By Ray Pride
The eleventh annual European Union Film Festival starts Friday and plays through March at Siskel with sixty-one movies from twenty-six countries, and it may be the city’s most consistent film festival.
The Euro’s at its highest-ever valuation against the dollar, over $1.50, and on Monday, James Schamus, whose Focus Features produced the London-set period piece “Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day,” joked to New York magazine that making a movie overseas is now “that ‘Sophie’s Choice’ between ordering a pizza or paying for your kids’ college education.” But more seriously, he said that Focus “commenced the commitment to this film under a very different paradigm, before George Bush blew out the American dollar and the economy. And so he really has not been too friendly to those of us who like to make movies around the world.” Whatever effect the disparity might have on European movies being made here, it’s likely not to improve the situation for art-house and foreign-language distribution here. While that many movies won’t be to all tastes, there’s a consistency that is more impressive than even the past few editions. Some movies have distribution and will show up later, but you won’t go wrong catching those that interest you now.
Metod Pevoc’s Slovenian “Estrellita” is a musical of sorts about the violence triggered by the gift of a violin left behind by a famed musician to the son of Bosnian emigrants. Melancholy yet hopeful, it’s an interesting choice for the fest’s opening night. Olivier Assayas continues to explore the shattered consciousness of the modern world with the self-consciously pulpy, English-language “Boarding Gate,” a beguilingly nut-jobby Paris-and-Hong-Kong-set erotic thriller that boasts a lurid performance by the eminently watchable Asia Argento; Kelly Lynn, Michael Madsen and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon are also on hand with iconic, minimalist performances, and Assayas’ editing is breathtaking, as always.
More toward maximalism would be Nikos Panayotopoulos’ self-serious yet often hilariously pretentious “Dying in Athens,” the story of a vain Greek man who, as he finds he is dying, is embraced by his mistress, wife and the mistress with whom he’s cheating on mistress number one. The level of male ego and deluded fantasy is matched by sleek production and a few genuinely terrific musical numbers. By almost any measure, it’s a bad movie, but if you can shake off its premise, it often finds magic on the streets and in the tavernas and ouzerias of Greece’s capital.
German-Turkish director Fatih Akin makes a less simmering entry than his previous “Head-On” with the generous melodrama “The Edge of Heaven”; it opens later this year. Nacho Vigalondo’s twisty, violent “Timecrimes” debuted at Sundance; not only is it being released soon, remake rights were sold to its clever, troubling script. Giuseppe Tornatore’s “The Unknown Woman” is a deliriously overproduced story about sex trafficking, and it’s a heady eyeful from the director of “Malena.” Austrian misanthrope Ulrich Seidl’s “Import Export” concerns the same subject, to a more brackish result: while his work is pretty amazing, he does make Michael Haneke look like a well-behaved dinner guest.
Ken Loach is 71, yet his latest, “It’s a Free World…” continues his streak of politically engaged narratives told with economy and grace (and intermittent speeches). (Its U.S. distribution debut will be limited to video-on-demand.) Paul Laverty’s script dives to the bottom of the British job market, to see how the “free market” works for Eastern Europeans and illegals who wind up in England. Another English highlight: Paul Andrew Williams’ “London to Brighton,” a grim, brutal, assured no-budget digital video feature that takes the mickey out of posh poseurs like Guy Ritchie. This is vital genre work that does not flinch from its lowlife characters.
Here’s the knockout of the twenty or so features I’ve seen: Nick Broomfield’s “Battle for Haditha,” which depicts the notorious 2005 massacre of twenty-four Iraqi civilians by U. S. soldiers, draws on all the qualities of his decades-long practice as a documentary filmmaker, and its greatness may be indicated by the utter disinterest by U.S. distributors. Comparisons of its vérité approach to seeking all sides of the conflict have led to comparisons to “Apocalypse Now,” but its most direct forebear would be Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Battle of Algiers.” Fearlessness in the pursuit of picturing the world may be the shiniest thread that binds this selection of movies.
The European Union Film Festival plays through March at Siskel.