Monday, April 16, 2012

The Mpls/St. Paul Int’l Film Festival 2012

The Mpls/St. Paul Int’l Film festival is underway once again, and the dismal weather has arrived right on cue. We’ve seen only four films thus far but they give some indication of the range of works on view.

My Mother’s Farm depicts the career of a Latvian farmer as seen from the eyes of her daughter who emigrated to Norway. The story takes us from the end of WWI to collectivization under the Soviet yoke to liberalization following the collapse of the USSR to yet a further currency and trade revolution when Latvia joined the EU. Most of these changes were devastating to farmers, and yet the portrait that emerges is of a remarkably bright and strong-willed individual who not only worked her tail off on the farm, but also found the time to become a citizen advocate for a wide range of civic causes.

The Art of the Islamic World follows the well-worn pattern of those TV shows where the talking heads are well-lit and their comments are so manicured and succinct as to be almost vapid. Interspersed with these sound-bites about Islamic art and religion are glorious pans across the surface of buildings, ceramic objects, panels of mosaic tiles, and beautifully wrought sacred texts.

Five themes—Word, Space, Ornament, Color and Water—serve as a framework for the exposition, though the underlying message is that Islamic art draws on an extraordinary range of cultures, from Sudano-Sahelian architectural forms to Chinese and Indian motifs. The most engaging interviewee is a bearded, burly gentleman from California who converted to Islam, became a master-calligrapher, and then went to Turkey to learn the art all over again from local masters. Segments on the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali (the largest mud brick building in the world), the Taj Majal, and the Alhambra were also interesting, though I left the theater with the feeling that by focusing on those elements of Islamic art that have “universal” appeal, some of the more idiosyncratic and compelling pieces might have been left behind.

Restoration is a brilliantly quiet Israeli film about a furniture restorer named Fidelman, his son Noah, his son’s pregnant wife, and a stranger he hires to work in the workshop. A few minutes into the film Malamud, Fidelman’s partner for forty years, dies, but his outsized character haunts the tale. It was Malamud who took on Fidelman as a partner, Malamud who kept the business solvent, secured the loans, kept clients happy. As the film develops, we begin to suspect that the shadow Malamud casts over Fidelman’s family is event longer than that.

Fidelman is an extraordinary craftsman but he’s a taciturn, sour-faced man in a dying business. Noah wants him to build apartments on the property and make some money. (Strangely, Malamud willed the site to Noah himself, rather than his father). But Fidelman, who can’t imagine any other life than the one he has, wants to keep the shop open and take out yet another loan.

Anton, the young man Fidelman hires from off the street to help him in the shop, is an odd duck. He’s an icy soul, on the run from his family, but a good worker, and Fidelman takes to him in a way that Noah finds a little disturbing. Anton spots a piano in the back of the shop that may be worth a lot of money. If they can replace the sound board successfully, Fidelman might be able to sell it and keep the shop alive.

The final element in this complex web of conflicting interest and affections is Noah’s pregnant wife Hava. Noah is not only preoccupied by the task of convincing his father to close down the shop, but also anxious about an imminent promotion, and Hava brightens her day by joining Anton in the quest for piano parts. (A few sparks begin to fly.)

Restoration is one of those films in which faces do much of the talking, and Sasson Gabai, who plays Fidelman, carries a heavy load of pride, anger, and disappointment in his. There isn’t a weak link in the ensemble, in fact, and the string quartet that plays on the street outside the shop from time to time is only one of many minor touches contributing to the beauty of this slow burn of a family drama.

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