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Checking The Pulse of European Cinema

 

Penelope Cruz in BROKEN EMBRACES (Spain) 

The New York Film Festival, which enters its final weekend today, has presented a program with a large emphasis on European cinema. With a strong showing of films from Portugal (http://www.fest21.com/en/blog/filmnewyork/a_peek_at_portugese_cinema_at_nyff) and

France (http://www.fest21.com/en/blog/filmnewyork/the_french_invasion_of_new_york), the Festival finds that contemporary European cinema from other nations not only has a strong pulse but is definitely on the rise.

 

Lars von Trier, the enfant terrible of Danish cinema, is back at the Festival with the highly controversial ANTICHRIST, a shocking psychological thriller about a couple (played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who attempt to find their love again after a tragic loss and play out a sado-masochistic cat-and-mouse game in the forests which unleash the hidden monsters lurking in their souls. Another meditation on contemporary couples is explored by German director Maren Ade, in the film EVERYONE ELSE. Winning both the Silver Bear for director Ade and the Best Actress prize for Birgit Minichmyr at the Berlin Film Festival, the story charts the ups and downs, joys and jealousies, frustrations and fulfillments of a young couple on a summer holiday. Inner truths are revealed which are both harrowing and heart-stopping.

 

Also director from the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Albert Bauer Prize, is the latest meditation on human relations by iconic Polish director Andrejz Wadja. The celebrated storyteller returns with SWEET RUSH, a bold, somewhat experimental work that juxtaposes a story about a terminally ill doctor’s wife who rediscovers romance and a deeply emotional monologue written and performed by the actress Krystyna Janda about the death of her husband. The film, which Wajda had once planned to make as a straightforward drama, was interrupted by the death of Janda's real-life husband (and Wajda's frequent cinematographer), Edward Klosinski, prompting the director to reconceive the project as a film about the filmmaking process.

 

Another European film playing with cinematic technique and form is ROOM AND A HALF, a film by the celebrated Russian animator/filmmaker Andrey Khrzhanovsky. Creating a kaleidoscope of scripted scenes, archival footage, various ty[es of animation and surrealist flights of fancy, the film ultimately is a stirring portrait of poet Josef Brodsky and the postwar literary scene that he inhabited. The film had its world premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival and has since become a favorite on the film festival circuit.

 

Looking back at recent history provides a deep well of contemplation of human behavior in any age for the celebrated directors Marco Bellocchio and Michael Haneke. In VINCERE, Bellochio harkens back to the pre-Fascist Italy and a secret marriage that Mussolini had with Ida Daisler that produced a son born out of wedlock. When the future Italian dictatort categorically denies the marriage and the son born from it, it becomes a fascinating meditation on the manipulation of truth and history that is necessary for government to retain its legitimacy amidst human foibles and errors in judgment. The film was the big winner of the awards given by the Italian National Syndicate of Journalists, winning top honors for Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design and Best Actress (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). The film is the current favorite for Italy’s submission to the Academy Awards.

 

Looking at an earlier formative period, the Austrian director Michael Haneke offers a stark yet beautiful portrait of small town life in northern Germany circa 1913 (just prior to the outbreak of World War I) in THE WHITE RIBBON. A series of violent behavior, including the physical and emotional torture of several children, exposes the treachery, small mindedness and innate cruelty of the residents. With the exploration of the cruely wrought on children by their parents and by authority figures in general, Haneke present a thought-provoking perspective on how this youthful generation would grow into the German citizens who either tacitly approved or  actively engaged in the Nazi campaigns of dehumanization and murder. The film, which  won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, and has since tantalized audiences at film events in Europe and North America, is a disturbing and numbing tale that rewards its audiences with the beauty of its imagery and the revelatory nature of its acting.

 

The Festival saves the best for last, with the Closing Night Gala of BROKEN EMBRACES, the latest melodrama from Spanish stylist Pedro Almodovar. Again starring his muse, the actress Penelope Cruz, the film marks the director’s eighth film at the New York Film Festival. Almodovar tells his story in shifting time periods, drawing lines of relationships between all the protagonists that fully reveal themselves by the picture’s end. A blind screenwriter, living and working under a pseudonym, learns of the death of a powerful industrialist who once served as his producer. The tale then spirals into a morality lesson of naked ambition, forbidden love and devastating loss. With his characteristic mix of melodrama, film noir, romance and candy-colored comedy, the director creates not only a hommage to film in general, but a look back at his own influences and stylistic exercises. BROKEN EMBRACES opens in November via US arthouse distributor Sony Pictures Classics and could figure strongly in the awards season later this year.

 

Sandy Mandelberger, Film New York Editor

 

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