Sunday, October 26, 2008

Yes, but how?

Snow plays again today at 6pm and Tuesday at 4:10pm. Both screenings at 600 North Michigan.

Revanche plays again on Monday at 8:30pm at 600 North Michigan.

The late Gene Siskel once argued (in his review of Soul Food [1997], if I recall) that it wasn’t difficult to make a good movie. A filmmaker just needed to be honest with his or her experience, avoid succumbing to cliché, and try to depict life as it’s lived. Granted, this definition excludes most experimental or avant-garde movies, but it’s useful for the majority of narrative cinema, which communicates through storytelling, performance, and the like. Of everything I’ve seen at the Festival so far, all but one film has been at least Siskel-good; the exception was a Turkish family drama called Summer Book, whose over-dependence on clichés negated (for me, anyway) the more edifying images of small-town Turkish life.

And yet, I’ll probably retain that film’s lemon groves and an old-fashioned butcher shop longer than I will the more ephemeral imagery from The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain, a film I preferred on the whole. If there’s been one benefit of my second-tier press status (which means I can only get into films for free if they don’t sell out), it’s that I’ve been forced to see more modest filmmaking that aspires to be “good” instead of attention-grabbing titles that aspire to be great. And thus, I’ve accumulated a nice collection of mental snapshots from around the world.

One of the most accomplished “good” movies playing in this year’s festival is the Bosnian title Snow, which depicts a village’s efforts to return to stability after the civil wars of the mid-1990s. Despite the heavy subject matter, this is still restrained, eye-level filmmaking. Director Aida Begic devotes more time to the villagers’ jam-making business than their post-traumatic stress. She avoids outright pathos, though the war’s lasting effects are always felt: There are no men left in the village with the exception of a single grandfather, and the sizable number of orphans has led to something like collective child-rearing. Snow is the rare social drama that advances on the truism “life goes on” with a more sophisticated, “Yes, but how?” It moves slowly, observing recovery in small measures. The chapters are literally separated day-by-day. Emotional outbursts are kept to a minimum; with everyone in poverty, there are more immediate concerns. Though genocide is one of the eternally relevant political subjects (It is going on in the Sudan, in Iraq, as I write this), in movies it is too often fodder for simple catharsis. Here is a film that oversteps catharsis in favor of understanding.

The Austrian drama Revanche, on the other hand, is a long road to catharsis. It deals with two of the most metaphorically-ripe characters in contemporary drama—the ex-convict and the guilt-stricken police officer—and aims to find universal truth in their suffering. The movie begins as an exciting, though underplayed crime story. With its austere framing, nervous tone, and potent Method acting, it suggests a European cousin to Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), another film that hinged on a bank robbery gone wrong. But Revanche switches its tune about half-way in, along with its setting (going from urban prostitution to life on a farm), and morphs into a quiet drama less about revenge than redemption. I should note that I’ve come to greet this theme with near-instinctive incredulity, so I probably enjoyed this less than last night’s audience, who responded with lengthy applause at the end. But this is still a most grown-up film, and the cast (especially Ursula Strauss, best known in the States from Barbara Albert’s films Free Radicals [2003] and Falling [2006]) is remarkable as the police officer's religious wife.