Movies made outside the United States can illuminate the individuality of distant cultures for American audiences--while simultaneously highlighting the similarities to our particular surroundings. In both its narrative and documentary components, the international entries of the Sundance Film Festival convey both possibilities. The best of them combine universal storytelling devices with a unique sense of places.
"Captain Abu Raed," a bittersweet feature in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, offers little in the way of originality--but its precise conventionalism has a distinct appeal. Touted in the Sundance catalog as "the first independent film to come out of Jordan," the movie follows the life of the titular elder gentleman (Nadim Sawalha), whose dead-end job as a floor cleaner has left him feeling isolated after the death of wife. After randomly plucking a pilot's hat from the garbage and wearing it home, Abu Raed catches the attention of several local boys eager to hear tales of his aerial adventures. Intrigued by the sudden popularity, Abu Raed sustains their misconception and finds himself uncharacteristically content. The plot builds to a climax as Abu Raed takes particular interest in a neighborhood child whose father constantly abuses him; meanwhile, an authentic female pilot develops a vested interest in Abu Raed's kindliness, leading to a friendship that unlocks a bleak secret from his past.
Because it combines an airport setting with heavy sentimentalism, "Captain Abu Raed" suggests a foreign version of "The Terminal," but writer-director Amin Matalqa brings a steady approach to the material that allows it to surpass that notorious Steven Spielberg misfire. With a gorgeous score and subtle performances all around, it introduces Capra-esque pathos to fresh terrain. Matalqa's competent technique struggles near the end, when the story grows too sappy and loses its convincing edge. But these flaws arrive after "Captain Abu Raed" becomes just solid enough to work.
Matalqa's directorial debut fails to break familiar rhythms, but two of its categorical neighbors, both from Russia, appear to have arrived from distant lands. "Absurdistan," the sophomore feature from playful visionary Veit Helmer, blends fantastical imagery with folktale simplicity. Helmer's production has no relation to the popular novel by Gary Shteyngart of the same name, but both survey confused young men through quirky humor. The film "Absurdistan" is set in a tiny, insular village where the all the men are hypersexual oafs and the women dutifully serve them. When soft-spoken teen Temelko (Maximilian Mauff) takes an interest in his childhood companion Aya (Kristyna Malerova), their burgeoning courtship veers into conflict after a drought causes the women to abstain from sex until the men repair the water pipe. About as arbitrarily interesting as it sounds, "Absurdistan" compensates for ugly, brutish stereotypes with sparkling visual finesse, giving literal meaning to the term "flight of fancy": Its strongest sequences involve airborne characters adrift in a whimsically colorful world. Consequently, "Absurdistan" is flawed, but never grating.
The other Russian narrative at the festival, "Mermaid," contains comparable surrealism and a versatile performance at its center, but the themes rarely stray from reality. A gentle and considered portrait of growing up, "Mermaid" revolves around contemplative teen Alisa (Masha Shalaeva), whose uncomfortable childhood (during which she rebels against her neglectful mother) is supplanted by an alienated young adulthood filled with random sexual encounters and a discomfiting gig in the advertising business. The direction, by neophyte Anna Melikyan, engenders an omnipresent surrealism: Alisa develops spectacular telekinetic abilities, but they can't repair her troubled personal life. For its lighthearted whimsy, "Mermaid" instantly recalls "Amelie," but its immersive exploration of the blurry distinction between imagination and its material origins has plenty of novelty.
In heavy contrast to the blithe patterns in "Mermaid," the darker components of human nature take central stage in Gonzalo Arijon's "Stranded": I've come from a plane that crashed in the mountains," a thrillingly provocative look at the unbelievable survival tale of young rugby players whose lack of food after their downed aircraft traps them in the Andes forces them to turn to cannibalism. Despite the sensationalistic description (many people compare it to "Alive" after hearing the synopsis), "Stranded" remains firmly believable and non-exploitative, alternating between philosophical ruminations from the remaining survivors and reenactments of their journey through the frosty landscape. Their group decision to survive on the bodies of dead passengers is merely one aspect of the extraordinary saga, but it introduces a shockingly nightmarish element to the gripping adventure.
Other international documentaries at the festival take measured approaches to their divergent locales. The lavish Chinese film "Up the Yangtze" studies the remarkable construction of a dam to power the country's electricity, and Tanaz Eshaghian's "Be Like Others" provides viewers with the plight of transsexuals in Iran. The latter film could benefit from a larger scope to explore its issue, but Eshaghian brings an exclusive glimpse at the country's specific religious regulations, which permit sex changes but not homosexuality. Another impressive look at social confusion in the Middle East arises in "Recycle," Mahmoud Al Massar's calculated examination of the clash between fundamentalist ideology and apolitical daily routine.
Given the public's general disdain for subtitled films, it's important to rally for them, but not all of Sundance's international fare merits recommendation. The uneventful Swedish narrative "King of Ping Pong" doesn't justify its zany title, which refers to a lonely sixteen year old whose troubles at home lead him to the eponymous sport. And where "King of Ping Pong" suffers from too little action, "Mancora" is afflicted by an overabundance of contrivances. The Peruvian movie develops a juicy love triangle between three acquaintances after a young man (Enrico Murciano) loses his father and launches on a soul-searching (and, admittedly, beautifully shot) roadtrip to the countryside. Promising at first, "Mancora" can't maintain its initial emotional lift, wasting time with pointless orgy scenes and a lame conclusion.
Fortunately, a few nice surprises lurk among the relatively unnoticed foreign titles. The Danish film noir "Just Another Love Story" crafts an expressionistic remake of the standard woman-in-despair scenario, with a crime photographer daringly pretending to be the boyfriend of an amnesiac crash victim. Hong Kong's "The Drummer" begins as a cliched gangster flick, but it delves into novel territory when the troublemaking lead is forced out of town by a dangerous crimelord and finds himself immersed in a jungle community where drumming provides an essential component of the town's meditative qualities. There's an argument to be made for relying on the cinema to access other worlds, but these works allow us to visit unlikely places in our own.
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.