Monday, December 31, 2012


Having drummed out the Latin beat of Cine Latino at the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), I now turn my attention to northern climes with this year's featured series Nordic Light, which focuses on productions from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Over 20 titles make up the series, including the Academy Award® submissions from these nations, as well as Inuk from Denmark's self-governing island Greenland.

As detailed in PSIFF's press release: "For the Nordic territories, 2012 represented an exceptional year marked by well-deserved kudos going to new talent and familiar faces, culminating in Golden Globe nods for both A Royal Affair and Kon-Tiki. At the Berlinale, A Royal Affair claimed awards for best script and best actor for newcomer Mikkel Boe Følsgaard. At Cannes, Følsgaard's Royal Affair co-star Mads Mikkelsen nabbed the best actor prize for The Hunt, a gripping contemporary morality tale that serves as our Nordic Gala.

"In the fall, too, Nordic pictures continued their winning ways, with Eat Sleep Die from debuting director Gabriela Pichler bagging the audience award at Venice Days and many other awards besides. Another debutant, Mikael Marcimain, landed Toronto's prestigious Discovery Award for his masterful political thriller Call Girl. After screenings in Toronto and Venice, Tobias Lindholm's hostage drama A Hijacking turned into one of the autumn's hot buzz titles."

For this entry I've amplified PSIFF's program capsules with critical overviews, where available.

Call Girl (Dir. Mikael Marcimain, Sweden, 2012, 140m)—Inspired by the 1976 prostitution scandal that led straight to the heart of the Swedish government, Call Girl is a meaty, never sensationalistic political thriller that profits from its slow burn approach. The multi-strand story unfolds against the backdrop of an election season in Stockholm. The politicians are legislating new rights for women even while patronizing underage whores.

Lurking at the center of the plot like some malevolent spider, is busy madam Dagmar Glans (a tour-de-force performance by Pernilla August, clearly reveling in the chance to play a full-blooded but always credible baddie). The clients in her little black book include government officials, foreign ambassadors and criminals. She employs students and housewives in need of ready cash, but she also recruits young teens. Various branches of the police and security service monitor Dagmar's activities; so, too, does a string-pulling government liaison officer. When a devoted young vice sleuth and a retirement-ready homicide cop accumulate evidence to charge her with procurement, not everyone in power welcomes the findings of their investigation. Winner: FIPRESCI Discovery Prize, Toronto Film Festival; Silver Audience Award, Stockholm International Film Festival. IMDb. Facebook. U.S. Premiere.

At Variety, Alissa Simon observes: "Working from a strong script by Marietta von Hausswolff von Baumgarten, Marcimain directs in a confident style, revealing an eye for period detail and a willingness to take time building nuanced characters. Marcimain cut his teeth on several prize-winning TV miniseries and as second unit director on Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, all shot by lenser Hoyte van Hoytema, who does standout widescreen work here. ...The superb craft package perfectly captures the gritty realism of a world where glittery sex clubs exist within a stone's throw of somber government offices, and their respective inhabitants often lie closer." At The Hollywood Reporter, John Defore writes: "Despite a good deal of nudity and the occasional (joyless) sex scene, Marcimain's tone is never sensationalistic. A steady (some will say dry) mood persists, with the behind-closed-doors action making a mockery of the politicians, who are seen on talk shows and the campaign trail congratulating themselves for the government's enlightened policies regarding women's liberation and evolving sexual mores. Design and photography capture the era effectively without kitsch, and an excellent synthesizer-heavy score by Mattias Bärjed supplies a bracing, burbling pulse." At Screen, Anthony Kaufman adds that Call Girl pays "powerful attention to mood, period detail and a damning argument about the hypocrisies of Sweden's liberal politic" but qualifies "the film doesn't satisfy the most basic narrative expectations." On YouTube, Elliot Kotek interviews Marcimain and actor Simon J. Berger.

A Caretaker's Tale / Viceværten (Dir. Katrine Wiedemann, Denmark, 2011, 85m)—This provocative parable centers on the bitter custodian of a grim housing complex and the mute, naked woman with healing sexual powers he discovers in an empty apartment. Playing far better than it describes—and not without humor—this is a controversial drama with exceptional performances that won't be to all tastes but which is certain to generate conversation.

Life doesn't seem particularly rosy for misogynist handyman Per. His wife left him. Their son is a junkie. His back hurts, his neck is stiff and the property he manages requires one dirty job after another. Most nights end over beers with whiny, parasitical neighbor Viborg—until fate throws the girl, like some fallen angel, his way. The screenplay by the prolific, versatile Kim Fupz Aakeson (A Somewhat Gentle Man, PSIFF 2011) walks a fine line between exploitation and creativity, but manages to land on the side of art. He makes the woman a different sort of caretaker, while acclaimed theatre director Katrine Wiedemann avoids any moralizing about the story's unusual premise. Be advised: this film contains explicit sexual scenes that some may find disturbing. IMDb. Facebook [Danish].

The PSIFF program capsule is cribbed from Alissa Simon's Variety review. At Nisimazine, Eirini Nikopoulou comments: "Despite Lars Mikkelsen's overwhelming performance which distinctively commands us to delve into the leading character's soul, we will never learn whether Per will love her in sickness and in health. Because this film is not about true love's final destination but about its power to transform anyone who is brave enough to experience it." At the Danish Film Institute (DFI) website, a synopsis and statement by Wiedemann are available for download. At their festival publication FILM, they've also published an interview with Wiedemann.

Curling King / Kong Curling (Dir. Ole Endresen, Norway, 2011, 75m)—When asked why he loved curling so much, a Canadian friend deadpanned, "It's the only sport where you can keep your beer cold just by putting it down." The country's different but the underlying sense of the absurd is the same in Norwegian Ole Endresen's hilarious debut, a comedy about sweeping and throwing rocks that knowingly turns the tropes of the "sports comeback" movie on their collective heads. Some critics have even mentioned The Big Lebowski and the films of Wes Anderson as points of comparison…

A decade ago, Truls Paulson (Atle Antonsen, perfect as a charming slob) ruled the ice as Norway's most obsessive curling champion—so obsessive, in fact, that his finicky ways led to institutionalization. After release, he begins a life of quiet desperation, enduring the imprecations of a bossy wife by losing himself in mundane TV. Until, that is, a friend in need calls him back to the rink. Will anything—his marriage, his sanity, his professional pride—survive this risky return? Director Endresen and actor Antonsen answer this question in high comic style. IMDb. Facebook.

The Deep / Djúpið (Dir. Baltasar Kormákur, Iceland, 2012, 95m)—This real-life survival tale offers a powerful, authentically elemental depiction of an incident that still haunts the Icelandic psyche. When rust-bucket fishing trawler Breki put out to sea in March 1984 an accident with the trawl caused the boat to capsize in rough waters. The entire crew was swept overboard into the cold, dark Atlantic. To the horror of shy, paunchy 20-something Gulli, the others, including his best friend Palli, quickly succumb to the elements. Calmed and comforted by the seagull wheeling above him, Gulli swims and talks, telling the bird about the unfinished business that he wishes that he could live to complete. He miraculously survives six hours in the freezing ocean, ultimately reaching safety.

"At the end of Kormákur's masterful blend of sound and fury, the real-life fisherman tells national television, 'No one is really bothered by this thing happening.' Thing? In typical Icelandic fashion, he downplays his unique personal experience; like his character in the film, Gulli is much more at home talking about the fate of his mates." (Howard Feinstein, Screen International). IMDb. Wikipedia. U.S. Premiere.

World premiering at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Kormákur's The Deep was selected as the Icelandic entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, and achieved the January shortlist. At Tales of OdieNary Madness, the "Odienator" offers up Kormákur's introductory comments from the TIFF premiere. At Entertainment Weekly, Solvej Schou interviews Kormákur. At Iceland Review, Sveinn Birkir Björnsson does the honors.

Eat Sleep Die / Äta sova dö (Dir. Gabriela Pichler, Sweden, 2012, 104m)—Gabriela Pichler, the daughter of a Bosnian and an Austrian, stresses the reality of contemporary Europe in her first feature as writer / director. Eat Sleep Die takes place in rural southern Sweden where lively, spontaneous Rasa Abdulahovic (a vivacious turn from Nermina Lukac) spends her evenings looking after her worn-out father and socializing with her fellow workers from the vegetable packing plant. Rasa can pack 12 bags of lettuce in 45 seconds, but when it's time for the factory cut staff, she is one of first to go.

Without a job, Rasa is forced into an odd world where bureaucracy rules and "confidence coaching" is deemed imperative. Her sense of disorientation and loss of purpose increases when her beloved father goes to Norway to find work. The small-town life that she is clinging to just seems to be getting smaller. She begins to realize that there is a bigger world out there and ultimately she will have to face it. Winner: Audience Award, Venice Film Festival Critics' Week; Grand Jury Prize (New Auteurs), AFI; Best Actress and Golden Giraldillo, Seville European Film Festival. IMDb.

At Fandor, Dave Hudson has highlighted the critical response from Venice and Toronto. I might add James McNally's Toronto Screen Shots characterization of Eat Sleep Die as "a portrait of working-class life that feels documentary-like in its realism, but with real warmth between its characters." McNally hails Lukac's performance as "remarkable" and adds: "Playing this rough tomboy with a herculean work ethic, she's nothing short of magnetic, especially in her reactions to the drudgery of unemployment and the inanity of the local job center's efforts to help." McNally generously provides his recording of Pichler's TIFF Q&A. At Flickering Myth, Oliver Davis concurs: "The film is so naturalistic—with its handheld camera, location shooting and lack of recognizable faces—that everything works like a poetic documentary. There are definitely subtexts of immigration, xenophobia and recession if you're in the market for them. But on first viewing, the characters—even Pappan—are harmlessly absorbing." At The Hollywood Reporter, Stephen Farber writes: "The director may rely too heavily on her handheld camera, but this technique gives the film unmistakable energy that keeps us involved throughout Rasa's turbulent journey."

Either Way / A´ annan veg (Dir. Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, Iceland, 2011, 85m)—Two highway maintenance men in the barren wilderness of 1980s Iceland find themselves at a literal and figurative crossroads in this terrifically endearing comedy. Serious thirty-something Finnbogi (played by co-writer Svein Ólafur Gunnarsson) wants to use his spare time to improve himself. Meanwhile, his younger, hot-to-trot brother-in-law Alfred would prefer to drive hours to civilization and go clubbing. At first, they gall each other as they paint white stripes on the roadway far from other human contact. But ultimately their barely civil tolerance evolves into real friendship as they support each other through romantic travails. The gorgeous visuals favor long takes, wide frames and moving shots that allow the acting to carry the story. Incidentally, director David Gordon Green is working on the U.S. remake. Winner: Best Film, Torino Film Festival; Best Supporting Actor, Cinematography and Costume Design, Edda Awards. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

At Variety, Alissa Simon writes: "Wisely employing the harshly beautiful landscape as the third principal character, tyro helmer Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson highlights human vulnerability and the struggle to create something meaningful and lasting."

A Hijacking / Kapringen (Dir. Tobias Lindholm, Denmark, 2012, 110m)—What a year it has been for Tobias Lindholm. This spring, The Hunt, a film he co-scripted with Thomas Vinterberg was one of the Cannes Film Festival's best-received competitors. In the fall, his second film as director, the tense thriller A Hijacking, turned into one of the buzz titles at the Venice Film Festival. The William Morris agency just signed to represent him and the film keeps collecting festival prizes.

When Somali pirates board a Danish cargo ship and demand a ransom for the safe passage of the crew, the shipping company CEO rashly decides to handle the negotiations himself—after all, he reasons, he's a cut-throat deal-maker by trade. His confidence is not shared by the hostages as days in cramped, increasingly fetid confinement drag into weeks with no release in sight. Lindholm's low-key, documentary style makes their dilemma all too believable. This is impressive, gripping moviemaking straight from the news headlines. Winner: Best Film, Thessaloniki Film Festival; Best Actor, Abu Dhabi Film Festival; Audience Award, AFI. IMDb. Wikipedia.

At Variety, Guy Lodge asserts: "Hostage thrillers are all-too-often shrill affairs, with clock-watching screenwriters wringing maximum melodrama from spiraling disorder. Not so Tobias Lindholm's superb A Hijacking, which actually grows more chillingly subdued as its nightmare scenario unfolds. A fictional but sweatily plausible account of a Danish cargo ship ambushed by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, which alternates between tensions onboard and in the Copenhagen negotiation chamber, it's a formidable sophomore feature from the already accomplished writer-helmer." At The Hollywood Reporter, Neil Young adds: "Lindholm again collaborates with key personnel from R [aka R—Hit First, Hit Hardest, (2010)], chiefly cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck and editor Adam Nielsen, in a production which exudes impressively steely control on all levels. We shift back and forth between the sleekly modern Copenhagen office-suites and the Rozen, the below-decks atmosphere on the craft turning miasmic as the men cope without access to basic hygiene facilities." At Screen Daily, Mark Adams deems A Hijacking "a masterful exercise in building the tension, never resorting to quick dramatic tricks and keeping the tone appropriately serious as the clock keeps on ticking." At FILM, Per Juul Carlsen interviews Tobias Lindholm.

The Hunt / Jagten (Dir. Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, 2012, 111m)—A parent's prime responsibility must be to protect his or her child. The same goes for a school and its pupils; a community and its children. So when first one, then another, and finally several infants all imply that kindergarten teacher Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a pedophile, he's immediately ostracized, a pariah in the small town where he himself grew up and made a life. Only one thing, though: the charges are false, the result of a single, silly lie that spins far out of control and contaminates the perception of anyone it touches.

In his most successful film since The Celebration, Dogme co-founder Thomas Vinterberg remorselessly turns the screws on Lucas, showing how easily public opinion can embrace the blood lust of a lynch mob, and testing how even a fundamentally good man responds to such malignant stress. This probing psychological drama is as gripping and cathartic as any thriller, with a searing performance from Mikkelsen at its core. Winner: Best Actor and Ecumenical Prize, Cannes Film Festival. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Lots has been written on this film and Dave Hudson has gathered up the best of the Cannes coverage at Fandor. Also at Fandor, Sean Axmaker admits The Hunt had him "knotted up in anxiety and frustration"; but, also had him reflecting "on the far more ambiguous and complicated reality of Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans, elements of which The Hunt clearly appropriated." At Twitch, Kurt Halfyard proposes: "When I see the Zentropa logo come up in front of a film, my knee-jerk reaction is that the film will be a provocation. After all, Lars von Trier is not only one of the co-founders of the company that deals in that sort of cinema, but he created the Dogme95 movement with Vinterberg as well. ...The curious thing about the picture is that despite it being an act of empathy for Lucas, even if his only flaw is casual aloofness, it is equally a savage attack on all the women in town. ...If von Trier turns his women (Antichrist notwithstanding) into otherworldly martyrs, Vinterberg seems to be aiming for shrews. ...I cannot wait to read the inevitable Women's Studies PhD thesis on this movie. Zentropa does it again!" DFI offers an interview with Vinterberg and profiles Mads Mikkelsen.

The Hypnotist / Hypnotisören (Dir. Lasse Hallström, Sweden, 2012, 122m)—Based on the international bestseller by Lars Kepler, the first in a series featuring Detective Inspector Joona Linna, this dose of Nordic noir from director Lasse Halström (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, PSIFF 2012) marks his first Swedish production in 24 years.

In the middle of a dark December night, psychiatrist Erik Maria Bark (Mikael Persbrandt, In a Better World, Everlasting Moments) receives a call from a hospital in Stockholm. DI Linna (Tobias Zilliacus) needs him to communicate with an unconscious youth through hypnosis, enabling the police to question him. They must learn who brutally murdered his parents and younger sister, in order to track down and save his older sister before it is too late. It has been ten years since Erik last practiced hypnosis, and he promised never to do it again. When he finally allows himself to be persuaded, a violent and inexplicable course of events starts to impact his life and his family. IMDb. Wikipedia. North American Premiere.

At The Hollywood Reporter, Neil Young's bottom line is: "Lasse comes home—but Mr Hallström's clumsily plotted Swedish policier is more lukewarm than chilling." At Variety, Boyd van Hoeij expands: "What Hallström brings to the table is a solid direction of the actors and several gorgeous, high-angle shots that firmly place the story in its Swedish context, particularly Stockholm. But his work with rookie feature cinematographer Mattias Montero is otherwise just OK, allowing a lot of light into the lens and often flattening the picture, with a subsequent loss of detail in the darker areas. Editing by Thomas Tang and Sebastian Amundsen is uneven at best; the rapid, disorientating cuts used to signify flashbacks or visions stand in jarring contrast to the otherwise unenergetic approach to the material. Score is serviceable but pretty character-free." At Movie City News, Dave Poland conducts a video interview with Hallström.

I Belong / Som du Ser Meg (Dir. Dag Johan Haugerud, Norway, 2012, 117m)—First time director Dag Haugerud has a distinctive way of observing human beings and the dilemmas that daily life offers. Playful and nuanced, I Belong is an extremely Norwegian tragicomedy about three women who have a small soft-spot in their personality, and are hit hard when their idiosyncrasies meet the light of day.

A nurse gets into a dispute at work because she switches to speaking English when she gets nervous. A translator compromises her integrity when persuaded to translate a book she doesn't believe in. A financially struggling elderly woman and her daughter are humiliated when a well-to-do relative offers a gift of one million kroner. I Belong shows how what may seem like something of little importance to one person can seem like a grand disaster to another. It's about people who mean well, but end up hurting one another. And about how those who act on integrity and feelings are seen as troublesome in a society where the ideal is to behave rationally. IMDb. North American Premiere.

Inuk (Dir. Mike Magidson, Greenland, 2010, 90m)—It's rare enough to see a film from the frozen country of Greenland, but to see one as accomplished and visually exciting as Mike Magidson's coming-of-age drama is a pleasure indeed. Magidson makes thrilling use of sweeping vistas and wide-open snowy landscapes in this eco-friendly tale of one teenaged boy's coming to terms with his Inuit heritage.

As a child, Inuk (played as a teen by newcomer Gaba Petersen) witnessed his father's death in a tragic dog-sledding accident. Since then he has lived with his increasingly alcoholic mother in the capital, Nuuk, cut off from his former life in the wilds. When social services finally steps in, Inuk finds himself living near his traditional home and paired up with taciturn hunter Ikuma (Ole Jørgen Hammeken), whose attachment to the land and knowledge of traditional ways offer a glimpse of a different life for the troubled teen. Harnessing the dogs, the odd couple embarks on a seal-hunting expedition (a visceral sequence handled with style and verve by Magidson) and Inuk comes face-to-face with his past. Winner: Best Film, Director, Editing, Savannah Film Festival. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

At Variety, Jay Weissberg writes: "U.S. helmer Magidson and French co-scripter Jean-Michel Huctin aim to touch on multiple interconnected themes, encompassing not just changing lifestyles and personal tragedy but global warming as well. While the pic at times feels as if it's trying too hard to incorporate all the expected hot-button topics, it generally manages to does so without feeling overly preachy. The bare-bones outline is more or less a template shared with other films about indigenous peoples, yet Inuk still reps an appealing, well-crafted look at a little-seen community."

Jackpot / Arme Riddere (Dir. Magnus Martens, Norway, 2011, 90m)—Tightly scripted by director Magnus Martens from a story by Nordic noir maestro Jo Nesbø (Headhunters, PSIFF 2012), this blackly comic caper unspools at a rollicking pace. Opening with a literal bang and filled with jaw-dropping twists, the story alternates between the investigation of a messy crime scene at stripper bar Pink Heaven and flashbacks showing how sole survivor Oscar wound up there, bloody and terrified, beneath a fat woman's corpse.

In small town Norway, near the Swedish border, Oscar supervises troublesome ex-cons as they produce artificial Christmas trees. When he joins three of his charges in a soccer betting pool, the quartet defies the odds and winds up with a winning ticket. But given the personalities involved, it stands to reason that the multi-million kronor payout won't be split four ways, and that the factory's wood chipper and nail gun will be put to nefarious use. Cinephiles and thriller fans will delight in this stylish and fast-paced action-comedy, with its spot-on performances, inspired albeit gruesome gags, crack comic timing and barbed dialogue. IMDb.

I first heard about Jackpot at last Summer's Fantasia Film Festival, where it was included in a spotlight on Danish and Norwegian film. For their program note, Kevin LeForest enthuses that Jackpot "keeps hitting you over the head with beer bottles, throwing severed body parts in your face and splashing blood all over you, yet all the while, you can't help but grin or downright laugh out loud. Martens's film, which is also genuinely suspenseful at times, benefits greatly from flamboyant cinematography, sharp editing and shrewdly used music." The music alone commits Jackpot to offbeat Christmas programming. PSIFF's program note is cribbed from Alissa Simon's Variety review. At The Hollywood Reporter, John Defore expects Jackpot to attract remake-rights attention but cautions, "success with such worn-out tropes would be tough to replicate, especially considering how much entertainment value comes via idiosyncratic performances from its Norwegian cast." Specifically, "a wry, skeptical performance out of Henrik Mestad (as the detective investigating the murders) that's so off-kilter we don't need Fargo allusions—a gag with the recycling plant's plastic-shredder one-ups that film's wood-chipper scene—to tell us how seriously, or not, to take the action." At Slant, Nick Schraeger dismisses the project as "a wannabe-early-[Guy]-Ritchie effort, full of colorful miscreants, seedy milieus, sex and profanity, and quick-cut flashbacks and narrative focus jumps from one nefarious character to another. ...Feigning both fatalistic cynicism and happily-ever-after hopefulness in equal measure, it's merely a grim retread cast in a two-decade-old mold."

Kon-Tiki (Dirs. Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg, Norway, 2012, 118m)—More than half a century ago, young Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl became one of history's most famous men with the Kon-Tiki voyage, an astonishing journey of 4300 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean on a balsawood raft. His filmed record of the journey won the Academy Award in 1950. But it didn't tell the whole story…

A handsome and charismatic figure, Heyerdahl developed a theory that Polynesia had been settled by peoples travelling east from South America, not west from Asia as previously thought. No one in the scientific community took him seriously. After an American professor joked he should try sailing from Peru to Polynesia on a balsawood raft, Heyerdahl realized that is what he must do. Christening his raft Kon-Tiki after a sun god, Heyerdahl set sail with five daring crew. Only one knew how to sail. Even though he was afraid of water and couldn’t swim, Heyerdahl was willing to sacrifice everything and everyone to prove himself right. This gripping true-life adventure tale from the directing team behind PSIFF favorite Max Manus is Norway's most lavish feature film to date. Official site [Norwegian]. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

At the L.A. Weekly, Michael Nordine writes: "Like a lot of historical reenactments, it's often concerned with demonstrating what an exceptional fellow its protagonist was, which doesn't help convince us that he might not survive the Ahabic excursion he's imposed upon himself. Just because we already know the destination doesn't mean the journey shouldn't be as exciting as possible." At The Hollywood Reporter, Sheri Linden adds: "This retelling of a bare-bones enterprise by six men took a crew of hundreds, and the results are nothing if not polished, with handsome period detail and visual effects that are convincing, if sometimes ostentatious. The widescreen lensing (the film was shot mainly in and around Malta) doesn't overdo the sense of wonder and, with a strong assist from the sound design, conveys the men's vulnerability to the elements. But too often the directors ride the surface rather than plumb the story's depths, relying on a score by Johan Söderqvist that abounds in obvious cues. Those signals of danger and grandeur emphasize the otherwise streamlined script's heavy-handed lapses." YouTube sports the film's AFI Q&A session.

The Last Sentence / Dom Over Dod Man (Dir. Jan Troell, Sweden, 2012, 125m)—From the director of PSIFF audience favorite Everlasting Moments comes a dramatic and poetic true story about a man who could not be silenced. The Last Sentence weaves together a psychologically insightful love story with a portrayal of the tenuous political situation neutral Sweden found itself in during the Second World War, and proves that at 81, the esteemed filmmaker Jan Troell is still at the height of his powers.

Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen) was one of the leading journalists in Sweden in the 20th century. As managing editor of the Gothenburg economic daily Handelstidningen, he fought a one-man battle against Adolf Hitler and fascism throughout the war years. It was a difficult fight, only made possible because of his reputation, the power of his conviction and the fact that he had friends in high places, not least among them his lover, the Jewish intellectual Maja Forssman (another tour de force performance from Pernilla August), the wife of his publisher. Exquisitely filmed in black and white, The Last Sentence continues Troell's mission to illuminate history. Winner: Best Director, Montreal World Film Festival; Best Actress (Pernilla August), Chicago Film Festival. Trust Nordisk site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

At Ferdy on Films, Marilyn Ferdinand comments that "this story offers a wonderful example of how necessary a truly free press peopled with brave journalists who will speak truth to power is to creating a just world." She adds: "The Last Sentence is punctuated with war news that has the effect of coming as news flashes that immediately recede into the background as the drama of Torgny's domestic affairs take center stage, yet there is a subtle parallel between the macro and micro in the film. Sweden faces subjugation not only from Nazi Germany but also Soviet Russia when the Red Army invades Finland. A panicked populace hangs onto its gossamer-thin lifeline of neutrality."

Liv & Ingmar / Liv og Ingmar (Dir. Dheeraj Akolkar, Norway, 2012, 83m)—Radiant Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann reflects on her relationship with Swedish director Ingmar Bergman in this personal documentary. The film mixes Ullmann's candid reminiscences and voice-over narration (extracts from her book Changing) with clips from Bergman's films, passages from his love letters to her and luscious archival photos and footage.

Ullmann (at the time a shy 25) first met Bergman, then 46, on the set of his film Persona in 1965. Although both were married to others at the time, their attraction was powerful and immediate. In his letters, Bergman called them "painfully connected." Ullmann left her husband and went to live on Fårø Island with Bergman, later bearing him a daughter. Their fraught affair ended five years later, but their breathtakingly fruitful collaboration and friendship continued until the end of his life. In all, she acted in 12 of his films and directed two of his screenplays. (Ullmann is also featured in this year's suspense drama Two Lives.) Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

At The Hollywood Reporter, John Defore writes: "One of cinema's most significant romances is eulogized with reverence in Dheeraj Akolkar's Liv & Ingmar, which might more rightly be titled Liv on Liv & Ingmar. Cinephiles of a certain age (and younger ones with tastes shaped by the Criterion Collection) will lap it up, and Hallvard Bræin's cinematography is certainly lush enough to justify a big-screen run before the doc gets to video." At The Independent, Kurt Brokaw adds: "Ullmann has fashioned a stellar later life for herself, not only writing and directing but as a traveling UNICEF goodwill ambassador, as the founder and co-chair of the Women’s Refugee Commission, and as the recipient of an honorary PhD from the Norwegian University of Science And Technology. Unlike Ingrid Bergman, whose star was tarnished when she left a marriage for Rossellini, Ullmann's decision to leave her first husband for Bergman may have been lost in the mists of time; it seems unimportant to the actress now. But as Woody [Allen] reminds us, hearts still want what hearts still want, whether in 1949, 1966, or today. Both Ingrid and Liv took their chances, with very different results." Frank Digiacomo interviews Ullmann for Movieline. Bilge Ebiri does the honors for Vulture. At WNYC, Leonard Lopate interviews both Ullmann and Akolkar, as does Melissa Silverstein for Indiewire. On YouTube, David James Friend conducts a video interview with Akolkar.

Marie Krøyer (Dir. Bille August, Denmark, 2012, 103m)—This exquisite-looking period romance is the first Danish feature film in two decades by the Oscar®-winning director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror; The Best Intentions). Regarded as the most beautiful woman in Denmark in the early 20th century, Marie [Krøyer] was a muse for her husband, the renowned (but mentally ill) painter P.S. Krøyer. They lived in remote Skagen where numerous artists gathered, attracted by the exceptional light and natural scenery.

An artist herself, Marie finds frustratingly little time to develop her talent since she is torn between serving as her husband's favorite model and sometime nurse, homemaker and caring mother to their young daughter. Exhausted by her husband's manic episodes, Marie visits Sweden where composer Hugo Alfvén's dashing looks, admiring words and sexual charisma sweep her off her feet. Since the possessive Krøyer won't agree to a divorce, they try a disastrous menage-à-trois in Skagen. But when Marie abandons her life and social status in Denmark to follow her love to his native land, her dreams are thwarted. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook [Danish].

The Danish Film Institute (DFI)'s festival publication FILM offers an interview with August, and another with producer Signe Leick Jensen.

Purge / Puhdistus (Dir. Antti Jokinen, Finland, 2012, 125m)—This gripping adaptation of the prize-winning novel of the same title by Sofi Oksanen looks at the legacy of Soviet oppression in the Baltic nation of Estonia through a sprawling tale of sex trafficking, abuse and betrayal. Two women from different eras are dogged by their own shameful pasts and the dark, unspoken history that binds them.

It is 1994 and the Soviet Occupation has finally ended. A lonely, secretive, suspicious old lady, Aliide has experienced the horrors of the Stalinist period and the deportation of Estonians to Siberia. One night she finds a disheveled, scantily dressed girl collapsed in her yard. It is Zara, who has just escaped from the iron grip of the Russian mafia who held her as a sex slave. As the histories of these two women emerge, we witness the culmination of a tragic family drama of rivalry, lust, and loss. Note: This film has disturbing scenes of violence against women. Official site [Finnish]. IMDb. Wikipedia. North American Premiere.

At The Hollywood Reporter, Stephen Dalton writes: "Purge is a gripping and polished hybrid of contemporary thriller and historical melodrama. It features two interwoven plots: one set in post-Communist Estonia, the other during the brutal early years of Soviet occupation at the end of World War II. ...Jokinen's historical horror story is ultimately less concerned with conflict between nations than with the unending war waged by cruel men against vulnerable women. It is superior gothic melodrama at heart, but feels true enough to have real emotional bite." If Dalton has any complaint, it is that cinematographer Rauno Ronkainen's "visuals may even be too aestheticized in places—scenes of mass execution, torture and rape should not look this pretty."

Road North / Tie Pohjoiseen (Dir. Mika Kaurismäki, Finland, 2012, 110m)—A prodigal father returns to Helsinki to reconnect with the son he abandoned 35 years earlier and con him into a journey towards the Arctic Circle in this jaunty comedy. Overweight and shambling but still charismatic, Leo (Finnish national treasure Vesa-Matti Loiri) has lived to pursue pleasure, always fleeing when he encountered problems. Now, as he nears the end of his metaphoric road, he wants to patch up all the potholes, although in his own unconventional, not necessarily legal way.

His son Timo is a concert pianist, and seems to be Leo's polar opposite: uptight, bound by rules, appointments and a constantly buzzing cell-phone. But out on the highway in the red Catalina convertible that Leo steals for the ride, Timo soon proves a chip off the old block. Director Mika Kaurismäki's best films have dealt with music or road trips. Road North combines both elements along with plenty of heart and was one of Finland's biggest box office hits of the past year. IMDb. Facebook [Finnish].

PSIFF's program capsule is cribbed from Alissa Simon's Variety review. At The Hollywood Reporter, John Defore writes: "The script, cowritten by Kaurismäki and Sami Keski-Vähälä, makes a predictable arc from small revelations to large ones, with breaks for comic mishaps and even a genuinely charming musical number. But while there's a mission behind the trip, Kaurismäki stands at arm's length from clichés about emotional self-discovery and learning to love that which irritates us." Road North is already available for DVD rental from Netflix.

A Royal Affair / En kongelig affaere (Dir. Nikolaj Arcel, Denmark, 2012, 137m)—This compelling, character-driven costume drama illuminates a fascinating chapter in Danish history. British princess Caroline Mathilda (Alicia Vikander, Kitty in Anna Karenina) arrives at the Danish court in 1766 as a naive teen bride, but she is crushed to discover that King Christian is mentally unstable and easily manipulated by the scheming Dowager Queen.

A reformist faction arranges the appointment of Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), a German intellectual from the provinces, as physician to the pious court. His enlightened methods soothe the troubled king, who makes him his confidant and, eventually, chief minister. Caroline, too, warms to the visionary doctor. Soon they're sharing more than books—and rapidly proposing reforms that benefit peasants and serfs at the expense of the nobility. Although rumors of their intimacy outrages the court, the idealistic Struensee fails to see that it is his challenge to entrenched interests that will spell his downfall. Winner: Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Berlin Film Festival. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

At the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert writes: "The principles of the Enlightenment, which would inspire the French Revolution, first took practical shape in Denmark in the 18th century. The books and ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau arrived there under the arm of Dr. Johann Struensee, a German physician who was hired to care for the young King Christian VII, and eventually took very good care indeed of his comely new queen from Britain, Queen Caroline Mathilde. ... Nikolaj Arcel, the director, makes good use of locations in Prague, everybody's favorite backdrop for a historical European city, and the players and costumes make this look like a historical romance. It's ever so much more, as we discover in scenes that bracket the main action, revealing the tensions and dangers experienced by the brave young queen. Is it too much to suspect that she carried on her affair for reasons of idealism, not lust?" At Variety, Alissa Simon opines: "Surprisingly the first fiction film to treat this subject, A Royal Affair (as scripted by Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg) try but don't always succeed in balancing this epic love story with political thriller elements as they pack more than five years' worth of momentous events into slightly more than two hours." At Indiewire, Leonard Maltin adds: "Director Nikolaj Arcel, who also co-wrote the screenplay, stages the action in a brisk, modern mode that makes A Royal Affair easily digestible and satisfying." At The New York Times, A.O. Scott suggests otherwise: "Though A Royal Affair is programmatically committed to modernity—to the banishment of superstition and religious authority, to the rule of law and the supremacy of reason—it is in almost every way a decidedly old-fashioned film. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Stately, stagy expositions of history have their place in the world of entertainment, and the acting is both solid and agile, communicating the feelings of passionate people in a passionate time. But the movie also succumbs to many of the vices of the period film: didacticism, excessive length and the tendency to read history as a set of moral diagrams." At FILM, Per Juul Carlsen interviews Arcel.

This Life—Some Must Die, So Others Can Live / Hvidstengruppen—Nogel må dø for at andre kan leve (Dir. Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis, Denmark, 2012, 122m)—Germany occupies Denmark on April 9, 1940. Although the Danish government decides to cooperate with the occupying forces, some citizens actively resist. Based on fact, This Life tells the story of the Hvidsten group, comprised of ordinary men and women from a village in eastern Jutland who received and hid agents and supplies dropped by British aircrafts. Rivaling the big budget resistance epic Flame & Citron as a Danish box office phenomenon, this intimate, affecting historical drama maintains a tone of simple dignity and national pride. It's an auspicious directorial debut for actress Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis (best known here for von Trier's The Idiots).

When innkeeper Marius Fiil first organizes a local network to pick up and conceal the men and materiel parachuted in, the risk seems negligible and the work a thrilling adventure. His son, son-in-law and daughters all participate, along with the vet, the miller, a mechanic, and some farmers. But events eventually take a grimmer turn. Bring plenty of tissues! Winner: Audience Award, Hamburg Film Festival. IMDb. North American Premiere.

The PSIFF program capsule is, once again, cribbed from Alissa Simon's Variety review, wherein she expands: "Although the screenplay by Ib Kastrup, Jorgen Kastrup and Torvald Lervad lacks nuance at times, with dialogue heavily foreshadowing events, it achieves considerable poignancy by underscoring the beliefs of a more innocent era. The protagonists discover far too late just what the Reich was capable of. Helmer Bjarup Riis's great achievement is to keep this all from playing as melodrama. She creates and maintains a tone of simple dignity and national pride, worthy of the words written by the prisoners to their families, which are used to heartbreaking effect near the pic's end. Thesping tends toward the one-note but is nonetheless effective." On Vimeo, Cineuropa profiles Bjarup Riis as one of Variety's 10 directors to watch.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

LISTS: My 10 Favorite Interviews For 2012

Although I maintain a qualified presence out on the blogosphere, 2012 has been characterized by a decision to scale back film coverage. At 59, I'm rehearsing retirement and finding it to my liking, complete with less time in movie houses, less time at the computer, and more time out in nature with friends, or attending to the silver ailing years of family elders. When I first launched The Evening Class, I was one of the Bay Area's first online accredited journalists. Those early years were fraught with evolving negotiations with publicists and the tension between movies as art and movies as commerce (which, of course, time has shown me is nothing new). This became especially apparent in the two years I served on the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, which (with minor exception) could only consider films in theatrical distribution. I never felt more hobbled as a cinephile. If anything, that experience confirmed for me that I don't want to be a film critic and that the films I enjoy most are usually those I've seen at festivals that never achieve theatrical distribution. Those films—most from the Global South—more than ever demand my attention as a film writer. I allow the Circle to state the obvious.

The cinematic landscape has undergone several dramatic changes in this past year with the so-called "death" of cinema (a euphemism for the commercial forces that have all but done away with 35mm projection in favor of digital) and the advance of streaming platforms over the in-cinema experience. There's no question that leaving the rich movie culture of San Francisco for the cinematic hinterlands of Boise, Idaho has required a shift away from my 35mm in-cinema purism to a compromised reliance on at-home streaming platforms. Although all the main product comes through Boise at our local multiplexes, and our local art house The Flicks offers the safest independent and foreign titles available, access to what I might consider the most artful of films (and the talent that crafts them) requires a little more effort. More than ever, I rely upon film festivals to provide the basic nourishment I need as a cinephile, even as I have reduced the number of festivals I attend. Further, as more and more print magazines shift to online editions (think Newsweek), administering a competitive edge with a blog has become increasingly problematic, to say the least; though I remain thankful for my few but loyal readers.

So why write about film when commercial forces all but strangle the art out of the seventh art? Why write about film when the in-cinema experience wheezes its way towards obsolescence? Why write about film when publicists co-opt and dictate the way writers write? Why write about film when release windows negate the palpable manner by which films need to settle into consciousness to be fully experienced? Why write about film when seemingly hundreds of bloggers enter the arena every day competing for the favor of publicists? These are questions that are easy for me to answer. I write about films because I love films, simply and wholly; they're like tissue and sinew. But most importantly, I write about films because I prize the experience of meeting the individuals who make film, conversing with them about film, and thereby continuing to learn about film and the filmmaking process through them. That's what started this whole project of The Evening Class and that's what continues to fuel it.

In years past, choosing my 10 favorite interviews of the year has been a difficult decision. At my peak when I was attending nearly every press screening and community festival, it wasn't unusual for me to conduct an interview a day. Nowadays, I'm lucky if I do an interview a month, such that it's a bit misleading to characterize the following as my 10 favorite interviews of the year when, in truth, they're my only interviews of the year, minus one or two. But at least there's still 10, and here they are.

Film International has been generous in allowing me to publish a series of interviews with film critics who—after years of practice and in response to advancing trends—have become film historians. This year, concurrent with the University of Chicago's publication of When Movies Mattered: Reviews From A Transformative Decade (2011), I had the welcome opportunity to speak with New York Times "cinephile-critic" Dave Kehr. Previously warned by Thomas Elsaesser not to be too focused on new films and to consider the importance of looking back at the canon to better understand the significant historical complexity of film, Kehr serves as a shining example of a critic-practitioner who cogently understands the value of sifting through the past century for the overlooked and/or forgotten films of yesteryear. His Film Comment column "Further Research"—which seeks to rediscover past auteurs and filmic gems that have been left out of the written record—has become one of my most satisfying reads each issue.

Meeting Mark Cousins in the Palm Springs International (PSIFF) press lounge was sheer serendipity; one of those moments when the Cinema Gods dispense grace. Not only was his Story of Film: An Odyssey (now available on Netflix streaming) a lovely, informative reverie as filtered through Cousins' personal experience with film, but another reminder of the importance of highlighting films that receive disproportionate recognition. Admittedly not a celluloid purist, Cousins—who has no issue with (and in fact embraces) the digital revolution—stressed what to me seemed a more significant point: that with access to rare titles no longer being the issue, how to maintain an interest in film in the face of so much choice is the true challenge. This is clearly what I'm struggling with in my cinephilia and I'm grateful to Mark to providing cues to help me with that struggle.

I also met José Padilha at PSIFF earlier this year, and I was as charmed by his intelligence as I was viscerally thrilled by Elite Squad: The Enemy Within. Generous with his time and thoughtful with his answers, Padilha walked his talk and forwarded me screeners of his films which I'd not seen. It always feels good when a filmmaker willingly shares their work with me.

Another conversation I enjoyed at PSIFF was with Pa Negre's Agustí Villaronga and Isona Passola. Transgressively poetic, yet self-effacing to a fault, Villaronga was clearly enjoying the success of his most recent film. His demeanor belied the marginally perverse violence that characterize his films with a manner near delicate and attentively gentle.

Years of writing about Spanish / Portuguese and Latin American film, particularly through Diana Sanchez's programming at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), paid off when Diana was hired to program the inaugural edition of the Panamá International Film Festival and, in turn, invited me to be part of a core group of international journalists brought in to cover the event. It was a wonderful experience fueled by mojitos and ceviche, and I much appreciated the opportunity to talk to Álex de la Iglesia regarding his latest film La Chispa de la Vida (As Luck Would Have It).

Another inaugural edition of a film festival this year was that of the Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF). Although I was in San Francisco and unable to attend, Facebook provided a means to get in touch with Jay Pickett who was willing to send me a screener of his film Soda Springs, followed by a telephone interview. Pickett's humility was handsome and he encouraged me to help Idaho's film scene out by continuing to profile personalities in the Gem State involved in film production. To that effect I published an overview of Idaho film production in the summer issue of Fusion, wherein I conflated conversations with local filmmakers Gregory Bayne, Seth Randal, Zach Voss, and Andrew Ellis, along with Idaho film commissioner Peg Owens. There's no doubt in my mind that—based upon this overview—The Idaho Film Office invited me to dispense $30,000 in grants to local film projects. And now they have invited me to attend next year's edition of SVFF. It's becoming apparent that one of the ways I will maintain interest in film is to focus on both regional filmmaking and regional programming.

Last year, Patrick Wang's In the Family knocked my socks off with its brave and unconventional approach towards gay narrative, and this year Joshua Sanchez's Four equally impressed me for depicting gay characters in a sophisticated display of complex motivations. This time I was in Boise and unable to attend San Francisco's Frameline Film Festival; and am, therefore, grateful to Karen Larsen and K.C. Price for sending me several films on screener and for opening up the opportunity to talk to Sanchez by phone.

Boise has no press screenings for local press. This was perhaps the most significant cultural subtraction I had to face when relocating from San Francisco to Boise. Fortunately, at this point I have been working in film coverage long enough to have established strong working relationships, most notably with Strand Releasing. My thanks to Marcus Hu for setting me up to interview Bavo Defurne on the occasion of the Frameline screening of North Sea, Texas. Less a coming out than a coming of age narrative, Defurne's film sparkled with colorful art direction and a poignant depiction of the discovery of love between two boys.

Though I haven't transcribed it yet—I hope to before the year's end—my conversation with Casper van Dien at Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival was a fan boy's wet dream. One of the most beautiful men in the world, Van Dien was on hand to promote the latest installment of the Starship Troopers franchise, along with a minor but satisfying ghost story The Pact (available on Netflix streaming), and proved himself to be a genuine individual, generous with his fans. I usually get nervous interviewing celebrities who are too handsome, but Van Dien was so friendly that he made the conversation effortless; a compliment, by the way, that he in turn paid me at the end of our conversation. Coming soon.

Finally, it was a genuine pleasure to meet and become Facebook friends with William Friedkin on the occasion of his latest film Killer Joe. With a no-nonsense approach and an abiding respect of journalists (he refused to cater to the publicist's allotment of time), Friedkin was as entertaining as his films. My thanks to Danny Kasman and MUBI for publishing the transcript.

Monday, December 24, 2012


Sin pregunta, one of my main motivations for attending the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF)—now in its 24th edition, January 3-14, 2013—is to sample films from Latin America and Spain / Portugal. Unable to attend the Toronto International this past September, I find myself particularly looking forward to catching up with this year's bumper crop of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking films currently on the festival circuit.

I look first towards those films that have been annointed as their country's official submissions to the foreign language category of the 2013 Academy Awards®. Each year, PSIFF's Awards Buzz program highlights a robust sampling of these international submissions and all but four of the "Latin" submissions are screening in Palm Springs this year. Missing in action are, most notably, Pablo Larraín's Chilean feature No (2012), which won the Art Cinema Award (the top prize in the Directors' Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival); Peruvian helmer Rosario Garcia-Montero's The Bad Intentions (2011), winner of the Best Latin American Feature Film at the 2011 Mar del Plata Film Festival (and currently available on Netflix Instant Watch); Rodrigo Plá's Uruguayan entry The Delay (2012); and Venezuelan director Hernán Jabes' Rock, Paper, Scissors (2012). Incorporating PSIFF's program capsules with critical overviews (where available), here's a preview of what will be screening come January.

Clandestine Childhood / Infancia Clandestina (Dir. Benjamín Ávila, Argentina, 2012, 110m)—In 1979, after four years living in exile, a family of dissidents returns to Argentina incognito to fight the military junta from within. Their 12-year-old son Juan has to hide his Cuban accent as he leads a double life, registered in school as "Ernesto" but privy to his parents' guerilla activities. Typical coming-of-age experiences, like advice on girls from his dad and a budding romance with a pretty classmate, occur in a surreal world of guns, ammo, and the constant fear that his family could be found out and destroyed.

Winner of the prestigious Casa de América Award at the San Sebastián Film Festival [and the Coral Award at the Havana International Film Festival], Clandestine Childhood is based on the real-life story of first-time director Benjamín Ávila, whose mother was one of the many thousands of dissidents who "disappeared" in Argentina's Dirty War. Ávila's naturalistic style highlights the humanity of his characters as seen through Juan's eyes; Teo Gutiérrez Moreno, in the lead role, belies his age with a layered and nuanced performance. When the action gets violent, Ávila boldly switches from live action to graphic-novel-style illustrations. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

As Diana Sanchez wrote when she programmed the film at TIFF: "A gripping, intensely personal account of a turbulent time and a meditation on the skewed perceptions of memory—with stylized animation used to depict the street violence that was all too common during the period—Clandestine Childhood blends vivid recollection and imaginative recreation. This exceptional first feature not only captures the spirit and passion of the freedom fighters who gave their lives for a cause, but also gives voice to their children, caught in a battle that was not their own yet rising heroically to the challenge." Sweeping Argentina's recent Sur Awards, presented by the Argentine Film Academy, Clandestine Childhood picked up 10 awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Male and Female Leading Performances, Best Male and Female Supporting Performances, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Costuming Design, and Best Sound Design. Film Movement has picked up the film for theatrical distribution (PDF press kit).

Despite these accolades, the trades have damned the film with faint praise. At Variety, Jay Weissberg writes, "Designed to highlight the uneasy coexistence between everyday childhood experiences and the intense pressures of living with parents secretly fighting the junta, the pic has strong moments, but is bogged down by a script that regurgitates standard-issue ideas without finding anything interesting to say." At The Hollywood Reporter, Neil Young deems Clandestine Childhood "the latest in a seemingly endless run of features about innocent children coping with the horrors of South American political oppression in the 1970s" and complains that "otherwise Ávila brings very little that's new, surprising or fresh to an already over-filled table—the picture is too mainstream for arthouses, too arty for multiplexes, and outside Argentina, where the wounds depicted are still raw, its best prospects lie as a mid-range festival pick." At Cineuropa, Vitor Pinto is more appreciative: "Instead of showing its characters' political commitment from a dark or predictable angle, the film focuses more on the domestic, family side of the issue. Although the film never hides the dangers of the situation, it chooses to give ample room to humor and radiant happiness personified by Uncle Beto: a character as revolutionary as he is romantic, and played by the Spanish actor of Argentinian origin, Ernesto Alterio. ...As the screenplay moves forward, his character is idealized (as we tend to idealize all those we lose), but this idealization is also, in a way, a homage to all those who have repeatedly brought their encouragement and optimism to the darkest times. This idealization is also clear in other characters, and in other moments of the plot: whether in the ideal way that Juan's first love's dance is filmed, or in the delicious tranquility of his mother's voice when she sings and plays guitar for her fellow activists."

The Clown / O Palhaço (Dir. Selton Mello, Brazil, 2011, 88m)—Actor turned writer / director Selton Mello's talents shine in his second time at the helm in The Clown. Aging circus clown Valdemar has accepted his lot in life as an entertainer and the owner of the Circo Esperança but his son Benjamin is beginning to have doubts about life as a clown. He starts to see fans in unexpected places—the electrical kind. They haunt him and he becomes obsessed with owning one. But in order to purchase a fan on loan he will need a permanent address, so it becomes his mission to seek out a stable job, a home, and maybe even a girl. This whimsical comedy recalls the aesthetics of Wes Anderson with its cultivated visual style and meticulous costuming and set design. Mello embraces this odd story with refreshing creativity and humor. Winner: Best Film, Director, Actor, Screenplay, Cinematography, Music, Cinema Brazil Grand Prize. IMDb. Wikipedia.

 "Remember Alan Moore's Watchmen?", Jacob Vangelisti recalls at Digital Hippos, "Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says 'Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.' Man bursts into tears, Says 'But, doctor ... I am Pagliacci.' " Vangelisti concludes: "The film industry does not make enough bildungsroman flicks, The Clown is this. It has peaceful exuberance in this coming of age tale. I'm ready to go to Brazil to find myself. Dance the dance of the eternal clown that is man."

The Snitch Cartel / El Cartel de los Sapos (Dir. Carlos Moreno, Colombia, 2012, 107m)—Based on true events, The Snitch Cartel is the wildly kinetic story of Martin, a poor Colombian boy driven to rise within the ranks of a ruthless drug cartel and to win over the sophisticated Sophia, his first love. Against the violent backdrop of Colombia's drug wars of the 1990s, Martin fights his way into a powerful position within the "Cartel Norte del Valle." He gets his girl, but when the cartel's kingpin is murdered there's a power shake-up and he fears for his survival. He rolls the dice again, accepting an offer from an American DEA agent to serve a short prison term and become an informant, setting in motion a relentless escalation to an explosive finale.

Acclaimed director Carlos Moreno (Dog Eat Dog, All Your Dead Ones) helms this lavish production, shot in five different cities, blending raw and bloody, masterfully choreographed and edited action sequences with a frank and passionate love story. Colombian heartthrob Manolo Cardona (last seen in Contracorriente) plays Martin with power, vulnerability and sex appeal, heading up a cast that features some of the biggest names in Latin American cinema. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. North American Premiere.

At The Hollywood Reporter, Stephen Farber summarizes that The Snitch Cartel "is lively but doesn't offer nearly enough fresh variations on the Scarface formula." Farber explains, "The film is adapted from a longer TV miniseries. The compression involved in creating a two-hour feature is obvious and not always very graceful. The film jumps back and forth in time and hopscotches over North and South America as it follows a young man, Martin (Manolo Cardona), who rises to a top position in the Colombian cartel before being forced to become an informer for the DEA. ...To incorporate a lot of information about the various Colombian cartels during a 15-year period, the film relies heavily on voice-over narration, along with printed titles and newsreel footage to sketch the real events of the period. The narrative progresses in fits and starts as well as lumps of exposition, but it’s edited with flair to keep tension building." At The Huffington Post, Dan Lybarger writes, "Despite recounting a volatile era in the Colombian cocaine trade, director Carlos Moreno's take on the aftermath of the battle between the Cali and Medellin cartels after the death of Medellin leader Pablo Escobar features some familiar faces, some adequate action and an odd sense of indifference." Lybarger adds: "While the backdrop offers lots of potential, The Snitch Cartel never really comes to life. Most of the characters are one note and not terribly sympathetic. ...Because we see only fleeting glimpses of what life on the streets of Cali or New York, we learn only fragmentary information about the cocaine trade and its cost. Considering the ongoing cost of the war on drugs, that's as disappointing as a missed shipment." At Awards Circuit, Joseph Braverman wraps it up: "In all, The Snitch Cartel is perfectly serviceable as a slice of international entertainment, one that will titillate the senses of action enthusiasts everywhere. Aside from perhaps the Colombian people themselves, the film lacks the emotional pull to really shake up the masses. ...The film is positioned as one of great importance, but these ambitions are shrouded by high-octane action, a formulaic Hollywood narrative and an abundance of visual pizzazz. The Snitch Cartel is a triumph for international commercialism, but a step back from the all-encompassing thematic power of a great foreign language production."

Checkmate / Jaque Mate (Dir. José María Cabral, Dominican Republic, 2011, 90m)—Television host David Hernandez seems to have everything—a beautiful wife, a big house, fancy car and a beautiful son. But when a caller to his show reveals that he is holding his family hostage, David is forced to watch as his darkest secrets are revealed on live television. A tense story of kidnapping, drugs and infidelity, Checkmate is more than the usual crime drama but a complicated tale of one man's dark past and a city, glued to their televisions, watching his downfall in real time.

This directorial debut for José María Cabral is only the Dominican Republic's fourth ever submission to the Academy Awards but comes at a time when the local industry is booming—recent changes in legislation have boosted production from an average of two features a year to ten last year. Cabral's thriller boasts slick cinematography and a story that only gets more complicated as it progresses. Actors Adrián Mas and Sergio Carlo give breakout performances as the besieged David and his maniacal tormentor. For Fox News Latino, Alexandra Gratereaux interviews Cabral at the New York International Latino Film Festival. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

After Lucia / Después de Lucía (Dir. Michel Franco, Mexico, 2012, 102m)—In the aftermath of a Mexican woman's death in a car accident, her husband and daughter, Roberto and Alejandra, move from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City, where Roberto plans to open a restaurant. Alejandra quickly makes friends with the popular kids in high school, but when a drunken sexual experience gets recorded and circulated she becomes the object of vicious bullying. She keeps it all a secret from her father, concerned for his state of mind. Roberto's struggle to cope with the loss of his wife blinds him to what's happening to his daughter until it's already gone too far.

Winner of numerous awards, including the prestigious Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the searing, intense After Lucia establishes Michel Franco as a major talent. Employing a rigorous and highly personal style that elevates subtext and visual clues over straightforward dialogue, Franco nails the emotionally devastating story, drawing restrained but utterly intense performances from leads Hernán Mendoza and Tessa Ia. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Shortly after its win at Cannes, David Hudson gathered initial reviews for his Daily (now hosted by Fandor's blog Keyframe), namely National Post remarks by James Quandt; Charles Gant at Variety: "In no particular rush to articulate what exactly his characters are thinking and feeling, or to provide easy mood cues through music (there is none), Franco aims to engage through careful withholding"; and David Rooney at The Hollywood Reporter: "The film is of a piece stylistically with Franco's debut, Daniel & Ana, which premiered in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 2009. Austerity and rigorous control are his signature notes, with an unflinching realism marked by extended silences and a distinct preference for conveying information via oblique glimpses rather than in dialogue."

At The Flickering Wall, Jorge Mourinha cautions: "If there is one film you should warn viewers beforehand about, that would be Mexican director Michel Franco's disturbing sophomore effort, winner of Cannes 2012's sidebar Un Certain Regard and a film at moments so unbearable you may well ask whether the director worships at the shrine of Michael Haneke's clinical entomology." Notwithstanding, Mourinha proclaims After Lucia "a work of staggering formal and narrative control."

Blancanieves (Dir. Pablo Berger, Spain, 2012, 96m)—A wildly imaginative re-invention of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale "Snow White", brought to life silent-movie style in gorgeous monochrome. Antonio, a famous matador, is gored by a bull; his wife dies during childbirth. Now crippled, Antonio marries his wicked nurse, who confines him to an upstairs room and treats his daughter, Blancanieves, like a lowly servant. Eventually Blancanieves escapes and joins up with a clan of dwarfs. When they discover her talent as a bullfighter she becomes a sensation, but her stepmother quickly starts plotting to bring her down.

Director Pablo Berger has created a visually dazzling, unique film experience, turbo-charging the language of silent film with thrilling music and dance sequences scored by Alfonso de Vilallonga, and effortlessly shifting in tone from comedic to tragic, knowingly campy to genuinely frightening. Macarena García won the Best Actress Award at San Sebastián for her bright and sexy portrayal of the adult Blancanieves; Maribel Verdú (Y tu mama tambien) is a villain for the ages as the wicked stepmother. Winner: Grand Jury Prize & Best Actress, San Sebastian Film Festival. Official site [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia.

"If The Artist is a love letter to the heyday of Hollywood silent cinema," Diana Sanchez poses in her TIFF program capsule, "then Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves ... is an homage to the sumptuous European silent melodrama. Relocating the Grimm fairy tale to a romantic vision of 1920s Spain and working in atmospheric black and white, Berger takes full advantage of the silent film's expressive potential to depict the golden age of toreros with gory, Goyaesque violence."

At Toronto Screenshots, James McNally writes: "The variety of musical styles along with the use of different rhythms of film editing make Blancanieves a more formally daring film than The Artist. Berger's influences are the masters of silent filmmaking from its latter, more developed stage: Gance, Murnau." McNally generously offers his recording of Berger's Q&A with his TIFF audience. Likewise dispatching from Toronto to The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney synopsizes, "Spanish writer-director Pablo Berger's reinvention of the Brothers Grimm classic is the most original of the year's Snow White makeovers."

Although none of the above submissions achieved the Oscar® short list for the foreign language category (see Guy Lodge's Hitfix assessment of that controversy), their inclusion in PSIFF's Awards Buzz program remains welcome and admirable. Moving on, of the 76 representative titles in PSIFF's World Cinema Now program, several fall within our purview.

The Dead Man and Being Happy / El muerto y ser feliz (Dir. Javier Rebollo, Spain, 2012, 92m)—Santos (José Sacristán), an aging hit man diagnosed with cancer, reneges on a job he's been paid for and leaves Buenos Aires with a stock of morphine to manage his pain. A much younger woman, Érika, jumps in his car at a gas station and tags along; their journey takes them to a series of fascinating, idiosyncratic locales throughout Argentina, as Santos tries to remember the names of all the people he has killed. Érika is estranged from her family since an affair with her father's cousin came to light on the eve of her wedding; a visit to her family estate builds to a romantic payoff and a dramatic showdown.

Shooting on grainy 16mm film, director Javier Rebollo (Woman Without Piano) cleverly undercuts his weighty dramatic themes with subtle, playful, deadpan voiceovers, striking a uniquely offbeat tone. He gets pitch-perfect performances from his two leads, and takes his time to let their attraction build. Winner: Best Actor and FIPRESCI Award, San Sebastián Film Festival. Official site. IMDb.

At Variety, Jonathan Holland writes: "A dying Spanish hitman makes his final journey through the interiors of Argentina and himself in the quietly surreal, intermittently intriguing road movie The Dead Man and Being Happy. As free-rolling and unstructured as the journey itself, the pic demands submission to the helmer's skewed, ironic take on just about everything his protag encounters, and as with his two previous films, reactions will be divided between those who appreciate Rebollo's look-at-me auteur quirks and those for whom they're cinematic death." Holland continues: "Auds seeking any sense of cumulative dramatic force will be disappointed as the pic moves from one disjointed sequence to another, generating interest as much through the locations themselves (a haunting abandoned spa, a residence for aging former Nazis) as through what takes place there. The final 15 minutes are the most evocative, with a rousing folk song, its lyrics composed by the helmer, powerfully highlighting the difference between legends and the often pathetic realities behind them." Or as Neil Young abbreviates it at The Hollywood Reporter: "A strain of quirkily deadpan humor narrowly steers an ambitiously self-deconstructing screenplay away from becoming just another arid exercise in tricky formal techniques." Matthew Connolly adds at Slant: "At once familiar and enigmatic, The Dead Man and Being Happy feels like a connect-the-dots film with a few lines artfully blurred."

Here and There / Aquí y Allá (Dir. Antonio Méndez Esparza, Spain, 2012, 110m)—Pedro comes home to his wife and two adolescent girls in his home village in Guerrero, Mexico, after several years working illegally in the United States. There's a palpable sense of relief but also some distance from the elder of his two daughters—his absence has taken its toll. Still, he has some savings now, and dreams of starting his own band, the Copa Kings. But a dramatic change—one of those strokes of misfortune that could befall anyone, anytime—reminds Pedro just how fragile life in an impoverished rural community can be, and we're forced to wonder if he can resist the economic argument for leaving his family again and returning "over there".

Winner of multiple awards, including the prestigious Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Here and There establishes first-time director Antonio Méndez Esparza as a rising star of the international film world. He has a masterful ability to draw quiet intensity from simply staged scenes, conveying the unassuming dignity and humanity of his characters. Pedro De los Santos turns in a touchingly subtle and sensitive portrayal of a man who embodies the wider struggles of the Mexican emigrant experience. Official site. IMDb. Facebook.

At Variety, Jonathan Holland observes: "Combining moments of lyricism with a documentary-like feel for truth, Antonio Méndez Esparza's debut feature is far from hard-hitting, aestheticizing its tale with artful ellipses and juxtapositions. But its delicate portrayal of the emotional effects of immigration nonetheless amounts to a punchy social critique." At Indiewire, Eric Kohn adds: "Esparza constructs a family drama with supreme restraint while fleshing out his characters to the point where their problems take root in a fully realized environment where socio-economic conditions pull them apart. It's incredibly uneventful and devastating all at once." And here on The Evening Class, Ryan Lattanzio dispatched from Cannes where he served as a student juror for the Critics Week competition. Lattanzio states: "There is no big drama in Aquí y Allá, not a voice raised, nor even a tinge of hysteria. The people in Esparaza's film understand the smallness of their existence and despite having little money and modest dwellings, they seem grateful just to be alive. Esparaza imposes no agenda on his film. He simply wants us to encounter people in a place we have not seen, and his cast is comprised of non-professional actors whose restrained performances provide the film's naturalist underpin."

La Playa D.C. (Juan Andrés Arango Garcia, Colombia, 2012, 90m)—When their father is killed in the seaside town of Buenaventura, three teenage Afro-Colombian brothers flee the civil war and land in the capital, Bogotá. Their mother's new boyfriend soon kicks them out and they must fend for themselves. The sounds of local hip-hop pour forth from the streets as Chaco dreams of going to the U.S. and Jairo falls into crack addiction and debt. Thirteen-year-old Tomas first tries his hand at cleaning hubcaps, then finds a place for his creative talent working as an apprentice in a barbershop, creating tropas, the elaborate and fanciful hair designs popular with young Afro-Colombian men.

With a probing, hand-held camera and an instinctive feel for the throbbing pulse of his native Bogotá, director Juan Andres Arango brings his highly topical narrative to life with a commitment to social realism. The story is ultimately a hopeful one, eschewing sentimentality but affirming the possibility for youths like Tomas to find their way on the tough streets of Bogotá rather than emigrating or escaping into crime and drug addiction. An official selection of Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. Official Site. IMDb. Facebook.

At Variety, Peter LeBruge considers La Playa D.C. "a well-intentioned coming-of-ager strong on ethnographic interest but disappointingly lax on narrative." At The Hollywood Reporter, Neil Young describes the film as "a minutely-observed peek into hardscrabble lives that pours intoxicatingly fresh aguardiente into a rather dusty old bottle." Both critics emphasize Garcia's bold directorial talent, auspicious in how it reflects Colombian filmmaking.

The Passion of Michelangelo / La Pasión de Michelangelo (Dir. Esteban Larraín, Chile, 2012, 70m)—In 1983, as Chilean demonstrations against Pinochet's military regime gathered strength, the government seized upon the strange story of 14-year-old street teen Miguel Angel as a means of diverting attention from the public's growing discontent. In Peñablanca, not far from Valparaíso, the charismatic Angel swore he could see the Virgin Mary at the top of a local hill and, with the government doing all it could to promote this "miracle", hundreds of thousands of people made the pilgrimage to the "holy" spot. Soon Angel had attained rock-star status—with all the perks the term implies—until, inevitably, he fell fast and hard…

Shot on 16mm film for a documentary feel, the film follow the investigation of an increasingly skeptical priest into this affair. Both a cultural critique of what director Esteban Larraín sees as Chile's need for affirmation in the face of a collective inferiority complex and a succinct illustration of Juvenal's "bread and circuses" concept of governmental appeasement, Larraín’s political drama speaks volumes about how the Pinochet years deeply scarred a nation's already fragile psyche. IMDb. North American Premiere.

At Variety, Boyd van Hoeij notes that Larraín's "background in documentary helps lend urgency, immediacy and credibility to the unbelievable tale of a teenage orphan whose supposed contact with the Virgin Mary attracted huge crowds just when the dictatorship needed some popular distraction. Despite an unfocused p.o.v., the pic is a nonetheless a gripping, almost mythical rise-and-fall yarn...." Van Hoeij winnows out "a natural homoeroticism" to the rapport between Michelangelo and Lazaro, one of his "pint-sized disciples", as well as with the village priest Father Alcazar. "[S]omewhat disturbingly, a sexual element also arises in the adored youth's evolving relationship with the kind-hearted Alcazar, who is not immune to temptation. Larraín's sense of restraint is key in making it clear that Michelangelo is starting to experiment with his uncontested authority and, more specifically, the power of his allure, even if the young teen is perhaps a long way away from understanding anything about his sexuality."

The Sleeping Voice / La Voz Dormida (Dir. Benito Zambrano, Spain, 2011, 128m)—Hortensia is an imprisoned Resistance fighter awaiting execution in aftermath of the Spanish Civil War; she's seven months pregnant when her apolitical sister Pepita comes to Madrid to be near her. Pepita finds work in a wealthy Nationalist household and hopes to win custody of the child. An adaptation of the best-selling novel by Dulce Chacón, based on testimony from actual survivors, The Sleeping Voice delves into the horrific conditions inside the prison and the atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia on the outside, as Pepita gets drawn deeper into the underground struggle and falls in love with Felipe, a Resistance fighter hiding out in the mountains.

Director Benito Zambrano (Solas, Habana Blues) has created a gripping dramatic tour-de-force that brings to the big screen, at last, the bravery and determination of the women who lived through some of the darkest years of Spanish history. He gets a searing, career-defining performance from María León (previously best known as a comedic actress) as Pepita, and a beautifully understated turn from Inma Cuesta (Blancanieves) as Hortensia. Official site [Spanish]. IMDb. Facebook.

At Variety, Jonathan Holland observes: "A harrowing drama that transforms the sorry plight of female prisoners in post-Civil War Spain into a bleak examination of man's inhumanity to women, The Sleeping Voice magnificently tells a tale that needs to be told and retold. Shrewdly remaining mainstream while plumbing the depths of grief and violence, this engrossing pic is often unbearably intense in its depiction of atrocities, and affecting in its portrayal of its protags' doomed fight against politics and patriarchy." At The Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young stages complaints about the film, but admits the "vivid performances by attractive leads María León, who won Best Actress kudos at the San Sebastian festival, and the fiery Inma Cuesta do add interest."

Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal, 2012, 120m)—A rising star on the film festival circuit, Miguel Gomes (Our Beloved Month of August) has fashioned one of the most distinctive and distinguished movies of the year in Tabu, a desperately romantic love story filtered through old age and the remembered past.

The conceit is simple yet original: Gomes begins the film in contemporary Lisbon, where middle-aged Pilar (Teresa Madruga) takes a kindly interest in several elderly friends, including her next door neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), whose failing faculties are a cause for concern. This section, "Paradise Lost", then segues into "Paradise", the reminiscence of Aurora's long-lost lover, Ventura, who astonishes Pilar with his tale of passion and murder in colonial Africa in the early 1960s.

Referencing Murnau's film of the same name, Gomes shoots in silvery monochrome, "Paradise Lost" in 35mm, while "Paradise" is on much grainier 16mm stock, and in the style of a silent film melodrama (albeit with sound effects, voice over, and music—including a Portuguese version of "Be My Baby" that will haunt your dreams). This is cinema: whimsical, wistful, and so melancholy even the crocodiles are moved. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia.

Volumes have already been written about Tabu, clearly one of the year's best. For starters, I recommend David Hudson's critical overview at Fandor. That should keep you busy.

Una Noche (Dir. Lucy Mulloy, Cuba, 2012, 90m)—A young Cuban, Elio, pulls back from his close relationship with his twin sister Lila when he befriends Raul, a sexy, volatile co-worker who dreams of emigrating to Miami. That dream becomes more desperate when Raul gets in trouble with the law, and with Elio's help he sets out to hustle up the equipment and supplies they need to set sail. Lila impulsively joins in the harrowing 90-mile voyage.

First-time director Lucy Mulloy boldly explores a side of Havana never before seen on film, displaying an impressive visual flair and a grasp of the complexities and contradictions in the hearts and minds of today's young Cubans, while the section of the film shot on water is as emotionally intense as it is technically impressive. Winner: Best New Director, Best Actor (Arrecaga and Florian), Best Cinematography, Tribeca Film Festival. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.

Una Noche premiered at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival and 2012 Tribeca Film Festival to international critical acclaim. The film shot to international media attention, ahead of its U.S. premiere, when two of the film's lead actors, Javier Nuñez Florian and Anailin de la Rua de la Torre, disappeared on their way to present the film at its Tribeca premiere, reportedly defecting to the U.S. In a highly publicized twist Javier Nuñez Florian and his co-star Dariel Arrechaga went on to win the Best Actor Award even as Florian remained in hiding during the ensuing media frenzy.

At Variety, Justin Chang writes: "Marked by a vibrant evocation of Havana street life and excellent performances from three non-pro naturals, Una noche throws off a restless energy well attuned to its tale of impetuous Cuban teens preparing to make the dangerous ocean journey to Florida. Writer-director Lucy Mulloy's sexy, pulsing debut feature has an undercurrent of ribald comedy that doesn't entirely prepare the viewer for the harrowing turn it eventually takes, but it nonetheless amounts to a bracing snapshot of desperate youths putting their immigrant dreams into action." At Indiewire, Gabe Toro adds: "There's a youthful energy running through Una Noche… [It's] alive and vibrant … at times funny, heartfelt, naughty and nice, a tale of three youngsters who deserve better than the forces that limit them, the corruption that eats away at their powerfully-beating hearts." At Slant, Ed Gonzalez notes: "Lucy Mulloy is a tourist, but she understands Havana's complex sociopolitical situation better than most. Granted unprecedented and unbelievable access to shoot in the city ... the film realistically reveals the largest city in the Caribbean as a maze of history and discontent, it conveys the struggle of its characters to facilitate their escape from their island prison as a ramshackle puzzle desperately pieced together from a hodgepodge of ill-fitting pieces, some stolen, others acquired through bartering. ...Una Noche shines a light on the balseros phenomenon without miring itself in politics, such as discussions of the 'Wet Foot, Dry Foot' policy."

White Elephant / Elefante Blanco (Dir. Pablo Trapero, Argentina, 2012, 110m)—Can a Catholic priest really make a difference in the lives of the poor and destitute who make up his congregation in a Buenos Aires shanty town? Come to that, should he, if it means getting his hands dirty in ways that the Church would surely frown on?

These are the urgent moral questions that confront Father Nicolas (Jérémie Renier—from the Dardennes' The Child and The Kid with a Bike)—when he joins Father Julian (Ricardo Darín, The Secret in Their Eyes, Nine Queens) after a violent, faith-shaking experience in a jungle mission. Working closely with the more experienced and politically astute Julian in his bid to get a long-promised housing development back on track (the eponymous white elephant), Nicolas is exposed to the drug economy, gang wars, and to pretty social worker Luciana (director Trapero's wife and muse, Martina Gusmán). This social and spiritual melodrama carries extra heft because of its palpable authenticity. Everything—even the abandoned, never finished hospital where the priests take up residence—is real, and no doubt that goes for the endemic corruption and exploitation depicted on screen too. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook [Spanish].

As Diana Sanchez contextualizes in her TIFF program capsule: "From the haunting, literally incendiary opening sequence to the final stand-off between the police and the slum-dwellers, Trapero keeps the tension at a high boil while also depicting the existence of his marginalized subjects with unerring realism, immediacy and impartiality. Drug addicts, lapsed priests, social activists—all are equal under Trapero's unsparing yet empathetic gaze, demonstrating once again that his interest resides with neither saints nor sinners, but with men." At The Argentina Independent, Melissa Macaya explains further: "In the opening scenes of the film, the viewer is taken to the Elefante Blanco, a massive and dilapidated grey building in the heart of a Buenos Aires villa. The building was once destined to be the largest hospital in all of Latin America but was never finished. After President Juan Domingo Perón was ousted in 1955, the building remained abandoned and became synonymous with stagnant poverty. Elefante Blanco not only serves as the title of the film, but also captures the spirit and tone of the story. Like the building, the people living and working in the villas in and around Buenos Aires find themselves rundown but still standing with hope that things will one day improve. The film takes the audience to this reality and gives them a taste of its bitterness."

Accompanying this healthy representation in the World Cinema Now sidebar, PSIFF offers a few more entries in their New Voices, New Visions programme.

7 Boxes / 7 Cajas (Dirs. Juan Carlos Maneglia & Tana Schémbori, Paraguay, 2012, 105m)—In a crowded outdoor marketplace in Asunción, Paraguay, 17-year-old Victor is offered $100 to deliver seven boxes. A movie nut, he believes that to get famous he needs a cell-phone that shoots video, so he eagerly agrees, but the boxes are linked to a serious crime and a large stash of money, and soon he's being pursued by cops as well as an array of bad guys with sinister agendas. Victor has to use all his wits, with help from his cute friend Liz (who's becoming more than a friend), to stay a step ahead of his pursuers, in an adrenaline-fueled game of cat and mouse.

This low budget first feature by Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbori is a breakneck joyride that rivals Hollywood action movies for inventiveness and thrills-per-minute, but also conveys a rich and gritty sense of place, with a range of vivid characters. Meneglia and Schémbori make impressive use of their location, choreographing exciting and elaborate chase scenes using little more than people pushing long, wooden wheelbarrows. Official site. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook [Spanish]. U.S. Premiere.

At Variety, Robert Koehler assesses: "Turning the Paraguayan capital's biggest public market into an arena for a wild and cunningly plotted chase movie, filmmaking partners Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbori build a rollicking entertainment with 7 Boxes. Certain to be one of the first titles from Paraguay to make a serious dent in the international marketplace, the pic makes a pleasurable surplus from minimal resources and plenty of ironic-comic-violent storytelling energy." At Indiewire, Boyd van Hoeij describes 7 Boxes as "The Fast and the Furious with wheelbarrows" and adds: "Maneglia, who wrote the intricately structured screenplay, excels in keeping the twists and turns coming while keeping all his narrative balls in the air. And the final payoff is a doozy. City of God-like, agile camerawork by commercials cinematographer Richard Careaga is smudgy yet breathtaking, and combined with a pumping score that mixes electronic music and local, traditional instruments it delivers, well, the goods." At Twitch, Kurt Halfyard deems 7 Boxes "genre-film bliss" and claims there are as many surprises in this film "as there are retail opportunities in the market." He concludes, "The storytelling confidence, the unaffectated acting, and, above all, a heightened grasp of plotting and logistics on display in 7 Boxes is astonishing."

Beauty / Nosilatiaj. La Belleza (Dir. Daniela Seggiaro, Argentina, 2012, 83m)—Yola is a teenage maid from an indigenous people, the Wichi, working in a middle-class home in a village in northern Argentina to support her family. Her unique beauty is in her thick, black, waist-length hair. Yola's employer, Sara, is in a bit of a frenzy, planning the ultimate quinceañera for her daughter Antonella. She takes both teenage girls to the beauty parlor and surreptitiously has Yola's hair chopped off to above the shoulder, causing her to fall into illness and despair. The story is intercut with Yola's effortlessly poetic, off-screen monologues in her native language, which reveal a specific, nature-based understanding of the world.

The debut feature from Daniela Seggiaro, Beauty won the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Latin American Film at the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival. Its central image is a powerful metaphor for the small-scale violence and lack of sensitivity toward indigenous people by Argentina's dominant social class, but Seggiaro has a light and confident touch, and elegantly folds her strong polemic into an exquisitely subtle narrative, where characters and choices are far from black and white. Official site. IMDb.

At Variety, Boyd van Hoeij writes: "Scribe-helmer Daniela Seggiaro's deceptively simple debut feature poses as a small-scale domestic drama but contains a subtle yet harsh critique of Argentineans' ignorance and dismissal of the marginalized Wichi people. Like Peruvian helmer Claudia Llosa, whose The Milk of Sorrow copped Berlin's Golden Bear, Seggiaro reps a strong new female voice from South America." At The Hollywood Reporter, John DeFore notes the film's "effect is simple but transporting, particularly powerful thanks to its thoroughly unpretentious delivery. As Yola adjusts to the removal of one more link to her community, the film needs little more than a string of remembered words and a carefully chosen image to suggest an entire culture at risk of losing its foothold in the world." At The Stranger, Anna Minard adds: "Nosilatiaj spends most of its time conveying the larger meanings behind small moments—an unasked for haircut, a glance across a room."

Sadourni's Butterflies / Las Mariposas de Sadourni (Dir. Dario Nardi, Argentina, 2012, 94m)—Not all silent films are created equal, and if it seems a little strange that so soon after The Artist we have two more black and white neo-silents (they both have musical scores) at the festival—the other is Blancanieves, the Spanish Snow White—you may be interested to know first-time feature director Dario Nardi embarked on Sadourni’s Butterflies as far back as 1998.

It just took him some time to find a producer willing to finance a surrealistic melodrama about a circus dwarf jailed for a crime of passion; coming out of prison 10 years later he refuses to play the clown, and decides to go into porn instead. (The right fairy godfather did come along eventually: Don Ranvaud, the man behind City of God, Central Station and Rolling Family.) Trained in animation, Nardi has created a visually stunning film, something redolent of film noir, German expressionism, Tod Browning and Alejandro Jodorowski (El Topo; Santa Sangre). But this is not simply pastiche; Nardi has made a strange and magical movie about identity, alienation, and thinking big—nothing at all like The Artist. IMDb. North American Premiere.

At Screen, Mark Adams writes: "Beautifully shot and structured and packed with funny, strange and memorable moments, Sadourni's Butterflies is always intriguing and unusual with Cristian Medrano impressive as Sadourni, a darkly determined character driven to violence who simply wants to fit into society. It is a complex and self-consciously surreal film, but certainly one that is relentlessly intriguing and stylish."

Wrapping up with PSIFF's documentary sidebar, Mexico is featured twice in the festival's True Stories line-up.

Drought / Cuates de Australia (Dir. Everardo González, Mexico, 2011, 83m)—The stark landscape of a remote stretch of plains in Coahuila, Mexico is as harsh as it is spectacular. The inhabitants of Cuates de Australia—rancheros, mostly—work from dawn 'til dusk every day to eke out their survival, as their water supply dwindles and clouds drift by yielding not a drop of rain. And yet these people maintain their good cheer, with a combination of humility, acceptance, and work ethic. Their connection to the earth and sky seems to give them strength, and the hope for rain and new life—expressed most vividly in a through-story of a young couple expecting their first child—doesn't waver even when they have no choice but to leave their land, temporarily, in a mass exodus.

Drought is the most accomplished work yet from award-winning Mexican director Everardo González. He weaves together his beautifully rounded narrative with unforgettable images of the Cuates de Australia ecosystem: humans, animals, land, and great, God-revealing skies. The richly textured sound design incorporates the gorgeous a cappella three-part harmonies of local folk music. Winner: Best Documentary, Los Angeles Film Festival. IMDb. Facebook.

At Slant, Andrew Schenker writes: "Fixing its gaze on the parched landscapes of rural, northern Mexico and the people who survive the region's unforgiving climes, Drought is a portrait of a community under siege by forces beyond its control and its attempts to go about the daily stuff of life. Employing largely unobtrusive observational camerawork, spliced with a few interviews with the locals, Everado González's documentary brings to the screen both an eye for stark beauty in desolation and a sympathetic look at the citizens of the communal town of Cuates de Australia." At The Hollywood Reporter, Sheri Linden offers: "As he intended, González’s feature transcends the genre of ethnography; he has shaped his eye-opening chronicle with a powerful aesthetic sensibility. Pablo Tamez and Matías Barberis' ambient sound is a fine complement to the visuals. Further heightening the material's impact, to haunting effect, are 1970s recordings of cantos cardenches—folk songs that are, fittingly, named after a type of cactus. With their aching melancholy, these a cappella numbers for three voices are the perfect accompaniment to the understated drama unfolding in this dusty terrain."

Multiple Visions (The Crazy Machine) / Miradas Múltiples, la máquina loca (Dir. Emilio Maillé, Mexico, 2012, 95m)—The mesmerizing images of Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (1907-97) catalyze a fascinating master class in cinematographic philosophy in this gorgeous-looking, experimental documentary. Alternating glowing black-and-white excerpts from films shot by Figueroa with sharply composed, sensitively stylized talking-head interviews with 40 cameramen from different countries and generations, director Emilio Maille brings front and center men more used to being behind the lens and finds them, in most cases, highly capable of articulating their craft.

Revered for the great beauty and complexity of his cinematography, Figueroa had a long career in his homeland and Hollywood, working for top-drawer directors including Luis Buñuel, Emilio Fernandez, John Ford and John Huston. He shot more than 200 films, although here Maillé draws solely on his Mexican films from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The cinematographers discuss a wide range of topics, including the portrayal of emotion through faces; the expressionist terrain of black-and-white; monochrome vs. color; and the future of cinematography in a digital age. Official site. IMDb. U.S. Premiere.

The PSIFF program capsule is largely cribbed from Alissa Simon's Variety review, which also notes: "Maillé removes the film excerpts from their narrative context, stripping them of sound so his interviewees can focus on the essence of the image and the depth of the frame. As he cuts together thematic sequences (for instance, landscapes, women walking, couples kissing, musicians performing, people dancing or sleeping), hypnotic minimalist music composed by Michael Nyman and Manuel Rocha draws viewers into the visuals and elevates their intensity."

A final sweep of the PSIFF lineup reveals a few stray films that don't appear to be grouped within any specific sidebar.

The Cleaner / El Limpiador (Dir. Adrian Saba, Peru, 2012, 95m)—In the midst of a mysterious epidemic, Eusebio (Víctor Prada, last seen in Octubre), a depressed and isolated Peruvian man, cleans up the bloody pools of liquid left behind by the dying. He finds a young boy, Joaquin (Adrian Du Bois), hiding out in an apartment, and brings him home to look after him until he can find his aunt. Eusebio makes eyeholes in a cardboard box, and convinces a frightened Joaquin that if he wears it on his head it will protect him. A tentative trust and sense of caring gradually builds between the two; Eusebio is quietly transformed as the epidemic rages on.

Making an impressive debut feature as writer/director, Adrian Saba shows admirable restraint in letting the relationship between two deeply guarded souls gently unfold, incorporating drily comedic touches and bravura, artfully composed long takes. Prada and Du Bois bring to life the pained humanity of their characters with a remarkably controlled intensity. IMDb. Facebook.

Little World / Mon Petit (Dir. Marcel Barrena, Spain, 2012, 83m)—This inspiring documentary from Spain, winner of the Youth Jury Prize at a prestigious documentary film festival, will be screened for the first time in the U.S. The movie celebrates the buoyant spirit of Albert Casals, a 20-year-old from Spain. A prolific world traveler, Albert decides that he and his girlfriend, Anna, will travel from their home in Barcelona literally half way around the world to East Cape, New Zealand ... and to do so with only 20 Euros in their pockets. The fact that Albert uses a wheelchair is but one more aspect of his life. His mobility is as unrestricted as his sense of freedom and adventure. Official site. IMDb.

At The Hollywood Reporter, Neil Young describes Little World as "heartwarming but without a scintilla of mawkishness" and "a straightforwardly effective introduction to an unforgettable individual and his disarmingly persuasive attitudes to life."

The End / Fin (Dir. Jorge Torregrossa, Spain, 2012, 90m)—Felix takes his girlfriend Eva to a remote cabin in the Pyrenees to meet a group of friends he hasn't seen in 20 years. An initial camaraderie soon turns to finger pointing, as they realize that "The Prophet," a friend who they had played a trick on back in the day, isn't coming. Suddenly there's a burst of light in the sky. All power goes out; there's no cell phone service, cars won't start, watches stop. When the group sets out on foot, it appears that the world has been completely depopulated. The characters disappear one by one, and the film shifts gears again, to a thoughtful meditation on human connectedness and individual identity.

Shot in a spectacular mountain locale, from a script co-written with acclaimed screenwriters Jorge Guerricaechevarría (Live Flesh, Cell 211, The Oxford Murders) and Sergio G. Sánchez (The Orphanage, The Impossible), first-time feature director Jorge Torregrossa has created the rare genre film that's artful and thought-provoking as well as gripping entertainment. The top-notch cast features, amongst others, top Spanish film star Maribel Verdú (Pan's Labyrinth, Y Tu Mamá También). Official site [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia.

TIFF programmer, Diana Sanchez writes: "Brilliantly and relentlessly building the tension to a hair-raising pitch, Torregrossa's end-of-the-world allegory milks its sci-fi conceit for maximum suspense. Framing his protagonists against the majesty of a towering landscape that seems to dwarf the human drama played out beneath its indifferent gaze, Torregrossa transcends the boundaries of genre to offer a profound meditation on a fundamental philosophical question: what does it mean to exist, and to share that existence with others?" The Q&A for The End's TIFF screening is up at YouTube. At Cineuropa, Alfonso Rivera states: "Beneath its appearance of a mainstream film, The End is, more than anything else, an existential film. It speaks of destiny, what we are, wounds from the past, and how we are conditioned by the gaze of those who surround us. ...A melancholy, psychological, and nihilist nightmare that Torregrossa has nourished with his obsessions: ambiguity, suppressed desire, and disenchantment. The result is a film that looks commercial—it is already being compared to the television series Lost—but that hides strong doses of depth." Cineuropa also hosts Rivera's interview with Torregrossa.