Monday, February 22, 2010

PIFF Day 11 - "Reporter," "Vincere," and the worst film of the festival

I saw a couple of very good films today. The first, "Reporter" (7.5) is a documentary about Oregon native Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer for his reporting on the crisis in Darfur. The director, Eric Daniel Metzger (whose documentary, "Life. Support. Music" I admired at Full Frame a couple of years ago), has found a good focus for this film, using Kristof's current interest in the crisis in the Congo as a context for examination of his methods as a reporter and of the larger questions of how and whether it is possible to break past the public's tendency toward "psychic numbing." That's the psychological term for the common tendency to ignore the suffering of large numbers of people; in fact, the film points to research showing that our willingness to help begins to decrease when we are asked to help even two people rather than one. Conscious of this phenomenon, Kristof seeks to use individual stories to bring attention to larger social problems, yet struggles for a way to broaden the focus. The film poses challenging questions about what it means to do good in horrific situations, and Kristof's tenacity and courage inspires, even as one sees how in a way inured he has become to extreme suffering. There's also a fascinating depiction of back-to-back visits with a woman who is starving as a result of the war, and a Congolese warlard, who denies the starvation and disease faced by civilians and then offers Kristoff and his company a very good meal. The film grapples well with the value of bearing witness and the struggle to truly do good.

"Vincere" (9) (which translates as the imperative form of "victory" in Italian) tells the compelling and long-hidden story of Ida Dalser, who bore Benito Mussolini a son and then was cast aside in favor of the only wife he acknowledged publicly. This stylish and inventive retelling begins in his early radical days, when Dalser was one of the first to believe him. Note to self: don't fall hard for a monomaniacal future despot. These early scenes are intriguingly passionate, although it's clear from the beginning that Il Duce is not a nice guy; there's a beautfully filmed depiction of their lovemaking showing only their faces, with Mussolini staring intensely ahead, already looking past Dalser and never returning her passionate professions of love. Nevertheless, they seem perfectly matched in intensity and idealogy, and she sells all her possessions to fund the newspaper that helped his ideas find a mass audience.

About a year after Dalser bore him a son (whom Mussolini acknowledged), he married another woman and set about repudiating Dalser. She claimed for years that he had married her, but no written proof of that was ever offered. The film suggests she may have hung onto the proof--and with good reason, since she spent the last 11 years of her life in an insane asylum for insisting that she was Il Duce's true wife. The fierceness she had formerly devoted to supporting Mussolini she enlists to make increasingly shrill public protestations of her status as his wife and the mother of his firstborn son. Eventually she is hospitalized and loses custody of her son.

I loved the way the couple is depicted, and loved the film even more after he dumps her and is seen only in newsreel footage. Dalser does at times seem on the edge of sanity--yet it is her insistence on the truth that makes her seem crazy. The inscrutability of her dilemma is conveyed a million times better than were similar problems in "The Changeling"--this is compelling, bracing stuff.

And finally, the very worst film of the festival: "The Wild Hunt" (1) from Canada. It's an utterly ridiculous story of the intersection of life and a large role-playing game involving Celts, elves, Vikings, and a sinister shaman waging battles somewhere in the forests of Quebec. There might be a potential comedy here, but instead the director decided that the foam-padded acts of violence should turn genuinely ugly. Problem is, the supposedly real-life story is even stupider than the role play, and the director never finds either believable characters or a consistent tone. Groaningly awful.

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