“Tough and Pure” Film Lovers Create a Rigorous Program in Torino
by Peter Brunette
Well off the list of must-see tourist sights in Italy, Torino (Turin) turns out to be a first-class city with a first-class film festival, an exciting, challenging event that has just concluded its 21st edition. Mostly known for its famous, utterly bogus “Holy Shroud” (supposedly wrapped around Jesus after his crucifixion, but carbon-dated, alas, only as far back as the Middle Ages), and for being the headquarters of the Fiat Motor Company, one of the prime economic engines of Italy’s rise from the ashes after World War II, Turin, gloriously surrounded by the Alps, rivals Bologna for the title of wine and food capital of the country.
For better or worse, however, the Torino Film Festival is a much more serious matter, a highly intellectual exercise that will appeal primarily to hard-core cinematic aesthetes who will think they have died and gone to heaven. Unfortunately, with the exception of one wonderful party in a 17th century palazzo that featured regional food and wine specialties, the earthier pleasures of Italy were not much on display here. As an Italian critic put it to me, the festival’s organizers are “duri e puri” (tough and pure). That’s certainly true, but it’s also a relief (if occasionally a bit tiring) to encounter a festival that doesn’t inundate its patrons with feel-good fare disguised as art movies.
Torino is Italy’s best-known festival after Venice and certainly its most artistically ambitious. The various sections, somewhat baroquely organized — even after festival co-director Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan sat down and explained them to me, I still didn’t quite get it — demonstrate this rigor again and again.
First off, there’s the competition, which is largely restricted to first and second features, which has traditionally, and happily, been the Turin fest’s focus since its earliest days. Since there simply aren’t that many very good films out there in any given year, however, the competition line-up at second-level festivals like Torino tends to be, frankly, not all that strong. I did manage to see three of the 14 films in this section, including an interesting account of twentysomething alienation from Iran called “Deep Breath” (what it lacked in cinematic smoothness it made up for with documentary authenticity), “Fuera de Juego” (Out of the Game), an awkward but heartfelt fiction/documentary combo about a impoverished teenager with impossible dreams, shot entirely in Quito, Ecuador, and “Rabun” the first feature of a 44-year old female director from Malaysia which gave a new twist to the familiar theme of the country vs. city but was a little too saccharine sweet for my taste.
A couple of other sections I missed entirely, partly from laziness and partly from sheer calculation. While I know it’s an aesthetic crime that discriminates against young, penniless newcomers (okay, bad me), I generally avoid short films since they are impossible to remember and even more impossible to write about. Hence I never made it to the international short films competition. Nor to the documentary competition (mostly Italian films), the largely non-commercial Italian fiction film competition (this is where all the non-releasable, state-supported, made-for-festival films end up), or, even less promising (I know, double bad me), the Turin regional competition. The out-of-competition “Detours” program, whose organizing principle I never figured out, contained only one film by a director I had ever heard of (Chantal Akerman), and featured a couple of films each by British director Stephen Dwoskin, Korean director Gina Kim, and French director Jean-Claude Rousseau. Recognizing none of these (triple bad me!), I chose to pass. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
Much more inviting was the Americana section, and I don’t think this was pure jingoism on my part. Here excellent films such as “All the Real Girls,” “American Splendor,” and “The Fog of War” were devoured by enthusiastic Italian cinephiles, as well as Ross McElwee’s “Bright Leaves,” his rumination on his North Carolina family’s connection with the smoking pandemic, which I enjoyed catching up with here. Though McElwee’s occasionally self-indulgent autobiographical cinematic musings are a little too disorganized and fey for me, it is good to see someone continuing the worthy genre of the first-person film essay, recently seen to good effect in “My Architect” and before that in “Stevie.” But my absolute favorite part of the festival — a true guilty pleasure — was the six films noirs programmed by the estimable New York Times columnist Dave Kehr. I managed to see half of these, including “Trapped” (Richard Fleischer, 1949), “Raw Deal” (Anthony Mann, 1948), and the sublimely over-the-top docudrama “The Phenix City Story” (Phil Karlson, 1955). Watching these films was like opening a time capsule constructed a half century ago, yet it’s their very status as forgettable B-films that make them — especially the arch gangster dialogue — so weird and wonderful.
In the hard-core aesthetic vein was a tribute to the revered and recently deceased American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, whose wife was on hand. Most of the featured shorts were from the last years of Brakhage’s production, and, since they consist largely of abstract painting on celluloid, they can become a bit trying as they head toward the 30-minute mark (quadruple bad me). They reminded me of the work of Jackson Pollock but also made me think that this kind of artistry may work better in a non-temporal medium like easel painting. Why can I stand in front of Pollock’s “Lavender Mist” looking at it for 30 minutes, but squirm when subjected to these films of Brakhage for the same length of time? A tribute went to another recently deceased director, the Portuguese filmmaker João César Monteiro, whose work I’ve always found completely impenetrable. Italian critics seemed to be excited by a huge retrospective of one Stavros Tornes, a Greek who also worked in Italy in the ’70s and ’80s but who is, I think, completely unknown anywhere else.
More seductive were the homages to Hollywood director William Friedkin and Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku, who is principally known for “Battle Royale,” a wild and luscious film from 2000 in which students set out to kill all the adults they encounter. Fukasaku has achieved a higher profile lately since being thanked in the credits of Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.” I caught Fukasaku’s last film, a sequel to his masterpiece entitled “Battle Royale II: Requiem,” which was finished by his son Kenta after his death. Its premise (continued from its predecessor) is breathtaking, as are the stupendous fight sequences, but as with many examples of this genre (including, to my mind, “Kill Bill”), at a certain point your eyes inevitably drift to your watch and you mumble “so what?” under your breath.
The lionizing of Friedkin, who has made some truly awful films (“Rules of Engagement,” “Jade”), is the Italian version of what we normally think of as a French thing. The obsession with finding the individual creative voice even in Hollywood, at all costs and despite all evidence to the contrary, is so strong that glimmers of genius will be found among the greatest schlock. (The best-known and perhaps most misunderstood French example is the elevation of Jerry Lewis to filmic sainthood.) Now, don’t get me wrong. Friedkin has made some excellent movies, including the superb “The French Connection” (1971). Here at the fest I took in “The Brink’s Job” (1978) starring Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands (shades of Cassavetes’ “Woman Under the Influence”) which was lively, strong in its narrative drive, and very, very funny. It’s just that the hard-core auteurist school, alive and well here in Europe, sometimes courts ridiculousness in its need to find artistic beauty and formal expertise in the most unpromising places.
This brings us to the undoubted centerpiece of the festival, a complete retrospective of the work of contemporary Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov. His best known films in the U.S. are the recent “Russian Ark” and “Mother and Son,” but his entire oeuvre, which includes both fiction and non-fiction films, is 20 times as long. The titles are impossible to keep straight, since most of them have the word “elegy” in them, along with the name of a Russian city. The pièce-de-résistance of Torino’s homage was the 788-minute “Leningrad Retrospective,” which, alas, your correspondent is unable to report on. I did manage to see “Kamen” (Stone, 1992) though, which I found, hmm, interesting. (It’s only after you consult your program notes later that you find out that it’s about a guardian at the Chekhov museum in Yalta and his homoerotic fantasies about entertaining the writer’s ghost.) One of the weirdest Sokurov films I saw was a wonderfully campy 35-minute short called “Empire” that was based on “Sorry Wrong Number.”
I’ve now seen a string of the formidable director’s films, including his best known, mentioned above, as well as “Moloch” (about Hitler) and “Telec” (about Lenin), and while I think his outlandish visual and aural techniques are remarkable and even courageous, I still don’t know whether there’s anything there of substance, beyond the attraction of his sometimes obvious insanity. Too often, when his themes and formative ideas are boiled down, they seem decidedly banal.
A few other tough directors like the aging political filmmakers Straub and Huillet (whose latest, “Return of the Prodigal Son,” features unknown characters, in the forest, reading poetry aloud) as well as Jacques Rivette, with his unwelcoming new “Histoire de Marie et Julien,” rounded out my week of hyper-art cinema in Turin. I now feel as cinematically pure as the driven snow.