Despite a heavy month of court work and speaking engagements, I managed to make it to 39 PIFF films--which is purely a testament to how much I love movies, or my benign form of insanity, depending on your perspective. My only regret is that I did not get my list of the top movies of 2011 in by Oscar time--but that comes next (having weathered another particular heavy month). First, though, here is my report on the last four PIFF films I saw at PIFF, along with one more film that I saw the following week.
"Darwin" (4.5) is Swiss filmmaker Nick Brandestini's take on a town in Death Valley, California that was once a thriving mining city with a violent history and now barely survives as the home of 35 misfits. The post office offers the only employment and the film's residents have mostly settled here because they don't fit in anywhere else. The problem is, the filmmaker doesn't do enough to shape the material. Why should we care about these folks? What meaning may we derive from the history or persistence of this community? The film suffers from Brandestini's apparent lack of a working theory.
"Last Days Here" (8) fared much better. Patient and unflinching, it's a portrait of Bobby Leibling, lead singer for the vaunted 70's heavy metal band, Pentagram, which still has diehard fans but enjoyed only fleeting tastes of success. Volatile and drug-addicted, Leibling pissed away what success Pentagram did achieve; the beginning of the film finds him an absolute wreck of a man who looks about 30 years older than his 54 years. A lot of what makes this film bearable and, at times, unexpectedly delightful is Sean Pelletier, the young fan who raves about the impact the band's music has had on him. Fueled by faith and determination, Pelletier believes he can help Liebling kick his addictions and make a comeback. His efforts meet with predictable failure, and watching Liebling continually self-destruct is heart-rending--but the ultimate outcome is surprisingly jubilant, and Pelletier's mixture of realism and commitment is inspiring. Seeing this one with a bunch of heavy metal fans was particularly fun.
"Corpo Celeste" (8) was also wonderful. Set in a small Calabrian town, it depicts the crisis of faith of a solemn 13-year-old girl, Marta, who has returned to Italy after spending a decade in Switzerland. She enrolls in the local church's confirmation class and finds little that speaks to her genuine questions. I was amazed at how much the Catholic Church in Italy reminded me of Protestant churches here--so slow to adapt to and engage with the culture, so blind to authentic spiritual struggle in young people, clinging to tradition out of mindless attachment. This is one of the more sensitive portrayals of adolescence that I have seen, and its clear-eyed observations about how the church functions (or doesn't) in community feel like they come from a place of respect and even longing.
Iran is producing some of the more exciting films I have seen in recent years, and "Goodbye" (9) is yet another. It is the work of Mohammad Rasoulof, who also directed "The White Meadows," which will be very high on my list of the best films I saw in 2011. As in that film, Rasoulof here displays an amazing instinct for composing imagery that conveys deep inner turmoil that resides beneath a nearly still surface--and, as a result, no one does a better job of portraying how oppression works than he does. This film focuses on Noora, a Tehran lawyer engaged in an interminable struggle to obtain a visa to leave the country. Recently disbarred for participating in activist campaigns against the government, she is now pregnant and alone, her solitary life punctuated only by dehumanizing battles with bureaucracy and occasional phone conversations with her husband, who is exiled because of his role as a political journalist. The director does a wonderful job of conveying the impossibility of her life, especially with the added struggles of a woman attempting to function without a man in Tehran society. The title literally translates as "hope to see you again," and I read that the film's action parallels the director's own situation during the winter of 2010-11 when he received a one-year prison sentence and 20-year ban from filmmaking.
Although "Tomboy" (8) didn't play at PIFF, it belongs in the best of that company. It's a French film about a 10-year-old girl, Laure, who moves to a new town with her family and, for a few days of blissful freedom puncuated by fear of discovery, adopts a male identity with the peers she meets there. She doesn't tell her parents--although they love her, they would neither understand nor approve--and a lot about what she is doing probably is nothing new: she wears only shorts and T-shirts and sports short hair and a laconic swagger. But she gives out a name we learn is false, attracts a different kind of interest from a girl her age, and pulls her shirt off when she joins a soccer game. She even figures out a way to go swimming as a boy. Part of what makes this film so wonderful is that it so insightfully depicts in small ways the longing that motivates Laure to push the boundaries of her identity. The children in it, especially Laure and the girl who plays her younger sister, are so natural that it almost feels like you are watching a documentary; a lot of what you see is just them being kids, but in a way that effectively contrasts the confinement of Laure's usual experience and her temporary freedom.