More from PSIFF…
Breath (Sandeep Sawant, India)
Told with vivid emotional clarity like the best of mainstream Indian cinema, this debut by director Sawant (filmed in the cinematically-rare Marathi dialect) is a deeply compelling story about a rural boy and his grandfather who travel to a city for medical treatment. The boy is suffering from serious vision impairment and their confused interactions with the modern medical establishment and growing awareness of the severity of the boy’s condition are truly riveting thanks to exceptionally convincing performances from the entire cast. Regecting simplistic melodrama, Sawant keeps the narrative brisk and the boy an incorrigible rascal, and counters the tragedy of the situation with clear-eyed medical perspectives. The film creates an enjoyable contrast between village and urban worldviews that’s intensified by striking cinemascope images of the Indian countryside versus the clinical urban environment. The film was definitely an audience favorite here and is India’s nominee for the 2004 Oscars, but its craft extends well beyond that potential outlet (seen by the fact that it has already received over 40 awards). I’ve watched several mainstream Indian films recently and their cheery air often seemed too mannered–the film succeeds as a world-class drama, perfectly balancing its hope and pathos. A special screening in Los Angeles is currently raising money for tsunami victims.
Forgiveness (Ian Gabriel, South Africa)
Adopting a burnished, high-contrast and desaturated visual style, this extremely immersive and philosophical thriller is a festival highlight–I don’t think it takes a false step from beginning to end. Dramatizing personal interactions following South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on apartheid, the film portrays a white ex-police officer (played by Arnold Vosloo, a dead ringer for Nicholas Cage) who attempts to contact the black family of a “terrorist/freedom fighter” he arrested, tortured, and murdered ten years earlier. The film admirably balances any flighty or idealistic notions of forgiveness with detailed descriptions of the human rights offenses and emotional scars left in the wake of apartheid, and explores the rage and unresolved questions simmering beneath official declarations of amnesty. Yet the film refuses to let go of its attempts to explore ideas of reconciliation, navigating its tricky terrain with sensitivity and never labelling any character as Good or Evil. Forgiveness has been described as setting oneself free from injustice rather than forgetting it, and this film exemplifies that notion with such stylistic and narrative grace that it bears comparison to another moody masterpiece of recent years, Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka. A major festival standout, it deserves substantial US distribution, especially given that it alternates between South African and English dialogue.
Singing Behind Screens (Ermanno Olmi, Italy)
Olmi’s avant-garde epic is virtually impossible to categorize, but it’s one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in a long while, a movie that is equal parts Chinese theatre, pirate adventure, and, probably, some sort of social commentary on the illicit pleasures of the idle rich during the 1930s. (I was too captivated by the film’s immediate charms to think about it too hard.) A Chinese brothel-theatre stages a 19th century legend about a female pirate sailing the high seas and Olmi fluidly alternates back-and-forth between the theatre’s production to cinematic restagings of the story. The production design (complete with several massive Chinese sailing vessels with working canons) shines with enchanting costumes and props depicting an aesthetically rich historical period, and its lush cinematography is breathtaking. Yet the film remains a fairly cohesive drama with serious thematic ambition concerning the ethics of warfare and the chivalric code in an age of new weapons technologies (a theme previously explored in Olmi’s Profession of Arms). My screening was poorly attended and the film’s unique stylization seemed to baffle the audience until a few people began to catch on to the film’s humor about halfway through. In its sly comedy, widescreen extravagance, and theatrical milieu, the only movie I can think of comparing it to is Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge. If Tarantino still wants to persuade American distributors to release inspired spectacles paying tribute to Chinese history and folklore, I’d watch this movie several times over another Hero.
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