Between Reviews: Once Upon a Time in the Fest – Part 2

Posted on January 1, 2011

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Movie-hopping through the 8th Chennai International Film Festival, with its mix of the curious and the commendable.

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JAN 2, 2011LAST WEEK, I TRAILED OFF with the thought that art cinema, these days, has become somewhat more accessible than it was to earlier generations. For one, the techniques that once set these films apart from the mainstream fare – the employment of willful ellipses that force us to fill the gaps; the fractured narrative timelines – are now fairly commonplace, and we’re no longer thrown aback when asked to structure a movie-watching experience using these building blocks. Also, by investing in critical theory and deconstructive readings, we’ve trained ourselves, over the years, to “see” these films the way they’re meant to be seen. Does this mean art cinema is not challenging anymore? Absolutely not. It’s just that we’re better equipped to grapple with these challenges. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that, then as now, a single viewing will rarely result in your seeing the entire picture (or indeed the same picture) – unless the film is like Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies, which I caught on Day 2 of the festival.

Just what was this 2005 film doing in a 2010 film festival? And why was it screened as a DVD projection? But I doubt that even a regular screening would have made a difference to this utterly underwhelming mystery, one of those art-house nail-biters that thinks it’s pulling rug after rug from beneath our feet when we’re always three scenes ahead – just as I’d heard. So why did I walk in? Partly because of the director and the cast (Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth, Alison Lohman). Partly because of the interest-piquing controversies over its sex scenes. And partly because the film festival schedule you make for yourself has to consist of those films you’ve been meaning to see but never got around to, along with those that have won tons of awards and therefore seem worthy of sampling – like the multiple Goya-winning Cell 211 (Spanish; directed by Daniel Monzón), a terrific thriller set in prison that, stripped of its Euro-fatalism, could easily translate into a taut Tony Scott action epic.

And because a film festival isn’t a film festival unless you take a chance on the unknown, I ventured into the Danish drama Camping (directed by Jacob Bitsch), which turned out to be one of those gloomy family portraits so beloved by Scandinavians. Dad sticks a shotgun in his mouth; mom and grown-up kids attempt to come to terms with the tragedy by undertaking the eponymous excursion. I came away with the feeling that I’d seen this story a thousand times before. The Bernardo Bertolucci retrospective was equally pedestrian, filled with the director’s largely undistinguished latter-day films. Who’d want to see Little Buddha and Stealing Beauty over The Conformist, The Spider’s Strategem, 1900 and Last Tango in Paris? Regarding the latter, the butter-aided barebacking may no longer scandalise as it once did, but who’d not want to experience on the big screen the more shocking nakedness of Marlon Brando’s last great performance?

On Day 6 , I ventured into Kaushik Ganguly’s Just Another Love Story, which offered further proof that Bengali art filmmakers, today, are masters at investing soapy plotlines – a gay-straight love triangle, if one were to be overly reductive; a gay filmmaker in the present grapples with his married lover the same way a gay actor did in the past – with hefty emotional resonance. The Bosnian On the Path (directed by Jasmila Žbanić) promised to be equally affecting, but after the first half-hour, I had to slip away, what with life getting in the way of the best-laid film-festival plans. The next morning, I caught Abbas Kiarostami’s artfully ambiguous Certified Copy, one of those fact-fiction blurring narratives that exquisitely roots the real in the surreal. Are the man and woman strangers who only pretend to be a couple? Or are they a couple acting like strangers? The transfixing narrative, as it unspooled, proved to be one of Kiarostami’s most accessible – a sort of Before Sunrise structured around beleaguered mid-life.

The rare opportunity to see this film on the big screen is the reason for the existence of these film festivals, and I was equally grateful for the other big-director movies – Mike Leigh’s Another Year, Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, each of which was typically characteristic of their filmmakers and typically aligned with audience expectations. For Leigh fans, Another Year was a typically trenchant study of unremarkable folks made remarkable through the course of a story about a warm couple surrounded by miserable friends. For Coppola fans, Somewhere was a typically observant stretch of nothing-happening-yet-everything-happening set amidst the alienated upper classes. And for Iñárritu fans, Biutiful was a typically big-questions-loaded story of a man in a bind, typically alternating between pondering and ponderousness. If it’s true that filmmakers make the same film over and over, here was incontrovertible proof, thanks to the Chennai International Film Festival.

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Posted in: Between Reviews