By Gary M. Kramer.
The 54th New York Film Festival showcases more than one hundred features, shorts, documentaries and experimental films September 30 – October 15. Many of the titles are the latest films by some of the biggest names in world cinema—Pedro Almodóvar, Olivier Assayas, Paul Verhoeven, and Ang Lee—and there are screenings of surefire Oscar contenders Manchester by the Sea and Toni Erdmann. But many of the gems of the fest are the smaller, lesser-known films that might fly under the radar in such prestigious company. Here are reviews of five titles that deserve attention.
Sieranevada is writer/director Cristi Puiu’s absorbing 3-hour Romanian chamber drama about a family gathering to honor its late patriarch, Emil. With the exception of two sequences, the film takes place entirely in a modest apartment. Sieranevada opens with Lary (Mimi Brănescu) and Laura (Cătălina Moga) in their car arguing about shopping, a vacation, and their daughter’s Disney costume. The mini-dramas continue once inside the apartment. Lary argues with his mother, Nusa (Dana Dogaru) about an exercise bike he bought her; Laura wants to go back out to Carrefour to do some shopping; Sebi (Marin Grigore) talks 9/11 conspiracy theories; and then Cami (Ilona Bosânceanu) arrives with a Jana (Petra Kurtela), a passed out Croatian girl.
Puiu keeps the talky action moving as viewers eavesdrop on the family members as the camera pans and weaves in and out of the crowded rooms. The characters are given little introduction (since they all know one another), forcing the audience to determine the relationships for themselves and come to understand the dynamics between husbands and wives, siblings, parents and children.
The film does require considerable attention, but it is consistently rewarding. At the midpoint, a priest shows up for the memorial service, after which the family can commence eating. Of course, there is more drama before the meal actually gets served. Sebi has to wear one of Emil’s suits, which is too large for him and Tony (Sorin Medeleni) arrives and all hell breaks loose when he airs some dirty laundry. Lary eventually escapes the apartment to assist Laura with some parking trouble. But rather than providing a breather from the claustrophobic action, when Lary steps outside, he encounters an intense argument. This scene is followed by a devastating exchange between Lary and Laura in their car. That Puiu films this emotional bombshell from the backseat, with only Lary’s eyes seen in the rear view mirror, makes it even more powerful.
Sieranevada may boast an epic length for an intimate drama that unfolds in real time, but Puiu’s film is moving because it captures the quotidian aspects of the characters’ lives. The naturalistic performances also contribute to the film’s success. As for the film’s many symbols and metaphors, or the nature of the characters’ motivations, or even the meaning film’s title, they are mostly—and thankfully—left open to the viewers’ interpretation.
Everything Else is a spellbinding, observant character study about Doña Flor (Adriana Barraza), a lonely government clerk in Mexico City. Her life is one long dull routine. She is a stickler for details on her bureaucratic forms—only one color ink on the forms; sign only inside the box—because it is her only way to assert control. Doña Flor applies her lipstick, and washes and stacks her pantyhose with the same intensity she handles her clients. Her ordered life is very deliberate and full of palpable despair. She visits a swim club everyday, hoping to have the courage to go in the water, but mostly resisting.
Something does happen in Doña Flor’s life that prompts a change, and it would spoil the magic of Everything Else to reveal what transpires. Director Natalia Almada composes every shot like a painting, and Barraza gives a magnificent performance—just watch her reaction to a man who challenges her authority. The film is as sublime as it is subtle.
The new documentary, Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy by esteemed filmmaker, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Dry Season, A Screaming Man, Grigris), is a devastating work. With the assistance of Clément Abaïfouta, Haroun interviews various men and women who suffered, were imprisoned, and/or were tortured under the regime of Hissein Habré, who forcefully took power in Chad in 1982. Haroun’s camera examines the large, deep scar on the back of a man’s neck that may have viewers wondering how he is still alive. Drawings showing various tortures administered on the victims are horrifying; a man recounts being around so much death in prison he wanted to die.
The testimonies and descriptions of these human rights abuses are disturbing, but Haroun’s film includes them to work towards their healing. In a lengthy, powerful episode, he reunites a jailer and an arrested man to seek forgiveness. Other moments emphasize that enduring the suffering makes these victims “stronger than death.” Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy concludes with Habré being charged with and convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity. A speech being read by a female prosecutor as Haroun shows the empty courtroom in the Palace of Justice where the trial will take place is deeply moving, and possibly the strongest moment in this remarkable, difficult documentary.
The Rehearsal, directed by Alison Maclean is an absorbing dramatic feature about Stanley (James Rolleston), taking his first year of acting class at an Auckland institute. His teacher, Hannah (Kerry Fox) tells her students that they will “break or be broken,” and as Stanley participates in various acting exercises he struggles before he slowly earns Hannah’s respect. The film, which charts the course of a year, unfolds organically, with episodes of Stanley adjusting to school and his classmates as well as meeting and dating Isolde (Ella Edward). When Isolde’s 15-year-old sister Victoria (Rachel Roberts) is caught having an affair with her tennis coach, Stanley and a team of fellow performers prepare an end-of-year group project depicting the scandal—unbeknownst to Isolde.
While Maclean’s film treads some familiar territory—a sudden off-screen death, an ill-advised romantic relationship, and secrets between Stanley and various characters—The Rehearsal mostly overrides its contrivances, offering some very interesting observations about human nature, situational ethics, and the process of interpreting life and art. The performances by both Fox and Rolleston are very strong, but what is most pleasing about the film is that ends with a scene that would satisfy Hannah, who tells her students she wants to be surprised and shocked.
The New York Film Festival’s retrospective program features a dozen films directed by Henry Hathaway. One of them, The Dark Corner, from 1946, showcases a top-billed Lucille Ball as Kathleen Stewart, a wisecracking secretary to Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens), a PI with a past that is catching up to him. Filmed in deep shadows, The Dark Corner is not nearly as fatalistic as the best noir films of the era, but this entertaining drama, boasts a plot that involves blackmail, adultery, betrayal, defenestration, and a nifty car chase. There is also some great hard-boiled dialogue and lines like, “I can be framed easier than ‘Whistler’s Mother.’”
When Galt is set up for a murder he didn’t commit, he must track down the guilty party. Ball is more sidekick than femme fatale as Kathleen assists her boss in his efforts. Her romance with Bradford is even a bit corny, but Ball shows some real verve in the part. Stevens, in one of his early screen roles, has an engaging presence as the put-upon PI. In support, Clifton Webb sparkles as an oily art gallery owner, but Cathy Downs, who plays his wife, proves herself to be a terrible actress. The Dark Corner may be no more than a curiosity for viewers, but it is certainly worth a look.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.