SF Int’l Film Fest: The Monastery, Times and Winds, Flandres

After living in San Francisco for 15 years, I finally made it a point to see some films in the annual International Film Fest. It took a bit of footwork–research on their site, an email to my good cinephile friends detailing the films I was wanting/able to see, some deft advance ticket ordering–but I definitely feel rewarded. The three films I saw left me amazed about the quality of international cinema. Here’s a bit of a rundown, more observation clusters than reviews:

The Monastery

My lovely wife Melissa accompanied me to this excellent doc by 34-year-old Pernilla Rose Grønkjær. Here’s a plot summary from the writeup in the Fest program:

In practiced solitude, with only his countless books as company, 86-year-old former parish priest and university librarian Jorgen Laursen Vig presides over the dilapidated country estate he bought decades ago. Never married and stoically self-sufficient, Vig has little human contact beyond the handful of folks who live on or near the grounds of his rundown Hesbjerg Castle. But change is in the air after he approaches the Russian patriarchate with the idea of turning the place into a Russian Orthodox monastery. The church dispatches a small team, headed by a certain Sister Amvrosija, to assess the property and set the process of conversion in motion. Vig likely expected a prayerful shrinking violet or a rose-cheeked novice effusive with gratitude, but Sister Amvrosija is a pragmatic and determined woman. When she returns several months later to stay, a polite but bracing battle of wills ensues. Vig and the nun negotiate and squabble, with Sister Amvrosija gently but persistently edging her way into his carefully controlled life.

Over her five years of filming, Grønkjær builds The Monastery on a variety of themes, issues and devices. She uses space most effectively. Throughout, she denotes the Lutheran Vig’s seeming anxiety about losing control over his donation, most powerfully in her generally claustrophobic depiction of the castle’s interior. The film opens with Vig dusting the attic and trying to fix a smoky old heater; his living nooks are piled in typical scholarly fashion with books and papers; eventually, even the spacious room that he designates for the church area becomes filled with Russian Orthodox icons. The denouement–in which Vig walks in silent procession around the castle behind Amvrosija as she ritually blesses it–gives us a true picture of the physical and spiritual scale of the building.

Grønkjær also intimates friction between the church and aspects of Vig’s non-Christian life. In one scene, he calls on his 50-something bohemian neighbor to ask him how many land lots near the castle he can donate to the nuns. The neighbor emerges from his hut in perfect Pan mode–lithe, bearded, and shirtless–and casually points out which lots are up for grabs, as Vig turns to the camera to reveal in a whisper what he seemingly had forgotten–that cannabis is growing on some of the land. Sister Amvrosija’s eye-averting reaction speaks symbolic volumes about the tension between notions of naturalism vs. religious dictate. In another early scene, soon after she arrives, Amvrosija very comfortably replaces one of Vig’s hanging pieces of Buddhist art with a framed Mother Mary icon she’s just presented to him, to which Vig reacts in slight dismay.

As excellent as the film is, I do have a quibble. Grønkjær’s focus on Vig’s issues with Amvrosija leaves unfortunately little time to flesh out his long life as a scholar [scroll down for his autobiographical highlights in English]. Revealed in the film as a provincial, semi-misogynist, eccentric, and ultimately sympathetic crank raised by a distant mother and with a tendency to read personalities by their noses, Vig never gets to flesh out his rich career of world travel, study, peace research, and philanthropy. This omission disappointed both me and Melissa, because such aspects would truly expand the story beyond the comparatively superficial “old man leaving behind the castle to the nun” angle. Can’t have it all.

Bes Vakit (Times and Winds)

My pal Joel and I went to check out this pastoral and disquieting Turkish film by Reha Erdam. Again, from the Fest program:

Islamic faith dictates that prayer uttered five times every day brings man face to face with his five “phases,” or states of mind resulting from the tension of workaday life: fear and desire, love and grudge, faith and pain, screams and sobbing and passion and hate. Since every encounter in Islamic life is said to create new pain—whether that of growing up, growing old or merely getting by—then prayer is the panacea for the inevitable tragedy that is life. In Turkish director Reha Erdem’s sumptuously composed fourth feature, childhood life in a rural village on a mountain overlooking the sea is the incubator for an examination of that pain as experienced through the eyes of three very different children: Ömer, the son of the local imam; his best friend, Yakup, who’s enamored with the village schoolteacher; and Yildiz, who is forced to balance her studies with the household needs of her demanding mother.

Erdam exploits the topography of the fairly desolate setting of the seaside mountain village of Kozlu with potent emotionality. He uses long pans across hills, extensive cloudy-sky shots, and minaret-highlighting horizons to perfectly reflect these kids’ struggles. The outdoor settings–which offer an earthy counterbalance to the surprisingly minimal references to Islam itself–provide an ideally emotive backdrop to scenes like the intriguing blood-brother ritual between Ömer and Yakup.

Erdam breaks up the film into five sections based on the time of day of the abovementioned prayers–morning, noon, afternoon, evening and night. He denotes these with titles on the screens to add extra understatement to some of the more poignant scenes.

In one of Erdam’s most effective techniques, he intersperses numerous medium-close pans of the three kids peacefully napping in flowerbeds, hollowed tree-trunks, and grass-patches. The effect is unsettling because until you see the kid’s chest rise and fall, you’re not positive that he or she is alive and–by extension–whether there’s been an extreme foreshadowing towards the end of the story.

So much about Times and Winds is just sheer quality: with wonderful acting (especially by the kids), brilliant cinematography, and an excellent story, it’s hard to lose. It’s realist yet pastoral depiction of the emotional struggles of youth in a stifling, economically struggling ethnic community reminded me of the best of early Pasolini.


Flandres


The Grand Prix winner in Cannes ’06, directed by Bruno Dumont proved a perfect topper to my first experience with the SFIFF. [If you’ve seen it and yr a geek like me, the official film site’s spare set of quotes from Dumont–broken down by topic–proves pretty insightful.] Here’s an excerpt from the writeup in the Fest program:

Andre, a characteristically lugubrious Dumont antihero, runs a small farm with lackluster success, communicates almost entirely in expressive grunts and shares wordless, animalistic afternoon trysts with childhood friend Barbe, an unapologetically promiscuous, emotionally unstable farmer’s daughter. Amid vague talk of war among the farmers, Andre is drafted along with Blondel, a charismatic soldier who also responds to Barbe’s sexual advances before the men are shipped off to an unnamed locale to fight an unspecified enemy. Lost in the desert (clearly somewhere in the Middle East, though no references are made to Iraq), Andre and Blondel gaze with incomprehension at, and eventually participate in, wartime atrocities while an increasingly unhinged Barbe waits back home.

This film is one of the relative few in the Fest that will get general release, and you’d make a huge mistake to miss it. Flandres hits on so many levels, offering visions of both war that are brutal without overdoing the gore, and of mental breakdown that are real without being cliched, all contextualized by some intensely emotive physical environments.

These environments–Bailleul, the idyllic French-Flandres farm village where Andre, Blondel and Barbe start the film, and the desolate and unnamed MidEast area where Andre and Blondel fight the unnamed war (revealed as Tunisia in the credits)–end up filling in so much left unsaid in Dumont’s spare script.

Joel put it most strikingly when he pointed out there’s no redemption in Flandres. The men prioritize their sexual needs, self-centeredly as civilians and violently as soldiers; the main female protagonist manipulates that sexual desire; the occupied Arab population deals brutal justice in reaction…no-one wins here, which makes the film immensely powerful.

…….

Overall, with the overwhelmingly mediocre media landscape being what it is, it’s simply nice to know that people are making potent films like these. It makes me proud to be alive in this artistic moment.

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