By Howard Feinstein | Indiewire March 31, 2009 at 2:27AM
Most of those displaying their wares in this year's New Directors/New Films are outsiders by nature, aesthetic marginals, trendsetters. The characters these terrifically out-of-synch artists develop are, naturally, misfits too. We know that watching a film is akin to looking into a mirror, but writing and directing are also acts of reflection. The dramatic tension arises from the clash between the alluring odd (wo)men out onscreen and the social structure that hems them in or threatens to. The majority of the selections are not easily digestible. They are--and this is a compliment--hard to swallow.
Autumn (Ozcan Alper) In this masterpiece set in the 1990s, more than a decade after a repressive coup took place in Turkey, the protagonist is at war on several fronts: with the ruling regime--he has just been released from prison where he served time for unexplained political activism; with the restrictive traditions of village life after moving back in with his mother, having nowhere else to go; and with his own corporeality. He got out of jail on account of bad health, which is spiraling out of control, and his body hardly responds to the gorgeous Georgian prostitute he bonds with. We are allowed entrance to this barely verbal fellow's mindset by a silent commentary emanating from his subtle gestures as well as from the majesty of the towering peaks and hovering clouds that surround him.
The Shaft (Zhang Chi) A superb debut, achingly gorgeous, this is a case of caged insiders yearning for the fresh air of free-range outsiders. Literally. Three members of a motherless family, whose stories are told chronologically (first the "eligible: sister's, then the rock-star-wannabe brother's, and finally the retired father's), are, from birth, necessarily attached to the coal mine that disrupts an otherwise splendid western Chinese mountain setting. Graceful camera movements and striking compositions offset the dungeon that controls their life. Each time the elevator shaft descends, another layer of their dreams disappears.
Parque Via (Enrique Rivero) Another addition to the resurgence of quality Latin American film, this revelation from Mexico is minimalism at its most effective, an assured work that shocks the blase viewer when it steps into thriller territory. An old man stays almost entirely inside the luxurious vacant home of a wealthy woman for whom he is a live-in guard, but whom he has served as a servant for decades with mutual--but solidly class-defined--affection. His world crashes when she decides to sell the place. Rivero creatively tests the limits of how far a person will go to maintain a comfort zone.
BirdWatchers (Marco Bechis) In this highly original Italian/Brazilian production, Guarani Indians in Brazil, perhaps tired of their schizoid existence between two cultures, reclaim their legacy: enchanting forests now part of the ranch of a wealthy white landowner. He is leveling their sacred ancestral sites for purposes of cultivation (commerce rules). The director astutely observes not only the tension between the original inhabitants and the latecomers, but also the fissures within the tribe, borne of centuries of subjugation and displacement. A cute Guarani teen has a fling with the rancher's spoiled daughter, but it is more a lesson in the near-impossibility of reconciliation than a promising love affair--an intimate anticipation of the movie's increasingly tragic trajectory.
The Milk of Sorrow (Claudia Llosa) Peasant maid Fausta is afraid of her own shadow: Her mother had instilled the fear of God in her through her breast milk. (This is Peruvian magic realism.) So that her daughter would not be violated as many women had been during that country's social strife, Mom placed a potato in her vagina. (Did I mention Peruvian magic realism?) Llosa (MadeinUSA) finely draws the rituals of provincial life, especially those surrounding a hilarious wedding shamelessly based on economic advantage. Fausta's exploitation by her wealthy white female boss is heavyhanded, but overall this is a solid, quietly rhythmic film, which utilizes empty spaces to great effect.
We Live in Public (Ondi Timoner) Why this American docmaker (Dig!) meticulously tracks the real-life narrative of an extraordinary man whose field was computers with rapid-fire editing and blasting music is beyond me. If he were coming from, say, MTV, maybe it would be logical, but form and content are at odds here. Subject Josh Harris reinvented himself more than Madonna. He anticipated the mediation--gadgets, the internet--that would replace personal interaction. Successful entrepreneur as fascist, he became a self-styled patron of the arts, tossing out millions on large-scale arts projects more Manchurian Candidate than McDowell Colony.
Ordinary Boys (Daniel Hernandez) If only this Spanish director hadn't ladeled on cliches and obvious camera set-ups (e.g., low, under the overstated car of a local crime boss) to capture the small details of a small Moroccan town in a near-documentary style. Set in the slum that produced several Madrid bombers, the movie focuses on three friends with little opportunity to escape their geographic and economic destiny. The two guys are illiterate: one is an idealist who succumbs to the scamming offers of the gang leader; his troubled ex-con pal pays the ultimate price for stealing from the crook. The most promising of the trio, an educated; free-spirited young lady, starts a co-op sewing business with other females, but religion and the secondary status of women threaten her ambition.
Home (Ursula Meier) The remote residence of a self-contained family in Swiss director Meier's film marks them less as misanthropes than as unpretentious outsiders, though they haven't a clue about how eccentric they really are. The opening of a stretch of highway in front of their house recasts them as animals in a trap, and allows veteran thesps Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet some fine moments. The film is okay, well-made, with nice special effects of the coursing traffic, but at the end of the day, it is a one-noter.
Mid-August Lunch (Gianni di Gregorio) This "cute" trifle about a group of lovably needy elderly ladies who end up crashing in the flat of a befuddled middle-aged man over a stifling summer weekend has Italian television written on every frame. It does not go against the grain: It IS the grain.