17 January, 2011

Film Forum: An Embrace of European Cinema

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

How fortunate are we film-crazy New Yorkers to have such a cinematic treasure as the Film Forum in our midst. The three-screen arthouse complex in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan has been an indispensable New York institution for over 40 years. As the only remaining independent not-for-profit arthouse theater (in a city that used to be pocketed with them), the Film Forum presents an enviable mix of the classic and the obscure, the heralded and the newly discovered. The length and breadth of the Film Forum's exquisite curatorial sense, as led by Founder and Executive Director Karen Cooper and Director of Repertory Programming Bruce Goldstein, is legendary.

And for lovers of European cinema (guilty as charged), both classic and contemporary, the Film Forum is an especially rich resource. Just look at its current program as proof positive of its commitment to European film. Two certifiable classics are currently on view.....the ground-breaking Russian silent film classic BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925) by the never out-of-date montage master Sergei Eisenstein and the luciously romantic and hauntingly metaphysical THE LEOPARD (1962) by Italian master stylist Luchino Visconti. On its third screen is one of the strongest films period of the last year, the Romanian drama IF I WANT TO WHISTLE, I WHISTLE by writer/director Florin Serban. While European cinema is certainly not its only focus (American indies, Latin American and Asian films are also hot commodities on the theater's ambitious slate), the continued focus on European cinema is a great gift.

After a long day of business meetings, I treated myself to a late afternoon screening on Friday of THE LEOPARD, being shown in a gloriously restored 35mm film print. Heralded by Martin Scorese as "one of the great visual experiences in cinema". Film Forum has presented this particular classic several times in the past few decades, but never has the sheer sweep of the visuals, the saturated color and the highly textured cinematographer of Guiseppe Rotunno been shown to such great effect as in this gloriously restored version (the work of Scorsese's own The Film Foundation). The film, a kind of Italian "War and Peace", revels in both its sweeping action sequences and in its intimate moments of heartbreaking nuance. Burt Lancaster gives a performance for the ages as the Prince of Salina, an aristocrat who must confront a new world order for which he is temperamentally unprepared. The fact that the actor's voice was dubbed into Italian after the fact by someone else (a common practice of the time) makes it even more remarkable. And what can one say about the exquisite beauty of Alain Delon as the Prince's nephew and Claudia Cardinale as the object of both of their affections......have two more beautiful screen gods ever occupied the same frame? This is a film to make the film lover swoon and weep with tears of both joy and regret that the aesthetics of a (non-digital) epic are now part of cinema's past.

Equally impressive is the restored presentation of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, the 1925 Soviet agit prop film that depicted the 1905 uprising that predated the actual Russian Revolution a decade later. While the film celebrates the 20th anniversary of that pre-revolutionary fervor, it is the film itself that became an incendiary bomb of creativity in a cinema that had become a bit bloated with theatrical pretension. For its master director Sergei Eisenstein, the battle cry was the imaginative use of montage, which brought added resonance to individual images and sequences and also challenged an audience's ability to follow a complicated storyline on many different planes and time frames. The classic sequence on the Odessa Steps, which has inadvertently become a kind of visual cliche, is still a tour de force of technique and emotionalism that still retains its power to shock. You cannot see it often enough, I say. So much of what we now take for granted must have seemed positively galvanizing when the film was released....a film that matched its revolutionary furvor with its own dynamic stylistic imperative. In many ways, this is a film that continues to astonish and embolden both those who create cinematic images and those who absorb them.

While it is not quite as revolutionary in its technique, the contemporary Romanian drama IF I WANT TO WHISTLE, I WHISTLE, Romania’s official entry into this year’s Oscar competition for Best Foreign Language Film, features a star-making performance by its charismatic and haunted lead George Pistereanu, who was nominated for a European Film Award as Best Actor for his debut performance. He stas as an 18-year-old about to be released from a prison for juvenile delinquents, who stages a hostage drama in order to save his beloved younger brother from the clutches of his good-for-nothing mother. The hulking thug, an imposing presence, reveals shades of desperation and unexpected tenderness as he develops a relationship with the young female hostage that he uses as a shield to press for his escape. Writer/director Florian Serban, making an astonishing debut, has cast many non-professionals as the young man's fellow prisoners, giving the film an immediacy and authenticity that both echoes and supercedes the classic prison dramas of the Warner Brothers studios, where Cagney, Raft, Robinson and Bogart played the hard-boiled lifers. Serban knows how to push the genre's buttons and to accentuate the pulp in his story, but he also brings out a layer of psychological confusion, familial tension and emotional vulnerability that makes this an affecting and heartrending personal story. It is a shame that a film of such power is not being given a fuller distribution push (the distributor, Film Movement, saves its biggest bang for the dvd market) but those interested in the continued flowering of the Romanian New Wave have a few days left to savor this compelling and uncompromising characer study.

In the weeks ahead, the Film Forum continues its embrace of contemporary European cinema with the presentations of such celebrated titles from the international film festival circuit as INTO ETERNITY, Danish director Michael Madsen's documentary on the follies of containment of nuclear waste; LE QUATTRO VOLTE, Italan director Michaelangelo Frammartino's visual tour de force that unravels four different stories set in an idyllic village in Italy's mountainous region of Calabria; and THE ARBOR, a riveting portrait of doomed UK playwright Andrea Dunbar who drew on her own hardscrabble life to create theatrical and screenplays that mine the discontent of Britain's working classes. Written and directed by Clio Barnard, the film has been an international film festival circuit hit and is an illuminating study of how pain can inform passion.

A lover of European cinema? Get thee to West Houston Street. The Film Forum is still standing after all of its specialty arthouse colleagues have long bitten the dust as a cathedral to what is still essential cinema. For more information, visit their website:


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How fortunate are we film-crazy New Yorkers to have such a cinematic treasure as the Film Forum in our midst. The three-screen arthouse complex in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan has been an indispensable New York institution for over 40 years.

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