The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Dennis West

Centenarian Manoel De Oliveira's latest,  The Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl

Centenarian Manoel De Oliveira's latest, The Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl

The boring and overhyped worldwide recession was somehow simply banished from the forty-fourth edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, which came off with all its usual fanfare and elegance in that storied Bohemian spa town in July 2009. The final festival numbers were strong: 232 films exhibited—including thirty-four international premieres and twelve European premieres—and over 130,000 tickets sold for 464 screening sessions. The red carpet was just as rolled out as always; and the relentlessly swarming carpet groupies glimpsed Antonio Banderas, John Malkovich, Miloš Forman, Isabelle Huppert, Paul Schrader, Alan Rudolph, Jan Švankmajer, and other stars and superstars as they blazed across the movie firmament. The young Czech backpackers from all over the country again appeared in droves to check out one of their nation’s top-drawer summer cultural events. Industry professionals, critics, and serious film fans once again feasted on the diverse smorgasbord that this Category A, full-service, eclectic festival habitually spreads out before participants: official competitions, retrospectives, tributes, archival presentations, master classes, midnight screenings, and other appetizing side dishes.

This year, as always, the spotlight fell on the Official Competition of new fiction features from around the world. The Grand Prize went, controversially, to the Belgian-Canadian coproduction Angel at Sea, a beautifully shot—on location in Morocco—dramatic first feature written and directed by Frédéric Dumont. And the film’s star, the well known Olivier Gourmet, made off, ex-aequo, with the Best Actor Award. Gourmet’s riveting face—with its perilously close to permanently crossed eyes—lends much to his fiercely concentrated performance as a manic depressive, middle-aged father busily destroying his insular, middle-class family with his out-of-nowhere and sometimes violent changes of mood. In his public pronouncements, Dumont indicated that the character is somewhat based on his memories of growing up with his manic depressive father, whom he actually accompanied many a Moroccan night on joyrides pointedly aimed at driving over and pancaking just as many stray cats out wandering the roads as possible—perhaps, the film’s most memorable scene. While critics tended to credit Gourmet with a powerful performance, many complained that, ultimately, the script itself was incomplete and unconvincing and that there remained too much we did not know and understand about the manic depressive protagonist.

Another powerful performance was achieved by the Danish actress Paprika Steen, who deservedly received the Best Actress Award for her turn in first-time director Martin Pieter Zandvliet’s Applause. In this Danish dramatic feature, Steen plays an aging diva who is charismatic, self-absorbed, and self-aggrandizing—but who is also a very vulnerable mother now struggling to rebuild her relationship with her young children while recovering from alcoholism. Steen’s high-energy, nervous-tic-rich performance falls somewhere between the Martha of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—which the protagonist of the film is seen performing on stage in documentary-like sequences—and Gena Rowland’s tour de force in John Cassavetes’s masterpiece A Woman Under the Influence. In the Applause pressbook, Zandvliet acknowledges his high regard for Rowlands’s work and also for what he labels “the echoes of Cassavetes.” Here’s the rub: Cassavetes in A Woman Under the Influence firmly situates his mentally and emotionally on-the-edge protagonist within the concentric circles of the very social context that is driving her nuts—husband and family, meddling in-laws, housework, school for the kids, meal preparation for unexpected guests, the ringing telephone, the demands routinely made on women in a patriarchal society, and such. Zandvliet—and his coscreenwriter Anders Frithiof August—need more of this kind of rich social context to allow for a deeper understanding and appreciation of their lead character as she attempts to come back from over the edge.

Iranian director Abdolreza Kahani’s social-psychological comedy-drama Twenty, written with Hossein Mahkam, received the Special Jury Prize. This Iranian feature belongs to a tried and true subgenre: the given business which has X number of days remaining (hence the title of this film) before shutting down—and, of course, the ensuing socio-economic and emotional-psychological implications for employees and owner. The business here is a busy catering hall—which hosts indiscriminately one after the other both raucous wedding parties and depressing mourning receptions—in present-day Tehran. Small wonder, then, that the owner’s blood pressure is bumping up. This always bustling and business-intense locale provides the principal setting for the action of the narrative, which, needless to say, overflows with social context. The acting may strike Western eyes as a bit unexpressive or even wooden; but Kahani’s no-nonsense, simple, realist style leads him to this not insignificant accomplishment: the creation of well individualized characters we care about as well as a moving portrait of some of the different social classes currently jostling about in contemporary metropolitan Iranian society.

While the media spotlights focused on the festival’s main course (the fiction feature competition examined above), those in the know at Karlovy Vary sniffed out tasty side dishes in the other rich festival programs. In the popular “East of the West” program, which presents recent fiction features from the countries of the former Soviet bloc, the finest morsel in my opinion was the road movie, The Other Bank, a Georgia-Kazakstan coproduction and an opera prima ably directed by the Georgian George Ovashvili. The setting: soon after the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. The plot: a determined twelve-year-old Abkhazian refugee lad journeys dangerously through Georgia and Abkhazia searching for the father he has not seen in years. The crimes, compassion, violence, betrayal, loss, and solidarity he encounters along the way from persons of ethnically and socially diverse backgrounds and nationalities make this a brutally eye-opening tour for an only partially comprehending child as he progresses through wartorn landscapes. Much of the power of this film comes from the inspired casting of the child actor, Tedo Bekhauri, whose cross-eyed, now half-clueless, now half-canny look will not soon fade from viewers’ minds. And the hands-flying, mouth-open, speak-not-hear-not routine he conjures up to wordlessly conceal his identity (including his native language and nationality) from prying and suspicious strangers represents an unforgettably childish but riveting survival technique. The Other Bank is one of cinema’s most moving recent depictions of the impact of war and violent nationalism on those children who are sadly “caught in the middle.”

Other programs yielded further delights, such as the new Iranian fiction feature, About Elly, which was written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. This dramatic film also belongs to an established sub-genre: the young-middle-class-friends-going-on-holiday-to-the-beach narrative. The action builds slowly with endless chatter amongst characters whose relationships may take time for subtitle-reading Westerners to unravel. But then a child nearly drowns, and then a woman does disappear—definitively. This disappearing woman motif kept critics guessing about the possible influence of Antonioni’s L’ avventura. But one thing seemed certain to me: Farhadi’s strong script and fine direction of actors drew viewers ever deeper into the big issues the filmmaker wishes to explore in contemporary Iranian society, such as freedom of behavior for women, questions of moral responsibility and guilt, the nature of truth and coincidence, the possible justifications for lying, and the relations between husbands and wives and between women and men who are engaged and intend to wed.

The latest works of legendary masters were also represented. Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s self-reflexive Sweet Rush stood out because of its unusual and innovative structure: the cross-cutting of a wrenching monolog on the recent death of her husband by acclaimed actress Krystyna Janda with the fictional story of a lonely middle-class wife in a post World War II setting who has yet to come to terms with the wartime loss of both her sons. The result is a profound meditation on the emotional scarring that the death of loved ones brings. After the screening I attended, several critics were heard commenting that this may represent Wajda’s best work in some time.

The still well-in-the-harness centenarian Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, in his memorable Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl draws on a spare, dry, and concise shooting and editing style to strikingly evoke nineteenth-century realism à la Eça de Queiroz, the great Portuguese prose writer whose work provides the director with his source material. This engaging and seemingly simple tale of a young male bookkeeper’s falling in love with the beautiful young blonde next door—all of which unfolds with a perfectly measured narrative pacing—springs a wonderful twist at the end, one which may have something to do with those dangerously misleading stereotypes involving beautiful young blondes.

The big news for some critics attending the festival was the continuing vitality of the New Argentine Cinema as evidenced by several appealing and accomplished new fiction features, all of them small, character-centered, more or less realist films that reject the big-budget approach. Sergio Martín Mazza’s Gamecock Breeder, a “country melodrama” set in remote Northwestern Andean Argentina, shows the influence of Carlos Reygadas’s Japan in depicting with heightened realism the lonely and desolate lives of a gamecock trainer and the elderly widow he befriends. Screenwriter-director Adrián Biniez’s “almost a romantic comedy” Giant explores with subtlety an unusual theme: how a working man—a night watchman in charge of surveillance cameras in a supermarket—begins to observe and think about a woman with whom he eventually falls in love.

Perhaps the finest Argentine feature on offer was the countrified boy-once-again-meets-girl narrative La Tigra, Chaco, a first feature written and directed by Federico Godfrid and Juan Sasiaín. The simple but appealing storyline involves a cosmopolitan, city-dwelling young man’s return to the remote, northern Argentine hick town where he grew up,and his subsequent encounter with a former girlfriend still living there. This little film proves that frequently a simple realist approach is the best: believable and finely drawn characters observed in their appropriate social contexts, and a straightforward style—stationary camera set-ups, conventional editing, tracking shots as needed, and no special effects—that keeps viewers’ attention squarely on those characters and the sleepy, twenty-blocks-long town where they reside. La Tigra, Chaco garnered a Special Mention in the Forum of Independents competition.

The Karlovy Vary Festival, schedulewise, is in a challenging position: it is a major European festival sandwiched between two powerhouses—after Cannes and before Venice. This year’s edition, which unfolded without a hitch, proved that Karlovy Vary—even with its mid-summer dates—can continue to thrive both artistically and economically even during tough times out in the real world that does seem to exist somewhere beyond the film-festival circuit.

For more information on the Karlovy Vary International Film festival, visit

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 1