Many people don't realize that going to the Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival is not quite the same thing as going to the movies. That may be because they haven't gone. Or haven't gone enough. Or don't have friends who go.
Going to the festival is less about story-telling or cinema aesthetics than about experiencing new elements of life. The festival itself is a gathering place for people who don't mind asking the stranger standing next to them in line, "What have you liked? How many have you seen?"
The scheduled films have not been widely reviewed, the actors are not early candidates for an Oscar nod. The only "buzz" you'll hear is generated at the festival itself. In choosing from among the hundreds of films being shown, all you have to go by is word-of-mouth, the brief and invariably laudatory descriptions in the festival brochure, and your own predilections.
For three weeks, you enjoy the bustle in the lobby, wait in the same lines, see the same introductory trailer, and listen to the same speech about becoming a member delivered over and over again by the "venue managers," who are usually about twenty years old. After a film you might wander over to Punch Pizza where they're giving three dollars off to anyone with a ticket stub. (They used to give you a free pizza!) Between films you might stop at the nearby Aster Cafe for a drink.
There's a certain pleasure associated with lining up three films one after another. On what other occasion can you travel to Kazakhstan, Peru, and Iceland on the same afternoon? If you stretch out your schedule, you'll see less, but perhaps you'll remember more.
Films that come back to me from previous fests include the Estonian film Tangerine, the Spanish film Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed, the Icelandic film White Night Wedding, the Jordanian film Thebe (later short-listed for an Academy Award), the Thai film Agrarian Utopian, the American documentary about Charles Lloyd, the British film Son of Rambow, the South African film Twilight Kingdom.
What films will stick in memory from this year? Well, we were out of town, missed the first week entirely, and ended up seeing only six or seven films. The range was decent: USA, France, Italy, the Czech Republic, Iraq, Estonia, Denmark. And consider the contrasts.
Marvelous Boccaccio, directed by the hallowed Taviani brothers (who also directed Padre Padrone, Night of the Shooting Stars, and Caesar Must Die), is a retelling of five tales from Boccaccio's Decameron. Unlike Pasolini's obscene and unsavory interpretation (1971) this film exhibits both the elegance of a Botticelli masterpiece and the stately deportment of Rossellini's Age of the Medici.
Iraqi Odyssey is a three-hour documentary detailing the history of that sorry nation as seen through the eyes of one affluent family whose members depart for New Zealand, Russia, Switzerland, and the USA in the course of time—and sometimes return home.
The Fencer is a simple tale of a young Estonian man who was forced to fight with the Nazis when they occupied his country, and is now being hunting by the Soviets for the same reason. He's been sent back home by his fencing coach, but is frustrated by the utterly bored teaching that discipline to the local kids. But it seems they have talent, and now they've been invited to compete in Moscow ... Should he take them to the tournament?
Ice and Sky is a documentary about the man who spent much of his adult life in Antarctica taking ice core samples to determine the changes the climate the earth has undergone in the last 40,000 years. There's a lot of good footage of the Antarctic wastelands, virile scientists drinking brandy and hoofing across the snow, with an occasional penguin or plane crash thrown in for good measure.
Home Care is about a woman who works for the Czech health service administering home health care to an assortment of peculiar people who live nearby. She starts the day with a shot of slivovitz, drunk straight up in the kitchen alongside her husband, and moves on from there. There is no plot to speak of, but the woman's depth of hard-headed industry and maternal compassion contrast starkly with her husband's comical but also destructive egotism.
In Transit chronicles three days on an Amtrak train traveling from Chicago to Seattle. We're on two trains, in fact, following the same route in opposite directions, jostling back and forth throughout the film from east to west. Along the way we get to know quite a few of the passengers, many of who have hard luck stories to tell. Everyone seems to be heading home or escaping from some domestic imbroglio. It's a little bit dull but also intermittently "real" in a way that many films aren't. The oil fields of North Dakota figure prominently in the tale. But of course, there is no "tale."
On the festival's final day, I was planning to see a comedy-drama from Albania called Bota, but I got a toothache and went to the dentist instead.
And now that the fest is over, it's time for the rain to stop.