Monday, November 12, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: Barbara

Recipient of the Silver Bear for best director at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival, Christian Petzold's Barbara (2012), from a screenplay by Petzold and renowned experimental documentarian Harun Farocki, succeeds in providing one of the most incisive portraits yet of the everyday paranoia brought into existence by the German Democratic Republic's all-seeing Stasi. In Petzold's highly accomplished latest, everything is minutely calibrated detail and unerringly precise observation, which is to say that Barbara is absolutely saturated with its police state subject matter. Nowhere does this discourse play out with greater concentration or drama than on Nina Hoss's angular, intractable face. Petzold both opens and closes his film on the visage around whom will build his GDR-era thriller - on the dark blue eyes, high sculpted cheekbones and sullen lips that will conceal the mysteries of past traumas and keep secret personally damaging future designs.

Barbara commences with the arrival of Hoss's eponymous heroine in the East German countryside, 1980. Barbara is a reassigned Berlin physician and former member of the nation's prison population, for crimes not specified anywhere in Petzold's film. Being fully aware of the Stasi's constant human surveillance, Barbara is deeply guarded and cautious upon first arriving in the provinces; when, for example, her immediate supervisor André (Ronald Zehrfeld) fails to ask her address when driving her home from the hospital, she protests and demands that she be let out of the vehicle - thus recognizing that he is one of the East German police's countless civilian agents. At home, the sudden shock of her apartment buzzer - Petzold has long since mastered the sonorous effects of the horror film - is accompanied by the appearance of a prying neighbor who demands that Barbara immediately inspect a storage area. Barbara, in other words, is surrounded by those who will scrutinize her every gesture.

Of course, Barbara's own actions early in the film also resonate with intrigue: after receiving a small monetary package inside a restaurant lavatory, she departs for a desolate stretch of countryside where she buries her newly acquired bundle. Returning home on her bicycle later that evening, she is stopped by state officials who are dubious of her nighttime choice of transportation. Indeed, they will later pay Barbara a pair of home visits, which in both instances will include off-camera cavity searches administered by a female agent. Petzold's slow-burn narrative thusly shades from the initial mystery of Barbara's undisclosed identity to the realm of suspense as her clandestine activities, including her secret meetings with a West German lover Jörg (Mark Waschke), must be kept from the watchful eyes of the Stasi's expansive network of civilian informers. In Barbara, the smallest of on-screen details possess the capacity to destroy the film's focalized female lead - and her hopes of reuniting with the no less enigmatic Jörg.

As Barbara progresses, Petzold's subject begins to pivot from pure political thriller to ethics-oriented melodrama, with the needs of the titular lead's patients coming to take increased precedent. Of particular note is a hysterical young female patient named Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), whom Barbara soon discovers has spent time at an East German prison/concentration camp. Barbara's compassionate attitude toward the patient is contrasted early on with André's lack of apparent sympathy: he inhumanely refers to Stella on multiple occasions without once mentioning her by name, a point that Barbara accusatorially notes. André, however, will consequently show his own Hippocratic commitment and human feeling in treating another male patient, who, like Stella, will play a key role in the film's final suspense-filled act. Suffice it to say that admitted Stasi informer André will prove more an ally than an antagonist as the film transforms into medical melodrama. Petzold in this sense, as in another key instance, humanizes the film's Stasi, though admirably not to the point that they are prevented from carrying out their heinous activities.

In both content and form Barbara again represents a new peak in Stasi-themed cinema, easily besting Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's somewhat suspect Academy award-winner The Lives of Others (2006). What von Donnersmarck's film does well, Hitchcockian suspense, Barbara does even better, which following first-rate thrillers like Jerichow (2008) and Beats Being Dead (2011) - Barbara strongly recalls the former in its low-key nocturnal set-pieces and the latter in its cool verdant landscapes - should come as no surprise. Petzold indeed has long since confirmed his stature as the Berlin school's master of genre, while that movement's leading female lights especially - Maren Ade, Valeska Grisebach and Pia Marais, to name three - continue to supply the small "a" art cinema (when, that is, they have the opportunity to work). Of course, Petzold is no stranger to this latter mode, having made one of the first humanist masterworks of the Berlin-school movement in 2000's adolescently focalized The State I Am In. In returning in Barbara to terrain proximate to the historical-political content of The State I Am In, Petzold has made his best film since the latter work - and perhaps his best film to date.

Let me thank Lisa K. Broad for her many contributions to this piece, and throughout the festival. Speaking of Lisa, be sure to check out her final festival report card, where she and I grade eighteen films from this year's event.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: Paradise: Love & Paradise: Faith

Released as the first installment in writer-director-producer Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise trilogy," a set of three features that the Austrian filmmaker first conceived as a single epic-length work, Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe, 2012) follows the late middle-aged Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) as she travels to coastal Kenya for an extended stint of sex tourism. Upon arriving, Teresa joins a similarly robust friend (Inge Maux) who details the ease with which she has secured a young, well-endowed lover. Teresa accordingly commences with her own search for erotic companionship, a process that is simplified somewhat by the crowds of young males who offer goods (and implicitly, their services) to the seashore's female visitors, Teresa included. (Paradise: Love's extreme gap between its wealthy neo-colonialist tourists and its colonized Kenyan under-class occasions a reversal of the traditional economics of sex.) Teresa ultimately settles on Munga (Peter Kazungu) who, to the lead's mind, chivalrously saves her from her more aggressive suitors. Munga seems to understand Teresa's desire to be courted, something that her first potential hook-up misses as he attempts to force himself on the lead in a narrow hotel room. Indeed, throughout Paradise: Love, Seidl shows a special facility for shooting constricted interior spaces (like the aforesaid hotel bedroom) with his often static camera frequently holding for extended intervals on the narrative's darkly comedic interactions. Seidl privileges duration over movement and scale as he produces long takes that speak less to the composition of the image over time than to a stubborn unwillingness to end his shots, to cut. In Paradise: Love, Seidl frequently makes his spectator feel as though she or he has overstayed their welcome, as, most spectacularly, when birthday-girl Teresa and her fellow Germanic tourists fail in their attempts to arouse a lanky male sex worker in one of the film's more graphic set-pieces.

Paradise: Faith (Paradies: Glaube, 2012), Seidl's second installment - the third is planned for release in 2013 - manifests an even more more rigorous relationship between its form and content, thanks in particular to Faith's reliance on thematically meaningful, confined domestic settings. The irony implied by the film's title, in the pattern established by Paradise: Love (with its conspicuous absence of liebe), is particularly well suited to the filmmaker's static frontal set-ups of Anna Maria's (Maria Hofstätter) kitschy Austrian home. Seidl's immobile, symmetric part two framing emphatically presents the film's religious fanaticism in a manner that is at once clinical and deadpan; it professes a lack of commentary to accompany its intrinsic (ironic) criticality. Outside her own home, in a series of evangelically minded visits to a progressively more hostile set of immigrant households, the careful circumscription of Anna Maria's home life disappears, with Seidl's ever looser camera work capturing the increasing chaos of the respective scenes. The unexpected return of Anna's wheelchair-bound Muslim husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh) contributes, to an even greater degree, to Anna's destabilization and ultimate crisis of faith. At the same time, the presence of Nabil also crystallizes a set of references from Fassbinder (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974) to von Trier (Breaking the Waves, 1996) to Buñuel (Viridiana, 1961) as Paradise: Faith devolves into a pitch-black, if somehow still subtly comedic struggle between the sexually frustrated Nabil and his bride of Christ wife.

This piece was co-written by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.

Paradise: Love will screen at the Starz Denver Film Festival on Friday, November 9th at 1:30 PM, Saturday, November 10th at 10:00 PM and Sunday, November 11th at 2:15 PM. Paradise: Faith screens on Thursday, November 8th at 2:15 PM, Saturday, November 10th at 11:30 AM and Sunday, November 11th at 7:45 PM. 

Saturday, November 03, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: Surviving Life & Flower Buds

In a matter of speaking, Surviving Life (Přežít svůj život, 2010), Czech master animator Jan Švankmajer's feature-length collage of live-action cinema and stop-motion cutout animation, may prove among the 35th Starz Denver Film Festival's more old-fashioned offerings, thanks to its highly orthodox surrealist iconography and its no less conventional readings of both Freudian and Jungian theory. Surviving Life, a "psychoanalytic comedy" as the filmmaker describes his work in an introductory talking head, functions no less as a primer to all of the above, with the film's immediately absurd flow of symbols all systematically decoded over the course of the film's explorations of middle-aged lead Václav Helšus's Oedipal unconscious. Švankmajer allows for very little ambiguity, which adds both to the lucidity of the film's narrative - Surviving Life is about as accessible as any work of traditional European surrealism - and again insures that on some level the filmmaker's latest is anachronistic, that it is a work of the twentieth century (and its first half at that). Yet, it is in its commitment to surrealism and the dream, which Švankmajer insists our civilization "has no time for," particularly as there no money in the latter, that Surviving Life gathers its force.

Two generations Svankmajer's younger, fellow Czech director Zdeněk Jiráský's handsomely photographed Flower Buds (2011, Poupata) expresses a decided nostalgia for the socialism of Jiráský's youth, the same socialism that Svankmajer's masterpiece Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) devoured with a relish equal to the anti-materialism of all three films. In Flower Buds, Jiráský stages his contrast between the collectivistic old and capitalistic new in a set of competing dance outfits and styles: the "flower buds" of the film's title, a middle-aged, all-woman exercise club who rehearse and perform socialist-brand mass spectacle routines for their small town public; and the millennial-aged strippers who perform for the community's inebriated pub habituates - and at one point, markedly displace the older women. Of particular note, with respect to the latter, is the focal Susana (Aneta Krejčíková, pictured) who in a measure of the perversity of the new system, is purchased by Joseph Gordon-Levitt lookalike Honza (Miroslav Pánek, right) in attempt to insure her affection. Though the specter of middle-aged dance rehearsals and dive-bar stripteases suggests the path of quirk or worse yet condescension, as do the the hobbies of building match stick shops in a bottle and the presence of Vietnamese immigrants, Jiráský mostly avoids these world cinema traps, as he likewise escapes the miserablist tendency that his struggling backwater subjects would no less seem to telegraph. Instead, Jiráský pursues a strategy of realism - with one major, unfortunate exception in the picture's penultimate scene - that emits occasional moments of humor and irony that help to elevate Flower Buds above the more standard backwater subject.

This review was co-authored by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.

Surviving Life plays once more at the Starz Denver Film Festival, on Saturday, November 3rd at 5:00 PM. Flower Buds will screen Monday, November 5th at 6:30 PM and Tuesday, November 6th at 5 and 9 PM.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival Report Card

Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 2011, 90 min.)
"A brain-twisting and ultimately profound meditation on performance and the nature of intimacy from Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek filmmaker behind 2009’s Dogtooth."
Lisa's Grade: A-
Michael's Grade: A-

Argentinian Lesson (Wojciech Staroń, Poland, 2011, 61 min.)
"This poingnant and exquisitely filmed documentary follows the Polish filmmaker’s son who befriends a remarkable young neighbor-girl."
Lisa's Grade: A
Michael's Grade: A-

Barbara (Christian Petzold, Germany, 2012, 2012, 105 min.)
"A new peak in Stasi-themed cinema, Petzold's political thriller-cum-medical melodrama may also represent a career best for Germany's new master of suspense."
Lisa's Grade: A
Michael's Grade: A

Caesar Must Die (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Italy, 2012, 76 min.)
"This engaging Italian docu-drama from the Taviani Brothers details the preparations for a prison-set performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar."
Lisa's Grade: B+
Michael's Grade: B

Clandestine Childhood (Benjamin Ávila, Argentina, 2011, 112 min.)
"Argentina's Oscar nominee, Ávila's semi-fictionalized remembrances of adolescence combine handsome production values, unexpected comic-book illustrations - and a real dearth of originality otherwise."
Michael's Grade: C+

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (Edward Burns, United States, 2012, 99 min.)
"Despite a winning cast, Burns's family melodrama sinks under the heavy weight of exposition and cliché."
Lisa's Grade: C
Michael's Grade: C

Flower Buds (Zdeněk Jiráský, Czech Republic, 2011, 91 min.)
"An exploration of Czech sexuality that moves into the field of socialist nostalgia, Jiráský's richly photographed feature largely avoids the traps of quirk and miserablism."
Lisa's Grade: B+
Michael's Grade: B

Germania (Maximiliano Schonfeld, Argentina, 2012, 75 min.)
"Produced with the support of the Hubert Bals Fund, Schonfeld's feature debut brings a lot of Tarr and a touch of Apichatpong to its Old Testament treatment of plague and incest among Argentina's Volga German minority."
Lisa's Grade: A-
Michael's Grade: A-

Headshot (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand, 2011, 105 min.)
"Thai Renaissance star Pen-ek's high-concept thriller boasts striking cinematography and sound design, but falls short of his better, more personal work."
Lisa's Grade:  B
Michael's Grade:  B-

Here and There (Antonio Méndez Esparza, Mexico, 2012, 110 min.)
"Making use of an elegant long-take style, this novelistic Mexican art film captures a few years in the life of a family whose musician patriarch has returned home after several years in the US."
Lisa's Grade: A
Michael's Grade: A

In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2012, 89 min.)
"An ingenious and often funny mobius-strip triptych from self-referential Korean auteur Hong Sang Soo and the actress Isabelle Hupert."
Lisa's Grade: A-
Michael's Grade: A

Lost Embrace (Daniel Burman, Argentina, 2004, 2004, 99 min.)
"A comic family melodrama set in a Buenos Aires mall, the middle installment of Daniel Burman's informal 'Ariel' trilogy pairs rapid-fire dialogue and vertiginous hand-held close-ups."
Lisa's Grade: B
Michael's Grade: B-

Mar del Plata (Ionathan Klajman and Sebastián Dietsch, Argentina, 2012, 82 min.)
"This charming, low-key buddy comedy about two bickering friends who find romance at a seaside resort is occasionally marred by unnecessary narrative hijinks."
Lisa's Grade: B
Michael's Grade: B-

Paradise: Faith (Ulrich Seidl, Austria, 2012, 113 min.)
"Combining Von Trier-esque schlock melodrama and Bunuelian dark comedy Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl paints an ambivalent portrait of a woman whose religious devotion shades into perversion."
Lisa's Grade: B+
Michael's Grade: B+

Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl, Austria, 2012, 120 min.)
"Seidl's unblinking camera watches as a seemingly sensible Austrian woman searches for human connection on an African sex safari."
Lisa's Grade: B+
Michael's Grade: B+

Salt (Diego Rougier, Argentina, 2011, 112 min.)
"Despite slick production values and a promising premise, this Argentine homage to the Spaghetti-western suffers from poor pacing and tonal confusion."
Lisa's Grade: C-
Michael's Grade: D+

Sister (Ursula Meier, Switzerland, 2012, 97 min.)
"An affecting if derivative Dardenne-esqe coming-of-age melodrama set in a Swiss ski resort - a 400 Blows at higher elevations."
Lisa's Grade: B-
Michael's Grade: B+

Surviving Life (Jan Švankmajer, Czech Republic, 2010, 105 min.)
"A kind of psychoanalytic detective story, the latest from surrealist Czech animator Jan Švankmajer interrogates the process of symbolic interpretation."
Lisa's Grade: B
Michael's Grade: B

All descriptions written by Lisa K. Broad, except for Barbara's, Clandestine Childhood's, Flower Buds' and Germania's, which were authored by Michael J. Anderson.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: Here and There

Awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes' Semaine de la Critique parallel selection, Antonio Méndez Esparza's Here and There (Aquí y allá, 2012) sketches a few short years in the life of a rural Mexican nuclear family, following the return of patriarch Pedro (Pedro De los Santos) after years spent working in a New York kitchen and supermarket. Méndez divides his narrative into four discrete parts, "The Return," "Here," "The Horizon" and "There," with each treating key junctures in the life of the under-class family following an unmarked temporal interval. The filmmaker's imposition of this epic, novelistic structure contributes to the film's larger project of constructing a humanistic universality, one that exceeds a simple social-realist schemata. Here and There's introduction of a second, younger couple likewise adds to this effect by de-centering the narrative and broadening its scope. Indeed, Méndez looks to portray the existential condition of his Guerrero villagers as their adult males are forced North of the Border to seek the financial betterment of their families - often to mixed results - time and again. That is, the Mexican-American-Spanish co-production, from the perspective of the U.S. spectator, depicts the existence of the wealthier nation's itinerant laborers and service workers both before they leave and after they return home to their geographically and emotionally estranged families.

Pedro's first-act return indeed engenders a spectrum of responses among his wife and two daughters, with the adolescent Lorena (Lorena Guadalupe Pantaleón Vázquez) slowest to accept her long-absent father. Here and There's epic temporality, however, allows for personal reconciliation, which in Pedro and Lorena's relationship comes in the form of a musical tutoring session. It is at this point worth noting that Pedro pursues his musical ambitions (with the hometown Copa Kings) upon returning to his mountain village - Pedro's music is heard both diegetically and non-diegetically, and shown in the form of rehearsal, a commissioned gig and even a private, lightly comedic show for his wife and daughters - while his younger, teenage counterpart practices his break dancing and the latter's love interest performs in a folk dancing group. Méndez's multi-generational protagonists, in other words, share an artistic avocation, which in part helps Here and There advance beyond social realist stereotypes and the polemical trap of a pitiable other.

While Here and There is in this sense lightly anti-social realist - Méndez's subject to be sure still very much conforms to expectations of this mode, with its intrinsic critique of the Mexican medical system especially conspicuous - it is much more assiduous in its avoidance of melodrama, which is to say Latin America's quintessential televisual mode of address. Méndez does this by opting for existential struggle over bathetic suffering - as exemplified by the conclusion to part two's emergency C-section - and even more, by withholding many of the narrative's more dramatic encounters. Here and There achieves this both through its elliptical structure, with key incidents happening after the cut and even between the film's four parts, as well as within Méndez's occluded long framings. Among the most telling applications of the filmmaker's strategy occurs with Pedro's initial return from New York, where his dramatic reunion with his wife is presented at an extreme remove from the static camera. In this opening scene, Méndez makes his anti-melodramatic, which is to say his counter-cinematic intentions known.

Méndez works consistently though not exclusively within a long-take idiom, with tighter, intimate compositions and even shot/reverse-shot passages interspersed with elegant plan séquences and long mobile framings. Throughout these disparate strategies, Here and There maintains an emphasis on off-camera space that elegantly duplicates the film's structuring thematic of the immediate and local here and the invisible, referential there. Indeed, in Méndez's departures from social realism and melodrama, Here and There discovers a richly contextual idiom for making Mexican art cinema, one it should be added that gently references European and Middle Eastern sources including the Antonioni of the film's emptied final sequence. Socially and economically conscious but neither pandering nor miserablist, deeply felt but gracefully lower key, Here and There is one of this year's major achievements in the annals of contemporary world art cinema, and without question will prove one of the very best films to screen at the 35th Starz Denver Film Festival.

This piece was co-written by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.

Here and There will screen at the Starz Denver Film Festival on Wednesday, November 7th at 1:45 and 6:45 PM, and Friday, November 9th at 4:15 PM. Here and There does not currently have an American distributor.

Friday, October 26, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: Focus on National Cinema: Argentina (Argentinian Lesson & Mar del Plata)

Our current favorite for personal discovery of the 2012 Starz Denver Film Festival, Polish cinematographer and documentarian Wojciech Staroń's Argentinian Lesson (Argentyńska lekcja, 2011), a medium-length, non-fictional follow-up to the filmmaker's 1998 Siberian Lesson, displays an exceptionally deep commitment to the domain of the visual and to the medium's sovereign objective to capture images of poetic grace and grave physical beauty. Staroń's invigorating approach becomes clear from his rain-soaked, elegantly indistinct opening set-up, shot as always by the unseen documentary filmmaker in hand-held 16mm, and his consequent, rhythmically alternating visuals of his travelling wife and two children and of the verdant, overcast and extremely rural Argentinian countryside into which they will temporarily settle - for Staroń's wife's work as a government-dispatched Polish language instructor. At first focusing upon his pre-pubescent son Janek's experience of their trans-Atlantic move, Staroń rapidly shifts his attention to eleven year-old neighbor Marcia Majcher (pictured) - the discovery of this discovery - who over the course of the film's near sixty minutes, in addition to studying Polish and earning top academic marks, builds mud bricks, constructs a kiosk (demonstrating her considerable woodworking skills) and performs manual field labor; that is, Marcia does vastly more than her share to help out her economically disadvantaged nuclear family - more it would seem than even her mother and older brother. Janek serves as a near constant companion for the beautiful young local of Polish descent, as does his invisible cameraman father, who, like his son, seems invariably in awe of the film's female subject. The elder Staroń, to be sure, provides a palpable, if unseen personal presence, thanks not only to the intelligence and sense of feeling behind his lyrical selection of images, but also in his facilitation of Marcia and Janek's rail trip to visit the girl's itinerant laborer father. In their journey, we see her lovely visage behind a foggy train window, underclass child riders whom Marcia notes are travelling without shoes, and finally Marcia's emotional reunion with her father in his shack-like hovel. As Marcia is about to return home with Janek and Wojciech, her father uncharacteristically acknowledges the filmmaker to remind him of how difficult things are for his family. In Staroń's deeply moving Argentinian Lesson, the weight that Marcia's father feels rests squarely on his remarkable daughter's very capable shoulders. 

Approaching much of their slacker comedy material in a manner diametrically opposed to Staroń's observational aesthetic, first-time directors Ionathan Klajman (who also authored the screenplay) and Sebastián Dietsch instead display a Wes Anderson-style predilection for explanation in their mostly successful Mar del Plata (2012). Klajman and Dietsch's debut centers on a pair of one-time friends, Joaquin (Pablo G. Pérez, pictured left) and David (Gabriel Zayat, right), who despite their mutual distaste for one another, set off for a weekend vacation in the eponymous resort city. Pérez and Zayat demonstrate their comedic acumen from the opening set-piece, with their uneasy interaction culminating in a CD being tossed out the car window and the steering wheel commandeered in response. Klajman and Dietsch thusly establish the comedic template for Mar del Plata, with Joaquin and David remaining at one another's throats on the beach (as David ungraciously refuses Joaquin use of his boogie board) and at dinner. In the latter interaction, Klajman and Dietsch inaugurate one of their better gags with David confronting a plagiarist dinner guest (Pablo Caramelo), who along with the lead, will set off to a bookstore to prove his innocence - before throwing a punch at his persistent accuser. David, like Joaquin, also finds romance during their weekend getaway, with his first seaside date (with the beautiful Daniela Nirenberg) unfolding within a particularly lengthy split-screen set-up. Though less graceful than the film's longer compositions (including David's one-take approach of Nirenberg's Leticia in a Mar del Plata nightclub), Klajman and Dietsch's hyperactive visuals work in this instance, as they will likewise when the filmmakers project a tennis score in the corner of the screen. Less successful are Joaquin's diegetically disruptive monologues into the camera and Mar del Plata's Instagram flashbacks - though not nearly enough to discount Pérez, Zayat and Caramelo's effective comedic work.

This piece was co-authored by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.

Argentinian Lesson will screen at the Starz Denver Film Festival on Friday, November 2nd at 4:45 PM and Sunday, November 4th at 11:45 AM. Mar del Plata screens on Monday, November 5th at 2:00 PM, Tuesday, November 6th at 7:00 PM and Wednesday, November 7th at 9:15 PM.

Monday, October 22, 2012

35th Starz Denver Film Festival: Alps / Caesar Must Die / Sister

Awarded the "Golden Osella" for best original screenplay at the 68th Venice International Film Festival, Yorgos Lanthimos's Alps (2011), from a Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou scenario, figures to be one of the stronger and certainly, one of the more singular offerings at this year's Starz Denver showcase. Succeeding Lanthimos's (b. 1973) artistically major, Un certain regard Cannes prize-winner and Oscar-nominated Dogtooth (2009), Alps brings the same pervasive absurdity and anti-naturalistic psychology to its portrayal of a four-person firm of professional doppelgängers, the "Alps" of the title, who for the bereaved, will take the place of their lost loved ones. In this sense a film that, similar to Dogtooth, offers itself up obliquely to an analysis of Greek or even European identity - as a death-saturated work that the privileges the ersatz, the copy - Lanthimos's latest, nevertheless, is even more concerned with providing a novel perspective on the nature of acting and performance in cinema that follows from the same narrative discourse. Lanthimos and Filippou indeed underline their thematic emphasis by consistently signposting the acting profession in their citations of contemporary screen stars and by repeating lines of dialogue as the film's 'actors' transition invisibly from rehearsal to performance. As they do so, Alps invites its active, modernist art-cinema spectators to consider what it means for the actor to be authentic and to adequately fill the role, and even more whether it might not be the case that there is a greater cathartic power for the performer than there is for the intended recipient of the fiction. Certainly this seems to hold for instant Lanthimos axiom Aggeliki Papoulia, who transgressively inhabits her various parts to the point of sleeping with her employer (an act that Lanthimos characteristically shoots with extraordinary tactility) and invading their homes. Together with Dogtooth and Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg (2010) for which Lanthimos served as producer and male lead, Alps confirms its young director as the most distinctive new voice in Greek cinema since the 1970s emergence of the late Theo Angelopoulos.

The surprise victor at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and Italy’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire, 2012) presents an engaging testament to the transformative power of art and performance. Directed by veteran filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani – joint recipients of the Maria and Tommaso Maglione Italian Filmmaker Award at this year’s Starz Denver Film Festival – Caesar Must Die is set in the Rebibbia high-security prison in Rome, where a group of inmates prepare to stage a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Mixing conventions drawn from fiction and nonfiction filmmaking, the Taviani brothers chart the expansion of the prisoners’ closed world.  In a preponderance of medium close-up framings that attend to the picture's scripted dialogue, Cosimo Rega, Salvatore Striano, and Giaovanni Arcuri remake themselves into Cassius, Brutus, and Caesar respectively. At the same time, they also undergo another more subtle transformation from prison inmates into Shakespearean actors, creating more self-assured, theatrical versions of their own personas. Their intellectual and emotional development is echoed and reinforced at the visual level by the filmmakers’ elegant treatment of cinematic space. The structure of Caesar Must Die is made up of series of rehearsals rendered in stark black-and-white and staged within the impersonal spaces of the prison, culminating in an ecstatic live, color-footage performance. However, over the course of the film the Taviani brothers progressively break with the conventions of documentary style, introducing scripted interactions between the leading actors, more expressive camera movements, and a broader more carefully composed, longer view of the action. In so doing, they effectively open up the walls of Rebibbia, creating an immersive fictional environment that is at once vibrant and fleeting.
Joining Caesar Must Die as a 2012 Berlin prize-winner (earning a special Silver Bear for its forty-one year-old female director, Ursula Meier), Sister (2012) or L'Enfant d'en haut, as the French-Swiss co-production was originally titled, is no less predicated on a fictitious, self-created alternative reality than those witnessed in its two performance-centered counterparts. In Sister, however, this fiction is employed within a naturalistic narrative architecture and for the principle purpose of shock, making any more said inappropriate within this context. What can and must be noted of Sister, a ski-resort 400 Blows (1959) that reaches for a similarly existential ethos, is that its French's title is closer to the spirit of Meier's work, with the filmmaker's narrative and identificatory camera work built around the film's twelve year-old lead Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein). The cinema of fellow French diasporates Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne provides another social-realist touchstone for Meier's latest, with their observational aesthetic and rhythmic cutting patterns employed as Simon expertly exercises his criminal trade. Claire Denis cinematographer Agnès Godard, as The Guardian's Jacques Mandelbaum has intelligently noted, vividly juxtaposes the blown-out, bright-white sunshine of the upper class ski-slopes with the overcast (under-class) valleys where Simon and his eponymous older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux) struggle parent-less in their dispiriting tower flat. All of this is to suggest that Meier has created a work of purpose that deserves its modest recognition.

This piece was co-written by Michael J. Anderson and Lisa K. Broad.

Alps, which is being distributed in the U.S. by Kino Lorber, screens at the Starz Denver Film Festival on Friday, November 9th at 2:00 PM and 9:30 PM, and Saturday, November 10th at 7:00 PM. Caesar Must Die screens once at the SDFF, on Saturday, November 10th at 7:45 PM. Sister, which like Caesar Must Die will be distributed in North America by recent start-up Adopt Films, will play in Denver on Friday, November 2nd at 7:30 PM and Saturday, November 3rd at 4:15 PM.