My first documentary of the festival turned out to be to be one of my favorite films so far, and one I really want to encourage folks to see. "Somewhere Between" (9) was inspired by the director's own plans to adopt a daughter from China; she wanted to inform herself about what her daughter might experience growing up as an adoptee with a Caucasian family in the U.S. The film focuses primarily on four bright teenage girls, all adopted from China as youngsters into loving families in the U.S. Missing from this story are children adopted into less positive situations, of course--but there are still variations among these girls in terms of their adoptive parents' willingess to expose them to Chinese culture and help them grapple with their origins. All of them, though, are quite articulate about their experiences growing up as outsiders, the types of comments they regularly field from adults ("you're so lucky") and children ("you speak English so well"), their struggles with the sense that they were abandoned, of not knowing their actual birthdays or family histories. One of the best things about the film is that it allows the girls primarily to speak for themselves, and the result is a rich and absorbing look not only at the implications of international adoption, but also at race and identity and difference and what it means to be generous and altruistic. I spent most of the film in tears, profoundly grateful for the openheartedness of these remarkable teenagers. This film will play again at Cinema 21 on Wednesday night, with the director in attendance, so I encourage you to atttend. They are also hoping for a theatrical release; I really hope they get one.
I also saw three interesting decorated films. "The Silver Cliff" (6), from Brazil, won the best director award at the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival. Its premise is a bit slight--it basically follows a woman whose husband, after making love to her one morning, leaves her a voicemail message indicating that he is leaving her and doesn't intend to return. The film simply follows the woman's first day of absorbing this news, stumbling through her work, attempting to contact him, walking the streets of Rio, making a brief connection with a homeless child and her father. Although not a lot happens, the lead performance is excellent and the director makes good use of the urban setting to illustrate the main character's lonely grief.
I'm curious about the Oscar attention that "Footnote" (7) received (it was nominated for best foreign language film). This Israeli film, which also won the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes, tells the story of a grumpy Talmudic scholar, Eliezer, who has devoted his life to the study of words and to nursing a grudge against the academic institutions that he feels have undervalued his work and against his son Uriel, also a Talmudic scholar, for having attained more recognition in those very institutions. Their relationship comes to a crisis when Eliezer is mistakenly informed that he has won a prestigious academic prize; it turns out the prize was meant for Uriel, who makes a compelling case to the awards committee that they should offer it to his father instead. But when he finally convinces them, Eliezer (spared knowledge of the mix-up) uses the opportunity to publicly denigrate his son's work. On the one hand, the director manages to make this rather arcane subject quite engaging, with lots of clever twists. On the other, the story's resolution is pretty unsatisfying, in a way that suggests that neither Eliezer nor Uriel is doing work that has value--which may be true but that irony doesn't seem much to hang the movie on. It felt as though the writer-director was satisfied with setting up a number of perfect ethical dilemmas; I admired that but left feeling more frustrated than enlightened.
Finally, "Once Upon A Time In Anatolia" (6.5) won the Grand Prize at Cannes, and there is no disputing the beauty and inventiveness of its cinematography and the overall quality of the production. It's a challenging film to sit through, though, even if you haven't been watching films all day. Spanning more than 157 minutes, more than half of which is under cover of darkness, the film follows a prosecutor, a doctor, several police officers, and two murder suspect as they navigate the barren Anatolian roads in search of a corpse. The search is punctuated by conversations between the varioius participants about subjects as mundane as the qualities of buffalo cheese and as rich with unexpressed meaning as an interlude about the heartlessness of women. I admire the work of the filmmaker, Nuri Bulge Ceylan; his earlier film, "Climates," was a favorite of mine at a prior festival. But this film's subtlety and length makes it a tough one to sell.