Tuesday, February 14, 2012


I saw three more good films on Monday, including one that is my favorite of the festival so far.  The first was a Korean War drama, "The Front Line" (5.5).  Its depiction of that war seems, in many ways, typical of other war films, with stock characters, extreme violence, and a fair amount of attention to the senselessness of it all.  What makes this film interesting is the setting--a rocky hillside scarred with trenches and foxholes notable only because of its strategic location near the disputed border between North and South Korea--and also the history it depicts about the end of the war.  The area depicted changed hands 30 times in 18 months, as ceasefire negotiations dragged on and on, and the sight of all that carnage, experienced by people while living in such close quarters, fighting what is essentially a civil war, is a fairly potent visual lesson on the futility of war.  As war dramas go, this one is pretty compelling, even if it doesn't break any new ground.

My favorite film of the festival so far is the "Monsieur Lazhar" (9), which received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for best foreign language film.  A beloved 6th grade teacher, Martine, commits suicide in her classroom, leaving two of her students to find her as school begins the next morning.  The students are devastated, and the teachers and parents ill-equipped to help them cope.  Enter Bachir Lazhar, a refugee from Algeria who is the only applicant for the job of taking over the class.  A well-spoken, courteous, somewhat formal man, Bachir assures the principal of his experience as a teacher and his love for children--and the latter clearly is true.  Indeed, as this perceptive film reveals with subtlety, Bachir's own experiences of loss may particularly equip him to help the class, whatever his shortcomings as a teacher.  The film is a study in how afraid we are to deal with the messiness of loss, how we try to convince ourselves that we have contained it rather than dealing with the most troubling parts.  Although Bachir stumbles a bit in his choice of lesson plans and methods, he asks the right questions about the students' experience and they respond to his kindness and his instincts for creating a safe space for their questions and grief.  In doing so, he butts up against parents who don't want the topic discussed, a psychologist who imperiously bars him from her sessions with the class, and administrators and teachers who are quick to blame one of Martine's students for causing her stress and quick to defend her from any criticism.  This wise film demonstrates just how careless we often are with our judgments and how studiously we avoid addressing the whole truth; watching this good man show his students the way through their suffering is inspiring.  It will play once more on Wednesday evening, and I hope the Oscar nomination will also spur a wider release.

"Las Acacias" (7.5) from Argentina, the first film of director Pablo Giorgelli, justly won a best first feature prize at Cannes.  Giorgelli has mastered the craft of conveying truthfully how successive small moments can change a person, even when it seems on the surface that nothing much is happening.  His plainspoken film conveys the tedium of a long road trip and how limited tools for communication can yet be enough to establish connection--and amazingly, somehow the film inspires attentiveness rather than boredom.  The simple story involves Ruben, a middle-aged long-haul truck driver whose employer asks him to pick up a woman in Paraguay and take her with him to Buenos Aires.  He was not expecting her to have an infant with her, and is plainly annoyed at the invasion of private domain.  Over the course of two days, however, punctuated only rarely by brief conversation, we watch a shift in Ruben, as he warms to the child and her resolute mother; with great restraint, the filmmaker shows the private sadness of the two adults, the kindness and loveliness of the mother, and how the experience of the journey awakens in Ruben a sense of longing for things he has ruled out or lost.  A lesser film would convey these things--unrealistically--with dialogues or flashbacks.  This deceptively slight film conveys much more with less.  You can still catch it on Wednesday evening.

Tonight, another Oscar nominee, from Belgium. 

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