April 13, 2010
 

Brokaw's Film Fest Fin, Part Quatre

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As a husband and father of three grown daughters (plus one lone, grown son), I hope I don't sound like a Preston Sturges character if I admit that 45 years in the dark with NY Film Festival movies have given me a better understanding of women. There simply isn't a better cultural venue in Manhattan in which to study and reflect on the evolving roles of women in a global context.

In the past decade, Richard Pena's selection committees have made a genuine commitment to discovering important films by emerging female directors and producers, as well. This year's festival has showcased an unusual number of pictures each revolving around one woman. Some of these fine films will struggle to find a distributor and an audience (or both), so here are brief appaisals of five pictures you may want to seek out.

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." This is how pregnant the college student (Laura Vasiliu) is when she engages a gruff abortionist in a sidestreet Bucharest hotel. As with the Festival's recent Romanian attraction ("The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," which followed a dying alcoholic being shunted from one uncaring hospital to another), we're back in the waning years of the repressive Ceaucescu regime. It was a time in which first-rate medical care was reserved for the rich, and abortion was a major crime.

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Much of this film, which is shot in muted color and very wide CinemaScope, is set in the narrow hotel room in which the coed (accompanied by her female roommate, played by Anamaria Marinca) pays a large amount of money for a rudimentary termination by a brutish technican who gives her a discount in exchange for sex with her roommate. The focus of the drama slowly and subtly shifts to the roommate, Miss Marinca. She's the one who found the abortionist and negotiated down the price with her body. She has a boyfriend she's attached to but reluctant to marry because she foresees spending "the rest of my life standing in a kitchen making potato dinners."

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You're thinking this movie sounds hopelessly dismal, but it's not. The camera starts watches the riveting Anamaria with increasing intensity, in long, unbroken closeups that mirror the slightest change in mood and emotion in her face. She's a wonderful blond actress who looks in her late 20s, and she gives us a capable, pretty and tired face that's already shifting into early middle age. (It's a kind of inimitable acting I've seen only one other time in recent years and that was Alison Pill in last season's off-Broadway Drama, "Blackbird," in which a 30-year-old takes herself down to age 12 and then back through sheer acting craft.). Anamaria is aging before our eyes.

After the abortion, Anamaria leaves her cramping roommate to rest and goes to a family dinner that includes her boyfriend. It's a festive group of intellectuals in a tiny, worn flat and again the camera holds on this virtually silent young woman who may be thinking about--what? It feels like she's contemplating the next decades of standing over that stove cooking potatoes. Later she goes back to the hotel dining room and has dinner alone. She's stuck in a backward country in a backward era--if this is life under a Communist dictatorship that crushes all hope, it's no life at all. Her face tells us nothing and everything. It's a mesmerizing performance.

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"Actresses." In this shrewd, knowing French drama written, directed by and starring Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, a 40-year-old stage actress named Marcelline is the mirror opposite of the Romanian coed. Marcelline desperately wants to have a baby. But she's locked in rehearsals with a miniscule company that includes older gay men, a very boyish male lead half her age, and an attractive but roughly abusive director. They're rehearsing Tergenev's "A Month In The Country." Good luck, Marcelline.

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Because the lead actress is both the scriptwriter and director "Actresses," Marcelline is able to moderate and steer her performance clear of sandtraps that could sink a movie like this with anything less than the keenest sensibililties. There's an early scene between Marcelline and her gynecologist in which the two women coldly review the biological clock of the actress. The Turgenev stage scenes we watch in rehearsal have a funny/sad kind of sentimentality. (The director of "Actresses" calls it "forbidden laughter," which is a guide to the film's fine-tuned elegance.)

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For scenes with her mother, Marcelline is playing opposite her real-life mother, and here, too, the chemistry between two women is palpable. Like the young Romanian woman locked in a sterile, unyielding country, the actress in this rich, lustrous Parisian theatrical world is growing older as we watch her. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is a handsome, invitingly mature woman, but there's an emptiness in her eyes and face, reflecting her life without a child, that's heartbreaking.

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"Secret Sunshine." The women in the two previous films have fixed agendas that stay consistent. The South Korean drama "Secret Sunshine" concerns a recently widowed piano teacher (Jeon Do-yeon) who moves with her young son from Seoul to Miryang, a non-descript smaller city that has the charm of an endless low-end shopping strip. Miss Do-yeon is initially modest and vivacious, but her life abruptly changes when her son is drowned by a mentally unbalanced man, who is seized, tried and imprisoned.

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The woman slowly reinvents her humanity through immersion in a fundamentalist church, which in Miryang seems similar to most any storefront evangelical, Christian operation. She finds God and meaning in her lilfe, to the extent that she goes to the prison to forgive her son's killer. To her shock and amazed anger, he, too, has found a forgiving God. This unhinges her in increasingly tormented ways--shoplifiting, seducing the elder leader in the church, slicing her wrists, and eventally being committed, finally coming out of an institution and walking into a hair salon, where she has half her hair cut and abruptly walks out. It goes on.

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Since the advent of sound, actresses have loved playing madwomen. It's often a sure path to big awards, and Jeon Do-Yeon won Best Actress at Cannes. She's outgoing and aggressive and increasingly dominates the screen and movie in strident, Joan Crawford mode... Her performance is helped by the comfortable supporting players, the drab environments, the ever-smiling church choirs--everything is engineered to frame and support her suffering and steady deterioration. It's an accomplished piece of acting and filmmaking. The next time you tune in Robert Aldrich directing Crawford or Betty Davis to pick up a butcher knife and find yourself sighing "they just don't make them like that anymore," be assured that worlds away in Korea, half a century later, they can and do.

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"Calle Santa Fe." All three of the previous films spotlight women in fictional settings. This documentary follows the return of a historian and filmmaker, Carmen Castillo, to the street in Santiago, Chile, where her companion, a leader in the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), was killed by government secret police in 1974. Castillo, wounded and pregnant, was able to escape with their young daughters and took refuge in France. Her long, sprawling but enthralling return to her home in the kill zone, her interviews with other surviving MIR members and their families, her conversations with her own daughters and other grown children of the militants, her indignation at the refusal of the Chilean government to commemorate or otherwise acknowledge a populist movement that embraced half the working poor of the country in the 70s, even her attempts to buy back her own modest home on Calle Sante Fe--this is a pioneering portrait of a female revolutionary.

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Castillo, a woman totally without guile or hidden agendas, has described her film as a reflection on political struggle and the price one pays for it. Clearly she doesn't want to be remembered as the widow of a hero. The process of coming to terms with her own children has not been easy. The MIR positioned itself against a fascist regime under Salvatore Allende (and later Pinochet) that fell in 1990. It took more strident positions than, say, civil rights activists in the same period in the American south, though it was never a cell of anarchists like the Black Panthers. The Chilean regimes were replaced by a democratic Santiago with a glittering surface that masks a city and country still riddled with poverty, inequity and drug traffickers Carmen Castillo wrestles with the past and the present. The frustrating lack of progress probably haunts her dreams.

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The film's strongest scenes are the little moments in which this aging, determined woman quietly reintroduces herself to neighbors who've lived on for three decades in the same homes on her Calle block. They remember her with gratitude. There is a touching ceremony in which little ceramic plaques are laid by neighbors listing the local MIR activists, many long gone or dead. The man who owns the Castillo home today thinks about selling it back to her. Several Chilean boys in front of a downtrodden shack do a rap song on changing the system that Castillo, the oldest viewer, watches with a small smile. Throughout this almost three-hour journey, Castillo changes hats often from historian to rebel leader to mother to daughter--she has long, gentle debates with her father--trying to assess the impact and legacy of an MIR that was officially dissolved 22 years ago. The film is at once a memoir and a call to action--something quite rare in a documentary format.

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"Persepolis." If movies can help build cultural bridges between opposing societies and governments, then the Iranian "Persepolis" may be the right film in the right place at the right time. Our increasingly uneasy reactions to Iran's nuclear capabilities, Iran's alliances with Syria, the recent visit of Iran's incendiary leader to Manhattan and his not very welcoming debate with the president of Columbia University--wouldn't you like to see a nine-year-old Iranian girl grow into the kind of bold, independent thinker you'd like your own daughter to become? "Persepolis" rules.

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This closing night selection of the 45th New York Film Festival is a joy to behold. Political terror alternates with a Roz Chast view of the dumb adult world that embraces over 600 characters. Repressive Islamic rite and ritual are drowned in the crashing rock chords of Iron Maiden. The movie heroine Marjane flees, rejects, returns to and again rejects all the extremism and fundamentalism of the Shah's regime and Khomeini's revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Marjane is Eloise and Ramona Quimby (age 9) and some nutty mix of Anna Karina and Lindsay Lohan before either one got bruised by too many Godard films and too many substances. Through all this, in Tehran, Vienna and finally Paris, Marjane never loses her love for Iran. Marjane Satrapi, age 38, the grown-up author and director, masterminds this minor miracle of a movie as a graphic-novel-turned-graphic-novel-movie. "Persepolis" is a cartoon for all ages.

And what a cartoon it is. Shooting in black-and-white like the graphic novel is drawn, Satrapi and co-director Vincent Paronnaud mount a most intriguing cartoon. The foregrounds and foreground characters are flat and simplistic and often simple, primitive figures not unlike--dare I write this?--"The Simpsons'" movie. But the backgrounds of buildings, mosques, landscapes, cityscapes, panoramas and such are much more sculpted, dark and troubling, at times resembling Edward Gorey sketches and drawings. These three-dimensional felt-pen backgrounds flanking one-dimensional upfront stylization give "Persepolis" great graphic strength. The film contains 80,000 drawings contributing to 130,000 images. It's a complex mosaic but it's never too busy to comprehend.

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The major characters are voiced by a sublime cast. Marjane in her teen and young adult years is the voice of Chiara Mastroianni. Marjane's mother is acted by the timeless and comforting voice of Catherine Deneuve, a woman we've all grown through adulthood admiring in darkened theaters. And finally, I asked director Satrapi if her first choice for the voice of her grandmother, who in many ways anchors the film with her commonsense wisdom and extremely salty mouth, was indeed the first lady of French cinema for over half a century, the magnificent Danielle Darrieux. And Miss Satrapi affirmed Darrieux was her one wish from the get-go, that there was really no one else she considered to play her grandmother. What a wise director.

These five motion pictures reveal the state of womanhood globally in 2007 in vivid, memorable ways. Each is highly recommended.

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