The Montreal World Film Festival screens a vast number of films – most of them European, Latin American, and Asian – while showing few big-budget Hollywood works. Montreal is known as a festival of moviegoers while its rival, the Toronto International Festival, is viewed as more market and industry oriented. One of Quebec’s most prominent producers, Roger Frappier, who also runs TransAtlantique Montreal, has stated that Montreal “shows people that American movies are not the only ones that exist. They are eighty percent of the screen time for twelve months of the year! So for two weeks we have a festival where Americans are actually in the minority.” Though to be fair, Toronto also screens an eclectic range of films, from major studio works to films from Kazakhstan.
The festival takes place in a central location – a cluster of theaters on or around Montreal’s somewhat seedy Sainte-Catherine Street. This year’s films included works from the Philippines, Turkey, Hungary, Argentina, and India, as well as many first features and shorts that rarely receive a commercial screening. The festival screened, with great fanfare, its inaugural film, Robert Lepage’s No, to a formally dressed audience of local notables – including ex-Premier Trudeau. (Clearly, the festival plays a significant role in promoting the cultural life of Montreal and Quebec province.) Lepage, a Quebecois favorite son and an advocate of sovereignty, is a director of visually innovative stage extravaganzas who has made three films (e.g., his Hitchcock-saturated film, The Confessional).
No is his latest, and, as is his wont, the central narrative often parallels other works of art that are performed in the film – a Feydeau bedroom farce and the ritualized movements of a fourteenth-century Noh drama. The film has a lighter take on the world than his previous films, including its strongest aspect, a sharply satiric look at an early Seventies radical Quebecois nationalist group. The group engages in the kind of tactics that turn them into ineffectual clowns. Lepage is so enamored with his heroine, a young actress, Sophie (Anne-Marie Cadieux), that he gives her manic reactions too much screen time, just as he heavily underlines through constant repetition the absurd behavior of some of his secondary characters. Lepage’s film is nothing but ambitious – weaving together the personal and political, Osaka and Quebec – but it misfires more often than it succeeds.
Another film in competition that also garnered a great deal of advance publicity was American actor John Shea’s first film, Sourhie. Set in South Boston, the insular, working-class Irish-American neighborhood infamous for its violent opposition to school busing in the Seventies, the film has possibilities. The narrative revolves around the return of a wiser, warier, more empathetic Danny Quinn (Donnie Wahlberg) to the old neighborhood. There he must confront a plethora of familial problems, and a destructive neighborhood culture that should have been explored with greater depth. If there is a cliche missed in Sourhie, it’s hard to discover it. Shea fills his South Boston with out-of-control alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, warring Irish Mafia clans, and Ann Meara, who plays Danny’s keening, loving mother, with a weak heart, as if she’s a refugee from the Yiddish stage. The film concludes with an unearned, sentimental endorsement of a South Boston ethos that seems singularly oppressive.
The festival also screens many films out of competition, and one of the more imaginative this year was the Russian-made The Day of the Full Moon. Directed by Karen Shakhnazarov, the film seamlessly moves from character to character, constructing a collage of generally dark vignettes whose minor characters in one episode often become central figures in another. The lines between past and present, dream and reality, also disappear. The film has charm and panache, but it is weightless – one forgets it minutes after the screening.
While Paul Auster’s Lulu on the Bridge is not as much of an embarrassment as Sourhie, the wan preciousness of Auster’s film also underlined some of the more exasperating tendencies among American independent filmmakers on view at Montreal. Obviously attempting to replicate the success of the films he scripted for Wayne Wang – Smoke and Blue in the Face – Auster nonetheless shifts from the relatively naturalistic terrain of those art-house hits to a more whimsical narrative orientation that aims for magical realism but instead resembles leaden fantasy. This meandering tale of magical stones, an unlikely love affair between Harvey Keitel and Mira Sorvino, and buffoonish gangsters is an emaciated version of themes Auster developed more adeptly in novels such as Moon Palace.
Montreal may not have showcased the best of North American independent cinema, but the festival continues to feature intriguing European films that often slip through the cracks of commercial distribution in an environment where even the arthouse circuit requires ‘blockbusters.’ Nanni Moretti’s Aprile, for example, does not yet have a U.S. distributor, but this follow-up to the Italian cine-diarist’s Caro Diario was a quintessentially worthy – if ‘small’ – Montreal gem. Of course, viewers who found Moretti’s previous films cloyingly narcissistic will not find anything to change their minds in Aprile. But for those who are charmed rather than alienated by the Italian comic’s distinctive blend of Eurocommunist zeal and personal angst, this latest foray will not prove disappointing. Moretti is one of the few directors who possesses the sheer audacity to intersperse a parodic musical about a Trotskyist pastry chef with autobiographical ruminations detailing his son’s birth and childhood and a facetious account of Silvio Berlusconi’s rise and fall.
Ildiko Enyedi’s Tamas & Juli, a considerably more somber and lyrical film, also demonstrated the value of a festival that traditionally values unobtrusive intelligence rather than flashy pyrotechnics. Enyedi’s modest film is the cinematic equivalent of a novella and its sixty-minute running time will probably limit this spare parable’s chances for theatrical distribution. Nevertheless, this beautifully shot elegy for a doomed romance is significant for both its debt to the vibrant traditions of Hungarian cinema (Enyedi’s luminous visual style is reminiscent of Marta Meszaros) and Enyedi’s ironic insight that postcommunist millennial gloom is oddly similar to the bittersweet despondency that Eastern Europeans experienced during the Cold War.
Several European films, particularly typically quirky offerings by Raoul Ruiz, Jacques Doillon, and Francois Ozon were far less topical if equally worthwhile. Even more convoluted and playful than his usual work, Ruiz’s Shattered Image is blessed with dazzling photography by Robby Muller and a dizzying array of narrative red herrings. A tongue-in-cheek meditation on mortality and sexual passion, Shattered Image. is also an elaborate parody of star Annie Parillaud’s enormously successful thriller, La Femme Nikita. Doillon’s Trop (Peu) D’Amour is less intransigently opaque, although this impeccably acted tale of romantic obsession and the demands of art is far from predictable. A curious but engrossing blend of farce and overheated melodrama, Doillon self-consciously evokes Pasolini’s Teorema as he explores the bizarre behavior of a young woman who ingratiates herself with a film director and his family. A wily schemer who attempts to seduce every man and woman in her purview, the persistent antiheroine is ultimately both charming and repellent. Curiously enough, Ozon’s Sitcom was also creepily reminiscent of Teorema, although this extended attack on middle-class mores was more long-winded than his previous shocker, the shorter and far more powerful, See the Sea. Sitcom, a fairly schematic allegory concerning a malevolent rat which inspires a prim bourgeois family to gradually lose their inhibitions, was a disappointingly arid attack on propriety which lacked the bite of Pasolini and Bunuel’s similarly antibourgeois fables.
Despite Montreal’s unsurprising fondness for French cinema, the festival is probably most valuable for providing filmgoers an opportunity to view films from less touted film industries. A fine example of this enthusiasm for films other festivals would deem too esoteric was the Latvian film The Shoe by a director making her feature debut, Laila Pakalnina. Pakalnina’s gently satiric look at Cold War tensions was little more than a wry anecdote, but was nonetheless distinguished by her remarkable talent for visual composition and an ironic mode of storytelling. The Shoe’s leisurely humor is deceptively innocuous, since Pakalnina seems to imply that border disputes between the Soviet Union and its neighbors in the Fifties were mere precursors of nationalist tremors which continue to bedevil a post-Cold War world.
A similar desire to depict the past without either rancor or nostalgia was evident in South Korea’s Spring in My Hometown, novice director Lee Kwangmo’s evocation of the Korean War in which both indigenous racketeers and the supposed foreign ally, the United States, are tainted with corruption and bad faith. Kwangmo’s languid, long takes and sumptuous widescreen compositions are occasionally a bit too reminiscent of Hou-Hsiao Hsien for comfort, although it was difficult not to admire the film’s determination to explore delicate historical issues without heavy-handed sermonizing.
If Montreal continues to focus on unflashy but rewarding films like The Shoe and Spring in My Hometown, its reputation as a genuinely world film festival will remain unassailable.