanella‘s Buenos Aires-set comedy “The Son of the Bride” (El hijo de la novia”) won a Special Grand Prix from the jury, as well as the award for Best Latin American film from a field of some 17 titles from throughout the continent.
Representing the handful of new German films in competition (and a indicator of the quality among the generous sidebar collection of Teuton titles), Oliver Hirschbiegel picked up the Best Director Grand Prix for his psychological thriller “The Experiment” (“Das Experiment”), while Robert Stadlober won the male acting award for his turn in Vanessa Jopp‘s gritty and streetsmart “Engel & Joe.” An award for best artistic contribution was bestowed on Brazilian director Luiz Fernando Carvalho‘s “To the Left of the Father” (“Lavoura arcaica”). Catherine Martin won the screenplay prize for her Canadian period drama “Mariages,” with the first and second short film prizes going to New Zealand’s Sima Urale for “Still Life” and Germany’s Holger Ernst for “Little Fish” (“Kleine Fische”), respectively.
The Montreal Award for the best first fiction film went to the British-Greek-Cypriot co-production “Under the Stars” (Kato apo ta asteria”) by Christos Georgiou, and the Air Canada Peoples Choice Award went to director Roland Suso Richter‘s absorbing true-life historical thriller about the early days of the Berlin Wall, “The Tunnel” (“Der Tunnel”). Denis Chouinard‘s festival opener “Tar Angel” (“Lange de Goudron”), a drama probing the question of Algerians living in Quebec, won the FedEx-sponsored award for best Canadian feature, while the Ecumenical Jury’s first prize and special mention awards also went to Grand Prix winners “Baran” and “Abandoned.”
Although business at the Montreal market was deemed generally slow, rumors persisted that some U.S. distributors had their eyes on a number of prominent pictures, chief among them “The Son of the Bride” and “Betty Fisher and Other Stories.”
The festival closed with Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s ubiquitous charmer “Amélie from Montmartre” (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain,) and it was indeed refreshing to see a competition section with such a satisfying mix of light, comedic elements among the more traditionally serious fare. Most competition directors were on hand to introduce their films and hold forth at post-screening press conferences. Even Jean-Luc Godard showed up at the North American premiere of his latest, “In Praise of Love” (“Eloge de l’amour”), which was listed in the catalogue as without English subtitles but actually had them. Prominent non-participants who dropped by included festival regular Brian De Palma (spotted at numerous screenings as well as an event feting critic Richard Schickel) and Stellan Skarsgard, in town filming with director Bob Rafelson.
In addition to a special lifetime achievement award to veteran Japanese director Kon Ichikawa, who also presented his new work, “Big Mama” (“Kah-chan”), a quartet of historically important personages received hardware for their “contribution to the cinematic art,” including Italian actress Sophia Loren, star Jackie Chan (whose presence provoked roving bands of teenage Asian girls in the hallways of the main festival hotel), Argentine director Fernando Solanas and Spanish actor Francisco Rabal. Tragically, Rabal died on his way home following the ceremony early in the event, providing the only note of melancholy during the festival.
The Montreal festival is known and anticipated for a convivial and low-pressure atmosphere, a marked difference from other festivals of its scope. With an oversized accreditation badge, attendees are free to see any film at any time (save the opening and closing nights), without ticketing headaches or hassles at the door. Audiences here skew older, but exhibit the openness and enthusiasm of youth, although they leave much to be desired in such key areas of moviegoing etiquette as the avoidance of plastic-wrapped snacks, no talking during films and even general punctuality.
And the pictures themselves represent a deeper exploration of any given nation’s output than can be found at other major festivals, affording both local cineastes and working professionals the opportunity to see more than just the anointed export title from most countries. It’s a strategy that provokes some criticism from those who look only for the those titles currently blazing trails through other festivals, but in a quiet, consistent way Montreal has a healthy percentage of screenings that live up to the festival’s unofficial motto of “bon cinema.”