The festival opener, Mike Cahill’s Sundance hit "I Origins" merges science and "who are we" existentialism in an exciting new way (interview here). We’ve never seen a priest like Brendan Gleeson’s in John Michael McDonagh’s Sundance fave "Calvary," who is forced to deal with a member of his congregation who threatens to kill him in one week. What’s a poor priest to do, when he knows who it is? (We don’t.) Will he tell the authorities, breaking the silence of the confessional? Protect himself with a gun? Escape? (More here.)
Argentinian director Damian Szifron’s superb closing night film "Wild Tales" (scooped up by Sony Pictures Classics out of the Cannes competition) is a tour-de-force collection of six insane, utterly identifiable tales of human beings pushed to extreme "primal instinctive behavior" (per the director), from road rage-gone-wrong and a righteously precise explosive expert who fights a corrupt towing company, to the ultimate disastrous wedding. Each carefully wrought jewel of story is more delicious and outrageous and hilarious than the last. Think Almodovar on Tarantino steroids. With a Gustavo Santaolalla score. (Almodovar’s Spanish company El Deseo produced.)
Veteran filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s Cannes entry "Maidan" is an unusual front lines doc that takes a different aesthetic approach from "The Square," which grabbed multiple video feeds and interviewed key participants at Egypt’s uprising in Tahir Square. "Maidan," referring to the central square in Kiev where thousands of ordinary Ukraine citizens encamped to protest the government, takes getting used to. Deploying the camera as an impersonal, trustworthy and objective observer, fiction and doc filmmaker Loznitsa locks it down on a tripod for long static stretches in various locations–he chooses them as events unfold, sometimes in order to run to safe, higher ground–and edits the results.
Yes, we know the outcome. But watching these events inexorably unfold is astonishing. As the action becomes more intense–with flaming barricades, people running and tossing grenades and others felled by snipers and carted off for medical attention– the sophistication of the filmmaking involves the brilliant use of sound. The film’s narration is the off-camera public address system that communicates with thousands of protesters and resistance fighters and barks battle orders at people –and doctors–of where to go. You’ve never seen a movie like this. After months of tracking events, we see the revolutionaries win. For the moment.
Ukraine filmmaker Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s "The Tribe" was the talk of Cannes. Because it won the Grand Prize at Critic’s Week, it’s likely to be as audacious an Oscar submission from Ukraine as was Greece’s ultimate nominee "Dogtooth." (See Eric Kohn’s review here.) Watching the film is intense because we are all leaning in to figure out what is going on. There’s no spoken dialogue. We watch a deaf teen bid farewell to his mother and arrive at a school for the deaf where he is hazed by the school’s ruling posse of tough guys. The viewer has to try to read the sign language. Finally, there’s more than enough information to follow.
A couple of deaf teachers at the school are running a prostitution ring at night, using the gang and two nubile teen girls. Our young tough gets along fairly well until he falls for one of the girls. That’s when things go wrong. The deaf have always made fine actors–they are hugely expressive. When one of the girls tries to argue her friend out of having an illegal abortion, emotions escalate as the signer grabs the girl to force her to look at her. They fight as violently, with as much "shouting," as any of us. "The Tribe" is moving, disturbing and horrifying; Slaboshpytskiy deserves kudos for having the guts to pull this off. Yes, it’s audacious and new, which means reactions are bound to be mixed.
Young Czech actress Judit Bardos starred in two Czech films. One, by sophomore filmmaker Zdenek Jirasky, took an innovative approach to a familiar subject, the Holocaust. "In Silence" dramatizes the true stories of several artists–Bardos plays gorgeous concert pianist Edith Kraus–who survived the Holocaust, showing their full rich lives before they were carted to the horrors of the concentration camps. The characters narrate their own stories as they experienced them.
Another film dealing with the paranoia and destruction brought by the Communist state was the talk of Karlovy Vary. Russian Andrei Zvyagintsev’s "Leviathan" won best screenplay in the Cannes competition and was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. Will Russia submit the film for the Oscar? Hard to believe, as it is a harsh indictment of the rampant corruption that infects everyday life there. Wall pictures of Vladimir Putin watch over everyone.
"Leviathan" is set in a hardscrabble coastal area where a hothead mechanic’s home overlooking the sea is being stolen from him by a greedy local mayor set on making a lucrative development deal. The local court supports the mayor, even when the heavy-drinking mechanic brings in his old Army pal, now a powerful lawyer, to help him fight the man. Ordered to evacuate, the mechanic protests, "I built the place with my own hands. My whole life is here." Like a powder keg about to explode, a group of families set out on a target-shooting expedition, packing guns and vodka. As the men woozily take aim at pictures of Russian leaders, we know nothing good will come of it.
I’ll be back. Assorted trailers below.