Monday, April 20, 2009

Int’l Film Festival

We wandered down to the Mississippi on Sunday morning, planning to grab a bit at Kikugawa and then see a film or two at the festival. The restaurant was closed but the nearby Astor Café was open. There were couples sitting here and there scanning their festival schedules, and a man walked past our table with a smile so open that I almost asked him to join us. I wish I had. Turns out it was Toshifumi Matsushita, the director of Pachamama, the first film we saw. Matsushita (who studied law in Japan before turning to films) has spent the last ten years making movies about indigenous musical traditions.

Pachamama (which means Earthmother) tells the story of a young boy who lives with his family on a salt desert in Bolivia. The first half of the film allows us to settle into the rhythms of life in the village and on the distant salt fields. In the second half, we follow the main character and his father, along with other villagers and a herd of llamas, up into the mountains to distribute the salt they’ve been cutting into blocks all year. There are a few dramatic moments and one or two surreal sequences involving masks and feathered costumes and dancing—just enough to vary the pace and bring us even closer to the lives of these kind and simple people. Near the end of the film the caravan arrives at a mountain town on the eve of its harvest festival, giving us a remarkable peek at a place and a way of life most of us will never view first-hand.

Matsushita spoke after the film, but we were obliged to rush to the theater next-door, where Carolos Saura’s latest film, Fado, was being screened. It shares with Saura’s earlier productions, Flamenco and Iberia, the use of stage sets, mirrors, dancers, and famous singers who (as usual) aren’t identified until the final credits.

Fado, as you probably know, is a Portuguese musical style characterized by melancholy ballads sung to the twittery accompaniment of the Portuguese guitar (a sort of oversized mandolin). Bouncy up-tempo numbers offer variety from time to time, though they draw upon the same vocal inflections and chord progressions. Considered all in all, fado is far less diverse and intense than flamenco, but it can be subtle and expressive in its own way, and Saura has succeeded in making an immensely satisfying film within its somewhat narrow range of wistful emotion.

Much of the credit, of course, goes to the performers themselves, many of whom I had never heard of. I recognized the reigning queen of fado, Mariza, the young back Cape Verdean diva Lura, and the flamenco cantor Miguel Poveda. Amália Rodrigues (who did more than anyone to put fado on the map during her 40-year career) appears in films clips, as do other stars. Near the end of the film a traditional fado club date is re-inacted, with various singers standing up from their tables to sing a few verses. The instrumental numbers are also first-rate, as is the fado hip-hop number. I left the theater in a very happy mood, saying to myself, “Gee, I guess I like fado more than I thought I did.”

We were in the mood for some Spanish bocquerones (deep-fried vinegar-cured anchovies) but such dishes not being available hereabouts, the smelt and calamari at the nearby Red Stag Inn served as a fitting substitute. Thus refreshed, we returned to St. Anthony Main for round three—a Lebanese film called One Man Village.

Though sketchier in technique and a more roundabout in development, this little gem explores the life of the only man remaining in a mountain village that once boasted forty-three families. Semaan had loved his family’s cattle as a youth, and has abandoned a career in the city to return to his childhood haunts along with five cows that he refers to affectionately by name and milks daily. Life is peaceful and simple, though various relatives and former neighbors return from time to time to keep the orchards in shape and enjoy the summer air high above the city.

In the course of interviews with Semaan and his visitors, we learn a little about why everyone left. It was during the Israeli invasion of 1982, though no one wants to talk about it much. We also learn why Semaan never married, how his parents died; and perhaps we even learn something about how he can remain satisfied with such a simple and apparently lonely life in an abandoned village. In fact, watching the film, I felt that I was back in Delphi or the Alpujarras. And that’s a nice feeling.

We resisted the temptation to join the line that was waiting outside the screening room next door to see a film about Iran’s president Ahmadinejad, returning home after a fairly long and stimulating day to read about Lebanon’s troubled history in Rashid Khalidi’s recent book Sowing Crisis.

But the film festival is just beginning.

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