I still marvel at how the Vancouver International Film Festival seems to be one of the best-kept secrets on the West Coast. Opening a few weeks after Toronto, it is almost concurrent with the New York Film Festival, which makes headlines with the official American premieres of some of the season’s most anticipated films. Many of those very same films are screening across the country in Vancouver, often a day or two before NYFF, and it is a mere 2 ½ hours away from my Seattle domicile. It’s one of the quirks of the festival circuit: the films that made their respective North American premieres in Toronto (after a possible “unofficial” screening at Telluride) vie for a spot at NYFF, where it gets the media spotlight, while Vancouver quietly slips somewhere around half of those into their line-up.
Here are a few titles snagged by VIFF this year: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl, Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle…. There are other films playing both fests, and plenty of films screening at Vancouver that are nowhere to be seen on the NYFF schedule, but that should give you a taste of a few of the delights that Vancouver offers over 16 days and eight venues (seven of them within walking distance of one another). It’s why I go every year that I am able.
If you weren’t raised in Catholicism, one revelation the reporters of Spotlight stumble upon might have come as a surprise: The Church maintains facilities where wayward priests are sent, places to practice penance and prayer for inappropriate behavior. Sometimes these priests are recycled back into parishes and schools. In the new Chilean film The Club, we are introduced to one such facility, a brightly painted house perched above the seacoast in a small town. But this place isn’t intended to rehabilitate or to put priests back into the population. This is the end of the road.
Inside the house live four sidelined clergymen and one defrocked nun.
No, the final film in Pablo Larrain’s trilogy of life in Chiule under Pinochet, appropriately enough takes on the end of Pinochet’s reign via the 1988 plebiscite vote that he arranged to “legitimize” his regime to the world. Chileans assumed it was a sham, a public display of democracy with Pinochet stacking the deck with a weighted election: vote “Yes” and maintain a known stability rather than the great unknown of civil rights. But to give the election the illusion of a level playing field, the government gave the opposition 15 minutes a night to make its case. Gael Garcia Bernal’s modern advertising phenom René Saavedra, the film’s ostensible hero, is a composite of numerous real-life figures, but his challenge was the same: he had to convince the opposition not to run a litany of Pinochet’s crimes. What they did with the time utterly befuddled the government spin doctors: they sold the “No” campaign and the idea of democratic as a product, packaged with humor, color, idealized images, and the feel-good attitude of a soft-drink commercial.
Larrain shot his dramatization of the real-life campaign on U-matic video (the ¾ inch broadcast tape standard of the eighties) which gives his film a strange, washed out quality, like a manufactured time capsule of an era. And while it’s nowhere as dark as his previous films, an atmosphere of intimidation hangs over the characters. These shadows of fear really communicate how and why Pinochet was convinced that he would win the vote regardless of the opposition, and it makes their triumph all the more satisfying. René is no idealist, he’s a pragmatist, and his appropriation of corporate advertising techniques to sell a revolution and depose a dictator has a delicious sting of irony. It was one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the last Academy Awards. Guild 45.
Christian Mungiu’s Beyond The Hills continues his exploration of the shadows of the past over Romania in the 21st century, but this time he steps sidewasy from the post-Soviet critiques of Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, and his own previous films to take on religious superstition. In a secluded Orthodox monastery, a former member of the community returns from the city to take the girl she loves out this cloistered bubble and into the world. She’s a troubled girl, to be sure, and becomes so unmanageable by the (almost entirely female) population of this retreat that she’s branded possessed and put to an exorcism. This isn’t the spiritual mumbo-jumbo of the recent rash of American possession movies, which play on demonic possession as an unfathomable horror. The “good intentions” of the flock are taken as serious concern for a suffering young woman rather than the hysterical old-world response to a medical / psychological problem. Or are they? There’s plenty to wonder about in this community, where all the women call the spiritual leader “Papa” and their commitment to the faith is as much comfort in a community where at least they can count on a place to sleep and regular meals (it’s a tough world out there). But Mungiu never suggests there’s anything untoward in the holy father’s behavior, at least until he agrees to an exorcism that he doesn’t really believe in. At that point, conviction and responsibility get a lot more complicated, and judgment isn’t so simple. Seven Gables.
Up From Poppy Hill, an animated film directed by Goro Miyazaki and produced and co-scripted by his father, animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, opens at the Egyptian in an English-language edition. I review it for Seattle Weekly.
The third film in Aleksandr Sokurov’s continuing “Men in Power” series, impressionistic portraits of dictators and despots that seek to explore the inner lives of enigmatic figures, observes Japanese Emperor Hirohito on the eve of Japan’s defeat in the final days of World War II. As played by Issei Ogata and observed by Sokurov in the both intimate and alienated settings of his Spartan compound, he’s an almost childlike figure trapped in his identity of a living deity and rituals of deference that further separate him from the world. He’s not even allowed to open a door himself, which leads to an almost comic moment when, leaving a meeting with General Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson), he is momentarily stymied by the workings of a doorknob. Or is he simply savoring the moment, like a child suddenly allowed to play with a forbidden toy?
Ogata’s performance is a wonder of affectation, distracted (behavior) and moments of dazed confusion, behavior no one would dare comment upon. Yet it’s clear that he is more aware of the contradictions of his position than any of his servants and officials, and that he understands that, in a strange way, Japan’s defeat becomes his opportunity to become a mere mortal. His response is complex, nuanced, and hidden in layers of protocol and ritual, yet it’s obvious that this reluctant Emperor is happiest studying marine biology and rhapsodizing over the wonders of the hermit crab.