Brokaw's Best of the Fest - Part Three
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"Police, Adjective." When this writer criss-crossed the Carpathian Alps of Transylvania in the summer of 1975 (researching a book on the cultural history of Dracula), Romania was in near lockdown in the grip of the Ceausescu regime. The directors of "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," and "Police, Adjective," arguably the three premiere dramas in a current renaissance of Romanian cinema, were ages 8, 7, and 2. All three of these filmmakers would grow up in the harsh realities of a Communist dictatorship that took no prisoners and first and foremost served the State. The message of each of their major films is "never forget." "Lazarescu" followed a dying 62-year-old alcoholic through the nightmare of a broken hospital system in Bucharest. "4 Months" explored a pregnant college student and her girlfriend's bitter journey to find a backroom technician who'd abort the pregnancy without killing the patient. And now Corneliu Promboiu has given us the definitive portrait of a young police detective shadowing a low-level teenage drug user and deciding the kid isn't worth arresting, only to run smack into the clutches of a by-the-book precinct captain who's a law-and-order authoritarian as rigid as Vlad the Impaler.
Promboiu's procedural is often played in real-time and shows a plainclothes shadow man (not unlike Dashiell Hammett who was a Pinkerton gumshoe in the 20s) whose crisis of conscience is having to follow and execute archaic laws to the letter. "To the letter" is what this movie is all about. Every sentence, every word, every punctuation mark of Romanian law is going to be enforced. You're beginning to sense why the movie bears the curious title, "Police, Adjective." What this 34 year old director understands with a master's confidence is the concept of observational cinema, which rarely crosses American screens. In "4 Months" we watch the attractive actress playing the pregnant student's girlfriend staring at herself in a mirror for minutes at a time. She has a boyfriend of her own who won't amount to anything, and she's probably imagining herself standing over a hot stove cooking potato dinners for the rest of her life. She's aging before our eyes.
In "Police, Adjective" the stoic, serious young cop knows the boy he's tailing will get seven years in prison if he's arrested and found guilty of hash possession, and he believes Romanian law will shortly be eased. He shares this with his live-in girlfriend, a pretty, tolerant partner who sits at her computer and plays him the same dopey song over and over while he warms up and eats his dinner alone in their tiny kitchen. Time passes. A meal is consumed. The song lyrics are about vapid clouds and skies and weather. The girl reminds him he's worn the same pullover for four days. She tells him the song lyrics are important because they're about universals. The young man doesn't get this, but she's giving him (and us) a heads-up of what's in store for him when he files his shadowing report with his superior.
That confrontation scene, between the detective and his tightlipped captain (Vlad Ivanov, who played the hard-as-nails abortionist in "4 Months") is also played in real time and is a lecture in constitutional law that rewards you fully for the infinite patience you've extended to the filmmaker. The detective offers up plausible but informal explanations of the concepts of conscience, law and morality--they're reasonable but not precise, not in a legal sense. And so the captain hauls in a large dictionary and forces the detective to confront the actual meanings of conscience, law and morality. He gives his underling a stern dressing-down and two hours to decide whether to take down the teenager in a sting operation, or else. "Or else," in a Romanian police station that looks like something built in the 1920s, is no choice, and for decades it was the only choice. Maybe it still is. The question was put to this brilliant young Romanian director at a press conference, whether he intends the police captain to be historical, or contemporary, or both. While Mr. Promboiu didn't evade the question, he didn't answer it directly, either. We know enough about Dracula, Romania's enduring tourist attraction since Bela Lugosi donned a cape, to know that the literary and movie vampire never dies, never stops rising from its grave. Maybe the answer's in that.
The Long and the Shorts of The Festival. So much for the long (115 minutes) of it. Like nearly a half century of New York Film Festivals before it, this one includes a meticulously curated short accompanying many feature films. Shorts are important and rarely written about. They're often starting points for directors who'll change the landscape of cinema. The really good ones are conscious of the reduced window of audience contact they're going to have, and like the most memorable :30 commercials they make every moment count. Among the best of the fest are "Plastic Bag" by Ramin Bahrani, which for 18 minutes follows the endearing life of a recycled bag, voice-overed by the German director Werner Herzog in his wickedly pained English that sounds like he's walking barefoot through broken glass; and "The Funk" by Cris Jones, a 6-minute last-day-in-the-life of an exec who plunges to his death in front of his ex-wife. But the best in this fest, hands down, is "The Hardest Part" by Oliver Refson. In a brisk 13 minutes, we watch Nickolas Grace, a 60-something Jeeves type, rehearsing a loud, foul-mouthed monologue for what he thinks is a lead gangster role he's auditioning for. Instead he's asked to demonstrate how an extra will be gunned down in a massacre. Going home rejected and depressed, he's set upon by a gang of young thugs--and gets to use that filthy gangster speech after all. What a smart concept. Bring out Oliver Refson for a well-deserved round of applause.
"Independencia" Countless New Yorkers (and their children) have grown up gazing at the historical dioramas in the Museum of Natural History on Manhattan's Upper West Side. They're primitive peoples and animals, frozen in wonderfully detailed wilderness settings with painted backdrops of plains, forests, tundras--three-dimensional fabricated re-creations set against two-dimensional artists' illustrations. Imagine one set in the Philippines in the 1930s and 40s. Imagine it coming to life and presenting an adult and child, caring for a wounded woman, in a sylvan setting that's pushing against the boundaries of storybook fantasy, World War II newsreels and the kind of Hollywood sets once fashioned by Merian C. Cooper. This is the world of Raya Martin, a 25-year-old Manila-born filmmaker who acknowledges the museum dioramas of his own youth, and who has combined the intelligence of a historical scholar with the zeal of a young F.W. Murneau. "Independencia," his 77-minute black-and-white, standard-aspect-ratio melodrama is a shrewd, knowing retelling of his country's struggle for independence from American invasion, colonization, repression, tinkering and tweaking that exists to this day.
Martin's agenda is very clear. The trio who've opted for their rudimentary shack in the jungle are afraid of the military presence in their village. And with good reason--in a newsreel simulation, we see an innocent shot down in a crowded marketplace by soldiers. Yet the fragile humans come through a ferocious tropical thunderstorm, with near-hurricane force winds whipped up with glee by Martin, without a scratch. Armed forces are a far greater threat to Filipinos than the force of nature. It's a simple message, and it's driven home more poignantly when the troops do their reconnaissance and come upon the surviving family. The final shot shows the child grown, years later, matted in color on a cliff's edge, making a leap to--independence? Extinction? Martin lets you read it your way. "Independencia" is rooted in the magic that can happen up on a big screen when the lights go down. It's the purest indie in this 47th annual New York festival, a movie swathed in affection for a studio system that finally has its own diorama.