"The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative on the day after the revolution," wrote philosopher Hannah Arendt. If true, New Directors/New Films is a godsend, if we can call this a prerevolutionary era. It does include a few old-fashioned clunkers, but a majority of the 26 features in this 36th edition, a joint venture of the Department of Film and Media of the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, exhibit a vital rebellious streak. Whether pre-sellout or not, these lower-budget works by youngish filmmakers slam us with unbridled aesthetic and/or ideological stances. Little banality here, of evil, of good, or of the murky morality in between. In fact, the salient theme hovering over the selection is innocence or the lack thereof. American director Julia Loktev's icy "Day Night Day Night" could be the festival's signature film: A suicide bomber roaming through Times Square vacillates between ideological motivation and the tug of life she feels from potential victims standing all around her.
The Music Engine
Possibly the purest of all is John Carney's Dublin-set Irish gem "Once," one of three very different music-driven films that were shown at Sundance. Carney breathes new life into the musical genre. He weaves into a deceptively simple plotline numbers sung mostly on the streets by a busker known only as 'The Guy (The Frames singer Glen Hansard), as well as songs by a Czech emigre called 'The Girl' (Marketa Iglova). No fancy productio'n numbers, just the cold reality of living la vie de boheme in an economically thriving, materially driven city. The two are drawn together but the relationship is never consummated. The film is more about spiritual nurturing and shared artistic passion than transient carnal fulfillment.
The moral issues in Craig Zobel's engaging "Great World of Sound" represent the flip side of "Onc"'s guileless ethic. The director cast professionals to portray two wannabe record producers who lure vulnerable, mostly untalented musicians into a scam known as "song sharking." The men attempt to convince their victims to put up money toward a recording session immediately after their motel-room auditions. Not unrelated to Borat's m.o., Zobel conned non-actors who didn't know they were being filmed into playing on camera. But does the construction of a (funny) reality-show-like parallel narrative merit the manipulation?
American Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine's "War/Dance" is a doc that tries in vain to fuse mind-boggling horror with the spotlessness of music and dance. Now ensconced in a refugee camp, northern Ugandan children who had endured abduction and forced membership in the merciless Lord's Liberation Army quietly relate their shocking experiences directly into the camera, but the film focuses much more on their practice sessions for, and spectacular performance in, a music-and-dance competition in Kampala. Not to undercut the terrors these kids have endured and committed, but the film feels tailored to the comfort zone of Western liberals. (The only other doc, Michael Jacobs's "Audience of One," also disappoints. The recounting of a delusional and incompetent San Francisco pastor and his Jesus-trusting flock's efforts to shoot a religious blockbuster in an Italian village scores too easily on the ridicule meter. And who cares? Access isn't everything.)
Proles and the Disenfranchised
A host of ND/NF movies survey the plight of the working class and other marginals---a refreshing perspective, as if the dormant progressive spirit of the late '60s had undergone a renascence and seeped into the consciousness of these third-millennium directors.
Five superb movies about members (or aspiring members, i.e., unemployed) of the Latin American working class and their personal prisons were press screened during our beneficent president's pro forma journey to help the poor (and ethanol distillers) in points south of the rapidly expanding border fence. Argentina, back on top cinematically after a post-crisis lull, has three extraordinary films with distinctive styles and subject matter that are, however, all astute observations of the quotidian in the lives of proletarian characters.
Combining dv and super-8 for a mind-blowing hyperkinetic and nostalgic effect in the highly improvised "Glue," Alexis dos Santos probes the tribulations of working-class teens in a Patagonian backwater. Fifteen-year-old music freak Lucas is a virgin plagued by wet dreams and a crush on best friend Nacho. Though propelled by jump cuts and the jerkiness of multiple handheld scenes, the film nonetheless manages to convey the ennui that is at the heart of the unformed teen consciousness. It takes glue sniffing for these guys to own up to who they are.
Rodrigo Moreno's "El Custodio," a masterpiece of architectonic commentary, is just the opposite. Columns, windows, walls, doorways, and interior spaces hem in the national Minister of Planning's vigilant but inert bodyguard and echo this shadow's frustrations at being left out in the cold and humiliated by his boss and his bourgeois pals. But do not mistake the restraint of the mise-en-scene for rigidity. The film is fluid, and once the bodyguard (a tour-de-force of withheld energy by Julio Chavez) does act spontaneously, it's as if the "Three Little Pigs" had blown the house down.
Diego Lerman ("Suddenly") opts not for Moreno's clean lines but for the sensuousness of old textures and expressionistic lighting in "Meanwhile." The wind blows through the tall grass; long, complicated tracking shots abound. Lerman interweaves the stories of several working-class characters in Buenos Aires, all of whom are plagued by economic problems, this being Argentina. He never loses sight of the class disparity that is a frequent subject of the national cinema. "Meanwhile"'s unhurried narrative, which valorizes character observation over advancing plot, makes the brutal climax (as explosive as that in "El Custodio") all the more startling.
In the stunning Brazilian film "Love for Sale" (formerly "Suely in the Sky"), about which I've already written for this site, Karim Ainouz ("Madame Sata") weighs the economic options for a beautiful working-class woman whose husband sends her and their baby to her dusty, provincial hometown from their more financially secure existence in Sao Paulo, then promptly abandons them. The choices are less than promising. Desperate, she gives up low-paying menial jobs to sell herself via a lottery. Both stigmatized and shellshocked, she gives up everything in an attempt to recover her innocence.
American Christopher Zalla updates the Biblical Cain and Abel and Jacob and Esau stories in the Spanish-language "Padre Nuestro," winner of this year's Sundance dramatic Grand Jury Prize. A streetwise teen steals an illiterate naif's door-opening letter of introduction to his Brooklyn-based father while they are being smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico. Zalla does not hold back on exposing the double-crossing and mutual exploitation of illegal laborers trying to survive in Brooklyn and keep their families fed back home. Shooting in super-35mm, Zalla uses the edges of the frame to formally replicate the borders that impinge on their freedom and dignity, and a noirish palette to heighten the nonstop menace of the Big Apple for those who live in fear of deportation.
Two films from Asia take evolved positions toward the dispossessed. Iranian Maziar Miri's "Gradually..." beautifully captures the lifestyle and milieu of a railway welder, a victim of nasty gossip among his judgmental neighbors. At the same time, it probes the straitjacketing of women in Iran. His wife, whose innocent excursion to another town for advice is misconstrued by everyone as something illicit, has no rights at all.
Working closely with his female collaborator Peng Shan, Ying Liang ("Taking Father Home"), the most talented Chinese director to emerge since Jia Zhang-ke, has taken a giant step with "The Other Half," a major discovery about the continuing second-class status of women, especially those from the working class, in the new China. Deploying long takes and symmetrical or slightly asymmetrical set-ups, he records the "testimony" of oppressed and abused female clients of a law firm in a developing city in southwest China to an offscreen male attorney, a disembodied voice whose opinions invariably favor men. The lawyer even supports a factory owner responsible for gas leaks that have harmed female employees---a decision that helps precipitate an urban disaster as it clarifies the connection between patriarchy and laissez-faire capitalism. Ying humanizes the film with a second, more intimate narrative about the romantic, generational, and economic crises of the young woman who transcribes the clients' stories and her kooky best friend.
Two excellent European films look at imperfect proletarians with affection and subversive humor. (I can't include Brit Andrea Arnold's much-awarded "Red Road" among the best of the working-class films: It is far too literal in its observation of working-class characters, here by a woman with an agenda sitting voyeuristically behind a Big Brother-like security camera.) In Danish director Peter Schonau Fog's black comedy "The Art of Crying," set in a small provincial town in 1971, the milkman father sexually abuses his preteen daughter, who is set up by her kid brother to "comfort" the seemingly suicidal man. But needy dad finds his niche: He delivers such well-received eulogies at local funerals that the ever-supportive son becomes the catalyst for several deaths. Ultimately, the man pays a price for his transgressions. This is Scandinavia: Morality trumps dark humor.
Belgian filmmaker Geoffrey Enthoven pushes the usual boundaries with "The Only One," a glorious picture of an eightyish, hilariously deadpan retired laborer, a sexually active, unapologetically uncultured drinker and overall hedonist. He refuses to rein in his anarchistic behavior or compromise in any way while he stubbornly struggles to maintain his independent lifestyle and avoid the hell of the nursing home his greedy daughter wants to bury him in. Enthoven reminds us that seniors are still among the living.
Plight of Cultured Twentysomethings
Two more fine European films, Swiss director Lionel Baier's "Stealth" and Norwegian Joachim Trier's "Reprise," take on the angst of precocious young artsy fartsies. Baier ("Garcon Stupide") stars as an incidentally gay cultural commentator obviously in need of an identity fix: Once he finds out that his grandfather was from Poland, he obsesses over all things---and strangers---Polish. Without pretense, Baier draws a picture of a successful fellow underwhelmed by his own antiseptic culture who is willing to travel to more undeveloped points east in order to "self-actualize," as it used to be referred to, and bond with his sister in the process.
"Reprise" is much showier. It includes almost every possible cinematic trope as it nods to the French New Wave, yet it is nonetheless successful in its pop cultural mode of exposition. In this story of two close friends obsessed with becoming novelists, Trier uses visual digressions and sequences in the subjunctive case to track their personal and professional lives, the downturns of which do not match the idealism and hopes of their student days. The more gifted fellow has a breakdown and stops writing; the less talented guy becomes a famous author. "Reprise" is an effective deconstruction of the myth of the romantic artist. So much for innocence and the promises it refuses to keep.
Conventionals and other Misfires
In the wrong festival: All things Italian (Marco Simon Puccioni's "Shelter," Alessandro Angelini's "Salty Air"); French (Kim Massee's "Cowboy Angels," Jean-Pascal Hattu's "7 Years"); and Eastern European (Ivan Vryrypaev's Russian film "Euphoria," Polish director Michal Rosa's "What the Sun Has Seen"). Canadian director Philippe Falardeau's "Congorama" is quirky enough, but unfolds in a well-worn narrative mode. These directors are post-revolutionary before the revolution.
Bored out of my skull: Algerian Tariq Teguia's self-consciously bleak "Rome Rather Than You." Unseen: Paul Auster's "The Inner Life of Martin Frost," hopefully several rungs above "Lulu on the Bridge."