MORE FROM THE
VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

by Howard Schumann

Taking place in a city close to the Pacific Ocean, the Vancouver Film Festival, now celebrating its 26th year, is one of the world's leading showcases of East Asian and Canadian films. Featuring 350 films from more than 50 countries and attracting an average of 150,000 viewers each year, the following world-class directors were represented this year: Jia Zhangke, Jacques Rivette, Lee Chang-dong, Gus Van Sant, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Roy Andersson, Cristian Mingu, Wen Jiang, and many others.

This year the broad spectrum of fiction and nonfiction films was divided into dramatic features and documentaries showing support for environmental issues, the largest annual exhibition of East Asian films outside of Asia itself, a large program of documentary and essay films, over 100 Canadian films including 30 features, seven mid-lengths, and 66 shorts, international films many of which are North American or international premieres, and unique achievements from French cinema.

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Friendship and support in our normal everyday life is a very valuable thing to have. In a repressive environment where one misstep can cause imprisonment or worse, it is often the only avenue for survival. Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, is about the bond between two young Romanian students who are there for each other in moments of crisis--in this case an illegal abortion, carried out in stealth, where danger is an insidious presence at all times. Reminiscent of the style of the Dardenne brothers with its close-ups and hand-held camera, the film is mostly understated and key events happen off camera (with one glaring exception), yet it is a very demanding film, powerfully acted and totally convincing, as uncompromising as any film I have seen in recent memory.

Set in Romania in 1987 during the final days of the Ceausescu regime, the picture conveys a pervasive grayness that underscores the sterility of life in Eastern Europe at the time. If there was a bright and happy side to life in Romania in the late eighties, you will not find it here. For the first thirty minutes, preparations are being made for an unspecified event by two students in a college dormitory in Bucharest that looks like the interior of a hotel scheduled for demolition. One roommate, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) sends the other, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), to procure items such as cigarettes, soaps, and beauty items and to borrow money from friends, but we do not learn what the money is for. The two women are very different. Gabita is passive, almost helpless, while Otilia is more self assured and outgoing, though she is also circumspect in displaying her emotions.

Mungiu does not show us the world in which the girls live or any of the circumstances that led to Gabita’s drastic decision to have the abortion. It is just a given. When it is revealed that Gabita is pregnant and is seeking an abortion, it is the more aggressive Otilia who makes the arrangements. Trying to book a room at the hotels that were suggested, Otilia is thwarted by cold, bureaucratic clerks who act as if they just came from the hospital depicted in Crisit Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. Gabita’s failure to confirm hotel reservations means that Otilia has to settle for a third hotel not on the list. When she meets with Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), the illegal abortionist, he is perturbed that she came instead of Gabita and even more distressed that neither of the two hotels he suggested were booked.

A scene outside a building in which Bebe scolds his elderly mother creates more anxiety for Otilia, and the meeting at the hotel between the two women and the abortionist is replete with threats, bullying tactics, and demands for more money. When the sleazy abortionist discovers that Gabita is not two months pregnant as she had said but four months, three weeks and two days, he ups the ante. Cynically citing the risks he is taking that could result in a long prison term, Bebe only agrees to perform the abortion after both women reluctantly agree to have sex with him. Heightening the feeling of uneasiness, Otilia leaves Gabita alone in her hotel room propped up on two pillows unable to move, as she fulfills a promise to her boyfriend, Adi (Alex Potocean), to attend his mother’s birthday party.

Otilia is sullen and uncommunicative, and the conversation among family members goes on and on, making her feel more and more isolated. One relative criticizes her asking for a cigarette and goes into a speech about the failings of the younger generation as Otilia looks for a reason to leave. As the film winds to a gripping conclusion, the almost unbearable tension had many in the sold out audience stirring uncomfortably in their seats. Though 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days depicts the oppressive nature of the social system and its laws, it is not a polemic against Communism, nor does it take sides on the thorny issue of abortion. It is more about the dignity of two women, friends who are willing to take risks and sacrifice for each other without expectation of reward or even thanks.

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Based on Ermanno Rea's best-selling novel "The Dismissal," The Missing Star, the latest film by acclaimed Italian director Gianni Amelio, is the story of the growing friendship between an older Italian maintenance man and a young interpreter he hires in Shanghai to be his guide through China. Vincenzo Buonovolontà (playede by Sergio Castellitto) is the maintenance manager at a steel mill in Italy that has been shut down and the blast furnace sold to China. When he discovers that a control unit in the furnace is defective and potentially dangerous, he travels to China to find the steel mill where the part has been sold in hopes of preventing a fatal accident.

The film, of course, is about the journey, not the destination (to use a familiar cliché) and on that journey we are privy to an engaging look at China with all its immense beauty and complexity, via the outstanding cinematography by Luca Bigazzi. The film takes us to Shanghai, Wuhan, Chongquing, Baotou, and a trip along the Yangstze River, showing us coastal areas that are scheduled to be flooded when the Three Gorges Dam is fully operative, a Chinese mega-project that has resulted in the displacement of 1.2 million people. The trip brings the travelers face to face with poverty, overcrowded housing, and children left to fend for themselves.

The film revolves around the relationship between Vincenzo and translator Liu Hua (Tai Ling) who first meet in Italy, where Vincenzo's impatience with her translations at a dinner meeting causes her to lose her job. When he tracks her down in Shanghai she is working at a library and resistant to Vincenzo’s approach. Looking at his offer to help him in his travels in China as little more than a well-paying job, she reluctantly agrees to accompany him. Their relationship, however, grows as they move from city to city, her interpretive skills much in evidence to help the bewildered Vincenzo, who does not own a cell phone.

As they slowly open up to each other, they expose one another’s vulnerability, and the film delves into their past and present life and how they arrived at their present situation. We meet Liu’s son (Lin Wang) at the home of her grandmother. In China’s one child policy, he is one of the unwanted children who have been “hidden” since the father of the boy abandoned the family. Although the meeting between Vincenzo and the boy is casual, their relationship becomes central to how the story plays out.

Castellitto is an excellent actor (though one longs for a younger Enrico Lo Verso in this role). However, he is emotionally distant throughout the film, his expression rarely changing from a far away hangdog expression. Though Tai Ling brings a great deal of presence to the role, her relationship with the much older Vincenzo never seemed real to me and the ending seemed to exist only in a reality known as the movies. Though Amelio is one of my favorite directors, coming on the heels of the brilliant Keys to the House, Missing Star is a disappointment.

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Religion in its different forms has been one of the themes of Ermanno Olmi’s body of work, and his relationship with the Church has been steadfast. Walking, Walking (1982) retells the story of the three wise men looking for the Christ child, and The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988) is a parable of divine intervention that has been compared to Dreyer’s Ordet in its religious depth. Other films--Down the River (1992) and The Secret of the Old Woods (1993), celebrate nature as an expression of the divine. In fact, a theme first enunciated in Genesis: The Creation and the Flood (1994), that the scriptures are more than just words written on a piece of paper but part of a living tradition, finds full expression in his latest effort, One Hundred Nails.

If One Hundred Nails is indeed Olmi’s last feature film (as he claims), it would be nice to say he “nails” it, but unfortunately such is not the case. The film is beautifully photographed by Olmi’s son Fabio and the shots along the Po River create a mood of rare tranquility, yet it offers a strangely conflicted and unconvincing message. While it has strong religious overtones with a Christ-like figure suffering for mankind, it also tells us that the religions have never saved the world and that on Judgment Day, God will have to account to mankind for all the suffering he has allowed. The main character is a philosophy professor played by Israeli actor Raz Degan who turns his back on his profession and prefers to live a simple and harmonious life among the peasants of the Po valley, saying, “All the books in the world aren't nearly as valuable as a single cup of coffee with a friend.”

As the film begins, an unknown intruder desecrates the library by pulling one hundred books from the shelves, opening them, and nailing them to the floor of a research library with the type of heavy spikes used to nail Christ to the cross in biblical literature. At first the identity of the perpetrator is a mystery and the police are called to investigate. It is soon apparent that the guilty party is the professor who has renounced his identity and left his BMW near a bridge while feigning suicide by throwing his car keys and wallet into the water.

Soon he moves into an abandoned house alongside the Po where he lives off the local people who provide him food and support him in rebuilding his home. Looking like a modern day St. Francis of Assisi with his dark hair and beard, he is seen as a savior by the poor farmers and blends in among the community, going to the beach with them and dancing with the local girl from the bakery. When the inhabitants are threatened with evacuation and a fine, however, the professor (who they now call Jesus Christ) gives them his credit card to pay the fine but it is used by the police to track his whereabouts and he is arrested as the villagers await his return with streets lit up as in a second coming.

One Hundred Nails emphasizes the need to return to the simple life and the joy of commonly shared friendships to counter the strident consumerism of our age, yet the film is not well served by banal dialogue and characters that are little more than a vehicle for the film’s ideas. Olmi says that his aim was to show a Christ that was “not the Son of God, but the Son of Man”, yet the Christ story has little meaning outside of Christ’s relation to God, and Olmi's depiction of the book-rejecting teacher borders on anti-intellectualism. While the “return to simplicity” theme of One Hundred Nails has relevance, the notion that the books of organized religion are the only avenue to God is shortsighted and simplistic.


©2007 Howard Schumann
CineScene