Frame to Frame

The Montreal World Film Festival is All About Connection

Priding itself of being the opposite of its Canadian nemesis, the Toronto International Film Festival, Montreal’s World Film Festival is the longest running North American ceremony of its kind. This year it celebrates its 35th birthday, and as always takes “international” to a whole new level. With over 300 films from virtually every corner of the world, the MWFF brings obscure North American and International premiers to the continent and gives cinephiles a chance to enjoy films they’ll likely to never see again, at least not on the big screen.

In the majestic theater houses Cinema Imperial and Theatre Maisonneuve, MWFF showcases 20 feature length films in World Competition, most of them world premiers. The multi-screen Quartier Latin complex gets the honor of presenting the other 360 features, shorts and documentaries that make up the fest’s dense schedule.

With the common themes of human compassion, loss and a search for meaning and understanding, the MWFF stands proud against the heavyweight festivals that usually take the most commercial films, and their celebrity power, for their own rosters. In a competitive industry that only seems to be growing, MWFF’s importance is paramount as it gives voice and accolades to the lesser-known and to the outcast. May it live for another 35 years!

The Artist (World Greats, dir: Michel Hazanavicius)
A reinvigorating experience reminding us why we love the art

If a year ago you would have said the most “commercial” film showing at MWFF ’11 would be a black and white silent film, you’d have been met with a room full of eye rolls. Yet, here we are with The Artist, full of praise and standing ovations from this year’s Cannes Festival, proved to be just that. It happens to also be some the most fun to be had at this year’s Festival.

The story is set in late 1920s Hollywood, for many the golden age of cinema, when people went out in droves to watch the next George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) silent spectacle. Fame, success and adoration fit George like a glove, and after a very public encounter with Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), Peppy’s adoration in particular seems to fit him just fine. Then the worst possible thing happens to George: the talkies. His studio declares that they are stopping production on all silent films, and George’s downfall is Peppy’s rise to fame. George’s pride paralyses him, while his close friends and his genius Jack Russell terrier try to pull him out of the downward spiral.

Of course, the stylistic concept behind this film is nothing short of brilliant. Some of the most memorable scenes and sequences become all the more special because in this silent medium; The actors seem to be having an absolute blast. Dujardin in particular shines with his infectious smile and uncanny ability to make you burst out laughing by a shifty movement of the eyebrow. The best actor award he got at Cannes must have been a no-brainer, as he goes from all sorts of emotions while turning in a very physical performance. The supporting cast, beautiful and equally hilarious Bejo, a wonderful John Goodman as his producer and the always refined James Cromwell as Valentin’s loyal driver, round out the perfect cast. And yet, if there were a “Biggest Scene Stealer” award, it would go out to the fantastic pup, that goes far and beyond never leaving his master’s side.

The film is often hilarious with an enormous heart and an ending that will have you virtually skipping and hopping from joy. Guillaume Schiffman’s cinematography stands out in the technical department along with the costumes and sets befitting of the greatest kind of silent spectacle.

Almost a hundred years later from the time period in the film, we are faced with harsh financial times yet again. While some of the panic and misfortune rings familiar bells, movies that remind us why we love the movies will always be a stroke of luck.

Butterfly Kiss (First Film Competition, dir: Karin Silla Perez)
The kiss is sweet, but this butterfly can’t soar to great heights

Vincent Perez is one of the most popular local actors in France. So, when his wife Karin Silla Perez makes her debut feature with him as one of the principal actors, you best believe it’s a big occasion for MWFF to premiere it in North America.

Butterfly Kiss throws around some of the biggest themes in art: fear of death, family secrets & estrangement, and the pleasure of living life. Through interwoven tales of life’s harshest realities, and the little miracles that remind us why it’s all worth it in the end, Silla Perez creates a mosaic from eight different slices of life.

In the center stand Billie (Valeria Golino) and Louis (Perez) as a happily married couple with two daughters, whose lives change when Billie tells them she’s had cancer for six months and it’s incurable. Her close friend, Mary (Elsa Zylberstein), can do little to console her because all she can think about is having a baby as she grows more and more infertile. Meanwhile, her boyfriend is more interested in Vivaldi. Billie’s nurse Alice (Cecile de France) can’t do much either because she’s exhausted from sleep deprivation on account of her five-year-old son, and Louis’ brother Paul (Jalil Lespert) pops up and gets in deep with a local prostitute who owes money to some Ukrainian mobsters.

Trying to catch your breath? There are players I haven’t even mentioned.

As you may have guessed, the movie’s major flaw comes in trying to show too much, in too little time. If this were a mini-series, with each character given equal time to develop and grow, the story would have sustained its ambitions and turned into something wonderful. As it stands, Silla Perez introduces us to so many characters that we end up caring a little less about each of them. Moments that should be savored, such as a key revelation of a buried family secret, pass by in a flash and lose their weight in the process.

With a brilliant cast on hand, Golino, Perez and Lespert being the absolute stand-outs, great score from David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti (I couldn’t believe it either), some wonderfully amusing moments and all-around striking production values, Butterfly Kiss has all the ingredients of a great film. As Vincent Perez himself said when he presented it with his wife, it has a lot of heart and even more soul. Its commendable ambitions, however, are too heavy for the support that the screenplay provides.

Life Back Then (In Competition, dir: Takahisa Zeze)
A Japanese journey that pulls on the heart strings

If all the films competing at the MWFF this year were placed under a common theme, it would be the importance of human connection. Individuals faced with external and unpredictable forces that long for a kindred spirit who will accept them, understand them, perhaps even love them. I’m willing to bet you can say that about most of the films on the fest’s roster this year, but leave it to the Japanese to take a theme as universal and complex as that, and make it into something unique, harrowing and distinctly Japanese.

Kyohei (Masaki Okada) is a shy, depressed and lonely young man looking for some meaning in his life after a scarring high school year. He has shut himself off from the rest of the world and his stammer grows each time he tries to speak. With the support of his family he finds solace in working as a “cleaner” for a company that specializes in tidying up houses of people who recently passed away with no close family to take care of their old possessions. There he meets a young girl, Yuki Kubota (Nana Eikura), who has deep scars of her own hidden under her positive demeanor.

As much as Life Back Then is about death and not getting lost in the guilt of it all, it’s the love story within it that makes it shine. The closeness Kyohei and Yuki develop as they sift through the remnants of deceased people’s lives is a genuine bond experienced by kindred spirits. The acting from Okada and Eikura is brilliant, and Takahisa Zeze does well to capture their most intimate confessions like a patient master with the slow zoom of a motionless camera.

It’s impossible to watch this movie without having the recent earthquake that struck Japan in the back of your mind. The search for compassion, while discarding and conserving the material objects that defined relationships, is ominous subject matter for a country that recently had thousands of families displaced and homes ravaged. And yet the theme of losing oneself in an ocean of apathy is one that everyone can relate to, regardless of country. Watching Kyohei crying out for his classmates to have some kind of reaction while he threatens another boy’s life is a fierce display of the kind of inaction that’s around us more and more often.

Though dragging a bit in length and hammering the point a bit too forcefully at times, Life Back Then carries an important and positive message, showcases two rising talents, and remains universal in its distinctly Japanese story. It’s a movie that represents MWFF’s common credo proudly and deserves all the praise that comes its way.

Playoff (In Competition, dir: Eran Riklis)
Deceptive title, impressive tale

Playoff is the story of Max Stoller, an Israeli Jew who grew up in Frankfurt and together with his mother fled from the Nazis. 40 years later, he’s one of the most successful basketball coaches in Europe and he goes back to the place of his childhood, much to the dismay of his family and country, to coach the worst team in Europe: West Germany. To make the drama even meatier, Max chooses to confront his past in a very unconventional way: he befriends a Turkish girl and her mother and helps them search for the girl’s father.

Could the Holocaust be the most popular historical subject ever in cinema? Without a blink of an eye, I’d say yes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, what happened during the Nazi regime is a complete phenomenon that is unlikely to be repeated and the kind of tragedy that should not be forgotten. However, just like every other subject that’s been done to death, this one too has the potential of being repetitive and predictable, among other things from the “been there, done that” shelf.

Eran Riklis does well to stray away from the path of boredom by introducing two unique elements: the complex and intriguing character of Max Stoller (a terrifically nuanced performance from Danny Huston), and the connection he has with the little Turkish girl. The idea alone that his kindred spirit is a little girl who’s lost her father and lives in the same apartment he lived in as a child is fresh and intriguing. That this bond ultimately leads him to discoveries about his past which are far more personal than the Holocaust itself, is what truly elevates this story from what could have been a tiresome affair.

You’ll notice no mention of basketball. That’s because the movie uses Stoller’s coaching of the team as a mere springboard for his real reason of being in Germany. Featured prominently in the first half of the film, the basketball narrative gets abandoned halfway through, leaving an unnecessary hole in the structure. The main focus, however, is Stoller’s understanding of his past and the memories that haunt him, while the Jew-in-Germany subplot is shaky at best because Riklis can’t seem to decide whether the wounds from the Holocaust have been cauterized or still remain open.

Playoff misleads with the title, but delivers in strong performances, effective motifs and moments (Max’s retrospection of his childhood strikes all the right emotional chords) and a paramount conclusion about the past. Weak subplots aside, Riklis’ ode to Ralph Klein, the real-life legend behind the film, may end up playing in the finals for the fest’s awards.

Dirty Hearts (In Competition, dir: Vincente Amorim)
History teaches life lessons in this rare culture mash up.

As the Japanese were on the brink of losing the Second World War, many were deported to Brazil. So many in fact, that Brazil had the largest immigrant Japanese population in the late 1940s. If you already know that before going into this movie, chances are you’ll know this story inside out. If you didn’t, that’s just one of the facts you’ll learn after watching Dirty Hearts, the story of a post-war Japanese colony in Brazil under the impression that Japan has won the war.

Takahashi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) is a simple man trying to live a simple life with the wife he loves very much, Miyuki (Takako Tokiwa). He tries to stay out of the Brazilians’ way but remains a proud Japanese man, intelligent enough not to voice that pride. That is, until a band of Brazillian soldier hooligans desecrate the Japanese flag and disrespect Colonel Watanabe (Eiji Okuda) and his posse of disillusioned men. Disillusioned because they are meeting to discuss how to crush the Allies and ensure Japanese victory of the war stays intact. Takahashi becomes Watanabe’s chosen assassin as he is sent to dispatch of any traitors who have “dirty hearts,” while Miyuki is left to despair over the monster her husband is becoming.

Before presenting the movie, director Vincente Amorim said he was looking to make a movie about “identity and intolerance” when the book Dirty Hearts unexpectedly fell into his lap. Though the subject of intolerance could have been more expanded using the Brazilian and Japanese dynamic, the main theme of identity manifested in hardcore Japanese nationalism is utterly fascinating to watch. Ihara’s portrayal of Takahashi is strong and Charles Bronson-esque at times, but it’s Okuda as the demented Colonel of the Imperial Army who chews up every scene he’s in. It’s unlikely that you’ll find a tenser and more emotionally eruptive scene at this year’s fest than the final showdown between Watanabe and Takahashi.

At times Dirty Hearts plays out like a western with katanas, with greatly paced action sequences and moments of tension and suspense. Other moments are more comparable to melodramatic Brazillian soap operas, especially considering that the women are not given much to do except cry over the choices their husband’s make. Nevertheless, Dirty Hearts is executed with great style and you can feel all the principal creators barring no holds to tell the best story they can from the material. This subject matter holds the key and is worth the price of admission alone, as it depicts a fascinating morsel of history rarely seen before.

Black Thursday (In Competition, dir: Antoni Krauze)
Evils of Communism Exposed By a Dismal Magnifying Glass.

Before getting into this bleak, depressing movie, I must say one thing: whoever was in charge of translating to English subtitles needs to be fired immediately. The MWFF has had some bad fortune so far this year with projectors failing and incomplete movies shown in competition, and now showing a film in competition again with butchered English subs. Maybe I’m still riled up by what Antoni Krauze directed, but I feel a bit like Kyohei from Life Back Then, screaming at the top of my lungs to anyone who doesn’t seem to care.

Black Thursday depicts the true events which occurred on December 17th, 1970 in the small town of Gdansk in the northern region of Poland. The communist government at the time made a decision to hike up food prices while maintaining the same wages, and workers of a local shipyard took to the streets in protest. Bruno Drywa, father of three, loving husband and worker of the Gdynia Shipyard, was not part of the protest, choosing to spend his day off from work with his daughter and family. However, he returns to work on that fateful Thursday,, after Polish Prime Minister Kociolek urges all workers to return. What awaits the workers of the shipyard that morning is a full blown militia, geared with tanks and helicopters, that opens fire on the frustrated workers. Bruno, thinking about how to make Christmas special for his kids, gets fatally wounded.

This movie is like a heavy weight boxer punching you in the heart and spitting in your face. Krauze, like Amorim this year with Dirty Hearts, shows you a slice of history that has been largely forgotten, or completely unfamiliar. It depicts a crumbling, flawed and deranged communist regime that makes you reflect on the lower depths mankind goes to in the name of an ideology. The emotional punches mostly come from a delicate and heartbreaking performance by Marta Honzatko, Bruno’s wife Stefa, as she transitions from worrying about the holidays to worrying about her husband’s life. While Krauze does well to attach us to the personal story of the Drywa’s, the story of the workers weighs equally in importance, and the abuse they go through stirs up some pretty vile thoughts.

Half of the sequences of the protests, and the martyrdom of Janek Wisniewski, is supported by real footage of the day which at times does pull you away from the experience. The massive amount of inter-titles of who’s who on the political side of things, isn’t easy to follow, but the actors portraying them put on a performance makig you despise them regardless. An important piece of historical reality that reminds us about the terrible consequences of man’s hunger for power and belief in ideology, Black Thursday may be too bleak for some but its execution makes it a must–see.

The Fire (In Competition, dir. Brigitte Maria Bertele)
Leaving Impressions Strong and Feelings Ice Cold

By now we’re all familiar with the common thread that binds all 20 films in competition at the MWFF this year: lost souls searching for kindred spirits and the disruption of human connection in a society that grows evermore unaffected by your existence in it. And yet, it was never touched upon that most of these movies seem to be handled from a very male perspective. Important female characters are always present, but more often than not, they’re always supporting rather than leading. Well, that’s all changed with Brigitte Maria Bertele’s disturbing feature The Fire.

Maja Schoene plays Judith, a massage therapist who likes to go Salsa dancing with her boyfriend of six years, Georg (Mark Waschke). One night, however, when Georg was not able to join her, Judith decides to go by herself where she ends up innocently flirting with a charming stranger, Ralph (Wotan Wilke Moehring). When he suggests walking her home we are presented with the degenerate that lurks underneath the gentlemanly exterior.

Judith is beaten, raped and left on the river bank to scramble back home and figure out how to cope with her life. Things get complicated when Ralph turns out to be an upstanding member of the community, with a wife and two kids, who denies the rape. Georg wants to turn a new leaf, but Judith is burning to destroy that chapter of her life forever.

Schoene’s powerhouse performance is the fuel that keeps this fire burning from beginning to end. Judith is a woman living in a man’s world, she can’t even get her female lawyer to represent her and instead gets the cocky Stein (Florian David Fitz) who is quick to dismiss her after telling her that she doesn’t have a case against Ralph. Bertele’s direction is consistent throughout, capturing the urban landscape of Germany and the confines of Judith’s apartment like a prison that can’t contain its prisoner. A great moment sees a squirrel on Judith’s veranda, reacting to the telephone ring with great alertness and Judith looking on, craving the same instinctual reactions for what happened to her.

The theme is gripping, and the reality the movie represents is grim beyond belief for women in Judith’s situation. By the end, you are left with a reality that is hard to swallow because it’s so harsh and Bertele does well to make you believe it. With the right amount of suspense, shock and drama to go around, The Fire is light on the humor but delivers on its message and is an important female perspective of a man’s world.

Siberia, Monamour (dir. Slava Ross, World Greats)
Isolated wilderness with a big heart makes for grand cinema.

Films about rare historical events, places of work and unlikely bonds were aplenty at the 35th MWFF. With Siberia, Monamour, replace ‘historical events’ with ‘desolate cities’ and you get a Russian cocktail of a cinematic story, double vodka.

The film follows three interconnected threads. A young boy lives in a tiny village called Monamour with his stern and religious grandfather, waiting for his father to return from war. Yuri, the boy’s uncle, lives in a nearby village that is slightly more developed (schooling, television, other kids..) and feels guilty about them living in a small village with hardly any provisions. His wife Ana, however, is not keen on having more mouths to feed. Meanwhile, Alexey is a war-torn commander who has been stationed in Siberia and whose missions are now comprised of fetching local prostitutes for his retrograde general.

That synopsis barely scratches the surface of this ambitious, expertly executed and gorgeous film. I didn’t even mention one of the key elements in the story, which are the wild wolves living in the forest near Monamour, eating everything (and anyone) they come across. The main theme of mercy in the film is pushed to its outer limits by the constant fear the characters have of the ferocious beasts living nearby, devoid of any compassion. Not to mention the added points the film gets for realistically portraying the cruelty of nature

Director Slava Ross, somehow, manages to cover monumental themes like faith, family and the treatment of women in 100 minutes with equal consideration, and effortless manner. Apart from the authentic performances from every single actor involved, down to the wolf that the boy befriends (I’m convinced the wolves in this story having acting portfolios, they are that good), most praise goes to Youri Raisky and Alexey Todorov, the directors of photography.

Whether they are interior or exterior shots, the photography of the film, with its careful lighting, is immaculate. Scenes such as the grandfather bathing his grandson, or the old man being taken down a freezing river on a log, are shots that get etched in your mind and linger weeks after seeing the film. Above all, it is clear that Ross wanted to tell a story about the people in a desolate place. With an ending that tears into your heart, but is nevertheless hopeful, Ross shows how the light can shine in one of the most remote locations on this earth.

Like the Alain Resnais classic Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Ross creates what could become a classic ode to Siberia, if only it gets distribution and a proper DVD release (Criterion, please do something). Till then, do what you can to see this cinematic gem.