As the 2014 SBIFF lurched into its final night, with the real life, real time Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke discussing their distinctive Before trio on the Arlington stage Sunday night, it’s fair to say that this year’s festival scores high points on multiple fronts. Audiences surged in numbers and if there weren’t many clear-cut great films in the running (The Great Beauty, Omar, Child’s Pose spring to mind, for me), the program showcased a bounty of cinema from around the world well worth seeing, and knowing about. Mission Blue was one of the better opening night films in memory, and the usual wide swath of programming in the documentary, nature, and sports films and all-important celebrity tribute parade (David O’ Russell, Cate Blanchett, Leo DiCaprio/Martin Scorsese/Robert Redford/Bruce Dern, etc.).
And then there is a healthy contingency of SBIFF lovers (well, and sometimes unhealthy on the sleep, exercise, and eating departments for 10 days) who crave the stuff from afar, the “international” part, and we got plenty to savor and remember. For instance… a few notes from screenings in the last few days:
FINGERS ON TRIGGERS: The very word “Bethlehem” is a loaded and layered one, triggering associations with deep Biblical resonances (as in “O Little Town of…”) and, through a contemporary lens, as one of the powderkeg locations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The latter reference is front, center and highly volatile in Israeli director Yavul Adler’s fine and necessarily nervous-making film Bethlehem, about an Israeli agent’s dealings with a young Palestinian informant, power struggles between Palestinian organizations, the nature of martyrdom and poisoned alliances in an occupied land. A gripping raid scene at the film’s center shivers with the kind of pulsating urgency reminiscent of warzone films like Black Hawk Down and Zero Dark Thirty, but the film’s real focus is on strained, secret relationships in a region on the brink of erupting on moment’s notice.
As it worked out in this year’s SBIFF program, Bethlehem is a perfect companion piece to director Hany (Paradise Now) Abu-Assad’s masterful Omar, up for a Foreign Film Oscar: one is from the Israeli point of view, the other from the opposite perspective, with intense and complex meshing of both sides in the middle. There are many points of logical comparison between the two, but it is also true that Bethlehem pales in comparison to the superior cinematic voice behind Omar.
EATING HABITS: When it came to the late night screening of the Spanish film Cannibal, expectations for some kind of cheeky genre send-up or arty gore-fest — echoes of Eating Raoul, perhaps — were not met. What we got, instead, was a weirdly calm and elegant, even meditative, film about a quiet, neatnik tailor in Granada, Spain, with a penchant for having women for dinner. Literally. Beautifully shot, Cannibal spares us the less-savory steps in this picky eater’s food preparation, but supplies the creepiness of implication in patient scenes of his steak-filled refrigerator, cooking with pesto and savoring his tasty meal, paired with wine (red, natch).
His twisted heart meets its match with a beautiful Romanian immigrant woman, who he falls in love with, in the non-salivating way. Back story on our anti-hero (or antagonistic protagonist) is kept to a minimum, but there are subtle subthemes of religious, Catholic angst (regularly eating “the body of Christ”), the potential sadism of carnivorous diets, and sexual confusion. One of the odd sensations with the film is the pleasure we take in the thing, and the director Manuel Martin Cuenca’s deft manipulation of audience perceptions. Don’t go on a full stomach.
ON THE FRITE BEAT: Alternately, it’s best not to go to Le Chef on an empty stomach. On the much lighter, frothier side of gastronomic cinema, another feelfoodly enjoyable French comedy this year, alongside naughty-turns- nice Paulette (which, come to think of it, also has food as a central plot point — albeit “spliffcakes”). This is also part of the festival’s still-new-ish “Screen Cuisine” sidebar, taking aim at documentaries and foodie features, which tend to excite palates. Certainly, in this Jean Reno-starring battle of the French restaurateurs yarn, the affectionate close-up shots of gourmet dishes and endless gastro-talk thereof appeals to senses and organs beyond the cinephile’s mind. Follies, foibles and mildly-spicy narrative conflicts keep the film and us on its toes, but ultimately, it never goes deeper than surface flavor, which is just what the chef ordered sometimes.
WESTERNS GONE EASTWARD: When it came to the lore of Westerns and cowboy mannerisms in this year’s SBIFF line-up, the genre showed up in, and from, some surprising places. Unforgiven, Japanese director Lee Sang-il’s luminously made remake and Samurai-ized version of the Clint Eastwood masterpiece of 1992, is a fascinating backflip of cinematic lineage, cleverly reversing the trend of Westerns adapting Samurai films to the context of the west-taming mythologies of the Western genre. Of course, Unforgiven was something of an anomaly in said genre, released at a time when Westerns feared to tread in the movie world, and its story an elegy for the waning of the gunslinger and fragile frontier era of the ‘19th century. In this epic-ish but never boring variation, the waning of the Samurai era and its codes of honor and blade play, is the undercurrent in a story of a sword ‘n’ gunslinger lured out of retirement to settle a score, and reap a reward — more of the dignity sort than monetary, of course.
Meanwhile, back in the hinterlands of Kurdistan… the intriguing genre mash-up film, My Sweet Pepper Land, cooks up a strange brew of quirky humor, tribal warfare, and Sergio Leone-style kitsch, replete with high plains drifting guitar picking and sliding in the score and a lone wolf hero fending off grizzled thugs and protecting a woman’s honor. Director Hiner Saleem has made a film which may slip into showdown/shootout dregs at some point, but which keeps us attuned to the uniqueness of the landscape, culture and its filmic invention, and with an exotically lovely musical score — by the film’s exotically lovely Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (my vote for this festival’s most beautiful actress). And the good guy/gal ride off into the Kurdistani sunset.
Ditto, SBIFF 2014. Another good one, heading into the sunset, for a year.