The Times BFI 50th Film Festival 2006

Alan Pavelin

Talking Pictures alias






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While the London Film Festival has nearly 200 features, it usually seems to exclude some particularly interesting-sounding ones shown at other festivals, including in the UK. This year, for example, I had hoped the LFF would include Into Great Silence, an acclaimed German documentary about life in a monastery, and Belle Toujours, a take on Bunuel’s Belle de Jour by the amazing and extraordinary Manoel de Oliveira who has been making films since the silent era. Whether by accident or design neither were fitted into the programme, but nevertheless I picked out my usual half-dozen smaller films which provide a window on various parts of the world without the need to travel, and which sounded particularly appealing.

Honour of the Knights
Directors like Rivette, Tarkovsky, and Tarr are past-masters at long scenes where nothing happens, slowly, but Albert Serra devotes an entire film to this, confounding moviegoers who think that modern Spanish cinema begins and ends with Almodovar. Virtually a two-hander, it portrays Don Quixote and Sancho Panza after their adventures have finished, waiting around in the countryside in the manner of Beckett’s tramps. I suspect one needs to be familiar with the celebrated novel to get all the references. Even if this film managed a release, it could never be a “blockbuster”. Very contemplative, though.

The Journals of Knud Rasmussen
This second Inuit-language feature, following Atarnarjuat the Fast Runner, brings to life the writings of the Danish explorer of the title, who recorded the stories and beliefs of these people of northern Canada about 90 years ago. The film could be mistaken for a pure documentary, with hand-held cameras and a cast some of whom are the direct descendants of the characters featured. The final third of the film portrays a meeting between one clan (or extended family) which retains its traditional Shamanist religion and another which has converted to Christianity. The directors are Zacharius Kunuk and Norman Cohn (a veteran sociologist and anthropologist). Fascinating stuff, particularly if you like snow.

The Missing Star
The ever-reliable veteran director Gianni Amelio is an exponent of what might be called the “humanist road-movie”, and here the fifty-something Vincenzo spends most of the film travelling between the cities of the industrial powerhouse that is modern China. As maintenance manager of a steel mill whose blast furnace is being shipped there from Italy, and which he knows is flawed and potentially lethal, he travels there off his own bat hoping to locate the furnace, assisted by a beautiful Chinese interpreter who is happy to accompany him. Like the policeman in The Stolen Children, like the father in The Keys to the House, Vincenzo finds that his real journey is within himself. Lots of impressive cityscapes and other scenery, but I found the storyline a little farfetched at times.

The Namesake
Starting in 1974 and covering 30 years, Mira Nair’s episodic feature is a cross-cultural and inter-generational story of a family which migrates from Calcutta to the United States but retains its Indian links. Something of a “feelgood” movie, based on a best-selling Indian novel, the joys and sorrows of ordinary life are movingly portrayed, with particularly impressive acting. The central characters are Gogol, the son of the young couple who move to New York and who is so-named because of his father’s love for the Russian writer, and his mother Ashima, the reluctant emigrant who finally returns to her roots. “We all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat” says one character towards the end, echoing a later Russian writer. This film, which has a distributor, could prove something of a crowd-pleaser, especially as it features the Bollywood star Tabu as Ashima.

Son of Man
Following their adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen, this is the second film by the South African theatre group Dimpho Di Kopane, again directed by Mark Dornford-May. Here they present the Gospel story imaginatively updated to a fictional present-day African country called Judea, caught up in violent political turmoil. The trappings of modernity comprise not only videos and microwaves, but the replacement of 3 of the 12 disciples by women. The star of this fast-moving and exuberant production is Pauline Malefane as Mary, who does most of the powerful solo singing and co-wrote the screenplay into the bargain.

Syndromes and a Century
The previous film by the Thai director whose name I could never learn, Tropical Malady, consisted of two halves, apparently totally unrelated. This new film provides a variation: the second half begins identically to the first, but with different camera angles, followed by changes in dialogue, characters, and so on. Set in (probably) two hospitals, it features two young doctors and a dentist who moonlights as a singer. Weird but rather wonderful, and certainly beautifully shot. The director’s name, by the way, is Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

In the “Treasures from the Archives” section of the Festival, I was sorry to have missed the revival of Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives, one of the best films of the late 1980s. Davies is a delightful man, arguably the finest living British director, who according to a recent interview is utterly depressed about his inability to raise funds for more projects. This autobiographical film is to be re-released in the UK next year.
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