The Montreal World Film Festival
by Dennis West

Jan Troell’s The Last Sentence

Jan Troell’s The Last Sentence

The thirty-sixth edition of the Festival des Films du Monde, or the Montreal World Film Festival (MWFF), came off without a major hitch August 23–September 3, 2012 in spite of flagrant distractions, such as a seemingly determined and effective strike by dozens of hotel workers at the festival’s hub and principal lodging venue. Or Madonna’s 2012 World Tour blowing into town with a massively attended pop spectacle in which the aging Material Girl reportedly announced to adoring fans that she is simply, in her words, “une French Canadian girl.” Or the spirited discussion and debate swirling around the contentious Quebec provincial election to be held precisely on the day after the festival ended—the eventual winners in a close race being the sovereigntist Parti Québécois and, in an historic first, that party’s female candidate for premier.

Such distractions were taken in stride as festivalgoers planning their day’s screenings made their selections from categories ranging from World Competition and First Films World Competition to the Forty-third Canadian Student Film Festival. In their joint welcoming statement in the festival catalogue, president Serge Losique and general manager Danièle Cauchard sounded upbeat about the current status of cinema, noting that, “The Festival has never seen as many films as this year,” and adding that the programming team made their final selections from a field of some 3,000 titles. Said article also summarized this year’s total number of films on offer: 432 works from 80 countries including 212 features. Of these features, 110 were designated “world or international premieres.”

The 272-page bilingual catalogue proved the one essential accoutrement for those attending—beautifully illustrated, information laden, easy-to-use, and, in a word, classy. Two unusual details caught my attention as I thumbed through my copy. Squarely on page one appeared the dedication of the thirty-sixth edition to the memory of two recently deceased personages: the Greek master Theo Angelopoulos and Concordia University’s first rector, John O’Brien, who was known for his active support of film studies at his Montreal university. It is unusual for international film festivals to dedicate specific editions to designated individuals, and the MWFF gesture seemed a striking attempt to link the local and the international within the universal realm of film culture.

The second and more curious detail appeared just below Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s message of welcome: the image of a box containing a rampant maple leaf, a brace of determinedly crossed swords, and the unsubtle designation “The War of 1812.” This naïve visiting American critic—aware of the bellicose actions of U. S. troops on Canadian soil two centuries ago—wondered what the presence of such an overt symbol in an innocuous film festival catalogue might imply in terms of current U.S.–Canada diplomatic and political relations. And I even fleetingly pondered the following: was 2012 a good year for Americans to visit Canada?

Unavoidably and unfortunately, I had arrived midway through the festival and thus faced the daunting task of somehow even modestly covering a cultural event of this magnitude. Festival publicity stressed the availability of films from countries with modest annual production; and my Montreal acquaintances in the film world stressed that the MWFF is “the place” to see such work, whether or not it was in competition. So off I set in search of such features, regardless of category. No great work surfaced, but a number of notable films captured my attention.           

The prominent Argentine director-screenwriter Eliseo Subiela showcased two new features at the festival. The better of the two was the engaging and playful false documentary Vanishing Landscapes, which stars the influential pioneer of the New Latin American Cinema Movement Fernando Birri, who plays a mysterious eighty-something mental patient who may once have been an important or unimportant film director in the Argentine industry—and/or the unknown murderer of a famous or not-so-famous movie actress back in the day. When a team of student filmmakers locates him in a psychiatric hospital in Buenos Aires, the fun begins with Birri—sporting his trademark floppy black hat and scraggly white beard—holding center stage as he rambles on with his disjointed, at times enigmatic, and frequently pithy and astute nuggets of wisdom concerning the nature of cinema and life itself. Vanishing Landscapes will delight cinephiles, particularly Latin American ones, who should be quick to catch the many self-reflexive references, such as the gone-to-seed and spooky El Borda asylum grounds right out of Man Facing Southeast.           

Just as Birri and Subiela fans will not want to miss Vanishing Landscapes, so, too, Rainer Werner Fassbinder aficionados will be attracted to screenwriter-director Viola Shafik’s “real documentary,” the Egyptian-German coproduction My Name Is Not Ali. The handsome, imposing, and black Moroccan actor El Hedi Ben Salem M’bareck Mohammed Mustafa—Fassbinder’s lover at the time—rocketed to fame in the director’s internationally acclaimed exposé of postwar German racism Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). But afterward, the luckless Ben Salem fell out of favor with Fassbinder’s free-swinging, drug-addled troupe and eventually disappeared into virtual anonymity in a French prison, where he died a reputed suicide. In her director’s statement, the binational Shafik—who is also a noted scholar of Arab cinema—rejects the German media’s common depiction of Ben Salem as a helpless victim; and she declares her intention of making a “deconstructive biography” that explores the pertinent existential considerations, such as the relations between white skin and black skin, power and sexual identity, director and performer. To accomplish this laudable goal, Shafik features abundant interviews with survivors of the Fassbinder circus in Germany as well as with Ben Salem’s relatives in North Africa. Regrettably, many interviewees are credible and articulate commentators on their own preoccupations, such as their perceived positions in the Fassbinder hierarchy, but offer much less in terms of an understanding of the black Other, who, ironically, remains at the end of the film still largely “unknowable.” Although My Name Is Not Ali only partially succeeds in terms of its maker’s stated goal, it nevertheless proves intriguing for the historical context it provides, as well as for its provocative glimpses of cross-cultural encounters and group dynamics.

Two well-produced, competently acted, thematically appealing, and downright entertaining road movies were on offer. In the character-centered and emotionally touching Dearest, the veteran Japanese director Yasuo Furuhata follows a grieving and lonely, recently retired new widower—appealing underplayed by octogenarian superstar Ken Takakura—as he motors around northwestern Japan on the way to his wife’s seaside hometown, where he is to cast her ashes and retrieve a mysterious letter she has left for him at the post office. Takeshi Aoshima’s leisurely paced script privileges an everchanging landscape and features the usual generic sorts of encounters along the way as well as the occasional surprising and thought-provoking narrative twist. Dearest is of particular interest for its complexity and sensitivity in dealing with the theme of marriage and for centering on believable and interesting characters who come from workaday backgrounds: the on-the-road squid-with-rice fast-food cook/salesman struggling to pay the bills, or the baseball-cap-wearing protagonist himself, who worked for years teaching woodworking in a prison setting. As a footnote, I should add that Dearest reportedly represents the legendary Ken Takakura’s 205th motion picture. The “Japanese Clint Eastwood” has come a long way since those honorable outlaw, death-dealing action roles in the yakuza movies of the 1960s, but his screen presence still entrances. Takakura attended the festival’s awards ceremony where Dearest, which was billed as an international premiere, garnered a special mention from the Ecumenical Jury for its illumination of “the transcendent dimensions of life and human relationships.”

A vastly different sort of road movie is Chilean coscreenwriter and director Gonzalo Justiniano’s outrageous satire Have You Seen Lupita?, a Chilean-Mexican-Argentine coproduction. Justiniano is a brave Chilean, indeed, to have aspired to the cultural understanding and wherewithal that would allow him to successfully skewer the society of a sociopolitically complex Latin American nation not his own, namely contemporary Mexico. His broad humor curdles at times; but it is largely successful in provoking audiences to reexamine problematic Mexican motifs, such as the illegal passage to Gringolandia, murderous shoot-outs between rival drug cartels, the commercialization of religion, the numbing social power of television, coercive machismo, and even mariachi bands. The narrative is structured as protagonist Lupita’s video diary, recorded as she travels around northern Mexico, proceeds to Austin, Texas, and then returns to her homeland. Lupita herself is Remedios La Bella escaped from One Hundred Years of Solitude and descended back to earth—minus the sheets—in present-day Mexico; i.e., a young woman whose astonishing physical beauty and fathomless innocence drive men wild. Much of the film’s success stems from Justiniano’s two key casting decisions: the willowy beauty Dulce María as the irresistibly enticing Lupita and pudgy Carmen Salinas as her prodigiously foul-mouthed, feisty, grandmalike protector. Both actresses excel at suggesting new ways to look at women in twenty-first-century Mexican society. In a popular decision, the filmgoing public awarded Have You Seen Lupita? the Glauber Rocha Prize for best Latin American film.

The most esthetically pleasing feature I saw in the World Competition program was veteran Swedish coscreenwriter-director Jan Troell’s The Last Sentence, which examines the life and work in the 1930s–40s of the outspoken and controversial Swedish historical figure Torgny Segerstedt. He served as editor-in-chief of a leading Swedish newspaper at the time; and he became known for his courageous, pull-no-punches anti-Nazi and Anti-Hitler published statements—much to the dismay of many powerful figures within a government that sought to maintain the nation’s delicate neutrality. Thanks in part to his distinguished countenance, Danish actor Jesper Christensen shines as the craggy-faced, silver-haired, and acid-tongued newspaperman determined to expose the Nazis. The black-and-white cinematography, by Troell and Mischa Gavrjusjov, elegantly captures the historical period in impressive set pieces, such as a formal dance. The sociopolitical ins and outs of just how a nation state surrounded by bellicose neighbors maintains its neutrality represents fascinating narrative material, but the Klaus Rifbjerg-Troell script does not sufficiently follow this lead, and the story bogs down in a cumbersome, not very interesting, beyond middle-aged ménage-à-quatre. Troell, a frequent visitor to the festival, took this year’s the Best Director Prize.

An unusual special prize, the Freedom of Speech Award, went to Flower Square, a Croatian feature in the World Competition, “for daring to expose the worldwide problem of corruption and its links with organized crime and how it functions as a system which reaches all levels of society.” Krsto Papić, who enjoys a long established reputation as a politically controversial filmmaker, ably directs this semiabsurd crime drama. The narrative follows an everyday working family on the up-and-up as the middle-aged father—an “actor” with or without quotation marks—is pulled unexpectedly away from his job at a children’s theater and is unwillingly drawn into the soiled clutches of the police, who figure that if he can impersonate a wolf, he can certainly impersonate a Catholic priest, and a phony stool-pigeon clergyman is needed to hear the confession of an apparently dying Mafia don, so…. Flower Square boasts unremarkable production values, but Croatian star Drazen Kuhn’s resourceful, stone-faced protagonist engages us, and the narrative twists and turns draw us in as we follow an average joe in his quest to ward off those ever-extending tentacles of corruption.

Disappointing, in a word, is how best to describe the portmanteau fiction feature Seven Days in Havana, an eagerly awaited French-Spanish coproduction screened out of competition and billed as a North American premiere. Disappointing because we had expected much more from the far-flung and acclaimed talent called on to direct the seven different “days of adventure” set in the contemporary Cuban capital—Benicio del Toro, Julio Medem, Gaspar Noé, Pablo Trapero, Juan Carlos Tabío, Laurent Cantet, and Elia Suleiman. Taken together, their short pieces do offer a somewhat believable sense of life in Havana today in part because some locations—such as the storied Hotel Nacional or the iconic Malecón—repeat and become touchstones; because some characters intriguingly crisscross through different narratives; and because timely themes such as emigration, prostitution, rationing, the low pay of workers, tippling, and the socioeconomic pros and cons of tourism recur. But most chapters are simply too slight in narrative and aesthetic terms. For instance, in “Jam Session,” the Argentine cineaste Pablo Trapero accomplishes little more than the shadowing of an inebriated and hammy Emir Kusturica around Havana, until the celebrity filmmaker-musician ends up, predictably, at the titular jam session.

Certainly the most artistically creative chapter in Seven Days in Havana is the visually rigorous and silence-inflected “Diary of a Beginner,” which stars the sad-eyed Palestinian director Elia Suleiman himself as a clueless first-time visitor to Cuba who becomes caught up in an offshoot of the “Waiting for Fidel” syndrome. The Havana Club multinational corporation poured major financial support into the production of Seven Days in Havana, and this rum-soaked fizzle well illustrates the many pitfalls of bottled and branded moviemaking.

The thirty-sixth edition’s many sold-out screenings and its hugely popular Cinema Under the Stars program—held nightly along a blocked off downtown arterial—suggested strong local support from Montreal’s filmgoing public. Indeed, general manager Danièle Cauchard estimated total attendance at “around 400,000,” making the MWFF one of the most heavily attended events of its kind in the world. Plenty of stars—Liv Ullmann, Volker Schlöndorff, Goya Toledo, et al.—walked the red carpet; but the glamor treatment never overshadowed a down-to-earth and welcoming hospitality that allowed filmmakers, staff, locals, and visiting critics numerous informal opportunities to network or just mingle. As for the experience of this visiting American critic, vestiges of the War of 1812 were, mercifully, nowhere present; and I experienced a “Bon festival!” wherever I strayed. And my Montreal friends proved correct, the MWFF is “the place” to view interesting but little heralded films from countries of lesser production.

Dennis West is a Contributing Editor at Cineaste.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.