By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 24, 2007 at 2:32AM
The vetted progress of distribution deals dominates the omnipresent chatter at most major film festivals, closely accompanied by evaluations of the movies' artistic merits. Industry and aesthetic outlooks collide when news of deals break, mainly focused on whether business is allotting its finances to the deserving parties. There's little doubt that the latest offerings from established auteurs will successfully make their way beyond the festival circuit - a certain fate, as the New York Times recently pointed out, for Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park," and several other high profile titles screening at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
In stark comparison to the veteran attendees, much of the new talent gets placed beyond the main competition and glamorous red carpet premieres, winding up in sidebars like Un Certain Regard, Directors Fortnight and International Critics Week. It's these entries that allow distributors the chance to give emerging filmmakers a healthy career boost. Such is the fortunate and inevitable result of Sony Pictures Classics' recent decision to purchase rights to the adorably funny Israeli underdog "The Band's Visit," which screens this year in Un Certain Regard. An English-language comedy that balances small scale vignettes with overarching sentimentalism, the movie is also one of the candidates in this year's festival eligible for the Camera D'Or trophy bestowed on first-time filmmakers, since director Eran Kolirin makes his feature debut.
Unlike the urgent topicality of other recent Israeli cinema, particularly the Western-derived narratives of Eytan Fox, Kolirin's direction has a light and enjoyable touch, opening with a title card that sets the absurdist note. In so many words, it explains that an Egyptian band once wound up stranded in a small Israeli town en route to a gig, but "nobody remembers this." Cut to wide shot of the ensemble group standing awkwardly in the middle of a desolate landscape, and Kolirin immediately establishes his specific witty tone: incessant deadpan.
The characters range in age from the cantankerous elder leader to a puerile wannabe womanizer, but the team moves together in a herd-like fashion, scrambling to figure a way out of their mess. A series of nonsequiter twists lead them to bond with the locals, and a variety of mismatched encounters take place before the hardened leader finds himself coaxed by an affable Israeli woman into wearing his heart on his sleeve. In a corresponding plotline, the younger members of the band attempt to romance some of the other town residents with disastrous results.
Despite the combination of ethnicities and a setting that tends to generate negative international press, "The Band's Visit" is refreshingly apolitical. Instead, Kolirin comments on the details of social networking, following the process from difficult beginnings to a successful execution. The way these things go, it's likely that Sony will hype "The Band's Visit" as something of far great significance than easygoing entertainment, possibly even pushing for a Foreign Language Oscar. That's a dangerous prospect that could trigger backlash against a harmless bit of storytelling, but whatever happens, Kolirin can only benefit from the attention. Suggesting a sweeter approach to the Jim Jarmusch school of minimalist cinema, his style deserves encouragement.
Another Camera D'Or contender that heralds the start of a promising career, "La Naissance des Pieuvres" ("Water Lillies") introduces audiences to the struggles of transitioning into womanhood through the eyes of Celine Sciamma. The French director demonstrates a strong command of character development and pace in this charming account of two high school girls whose friendship comes into question when various sexual tensions enter their naive existence. The main actress, Pauline Acquart, shows remarkable versatility for her young age, playing the doll-faced and timid Marie, who feels intimated her school's impressive swimming pool performers. At once put off and transfixed by their glossy cheerleader beauty, she forces herself into a friendship with the team's rosy star (Adele Haenel), compromising her allegiance to bulky pal Anne (Louise Blanchere).
Soapy as it sounds, "La Naissance des Pieuvres" ventures into dark and discomfiting territory, exploring the potential hindrances of teen sexual awakening. A particularly memorable scene finds one character volunteering herself for the unlikely mission of - there's no better word for it - breaking her friend into female adulthood. But Sciamma exhibits a biting sense of humor throughout, giving her protagonists memorable one-liners ("I suppose a hard-on in cold water is flattering," a girl comments while recalling being flashed) and keeping the progression streamlined and believable. Showing affection for her characters and frankness about human nature, Sciamma directs like a tame, optimistic version of Catherine Breillat. She could work wonders for the sorry state of mainstream teenage comedies in America.
Filmmakers in the springtime of their careers have their youth to offer audiences before all else, given their closeness to the experiences of early adulthood. This factor plays into the favor of another story of angst-riddled teenage life in the Camera D'Or race, an impressive literary accomplishment from Estonian director Kadri Kousaar called "Magnus." Vastly different in mood and subject matter from the breezy universe of "La Naissance des Pieuvres," Kousaar examines the phenomenon of suicide through the lens of teenage depression. Shot with a magnificent palette featuring magnificent outdoor locales and smoky interiors, "Magnus" is an effective mediation on despondency.
The titular character is a fifteen year old slacker permanently impacted by a close call with cancer during his childhood. Cured but still convinced that his death is imminent, Magnus plots to end his own life when the time is right. Curiously encouraged by his easygoing stoner father, the teen looks at suicide as a form of personal expression. The movie progresses at a slow rate, relying on quiet exchanges and expressionistic photography to explore its surprisingly potent thematic concerns. While the seemingly aimless plot occasionally becomes confusing, the movie is deeply encoded with a radical philosophy that unveils in the final minutes, making it worthwhile to sit through a second viewing. In his very first feature, Kousaar instigates a dialogue that deserves to be revisited.
No amount of repeated viewings can redeem the good intentions of "El Bano del Papa" ("The Pope's Toilet") a sluggish comic misfire screening in Un Certain Regard. Its directors, Uruguay-based first-timers Cesar Charlone and Enrique Fernandez, seem too ambitious for their own good. Substantially older than most of the other filmmakers attached to the Camera D'Or competition, they appear intent on telling a heartwarming story of triumphant human spirit. Set in a small South American village during the days prior to the Pope's visitation in 1988, "El Bano del Papa" never comes close to justifying its comical title. The dominant plot centers on one man's attempt to make a profit from charging people to use his lavatory, but major screen time gets dedicated to boring side stories involving smuggled goods and other shallow dramatic threads. Even with a few engaging moments at the center of the plot that generate sincere emotion, "El Bano del Papa" seems destined to be flushed away amid the festival's superior constituents.
The Camera D'Or candidate receiving the biggest publicity boost, ""The 11th Hour," which screens out of the other competitions, barely deserves to hog the spotlight. Essentially a global warming doc in the grand tradition of "An Inconvenient Truth," the movie, pulled together by Leila Conners Peterson and Nadia Conners, explores broader issues involving the ephemeral nature of life on Earth and the importance of keeping the world in healthy order. Its biggest hook is that Leonardo DiCaprio serves as the host, narrating throughout and appearing in between talking heads and nature footage to guide the science lesson. Unfortunately, notwithstanding an intriguing opening montage that careens from chaotic to tranquil at a rapid pace, "The 11th Hour" feels like a low grade IMAX production, full of heart but virtually without structure. Occasionally arty cutaways to DiCaprio gazing off into the distance, devoid of context, sometimes bring the movie's necessary forward motion to a halt. The failure of the actor's valiant involvement shows that - although convention wisdom runs counter to this observation - new artists actually benefit from new faces.
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