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TRIBECA ’07 | Critics Notebook 2: A Crossroads of Marriage and Nature

TRIBECA '07 | Critics Notebook 2: A Crossroads of Marriage and Nature

Is it possible that the geographical sources of the best Tribeca films that touch on nature and the overall concept of beauty reveal some major lack in the West? By default? Perhaps the sterility of much of our consumer-friendly culture has pulled us away from the natural world and the realm of genuine, not contrived, beauty. Almost all of these movies are from the Near and Far East, notably China, Turkey, and Iran. (Bahman Ghobadi‘s “Half Moon,” from Iran, could also fit into the “man and nature” category, but I wrote about it yesterday in the context of its honoring music.) Is this an outgrowth of Buddhism and intense devotion to Allah? I am not sure why two Argentine films also capture so well the connection between people and nature. Argentines are mainly displaced Europeans living far from what they consider European societies. Does the distance promote a more primal bond?

Anyway, all of these films fall under the general umbrella of art, and no one has put the relationship between art and nature more succinctly than English poet John Dryden in his Annus Mirabilis:

By viewing nature
Nature’s handmaid, art
Makes mighty things from small beginnings grow.

Aesthetics of Man and Nature

The great discovery of the festival is Turkish director Reha Erdem‘s “Times and Winds.” A coming-of-age story about three adolescent friends in a remote mountain village, it captures the spirituality inherent in their environs. The trio lay on the peaks, staring at the moon, which, along with the call to prayer, divides the film into sections. Erdem shoots trees and fields with the same grace he imparts to the stones of the dwellings and the pathways. One boy hates his imam father, another has a crush on their attractive teacher; the girl is in crisis over her mom’s impending childbirth. The film is as much about the universe’s rhythms as it is about the kids’ desires and frustrations. The orchestral score from the works of Arvo Part is sublime.

In the amateurish (even by no-budget standards) Afghan film “Zolykha’s Secret,” however, Horace Ahmand Shansab shoots a peasant family in Taliban-era Afghanistan crudely, without the warm polish Erdem gives to his preteens. The film becomes more engaging as tragedy ensues, but fantasies depicting occupiers of the country past and present are embarrassing. Argentine auteur Pablo Trapero‘s “Born and Bred” contains breathtaking sequences of wild Patagonian surroundings, but it is hard to buy into the protagonist’s disappearing there and creating a new persona, even after losing his family in a crash. In Jonathan King‘s imaginative “Black Sheep,” from New Zealand, genetically engineered sheep on a bucolic farm chew humans to bits in seductive widescreen. You can’t fool Mother Nature.

A scene from Jia Zhang-ke’s “Still Life.” Image provided by the Tribeca Film Festival.

A masterpiece that garnered the Golden Lion at Venice, Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke‘s “Still Life” reflects on the beauty remaining in and around the city of Fenjge after it is flooded to harness hydroelectric power. Displaced residents had no say: Corporate chiefs carried out Mao‘s dream. The setting–gorgeous mountains veiled in fog and the wide Yangtze — is overwhelming. Jia also finds appeal even in sterile new structures and the enormous dam itself. Shot with deeply saturated colors, and including surreal incongruities, the film follows two separate characters who are in Fengjie to tie up loose ends in their memory banks.

With “The Tree,” Argentine filmmaker Gustavo Fontan has the balls to make a poignant, leisurely doc about his elderly parents built around two large, intertwined acacias in the front yard of their home, one healthy and one dying. Surveying their lives, he films hands and fabrics in close-up. A critic in Buenos Aires wrote that the film gave him peace, but I feel otherwise. The husband and wife await death, performing repetitive tasks to keep occupied and living off memories. Frequently framed by the house’s windows and shot up against its walls, they are its prisoners.

You Needn’t Bother: “The Last Man,” Ghassan Salhab, Lebanon (pretentious vampire film); “Golden Door,” Emmanuele Crialese, Italy (F for fake crowd-pleaser)

The Beauty of Women (Despite Marriage)

Incorporating an unobtrusive gender and class analysis, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi‘s deft “Fireworks Wednesday” is about a striking woman driven bonkers by uncertainty over her husband’s infidelity. (The title, a double entendre, comes from the traditional lighting of fireworks on the Iranian New Year.) The husband beats his wife outside his office, and the two have screaming fights in front of a young, newly employed, working-class maid, a naif engaged to be married and a witness to hell.

The husband in Lu Yi‘s superb Chinese film, “Lost in Beijing,” is more egregious. When his attractive, softspoken young wife is raped by her middle-aged, nouveau-riche boss, he tries to shake him down; this is, after all, the “new,” crassly mercenary China. Tradition and moral codes are less and less relevant. Using hand-held camera, slithering tracking shots, and the occasional jump cut, Lu analyzes the dynamic among the two men, the heroine, and the boss’s Lady Macbeth-like wife. Lu being female, guess who has the last word?

Tough from beginning to end is the hard-working wife and mother in another Chinese selection, Wang Quan’an‘s Mongolia-set “Tuya’s Marriage,” winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin. Her invalid husband suggests she remarry for economic reasons. She complies but chooses love over money. This pretty movie has both anthropological and dramatic appeal.

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