Here is the second part of my preview of this year’s European Union Film Festival. The full lineup can be found on the website of the Gene Siskel Film Center here:
A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Rivers/Russell, Estonia/France, 2013)
I’m not sure if this should qualify as an “Estonian” entry in the EU Film Fest — the co-directors, Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, hail from the U.S. and the U.K., respectively — and most of it was shot in Scandinavia, yet any excuse for the Siskel Center to show an experimental film this masterful is a good one. It begins with one of the most incredible images I’ve seen on a cinema screen in some time: an epic panning shot of a Finnish landscape, first from right to left, then from left to right, as the last traces of sunlight disappear from the night sky. As the screen grows increasingly dark, a band of hilly forest becomes nothing more than a thick, black horizontal line separating the midnight blue of the sky in the top of the frame from the same shade of color as the lake in the bottom of the frame. After this auspicious prologue, Rivers and Russell’s film moves through three distinct movements: a bearded, tattooed black man who never speaks (Chicago musician Robert A.A. Lowe) commingles with the members of an international hippie commune in Estonia, explores by himself the remote wilds of Finland, and performs a concert with a “black metal” band at a club in Oslo, Norway. The substructure binding these three segments together is the theme of man’s desire for transcendence by returning to a primordial state, whether that means trying to create a utopian society from scratch, communing with nature a la Thoreau, or losing oneself in the primal screams and jackhammer rhythms of the most extreme of musical genres. Although I am no fan of black metal, I found myself utterly transfixed by the final 20-minute concert sequence, which is shot from the stage in long takes and features extreme close-ups of the musicians and their instruments. The viewer’s immersion in the music during this climactic scene is total — to witness it is to feel that one has jumped into the abyss. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness screens on Thursday, March 13.
The Stuart Hall Project (Akomfrah, England, 2013)
The acclaimed British documentarian John Akomfrah tackles the important British cultural theorist and founding member of the “New Left” Stuart Hall in this innovative non-fiction feature. Akomfrah eschews new talking-head interviews, voice-over narration and explanatory title cards in favor of only using Hall’s own radio and television appearances to tell the story of the man’s life and work. These archival appearances and interviews are interspersed with documentary footage of England and Jamaica (where Hall was born) as well as, more intriguingly, extended musical excerpts from the catalogue of Miles Davis (with whom Hall had a lifelong infatuation). The end result of this dense interweaving of texts is a film that fascinatingly resembles the contrapuntal rhythms of jazz music itself. Akomfrah’s methods, however, also have their limitations: his deliberate choice to not use more traditional non-fiction filmmaking techniques to impart information means that viewers don’t learn as much as they might have about either Hall specifically or the field of Cultural Studies in general. Though one could argue, I suppose, that this movie will at least serve to point those who want to learn more in the right direction. The Stuart Hall Project screens on Friday, March 14 and Wednesday, March 19.
Pretty Butterflies (Mereu, Italy, 2012)
I tend to think of Sardinia as a vacation spot for wealthy tourists but Pretty Butterflies, director Salvatore Mereu’s gritty and powerful adaptation of a novel by Sergio Atzeni, shows off a distinctively seamier side of Cagliari, the Mediterranean island’s capital. A remarkable portrait of a teeming working-class neighborhood, Mereu’s film centers primarily on 11-year-old Cate (Sara Podda) and her best friend, Luna (Maya Mulas), and their misadventures over a span of two days: the girls — who may also be sisters — visit the beach, rip off a young man who solicits them for sex, eat copious amounts of ice cream, avoid predators at every turn, and half-heartedly look for Cate’s older brother in order to talk him out of murdering another local boy. By focusing on pre-adolescent characters who have had to grow up too fast, Mereu illustrates how the world can be a terrible and scary place; and yet, because the friendship between Cate and Luna is so tight, and because they seem so indomitable as characters, this movie is also gratifyingly full of unexpected humor and warmth. As a director, Mereu makes some intriguing stylistic decisions: he occasionally rewinds and pauses shots seemingly at random, and has Cate continually break the fourth wall to directly address the camera. But, even if you find these quirky choices at odds with the naturalistic dialogue and performances, you will probably be glad he didn’t go down the tired pseudo-documentary route. This is singularly pungent and unforgettable stuff. Pretty Butterflies screens on Sunday, March 23 and Thursday, March 27.
Those Happy Years (Luchetti, Italy, 2013)
Director Daniele Luchetti returns to the subject matter of his acclaimed 2007 film My Brother Is an Only Child for another look back at the dynamics of an Italian family in the 1970s. Those Happy Years, however, is more personal than political: young Dario (Samuel Garofalo) is the director’s alter-ego, exploring his budding desire to make movies after he receives the gift of a Super-8 camera, a story that is juxtaposed against that of the marital troubles of his parents. Dario’s father, Guido (Kim Rossi Stuart), is a philandering artist dealing with a disastrously received exhibition while his mother, Serena (Micaela Ramazzotti), explores Italy’s burgeoning feminist movement as well as her own repressed lesbian desires. This modest and winning film offers a poignant reminder that we often realize our happiest moments only in hindsight; and the cutting satire of the art world on display is, for my money, far more effective than in Paolo Sorrentino’s overrated The Great Beauty — mainly because Luchetti doesn’t seem like he’s Zeus judging his artist-characters from on top of Mount Olympus. Those Happy Years screens on Sunday, March 30 and Wednesday, April 2.