Feb 2, 2009

Wrapping Rotterdam 09'

Although I will soon write about the event in more detail for the next issue of Filmmaker, I can't help but share some impressions from the recently concluded 38th International Film Festival Rotterdam. I'm back in Brooklyn now, pondering all I saw and heard at the festival, a sprawling film fantasia that envelopes the icy, climate change endangered Dutch port for ten days every January. I reported on the festival's prize winners over at the Filmmaker Blog on friday, but I think a number of other films are probably worth mentioning, some I saw, many I didn't.

Indelibly part of the story, regardless of how much cinema you consume at the frenzied pace cinephiles can operate at events like this, is what you missed. Although I'm still processing much of what I saw, I'm already bummed I missed such raved about titles as Alexei Balabanov's Russian period epic Morphia and Haile Gerima's audience award winning Teza, which was also a winner at Venice last year. That's before I mention Jonas Mekas' new four hour film essay, Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR, Lav Diaz's eight hour brooding on lost souls in the Philippines, Melancholia, Raul Ruiz' hot house vampire flick Nucingen Haus and Miguel Gomes self-reflexive concert docufiction Our Beloved Month of August. None of these films will likely receive substantial distribution in the States.

Two films that I saw late in the festival have better distribution prospects. Sergei Dvortsevoy's miraculous comedy of unrequited love and brutal survival on the Kazakh Steppe called Tulpan, which screened locally at last fall's New York Film Festival, and Duane Hopkins' Better Things, a sparse, unrelenting and poetic drama about the difficulties of three couples, two young and one old, amidst a still and pallid British countryside rife with hard drug abuse and existential malaise, should find their way to specialty audiences here eventually.

So too, at least I hope, will Director Pablo Larrain and Writer/Star Alfredo Castro's smashing Tony Manero, a slippery and chilling tale of a Chilean sociopath/murderer who lives in a boarding house with his longtime girlfriend, a younger lover and several other dancer/performers during Pinochet's violent dictatorship in the late 70s. While he goes through the motions of being resistent to Pinochet's repressive reign among this strongly left wing crowd, we slowly glean a distinct emotional unavailability and treacherousness from Castro's Raul. He spends his days and nights cultivating jealousies amongst the women and is preternaturally obsessed with becoming the title character, named for John Travolta's midnight dancer in Saturday Night Fever. In preparation for a TV show which holds celebrity look alike competitions, he practices Travolta's every gesture and nuance, recreating some of the trappings of the dance floor from the film in the boarding house's rickety main room, that is when not killing the projectionist to steal the print of Saturday Night Fever or or an old lady who fawns over Pinochet on TV.

The late critic Gene Siskel was apparently obsessed with Manero as well, having bought the white dancing suit Travolta wore in the movie, but he's got nothing on Castro's creation, whose single minded, homocidal drive to be the best Tony Manero impersonator in Chile mirrors the brutal dictatorship under which the country operated and by which it is still haunted by. Its an amazing performance by Castro, who is in every shot in the film and Larrain, whose's camera nimbly circles him in close proximity, skillfully backgrounding the societal tragedy that surrounds Raul. Manero took home the KNF Dutch critics prize at the festival, a prize which goes to the best film in the festival, regardless of section, which does not currently have Dutch distribution. Let's home it receives commercial audiences not just in Holland, but in the States too.