The 60th BFI London Film Festival 2016

Alan Pavelin

Talking Pictures alias






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Four films from this year's Festival sounded of interest to me and fitted in with such spare time as I had.  My brief reviews are as follows.

A Journey through French Cinema (Bertrand Tavernier, France). 

This very personal documentary, lasting over 3 hours, by the veteran director Tavernier, is a fascinating look at his favourite films, actors, directors, and composers from about 1930-70.  It is not an objective history lesson about French cinema; the nouvelle vague gets no mention, for example, though there are brief clips from a few films of that era.  Tavernier, speaking straight to camera, devotes 15 minutes or so to each of the men (and they are all men) he particularly admires, including directors Becker (one of whose films he saw at age 6), Chabrol, Renoir, and Sautet, actor Jean Gabin (who emerges as a really towering presence in French cinema over several decades), and composer Maurice Joubert.  The film clips shown are all too brief, many of them completely unknown to me, while my French is not good enough to take in simultaneously the subtitles of Tavernier's commentary and of the film dialogue, plus the film titles.  A surprising fact about Jean Renoir's view of the Petain regime in 1940 is among the many interesting snippets of information dotted throughout the film.

The Secret Scripture (Jim Sheridan, Ireland).  A lavish adaptation of Sebastian Barry's novel about a very old woman called Rose incarcerated in a mental hospital in the west of Ireland since 1942, who keeps insisting she didn't kill her baby.  In a series of flashbacks we eventually discover the truth.  The best thing in the film is Rooney Mara as the younger Rose, a truly luminous presence and the real centre of the film.  Vanessa Redgrave is the older Rose.  (Fans of Father Ted will note a brief appearance by Pauline McLynn playing, surprise surprise, a priest's housekeeper!). Quite melodramatic towards the end (probably unavoidable as it was constrained by the source material), and I could have done without the very intrusive music.  One of several notable Irish films of recent years (Philomena, Calvary, Brooklyn), this is likely to be a box-office success on its release.

The Son of Joseph (Eugene Green, France). 

As an admirer of his 2009 film The Portuguese Nun, I looked forward with anticipation to this, and was not disappointed.   A sort of biblical allegory, in 5 chapters with titles like The Sacrifice of Abraham and The Golden Calf, it follows Parisian schoolboy Vincent (Victor Ezenfis, impressive) living with his mother, who had always told him that he has no father.  When Vincent discovers a letter revealing that his father is a publisher called Oscar, he embarks on a course of action which turns out to be both funny and scary.  Green has a highly distinctive style, involving dialogue which is both near-expressionless (the first few minutes were strikingly like a Bresson film) and often straight-to-camera (the Ozu technique).  With some hilarious digs at the pretentiousness of the literary world, Green has created a delightful film which has already secured a UK distributor.  Highly recommended.

Zoology (Ivan Tverdovsky, Russia). 

A bizarre Russian comedy about Natasha, a middle-aged woman working in a zoo in a seaside town, who suddenly discovers she has grown  a long tail.  The young radiologist who X-Rays her, and with whom she later has a brief affair, seems to think it nothing unusual, while the superstitious old women of the town eagerly discuss rumours about the Devil, complete with tail, having been seen.  The film ends at just the right moment (no spoilers from me!).  Impressive acting from a cast of mostly large middle-aged and elderly women.  The absurdist nature of Zoology suggests it may have a political subtext, but if it does it escaped me.

During the Festival we heard of the death of the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda, who made over 40 films in a 60-year career, and is best known for political and war films like Ashes and Diamonds, Man of Iron, and Katyn.  I would particularly recommend, however, two productions from the 1970s, The Promised Land, a devastating indictment of 19th century capitalism, and The Young Girls of Wilko, a lyrical and pastoral film which could almost have been written by Chekhov.

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