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21st Philadelphia Film Festival, October 18-28, 2012




By Michael Miller.

Unspooling at eight venues across Center City and West Philly, the 21st Philadelphia Film Festival celebrated mainstream, independent, and foreign cinema from local filmmakers and world masters. The festival offered something for every film lover from its various programs, which included World Narratives, New French Films and Spanish Language Cinema; the festival also has strong offerings in the Sight and Soundtrack and Documentary showcases.

The opening night feature, The Silver Linings Playbook (Russell, 2012), was shot in and around Philadelphia and its suburbs. Philadelphia’s native son Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence play two young adults navigating their recovery from emotional trauma and mental illness. The movie vacillates between comedy and drama as it depicts their relationship. Lawrence in particular shines as a young widow who copes with her loss by preparing for a dance competition. Cooper gives a convincing performance as a damaged young man dealing with depression and anger issues as he tries to reconnect with his estranged wife. The film, a crowd-pleaser, not only gave the actors good, juicy parts, but also showed off the city to the hometown crowd.

In Barbara (Petzold, 2012), the title character (Nina Hoss) is a young doctor in 1980s East Germany who has been posted to a hospital in the countryside. Barbara shares little of herself upon arrival, but her story is revealed in seemingly unrelated shots that the viewer must assemble. The film depicts the conflicts and secrets ever-present in the security-state. Exiled to the provinces for a reason, Barbara is constantly under the watch of a Stasi (East German secret police) agent and their pas de deux is tense as it plays out over the course of the film.

The Philadelphia Film Festival also boasted a pair of strong documentaries on legal cases. Based on the book by Sarah Burns The Central Park Five (Burns, Burns and McMahon, 2012) is a fascinating documentary that recounts the story of five young African American and Hispanic men from Harlem wrongly charged and convicted of a brutal crime. On April 19, 1989, a young white woman is raped in New York’s Central Park. Fueled by the tabloid media and television, the police are under extreme pressure to find those responsible for the assault. With little evidence other than being present in the park on that evening, the five youths ranging in age from 14 to 17 were charged. Using archival film and first person interviews of the five, viewers hear the story of their arrest, the circumstances of their confessions, and the poor imitation of justice that passed for their trials. These men spent up to thirteen years in prison for this crime, which they did not commit, until another man – already incarcerated as a serial rapist – confessed to the crime. What is striking about The Central Park Five is that as these men tell their stories, and even though their lives have been horribly disrupted, they are calm, reflective, and display a dignity that is impressive considering their circumstance.

Portrait of Wally (Shea, 2012), articulately unwinds the restitution of a painting after 70 years. The Wally of the title is Walburga Neuzil, the flame-haired mistress of artist Egon Schiele. Her portrait is one of a pair by the artist of his lover and himself. Lea Bondi Jaray, a Jewish Vienna gallery owner, acquired the painting for her personal collection at a time when Schiele’s work was not well known. Along with the commercial contents of the gallery, the painting was confiscated by the Nazis following the Anschluss. The film recounts the series of events after World War II that resulted in the portrait’s coming into the possession of Rudolf Leopold, an Austrian collector and owner of the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Whether that acquisition was legal is a point explored in depth in the film. What sets the film in motion is the hanging of Wally as part of a Schiele retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1997. Descendants of Lea Bondi Jaray enlisted U.S. government officials to secure return of the work to the family and prevent its return to Austria following the exhibit. In what could have been a dry and dull examination, the filmmaker presents the minutia of international property law clearly and compellingly. The sense of urgency displayed by the attorneys and prosecutors is palpable as each judicial decision is rendered as to whether to release the painting back to Leopold. Adding intrigue to the story is the role of the Museum of Modern Art, a story on National Public Radio (NPR) about the controversy, and the interference of a U.S. Senator. This is an extremely satisfying film about how the operation of law overrides the venality of some men who feel entitled to have things their way due to their station in life.

Lastly, one of the highlights of the festival was the provocative offering, Paradise: Love (Seidl, 2012), which follows Teresa a middle-aged Austrian woman seeking love and affection at a seaside resort in Kenya. She travels there with a female friend and is introduced to sex tourism. At first insecure and a little prudish, she recoils at her friend’s bawdy behavior. As the film opens, we see how empty Teresa’s life is at home with her self-involved teenaged daughter and soul-crushing job attending to special needs children. While not necessarily likable, we have sympathy with her predicament. Coming out of her shell, she has encounters with the young men who offer various wares (and unspoken companionship) from the periphery of the resort. We see another side of her. Needy and insecure, we watch as she mistakes attention for love from a series of afternoon escorts, who all request money from her. That the audience is one step ahead of Teresa in seeing how an encounter develops is part of what makes this film noteworthy; the viewer’s opinion of Teresa devolves with her behavior. Audiences come away with a vivid picture of human nature that is equal parts infuriating and unsettling.

Looking forward to 2013, the Philadelphia Film Society, presenter of the Philadelphia Film Festival, also announced its multi-year lease of the Roxy Theater in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood of Center City. The existing two-screen venue will be renovated as funds are raised and become a year-round film center offering independent and art house titles that have struggled to find a screen in the city.

Michael Miller is an independent scholar and frequent film festival contributor to Film International.

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