Occurring in January, the IFFR feels like the season opener for the annual round of international film festivals, with one foot in the past year and one in the future. Some of the films have played at other film festivals, with their European premieres taking place at Rotterdam, while others are fresh out of the production house for their world debuts, all of which serve to presage the offerings for upcoming festivals in 2013.
The very broad and encompassing catalogue evidences a film festival dedicated to excellent – I hesitate to say ‘art house’ – world movies. And what an eclectic bunch it was. Space permits only short observations on a select handful of works, so I start with two of my favourites: Oh Boy directed by German first-timer, Jan Ole Gerster, and another first feature by Cameroonian (by way of Los Angeles) director Victor Viyuoh, whose harrowing but moving film, Nina’s Dowry is a terrific and unforgiving look at oppressive village life in Cameroon, where wives are bartered for and treated ‘less well than cattle’. The story of the heroine’s journey to freedom – for which she pays a high price – is a wonderful testimony to the human spirit and a salutary lesson to Western audiences. The more so, as Viyuoh informs us that the story is based very closely on a relative’s terrible, true story. Not an easy watch, but an essential one.
Viyuoh’s film takes place far from the world of contemporary Berlin, where Jan Ole Gerster sets his narrative about a slacker-hero’s journey through the social strata of the city. A Candide-like figure, he goes on a simple and ultimately fruitless search for a cup of coffee, during which time he comes to a profound self-realisation. Shot in black and white, with a terrific jazz soundtrack, Oh Boy introduces a real talent to audiences. Gerster displays a very assured, mature and confident hand, and his film carries the DNA of all those off-beat counter-cultural films by the likes of the BBS gang. The film has garnered a fistful of awards on the Festival circuit in the last months: Best Film, Best Actor, Best Direction and Best Script. Keep an eye out for the release of these films and for future works from both of these impressive new talents.
Many of the ‘old masters’ of cinema have lately raised their lenses above the parapet and offered new works. Not – unhappily – with great results. De Palma fizzled out with his rather over-wrought Passion (2012), Copolla’s Twixt (2011) is painful, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Tree (2011) was a failure, and now comes one of my favourites, Bernardo Bertolucci with his Me and You (I e te).
The film tells the story of an oddball 14-year-old boy who hides in the cellar of his home to avoid going on a ski trip with his fellow students. He is joined by his beautiful half-sister, who is an addict trying to quit. She shatters his tranquil world and many familial truths come to light. This synopsis makes the film sound like it is rather perfunctory and that the director is merely going through the aesthetic directorial motions. It is. And in this, it is somewhat reminiscent of his 2003 film, The Dreamers, which also got critical short shrift for many of the same reasons. Poor Bertolucci – now wheelchair bound – should have taken note. Sexy adolescents and their world are probably something beyond his directorial grasp these days – and it pains me to say it.
Not had enough of elder cinematic statesmen working with nubile young actresses? Then Alicia Scherson’s The Future (Il futuro) is right up your alley. Intertextual to the last, the film stars the ageing action star Rutger Hauer playing…yes, you guessed it, an ageing action star! Named Maciste, he is prone to hiring ‘lady companions’ to cavort about in the nude doing Last Tango in Paris type things (and with the same attempted existential gravitas). A beautiful young thing is induced to throw her lot in with a couple of Eastern European lowlives, who her brother has befriended and taken in to their parent-less house. These two small-time crooks believe that Maciste has a fortune stashed somewhere in his mansion, and recruit the beautiful young thing – after they both have sex with her – to become an object of sexual interest to Maciste. His interest in her amounts to ritually anointing her body in oil, a la his old Italian peplum films. All this body-oiling is voyeuristically captured in loving detail by the camera – the better to titillate audiences. In all honesty, it is a great role for Hauer, and even the creaky plot is acceptable enough, but the whole composition of the film and the outlandish gratuitous sex give it a distinctly unintended campness. It’s a strange brew that is a cross between a 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) or 1987’s Angel Heart (with intellectual aspirations) and a Last Tango in Paris (1972) with a heist plot thrown in. Could become an unintended classic of its type – art-house drive-in kitsch.
Finally, speaking of drive-in aesthetics (can’t help your roots!) I come to the intriguingly titled Misericordia: The Last Mystery of Kristo Vampiro, a weird post-modern Mondo-type film by Khavn de la Cruz. The voice-over narrative is provided by one Kristo Vampiro, who in his ceaseless search for blood follows a camera crew to the real-life cock fights, self-flagellation and acted crucifixions so beloved of certain groups of Filipino believers. In between, the film crew spends time at the rock bar, Hobbit House, where all the servers are dwarves – and a ringside brothel provides entertainment. All this to the accompaniment of a mouth-organ soundtrack. Who could ask for more?
James B. Evans