07 October, 2008

Strong European Presence At New York Film Festival

Hunger (Steve McQueen, UK)

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

The New York Film Festival, which is celebrating its 46th anniversary this week, has long been a supporter of European cinema. Over the decades, it has showcased and many times cemented the reputations in the United States of such iconic filmmakers as Michaelangelo Antonioni, Jean Luc Godard, John Schlesinger, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodovar, Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski and many others.

That tradition continues this year, with almost half of the Festival's films being entirely European in origin or part of a co-production pudding with European film resources. New Yorkers are avid Europhiles, so the marriage is a good and lasting one.

French cinema, as has already been reported in this blog, is always an audience favorite, with the Festival showing four French films and various co-production efforts. A Christmas Tale by Arnaud Desplechin brings together some of France's most celebrated actors (Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Almaric, Melvil Poupaud and Chiara Mastroianni) in an acerbic portrait of modern family life. Family tensions and rivalries are also at the core of Summer Hours (L'Heure d'Ete) by director Olivier Assayas, which features a sparkling cast led by Juliette Binoche. Let It Rain (Parlez-moi de la pluie) is the latest film from urbane social satirist Agnes Jaoui, exploring the realms of class, power and sexual politics in a seemingly simple story of a feminist novelist who returns to her small country town. Daniel Leconte, the French investigative journalist and satirist, chronicles the messy legal trial surrounding cartoons published in the weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo that lampooned Muslim fundamentalism, in what has to be the Festival's most unusual title, It's Hard Being Loved By Jerks (C'est dur d'etre aime pare les cons).

Italian cinema is having a mini-renaissance and one of its more controversial films was screened this past week. Gomorrah, directed by Matteo Garrone, is a stylistic and brutal depiction of the influence of the Mafia in a tapestry of five personal stories. The film is graphic in its violence but its visual artistry also leans to the poetic. The same can be said for Hunger, by UK video artist Steve McQueen. The winner of the Cannes Camera d'Or, the film is a brutal neo-realist portrayal of the final days of Bobby Sands, an IRA revolutionary who starved himself to death while being incarcerated in a British prison. Michael Fassbender, a German-born but Irish-raised actor, gives a haunting and physically demanding performance as he literally becomes skeletal in pursuit of justice for his compatriots and his cause.

Although it has an American director (Steven Soderbergh) and a South American protagonist (Che Guevera), the film Che, a 4 1/2 hour biopic of the famed revolutionary that premiered at Cannes this year, is indeed a French/Spanish co-production. The film, which features an extraordinary performance by Benicio del Toro that will surely be remembered at awards season, faces major challenges because of its length and attention to detail. However, it is certainly destined to be one of the most talked about films of the season.

Other European films premiering at the Festival include Bullet In The Head (Spain/France), an intensely claustrophobic film about modern surveillance that is also a superb mystery by director Jaime Rosales; Chouga (France/Kazakhstan), a modern day version of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina by Kazakh director Darezhan Omirbaev; Four Nights With Anna, an existential thriller by Polish director and NYFF favorite Jerzy Skolimowski; Happy Go Lucky, the breezy yet profound new meditation on life and love by UK director Mike Leigh; Northern Land, Portugese director Jao Botelho's adaptation of a prize winning novel that interlocks stories that cross centuries, classes and lifestyles; and Tulpan (Germany/Kazahhstan/Poland/Russia/Switzerland), a beautifully rendered story of love and desire set on the empty fields of the Kazakhstan Hunger Steppe.

With their various genres, subjects and visual stylings, one thing is abundantly clear. European cinema remains an intriguing counterpoint to Hollywood and the source for much pleasure and inspiration for audiences willing to take their particular journeys.

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