Art and politics: two poles rightfully addressed by many of the selections in a film festival located (more and more virtually) near the festering hole that was the World Trade Center. The Tribeca Film Festival is so large (157 features) that this article covers those that most neatly fit into the "art" sphere. A second installment tomorrow continues that exploration, reviewing movies that touch on nature and the physicality of humankind. A third piece running next week will survey overtly political fare as well as American indie fiction, almost all of which is not shown to film critics ahead of the public. ("Who ya' hiding from, Helen?" Neely O'Hara asks aging Broadway star Helen Lawson in "Valley of the Dolls." "The notices couldn't have been that bad").
Filmmakers Filming Filmmakers
The directors of the films-within-the-films are abusive jerks in Ha Yu's "A Dirty Carnival," from South Korea, as well as Russian Kirill Serebrennikov's "Playing the Victim," but the exquisite enveloping movies are not to be missed. In "A Dirty Carnival," a stunningly original gangster picture with perfectly choreographed fight scenes, a cherubic-faced researching filmmaker asks a childhood friend, a handsome, martial arts-enabled gang leader, to explain his trade. The gangster helps him, even confiding the details of an unsolved, high-profile murder he committed. The duplicitous director puts a thinly veiled scene of the killing in his movie, precipitating the young criminal's demise.
The "director" in "Playing the Victim" is an angry, impatient police bureaucrat who bullies his clumsy crew while overseeing filmed murder reenactments. The young man in the victim role has been a lost soul since his father died mysteriously and his mother took up with his uncle. This is Hamlet with contemporary humor; you know the outcome. Serebrennikov successfully pushes the filmic envelope in this color movie with a handheld, moving camera, inserts of strong black-and-white animation, and perhaps a tad too much intelligent self-reflexivity.
More genial is a German director in preproduction in the Croatian-Bosnian feature "Armin," by Croatian filmmaker Ognjen Svilicic. An overweight, dour teen accordionist has come to Zagreb from Sarajevo with his stage-father dad, a crass bumpkin. After young Croatian assistants block the boy from a second audition, the German agrees to hear him. Armin is a good small film that successfully captures the joyless fatalism of Bosnians today as well as the specialized decor and taste that rule in ex-Yugoslavia.
An even kinder soul is Tunisian Nouri Bouzid as a director in his own film, "Making Of." During this tale of a young, troublemaking break-dancer who becomes the pawn of fundamentalist Muslims looking for a suicide bomber, Bouzid occasionally breaks the narrative flow: His lead actor stops performing, goes out of character, and questions him about the boy's motivation and the potential for controversy. Bouzid patiently explains his secular, anti-terrorist position. Unfortunately, the character's personal conflict is not too credible, and the film is derivative of better movies such as "Paradise Now."
You Needn't Bother: "Santiago," Joao Salles, Brazil (as much about the smug director as his ex-butler); "A Story of People in War & Peace," Vardan Hohannisyan, Armenia (underlying strife not explained); "Miss Universe 1929," Peter Forgacs, Austria (gorgeous protagonist of old footage a bore).
Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern offer a philosophical statement about what constitutes a work of art in their wonderfully anarchic French film, "Avida." At the end of this black-and-white movie, a banal set-up of a fat woman on a slope with a fish in the background morphs into color and freezes into the format of a painting. Structured as tenuously connected tableaux, this surreal, scatological, and politically incorrect film is a unique cross between Bunuel and Tati. Outrageous scenes such as a short matador's subbing a hippo for a bull and three men pulling the obese woman uphill are delicious fun.
The taxidermist grandson in Hungarian director Gyorgy Palfi's tripartite "Taxidermia," a wickedly powerful film about three generations of obsessive men in one family, constructs the ultimate objet d'art: He stuffs himself. His body goes on display at a pretentious art gallery. The movie is even more scatological than "Avida." We see the grandson remove his own organs with the help of a machine. In the first segment, his grandfather, an orderly in World War I, is consumed by his sexual fantasies, and Palfi shows his erections and rocket-like orgasms with the help of computer-generated imagery. CGI is also useful in depicting the gluttony of the boy's father in episode two: A member of the Hungarian team in the Soviet Bloc eating championships, he and his player wife vomit continuously.
The body as art is on one level the subject of Mexican actor Diego Luna's extremely accomplished directorial debut, the documentary "Chavez." Julio Cesar Chavez, now 44, is a retired champion boxer who was known for his good looks, his quick movements in the ring, and his questionable ties to politicians. The boxing film ("Raging Bull," "Body and Soul") has always been a cinematic genre; Luna has succeeded in making an equivalent boxing doc. He shows an intuitive feel for editing rhythms, knowing the precise moment to cut or when to speed up a montage. Enchanting Mexican songs called corridos comment on the action. The film is not hagiography (unlike, for example, American director Richard Trank's unquestioning Simon Wiesenthal doc "I Have Never Forgotten You"). Luna deconstructs the Chavez myth while still showing interest and respect. Bodies are also art in American director Benson Lee's doc "Planet B-Boy." The international break-dancing footage is strong, but the connecting talking heads make it tube fodder.
In "Takva: A Man's Fear of God," an astounding Turkish film by Ozer Kiziltan, the artwork is a theological choir in motion: the synchronized swaying and nodding torsos of hundreds of Muslim men on their knees chanting in an Istanbul mosque. Kiziltan films it like a musical, shooting the worshippers from all angles as the music and movements build into a frenzy. The audience for their creation is, of course, Allah. The plot: A hierarchical Muslim order hijacks a shleppy devout clerk to be their financial organizer and live in their seminary. The camera glides along its hallways, following him into rooms with richly textured walls. They shower him with material goods to the point that floating dollars enter his wet dreams. Unfortunately, he cannot reconcile his religious beliefs with the temptations of flesh and money and goes mad.
The artwork is a faraway goal in Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi's magnificently shot "Half Moon," which won the top prize at San Sebastian. In Iran an old music teacher in a decrepit bus picks up his "sons"--ex-students--from their villages. He has finally received authorization for them to travel to Iraqi Kurdistan, where they plan to give a concert. Since female singers are banned in Iran, they hide a gifted songbird, another former pupil, under a box. She is discovered by harassing Iranian border guards, who break the men's instruments--but not before she sings for her master, whose bliss you feel. Melody and death are interwoven leitmotifs in the film. Whether they make it to the concert of not, it succeeds in celebrating the art of music against gorgeous backdrops.
The art is strong, the vehicle tedious in American Esther Robinson's doc, "A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory." Warhol's ex-lover disappeared at age 27, but the impressive short movies he made utilizing a strobe effect he had created for rock concerts remain.
You Needn't Bother: "The Road to San Diego," Carlos Sorin, Argentina (facile road movie); "Vitus," Fredi M. Murer, Switzerland (tripe using cute kid as Oscar bait).
ABOUT THE WRITER: Howard Feinstein programs fiction, documentaries, and directors' retrospectives for the Sarajevo Film Festival in Bosnia. He writes about film for publications and websites in the U.S., the U.K., and the Netherlands.