Two-thirds of the festival’s dates have gone by quicker than a bull asked to pay for the damages in a china shop. The end is near, but the itinerary is still packed to breaking point and there are still many more films to be seen. Today began with a sold-out screening of Ander (Roberto Caston, Spain, 2009), a fine achievement in subtlety and understated emotion, and a film that is amassing a favourable reputation already, judging by the size of the audience. It tells the story of the title character, Ander, who lives and works on a farm, isolated in the countryside. He keeps company with his grouch of a mother and finds temporary pleasure in frequent romps with the local prostitute. After an unfortunate accident, Ander is left with a broken leg, and hires a Peruvian farmhand to tend to the tasks he would otherwise be carrying out.
Events take a few unpredictable turns; in part to the film’s insistence on keeping its cards close to its chest, you can’t quite tell where it will lead. Silence speaks louder than words in some cases, and even louder speak the slight, effective gestures of each character. The camera sits at the dinner table, a regular setting and one of both confrontation and neglect; we’re able to direct our eyes in between each character as circumstances change and the setting of dinner takes on a whole new meaning in each scene. With a calm, slow pace, Ander lets itself unfold gracefully and with a finesse to its storytelling that sustains our attention right to the end.
The pace is soon quickened in Slovenian Girl (Damjan Kozole, Slovenia, 2009), in which lonely student Alexandra is trying to make ends meet with a job in prostitution. When a German client has a heart attack and subsequently dies after a hotel room rendesvous, Alexandra’s ideal life becomes enveloped by fear as several parties attempt to track her down. Subject to manipulation from people both familiar and unfamiliar to her, Alexandra’s troubles force her to travel back and forth from the harsh city and the comfortable setting of her father’s home in a constant struggle to evade danger.
While the sense of fear and loneliness in this feature is palpable, it doesn’t quite hit with the bite that it intends to. I can’t help comparing it to Francesca, the Romanian film I viewed at the festival last week, which creates an ambience of helplessness and fear of relentless pursuers through its film form; the wide, static long takes allowing the emotions and drama to unfold before our very eyes. Slovenian Girl doesn’t utilise style in the same way, coming across as a quite conventional execution that while effective and visually competent, fails to stand out as well as it should. However, some of the concerns presented in the film are universal in spite of the concept, and speak wider truths about the world as a whole, although one can’t help but feel that even with such a striking portrayal of a youth in peril, the whole escapade feels distinctly average.
The festival awards have already been handed out by the jury, with the Golden Owl being the most coveted prize. The last film of the night, Puccini and the Girl (Paolo Benvenuti, Italy, 2009), did not take the gold, but it did receive a special mention equating it to second place. After viewing the film, I can attest that it certainly deserves this mention. If the jury are (hopefully) rewarding these features on the basis that they use film language to construct something of originality and worth, then maybe Puccini and the Girl deserves simply more than a mention. It tells the tale of Giacomo Puccini’s relationship with his maid and his composition of his opera, ‘La Fanciulla del West‘, all expressed through a sophisticated visual language that displays masterful, virtuoso technique.
As a testament to its visual exuberance, no words are spoken outright through the entirety of this film, with written letters being the exception, read out inside the minds of the characters. It all feels comfortably like a callback to silent cinema, and the void of silence is filled with a delicate piano track that plays over most of the film, lending it a classical touch and complimenting its themes and the many contemplative images of nature that pervade each scene. Puccini and the Girl is a prime example of the language of film being correctly utilised to tell a story.
The Golden Owl itself went to La Pivellina, which I praised a few entries back. A fantastic choice, I’d say, and even though there are films equally as strong, if not better, some of them have already achieved a level of recognition that La Pivellina deserves itself. Samson and Delilah and Dogtooth, for example, both won awards at Cannes and have aroused great awareness already. Bright Star and A Serious Man are already high-profile, critically acclaimed gems of filmmaking. Having yet to see the rest of the festival’s lineup, and obviously missing out on a great deal of films due to the schedule being so vast and plentiful, I can’t ultimately say that La Pivellina was the hands-down best offering of the past two weeks, but the decision to award it the top prize over the more obvious choices is a commendable decision on the jury’s part.
Less pleasing is the audience response to some of these films. Whilst it is certainly encouraging that Dogtooth has enamoured enough people to warrant extra screenings for those intrigued by its premise and widespread praise across the festival, less reassuring is the overwhelming response to saccharine slush Departures, which I notably condemned for its manipulative stylings. 142 of the response forms awarded Departures five stars, apparently the greatest response to a film in the festival’s 23-year history. Judging from all the crying women surrounding me in its screening, I’m not surprised, although I am disappointed. At a festival where the world’s finest examples of new, up-and-coming as well as veteran filmmakers are given exposure to showcase their grasp of the filmic language, it’s a shame to see a film take precedence that essentially – I’m gonna say it – cheats its way to an audience response. Departures doesn’t give credit to its audience, forcing them into a passive viewing whereby the response is more a forced reaction to being beaten over the head with as much over-sentimental rubbish as can be mustered. If crying your eyes out at music is the key to winning a coveted film prize, then I should have nominated Sufjan Stevens’ “For the Widows in Paradise” to take the Golden Owl.
Still, Departures isn’t even the worst film of the festival. That honour (so far) goes to Millenium: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. That film made me lose my faith in humanity, a crime which cannot be forgiven so easily.