After weeks of rain, the sky finally cleared in Montreal this week right for the start of the 32nd World Film Festival. Many used the opportunity to gather on the steps of Place des Arts and enjoy the free outside screenings of "Some Like It Hot" and "The Right Stuff." The latter was part of the homage reserved for producer Alan Ladd, Jr., who also participated in a Q&A after a screening of "Young Frankenstein." Ladd, who does not usually watch his films after their initial release, had not seen it in 33 years. He agreed to watch it because, after such a long time, "memory gets foggy." He found himself pleasantly surprised. "It holds up pretty good," he exclaimed. The producer otherwise appeared shy, quiet, and humble. In a complaint that is only too common these days, Ladd deplored that the studio system is now run by accountants who are only interested in making the same movies over and over again, predicting that soon "Transformers 15" will appear on our screens.
However, Ladd's fears are certainly not exemplified within this festival's programming, where something like the Canadian premiere of Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" could be seen as one of the most populist entries in the extensive programming. As is often the case at the World Film Festival, the Out of Competition films turned out to be some of the most popular with audiences. Along with "Barcelona" (which played to sold out shows), Koki Mitani's "The Magic Hour" was of overwhelming interest. The Japanese comedy details a young man who hires an unsuspecting aging actor to play a professional assassin in order to get himself out of trouble with the mafia. "The Magic Hour" showcases great production values, but at a running time of 136 minutes, it extends its storyline far beyond its breaking point. Still, the audience seemed to enjoy it and tickets for subsequent screenings sold out.
The documentaries of the World section benefited from some strong entries, including Daniel Junge's "They Killed Sister Dorothy." Though it sports a misguided, old-fashioned voice-over narration provided by Martin Sheen, it remains a suspenseful account of Dorothy Lang's life, an environmentally conscious 73-year-old American nun who was shot to death in Brazil for trying to implement a sustainable program to distribute land. The tension mounts as Junge and his team follow the story all the way through the trials and Lang becomes the victim of a racist smear campaign by the defense.
The Focus on World Cinema, which encompasses the greatest number of features, inevitably displays a wide range in quality. The world premiere of Mary Harvestick's "Home" turned out to be a lukewarm offering. Marcia Gay Harden stars as a mother dealing with the ramifications of breast cancer and the disintegration of her marriage. Eulala Scheel, Harden's real-life and onscreen daughter, shows that her acting abilities are on par with her mother's. Unfortunately, the story draws itself long before the images appear on the screen, leading the audience along all too familiar roads.
Ralph Ziman's "Jerusalema," from South Africa, is well crafted, but similarly suffers from a predictable plot. The events that unfold seem so fatalistic that they necessarily become foreseeable. Jerusalema, about a boy who grows up to be a gangster, also suffers from a lack of characters that the audience can genuinely care about, and furthermore disturbingly glorifies its protagonist.
Luckily, Focus on World Cinema was rescued by one of the best films in the festival, Candela Figueira and Maitena Muruzabal's first feature length fiction production, "Nevando Voy" (Under the Snow). It is a wonderful Spanish film about four lonely factory workers who become a surrogate family of sorts, with all the beauty and problems that it entails. Their bittersweet story is simple, but with a great attention for the details that populate human psychology and everyday life.
However, in most cases, the feature films were overshadowed by the superior shorts that preceded them. Especially worthy of mention is Chris Cloyd's "Coons," which is reminiscent of "To Kill a Mockingbird." In this powerful short, a man must decide whether he is willing to commit an act of violence in order to prevent a black man from becoming the victim of a racist crime. Coons reaches a great climax and skillfully ends on a perfect note.
The festival's home country is well represented in the World Competition program. Benoit Pilon, who directed the documentary masterpiece "Roger Toupin, epicier variete" back in 2003, makes a seamless transition to fiction with "Ce qu'il faut pour vivre" (The Necessities of Life). There had not been a great fiction film from Quebec since "La Neuvaine" by Bernard Emond, who also penned the screenplay for "Ce qu'il faut pour vivre," the story of Tivii, an Inuit man suffering from tuberculosis who is separated from his family and brought to Quebec City for medical treatment in the 1950s. It is a touching film with great performances from its two lead actors, Natar Ungalaaq ("Atanarjuat") and Eveline Gelinas, who plays his nurse. It definitely has a chance to win some major awards, both at the festival and elsewhere.
Luzius Rueedi proves that a small budget can go a long way in the hands of a talented director with "Sunny Hill," an interesting entry from Switzerland/Germany in the First Films Competition. The film was shot over 10 days, mostly in a single location, with a cast of unknown actors. The premise consists of putting six young adults who have made a suicide pact in a confined space and let the events unfold. The exercise provides worthwhile results and Rueedi offers a satisfying ending that doesn't attempt to simplistically resolve everything, as he explains that he wanted to "let the imagination of the audience go beyond..."
With 234 feature-length films playing at the festival, it comes as no surprise that they cover a very wide range of quality. As has now been the case for many years, some festivalgoers could be heard complaining that there is such a thing as too much choice. Many wish that there were a more discriminatory selection process so that the screenings would not turn out to be such a hit-or-miss for attendees. Still, discovering hidden gems like "Nevanda Voy" almost makes up for such horrendous experiences as sitting through Andrei Libenson's "The One Who Switches Off the Light." Almost.