Sunday's batch contained one real gem and a fun coming-of-age story--but first was a Romanian film, "Morgen" (2.5) that didn't quite catch fire. This story of a quiet, slow-thinking security guard who finds the will to help a Kurdish immigrant trying to cross the border into Hungary contains, in the first five minutes, an interesting metaphor for the senselessness of borders. But it fails to do anything to advance the idea after that, and instead gives you 100 minutes of the man's wife haranguing him and the immigrant pleading to him in Turkish (with no translation into subtitles, so the viewer is just as lost as he is). Perhaps there are subtleties of Romanian culture that I missed that would have made it more involving.
"The Forgiveness of Blood" (8), set in Albania, was the real find of the day. It's the second film of Los Angeles director Joshua Marston, whose first film was "Maria, Full of Grace," the story of a Colombian woman who serves as a drug mule. Marston, who used to be a journalist, seems to be attracted to stories way outside the usual Hollywood fare, and he tells them truthfully and without artifice. In this case, he enlisted the help of an Albanian screenwriter for the screenplay, and tells the story of a modern-day family in a small Albanian village, caught in a blood feud with another family. The dispute is over the right-of-way over a piece of land that the protagonist, Mark, needs to cross for his daily bread delivery route, and culminates in a struggle that leaves one man dead and another, Mark's brother, in jail. Mark manages to go into hiding, leaving the family of the dead man demanding recompense according to a centuries-old tradition that feels especially out-of-place in a context of cell phones and television and other indicia of modern-day life. Recompense means either blood (apparently male blood) or a kind of house arrest for the male members of the family, which means that Mark's teenage son, Nik, must remain indoors (along with a younger boy) and his teenage daughter, Rudina, a gifted and motivated student, must leave school to in order to deliver bread in the family's horse-drawn cart. This is the second film I've seen in the last month (the other being the excellent Iranian film "A Separation") which displays in very specific, cringe-inducing detail how a society functions without the rule of law as we know it here in the U.S. Part of what makes this particular depiction so powerful is the focus on the experience of the two teenagers; their father (by all indications a good man) has taken his actions in order to "protect the family," yet they are left to struggle in a system that makes no sense, shouldering responsibilities far beyond what should be hoisted onto their young shoulders. Some of the reviews I read lacked sympathy for Nik, but I think his response is acutely believable and appropriate. Indeed, the generational struggle here--how the kids fight for a way to impact a closed system that keeps sucking them back in--offers insights that apply beyond this very particular and well-realized time and place. The film's festival run is over but it's scheduled for a limited theatrical release in the U.S. and is worth watching for.
I have often wondered about the process for marketing films from abroad in the U.S.; often the English title bears no obvious relation to the original title or expresses something that doesn't convey quite the same meaning here. It appears that some very bad advice led to the English title for the Norwegian film, "Turn Me On, Dammit" (6), which sounds a lot seamier than it turns out to be. It's actually a mostly delightful teen comedy about a 15-year-old, Alma, who is frustrated with her small town and fixated on her sexual urges. Alma's mother is at a loss for what to do about her daughter's obsession with phone sex and pleasuring herself, and Alma's response to an awkward encounter with the boy she has a crush on turns her into an outcast at school, earning her a nickname that gets translated as "Dick-Alma." It's Europe, so some of Alma's fantasy sequences (and one that may or may not be her fantasy) are a bit more explicit than we might see in the states--but on the other hand, this film is actually more realistic and even more innocent and interesting than teen sex comedies here, in which all teenagers are supposedly pursuing and achieving great sex. This film, by contrast, maintains a fun, rueful tone and conveys some actual wisdom about teenagers, plus it is refreshingly realistic in terms of how these teenagers, and their parents, look, dress, and act (that is, NOT as though they all have unlimited funds and personal stylists). Surprisingly, it's scheduled for a limited release in the U.S.; it's a fun diversion if you can find it and will play at the festival again on February 15 and 19.
Today, I'm hoping to see a war film from South Korea, an Oscar nominee from Canada, and an Argentine film that won a major prize at Cannes. More to come!