The 2011 Montreal World Film Festival
by Leonard Quart

Coteau Rouge, the 2011 Montreal World Film Festival's opening night film

Coteau Rouge, the 2011 Montreal World Film Festival's opening night film

The Montreal World Film Festival screens a vast number of films—most of them European, Latin American, and Asian—including 383 films this year from 70 countries. The majority of them are shown at a comfortable seventeen-theater multiplex, the Cinéma Quartier Latin, in a neighborhood featuring innumerable cafés, fast-food restaurants, bars, and cultural institutions such as the National Film Board of Canada, the Cinémathèque québécoise, and the Grande Bibliothèque du Québec.

The Festival’s opening-night film was the Quebec-made Coteau Rouge, André Forcier’s magic-realist, comic fable, which was later voted by festival viewers as the most popular Canadian feature film. Forcier’s films may never have received an American release, but he’s highly regarded in Quebec where he is compared to Fellini and Buñuel. Set in the Coteau Rouge neighborhood in Longueuil, a city close to Montreal, the film centers on a working-class family headed by a grandfather/patriarch, Honoré (Paolo Noël), who claims to be descended from a giant sturgeon, and who once made his living dumping the mob’s cadavers into the St. Lawrence River. The family is struggling to fight off gentrification. They believe in food, wine, sex, playing boules, and preserving the environment, and are trying to defeat a sleazy developer (a son-in-law), who wants to build giant, luxury towers, including a 128-story condominium, which would destroy the neighborhood’s unique, earthy character. The film’s fancifulness can be inventive, and the satire funny, but it also can feel heavy-handed at times. The neighborhood may be ordinary, even drab looking, but it’s seen by Forcier as warm, communal, and even a refuge for those who want to escape an impersonal world built on greed and money. Forcier’s working-class family is eccentric, honest, and on the side of virtue—a seductive wish fantasy (a touch of Capra), but also a cloyingly sentimental one.

Other films of interest in the Festival’s competition section included Playoff, by Eran Riklis, whose film The Syrian Bride won the festival’s Grand Prize in 2004. Playoff focuses on Max Stoller, a self-confident Israeli basketball coach and national hero who led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the European championship in the late Seventies. Stoller, a Holocaust survivor from Germany, is picked to lead the weak West German national team. Danny Huston (cowinner of the festival’s Best Actor Award) provides a convincing performance of a character to whom unfortunately the film doesn’t get close enough.

A stylistically conventional film, Playoff touches on many important themes: German war guilt; the feeling of some Israelis that he was engaging in traitorous behavior when he decided to coach the German team; German discrimination against Turkish immigrants, whose situation is too neatly paralleled with what the German Jews had faced; and the coach’s need to come to terms with his repression of his Holocaust past. Max insists that Germany means nothing to him, and that training their national team is just another job on his path to NBA glory. Riklis’s films are always humanistic and intelligent, but Playoff lacks dramatic impact and is too neatly resolved. At its conclusion, Stoller finally realizes that the past can’t be evaded, and directly faces its anguish. There is also the suggestion that he and Deniz (Amira Casar), the beautiful and smart Turkish woman he has befriended, will get together.

Another noteworthy film was Antoni Krauze’s Black Thursday a Polish docudrama dealing with the Gdansk shipyard workers’ strikes in December 1970 which were brutally suppressed by the Communist authorities, resulting in eighteen deaths and hundreds of injuries. “Our main principle was to avoid falsity,” Krause stated. “Everything had to be natural.” As a result, the film’s strength lies in its realistic depiction of the violent confrontations between heroic strikers carrying a bloodied Polish flag and troops shooting at and beating them, and scenes of exasperated Prime Minister Gomulka raging against the temerity of the workers at a meeting of Communist Party politicians. To provide some human interest, the film adds the tragic story of Brunon Drzywa, a shipyard worker and good family man who is accidentally shot during the riots. Brunon is an undeveloped character, but his death and funeral stirringly illustrate the cruelty and barbarism of which the party and the army were capable. Black Thursday succeeds as a striking historical reenactment of valiant protest and state repression.

Films in competition included Vincente Amorim’s Dirty Hearts, from Brazil, which deals with an underreported conflict after the Japanese defeat in WWII. In Brazil a majority of Japanese immigrants, mostly small-town farmers who faced discrimination, wouldn’t accept the Japanese defeat. Violence then developed between these fundamentalists, who believed in the divinity of the emperor and in the Samurai ethos, and those Japanese who accepted defeat and wanted to forge new lives in Brazil. The film’s subject is historically interesting, but it’s directed in a melodramatic fashion, including an inflated musical score, and characterizations that are nothing more than one-dimensional.

Life Back Then, a Japanese film directed by Takahisa Zeze, concerns a cleaning crew specializing in the clearing out of homes belonging to people who recently died, and have no family to take care of what they have left. Just as Zeze began shooting, however, the tsunami struck, followed by a nuclear meltdown. It was a catastrophe with thousands of deaths, whose effects will take decades to clean up. The director said that this strange coincidence contributed greatly to the performance of the actors, and it certainly enhanced the audience’s response. I saw people around me quietly wiping away their tears, for the film felt eerily prophetic throughout. Neither of the two protagonists—a young man and woman with troubled pasts—are complexly drawn, but the respect with which they treat each house and the photographs and belongings of the deceased is deeply affecting.

The one American movie in the competition was David, a low-budget independent film directed by Joel Fendelman. Shot in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge, the film resembles, on the surface, an after-school television special whose lesson is the importance of respecting cultural differences. But if the film is somewhat predictable, it exudes sweetness, especially in the winning performance by Muatasem Mishal as Duad (David) the eleven-year-old son of the strict but loving local imam. Duad is following in his father’s footsteps: learning the Koran, instructing younger children, and wearing traditional clothingBut Duad, lonely, craves friendship. He becomes part of a group of orthodox Jewish boys, without revealing his identity. They play basketball together and visit Coney Island, and he even visits the home of one of the Jewish boys (with whom he’s established a genuine friendship) for a meal. They turn out to share similar interests despite their differing religions. Duad is ultimately found out, however, and the painfully charged relationship between Muslims and Jews suddenly becomes difficult for the two boys to bridge. They are still the “Other” despite their ability to forge a friendship. David ends in an open-ended fashion, posing questions and offering no answers for how to reach out successfully to the hated “Other,” an aspiration it views as a positive goal. It’s not an ambitious work, but a perceptive, engaging one.

In addition to the main competition, there was a section devoted to first feature films. One of the most distinctive among them was Brian Welsh’s In Our Name, an English film about a professional woman soldier, Suzy (Joanna Froggat), who returns, traumatized with guilt, from Iraq to a squalid-looking working-class Newcastle and her macho, brutal ex-veteran husband. The only person who understands her situation is Paul (Andrew Knott), a soldier who served with her, but her jealous husband violently pushes him away. Froggatt is the best thing in the film, and gives a stunning, believable performance. In a film that can be honest and realistic, there are too many scenes, however, that feel like contrived, melodramatic set-pieces, spuriously amping up the tension and emotion. Still, it remains an auspicious debut film.

The venerable and prolific French director and cinephile, Bertrand Tavernier (The Clockmaker [1974], Around Midnight [1986]), was there to introduce and take audience questions about six films he loves—three “underappreciated” American crime noirs, and three “forgotten classics” from France. Among the American films he screened was Joseph Losey’s The Prowler (1951), a tabloid melodrama that stylishly and trenchantly deals with sex, greed, and alienation in suburban L.A. Tavernier saw it as providing “a dissection of the American dream that is astonishingly modern.”

The European films he screened included Le sucre (1978). Directed by Jacques Rouffio and starring venerable French stars like Gérard Depardieu and Michel Piccoli, it deals with greed and fraud in the commodities trading world, prefiguring the ongoing global economic crisis. In Tavernier’s words: “It’s a film that anticipates everything we’ve been going through” these last years. Also, another venerable, more commercial French director, Claude Lelouch, gave a lecture to a packed theater after the presentation of his own documentary, From One Film to Another, which dealt with his fifty-year career.

The festival also presented a retrospective of films by the courageous Jafar Panahi, the Iranian director of socially critical and feminist films including The Circle (2000) andCrimson Gold (2003), both of which remain banned in Iran. In December 2010, Panahi was handed a six-year jail sentence and a twenty-year ban on making or directing any movies, by Iran’s repressively authoritarian government.

The Montreal World Film Festival may not glitter, but it’s intellectually serious, the diversity of its offerings is enthusiastically supported by its audience, and, best of all, it is an event rooted in the cultural life of the city. One senses it’s an expression of Montreal at its best.

Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the just-published, fourth edition of American Film and Society since 1945 (Praeger).

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.