Cinema, going beyond its popular image of a vehicle for mass entertainment, also often plays a cathartic role for its makers and viewers like all other art forms. This aspect of the modern world’s most-powerful audio-visual medium was on ample display at the 34th Montreal World Film Festival (August 26-Sept 6, 2010) one of the most-respected cine-festivals in the globe.
The Competition Section of the festival, judged by a jury headed by twice Cannes Palm d’Or and once Oscar winner Bille August of the Pele The Conquerer fame, was, in fact, a testimony to this aspect of cinema as film after film looked into crisis after societal or personal crisis to create some powerful if not always entertaining-in-the-popular-sense drama.
Perhaps one of the most-powerful exhibition of this came in debutant director Hans Van Nuffel’s Belgium-Netherlands co-production Adem (Oxygen), which walked away with the top Grand Prix de Americas prize.
For Nuffel, the film has surely been a way to deal with personal demons, with its protagonist, suffering from the incurable genetic disease cystic fibrosis, moving from hope to despair back to hope in a dramatically-surged atmosphere. – the director too has been a patient of the same disease, though a milder version of it, since his childhood.
In the film, youngster Tom seems to rebel against fate as he befriends a bunch of unruly youths almost as if in a challenge to his predicted short life because of the disease. His problems are compounded by the fact that his elder brother, the calmer Lucas, succumbs to the same disease. But his outlook towards life changes when he meets Xavier, another young man with the same affliction but with an amazing zest for life, and Eline, a quarantined patient suffering from a rare infection.
Nuffel shows rare maturity for a young director in bringing out the angst of the protagonist, whose despair finds its outer form in sometimes stupid and sometimes violent acts. The inner turmoil of Tom finds manifestation in the outer, visible acts, which at the same time hides his mental state in front of his family members.
Another film that left the viewers shaken and walked away with the FIPRESCI prize given by the International Film Critics Federation jury (of which this author was a member) was German film Das Lied in Mir (The Day I was Not Born) by another debutant director, Florian Cossen.
The Israel-born director takes a politically-potent subject of children who had been adopted after their parents had ‘disappeared’ during the military dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s, and many of whom in recent years have sought out their real relatives in emotionally-churning circumstances.
But he successfully gives the subject a touch of sublimity by letting the political aspect be on the background and focusing on a very personal story of a young woman who accidentally finds out that she had been adopted by a German couple after her parents had gone missing. With a powerful performance by Jessica Schwartz in the main role, the film expertly uses the camera to capture the nuances of the characters as well as of Buenos Aires, where the film is set in.
If performances by its actors set this film apart, another film that matched in theme and performances was Spain’s Pajaros de Papel (Paper Birds), by director Emilio Aragon.
It shared the audience award with Cossen’s film, and touched viewers by its emotionally-powerful storytelling style. Again, it is set in the politically-turbulent time – in Spain during the Francoist era after the Civil War. Aragon’s characterizations bear resemblance to that of Spain’s best known living auteur-director Pedro Almodovar in that he too pitches them at varied emotional levels. At the same time, his exploration of the relationship between a man whose world crashes after his wife and young son dies in an explosion, and a kid orphaned in the war, is almost as powerful and heart-touching as that of the father-son relationship in Roberto Benigni’s celebrated Life is Beautiful.
The World Competition and the First Film World Competition – the two most prestigious sections of the festival – in fact, had quite a few films that had powerful subjects, some told on a grand scale and some in an intimate manner. French filmmaker duo Sophie de Daruvar and Yves Thomas, for example, came up with Rendez-Vous Avec Un Ange (Meeting With an Angel), which, through its seemingly lighthearted story on the relationship between two disparate souls, simultaneously puts to the spotlight on the highly-debated subject of euthanasia. Another French director, Pascal Elbe, who is also a popular actor, on the other hand, took a powerful look at the relationship between communities in an increasingly multicultural France in his Tete de Turc (The Turk’s Head).
Japanese Hideyuki Hirayama’s Hisshiken Torisashi (Sword of Desperation) was another film that impressed viewers through its immaculate execution of a story of a noble man who is an expert swordsman too. Though set in times past, the story, even while highlighting the popular sword fighting genre of Japanese movies, has strong resonances for the present times as it puts the spotlight on how political power can get misused if it falls on the hands of the undeserving.
The world looked through the child’s eyes often looks different, and that is what at least two films tried to emulate in the competition section – Wenecja (Venice) from Poland and De La Infancia (From Childhood) from Mexico. The former is a touching film about a kid in a Polish village whose dreams of visiting his dream city of Venice go topsy turvy as the Second World War breaks out, and the latter is a gritty tale of a young boy growing up within a desperately poor family with his father falling prey to criminal ways. The sensitive performances by the child actors in both the films make them memorable viewing experiences.
Disappointingly, there were only two Indian films in what is one of the world’s premiere film festivals. One was Pinaki Chowdhury’s Bengali film Aarohan (Ascension).
Starring thespian Soumitra Chatterjee and award-winning actress Rituparna Sengupta, the film dissects the Indian philosophy of the cycle of life and death and touches upon the caste prejudices that pervade the society. But the film’s technical parameters, seen against the cutting-edge technology of films from other parts of the world, left a sour taste among the viewers. There were, however, more than one documentary with Indian themes, made by production houses from other countries. The other was the Vijay Singh’s India-France co-production India by Song, a documentary that confusingly seeks to see India’s socio-political scenario through a few selected songs from Hindi films over the years without really explaining why those songs were selected or – except for a couple – how they reflect India at that particular juncture of time. However, there were a couple of documentaries produced by foreign production companies but with Indian subjects. They were Italian director Michela Occhipinti’s Lettere Dal Deserto (Letters from the Desert) that presents an intimate portrayal of postmen who deliver letters in villages of Rajasthan’s desert areas, and how their relationship with people has got affected after the mobile phone revolution in India; and French Sophie Azemar’s The Last Among the Men that presents a critical study of the caste system in India through the eyes of Dalits in Tamil Nadu