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Harris delivers a heavy duty Beethoven (from San Sebastian)

In the handsome press book for the new Agnieszka Holland musical biopic "Copying Beethoven" writer/producer Christopher Wilkinson, regarding the appearance of actor Ed Harris in the title role, is quoted as having said on a visit to the set, "I see Beethoven standing there -- but what have they done with Ed Harris?" If Ed Harris does to some extent disappear into the skin of the composer in this not-to-be-denied bravura acting job, and if the trompe l'oeil maquillage really does makes it hard to make out the Ed Harris underneath, still, I would not go quite that far in characterizing his characterization of the compositeur-maudit. There were times in fact, when I seemed to see his agonized visage merging with that of actor Harvey Keitel -- and found myself thinking --hmm -- Keitel might not have been a bad second choice for this brutally demanding role, just in case Ed had been unavailable -- Bad Lieutenant meets half-bonkers deaf composer -- in one ear and gone tomorrow ...

All such idle speculation aside, and for whatever suspension of reality adjustments one must make to accommodate American English coming out of the mouth of this most German of composers, there is no denying that Mr. Harris, the man from Teaneck, New Jersey, has come up with a more than credible, bang-up, heavy-duty job of making this Beethoven both highly sympathetic to the audience as a severely troubled human being, while managing at the same time not to trivialize his out-of-this-world musical genius. The ability to juggle both acts simultaneously without falling off the swinging high-wire of tour-de-force performance into the beckoning net of baleful kitch below, is what marks this Ed Harris job as exceptionally outstanding -- the pinnacle of his career to date, and a sure-fire nominee for Best Actor in the next Hollywood Oscar Derby.

Of course, director Agnieszka Holland has an important hand in the creation of the illusion in question, and this is not the first time she has worked with Mr. Harris. ("Death of a Priest", 1987, where Ed played a Polish secret service policeman) The highpoint of the film, the performance of the Ninth Symphony, is a mind-blowing piece of filmmaking -- harmonizing great imagery with the greatest music ever sold -- with Harris transmogrifying into Beethoven as he conducts the orchestra with tin ears while Diane Kruger
passes the right cues up to him visually from the pit -- tremendous --I broke into a stream of unquenchable tears of I don't know what -- overwhelming joy, deep sadness, dazed hero worship, musical transcendendence -- all at the same time -- and wanted the movie to end right there -- but it didn't, and went on for another hour --and that's the hitch we'll have to deal with in our next report.

Thursday, day number eight of the festival, was packed from stem to stern with significant film viewings, three major press conferences, and meetings with colleagues, leaving little time to write about these events in any detail. The day started with the press screening in the main hall of the Kursaal Center of Bahman Ghobadi's new Iranian-Kurdish offering, "Half Moon" (Niwemang). Ghobadi is a favored son here in Donostia where his last film "Turtles Can Fly" copped a unanimous decision for the Best Film Golden
Concha two years ago. The current work, with a lengthy running time of just under two hours, again focuses on the stateless Kurdish community of Iran, and is rich in Kurdish cultural and folkloric material with the usual sparkling, natural performances he invariably draws from his predominantly Kurdish performers, and the huge panoramic landscapes of the barren mountainous Persian terrain which have come to typify his visual style.
"Half Moon" might be characterized as a road movie in which a group of traditional Kurdish musicians consisting of Maestro Mamo and his ten sons, set out in a school bus from Tehran for the border area where Iran abuts against both Turkey and Iraq, hoping to stage a musical event with traditional instruments for their Kurdish brethern in Iraq -- now a possibility thanks to the recent fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. At the border they run into unpleasant military confrontations with near disastrous results for their treasured project. Mamo, (Ismail Ghaffari) the handsome old man who is the leader of the delegation, is so distraught that he gets into the coffin where the Kurdish instruments have been concealed and asks to be buried alive. At the touchy border crossing they are met by a beautiful mysterious young woman who offers her assistance in getting them past the ominous border guards. "Half Moon" , while dealing with the precarious position of Kurds in this strife torn part of the world, is much lighter in tone than his previous "Turtles Can Fly" and is almost a comedy, but with serious political overtones. The beauty at the border is played by Hedieh Tehrani, currently Iran's most popular leading lady of the silver screen. With her looks and on screen charisma its not hard to see why.
She reminds me of a cross between Italy's Monica Belluci and Pakistan's former president Benazir Bhutto. With Iran's growing presence on the world film scene I would be willing to bet my bottom Euro that it's only a matter of time before this striking actress is discovered by some Western director and breaks out into an international career. She was present at the press conference and speaks English, so that language would be no hindrance.
Remember folks -- you first read that here! But if Hollywood gets their hands on her they'll probably change her name to "Hedy" (as in Lamarr).

At the press conference following the screening director Ghobadi was very relaxed, often smiling, and, though speaking in Farsi through an interpreter, looked every questioner straight in the eye while his interpreter translated into Spanish. This was a tri-lingual press conference as some questions had to wind their way from English through Spanish, then into Farsi -- and back again by the same route. Fun! An important question, put to Ghobadi by Steve Ashton of the Napa Valley Wine Country festival in California, was whether or not the film was censored or impeded in Iran. Ghobadi replied that first of all, he received no internal support to make the film in Iran and therefore had to import equipment from Europe (this was an Iran-Iraq-Austra-France co-production) and, when finished, it was banned from screens in Iran. The DOP, incidentally, was a New Zealander, Nigel Bluck. This is the director's fourth feature since his highly acclaimed debut "A Time For Drunken Horses" in 2000. All have been shown at important festivals, Mar del Plata, Cannes, and the last two here in Donostia. At 37 Bahman Ghobadi would appear to have a long road ahead of himself and is clearly a name to remember.

Next on the day's agenda was Oliver Stone's powerful 9/11 drama "World Trade Center" which is only peripherally about the Al Qaida assault on the Twin Towers on that fateful date, but focuses rather on two real life cops, JJ Mc Loughlin and Will Jimeno (Nick Cage and Michael Peña, respectively, in the roles) who went into the hellish wreckage to save lives and were themselves trapped in the ruins. If Agnieszka Holland's "Copying Beethoven" was 'heavy duty', then Stone's WTC can only be called "industrial strength" film making. Heavy, heavy, heavy ... and monumental in every sense of the word. No time for details today, but all I can say is that anyone who thinks this is anything but a great motion picture and a towering achievement, needs to have their head examined. Do not expect to come out laughing. The film was shown here, in its Spanish premiere on a giant screen at the Velodrome Stadium which heightened the effect even more. Stone, who has had several of his earlier films premiered here received a long respectful ovation when he showed up in a bright orange silk shirt to say a few words of introduction before the show. Earlier in the day he held a one man press conference the content of which deserves to be reported verbatim for the grave thoughtfulness and intelligent depth of his remarks. Unfortunately, I didn't get it all down on tape but will try to find time to summarize the main points before I leave town.
And, oh yes, before I forget -- in need of some lightening up to recover from the brain-damaging effect of WTC I made my way, on foot, back to the Kursaal on the beach front for a midnight showing of the delightful French omnibus film "Paris, je t'aime" -- Tagline: 'Stories of Love. From the City of Love' -- and that's just what it was. Twenty top filmmakers each bring their own personal touch and variety of styles to present their own five minute take on a like number of Paris neighbourhoods -- seamlessly integrated into a single film that is pure joy from beginning to end. About half the film is in English, or partly in English (or in broken French, or in ridiculously American accented French), because among the actors who appear are: Steve Buscemi, Nick Nolte (nearly unrecognizable on a shadowy street except for the voice), Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands (a gem of a segment), Natalie Portman, Bob Hoskins, etc., not to mention Juliette Binoche, Gerard Depardieu, Fanny Ardant and other French stars -- Among the directors: Ethan and Joel Coen, Gus van Sant,(in a subtly gai segment), Wes Craven,Tom Tykwer ... there's no way not to come out of this one tripping on air, and it is so trippy in its construction that it really needs a full treatment, segment by segment, to do it justice. The best thing of its kind I've ever seen. Hopefully justice will be done by the time the Conchas arrive.

By Alex Deleon, San Sebastian
September 28, 2006

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