Before attending this year’s Telluride Film Festival, I was able to catch two films in New York: PHOENIX, directed by Christian Petzold and starring Nina Hoss and GRANDMA directed by Paul Weitz and starring Lily Tomlin. Both films are of Festival quality so I want to mention them here.
PHOENIX continues the examination of post-war German life that Petzold has previously explored in JERICHOW and BARBARA, a 2012 Telluride pick. Set immediately after the war, “Phoenix” traces the effort of camp survivor Nelly—whose face has been horribly disfigured and restored to only a partial likeness—to find her non-Jewish husband, Johnny, who remained behind when as a Jew she was deported to the camps. The film builds to an astonishing climax as both Nelly and Johnny learn more about their pasts than either wanted to know.
In GRANDMA, Lily Tomlin as Elle faces a challenging situation. A poet and part-time academic of waning hireability or publishability, she is grieving the loss of her lifetime female partner and about to break up a months long relationship with a younger woman. Elle is also nearly penniless, having cut up her credit cards in a gesture of independence, Now, her lovely teenage granddaughter arrives to ask Elle’s help in paying for an abortion costing hundreds more than either woman has. Thus begins an improbable road trip and journey of intergenerational bonding. GRANDMA is a celebration of the changing but still relevant face of feminism and a gentle but firm defense of the importance of women’s reproductive freedom.
A word about my grades for the following Festival films I saw. Since most of the films were excellent, my grades are high. My descriptions often don’t explain a minus or slightly lower grade, but I use the grading opportunity to register blemishes such as my sense that a film is slower than I would like, or in some way emotionally unconvincing or less than completely honest.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 4
The 42nd Telluride Festival (and by my count our 19th year of attendance) began early for me on a drizzly afternoon with a pre-program showing of Fritz Lang’s 1924 silent masterpiece, DIE NIBELUNGEN. Based on the German saga, the film recounts Kriemhild’s joyous marriage to the hero Siegfried, who has been rendered immune to injury after bathing in the blood of a ferocious dragon he has slain. Unfortunately for Siegfried and Kriemhild, a linden leaf covered a small patch of Siegfried’s back, rendering him vulnerable to death at the hands of his foes.
This beautiful five hour long, gold-toned restoration by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, with lush and nuanced orchestral accompaniment by Gottfried Huppertz, is divided into two halves of seven cantos each. Unfortunately, in order to keep my promised rendezvous for our next film with Mary Jean and our accompanying friend Kate Conley, I had to leave at the intermission. But not before watching the beautiful Kriemhild rise from beside her husband’s body, face the henchman/murderer Hagen von Tronje, and utter a vow of unrelenting vengeance. In a moment of silent filmmaking at its best the camera moves in on the up-to-now gentle Kriemhild’s face and reveals her eyes flaming with hatred and resolve.
I make a vow of my own to, in one way or another, see the second (and apparently apocalyptic) half of this film.
As difficult as it was to leave NIBELUNGEN, the decision to get on line early for our next film, TAXI, by Iranian director Jafar Panahi, was wise, since the line was already long when I arrived. Iranian authorities have forbidden this award-winning director from making further films, and he has reportedly been under house arrest. Despite—and because of—this, he made TAXI, by filming himself with small dash mounted cameras as the incognito driver of a taxi in the streets of Teheran. TAXI, thus gives us a moving stage of characters picked up in the course of a single day.
And a varied and colorful cast it is, beginning with two separate fares who share the cab. One is a beefy young man sporting a heavy gold chain who sits beside the driver. He vehemently defends the recent hangings of a series of petty thieves. But his views are contested by an older woman in the back who identifies herself as a teacher and who points to bitter economic conditions as a cause of the thieves’ behavior. As this sometimes hilarious argument proceeds, Mr. Gold Chain will have none of it (you suspect he was an Ahmadinejad supporter), and he finally exits the cab leaving us wondering whether he isn’t himself a thief.
As other fares come and go, the humor and controversy mounts. A key role is played by Panahi’s charming and precocious niece whom he picks up after school. She reads the notes she has taken for an assigned film project in which her teacher parrots the government’s current views on what makes a film “unscreenable.” We soon realize that this remarkable film fails the government’s test on all counts.
TAXI shows us what I learned during my visit to Iran in January: that Iran’s people are not a monolithic block but a lively collection of politically, religiously, and culturally diverse individuals.
RON’S GRADE: A (and my personal nomination for “Best Foreign Film” at the Oscars)
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 5
Today opened with a tribute to Rooney Mara. Although a neighbor on the line wondered why this honor was given to a young (30-year old) actress, the sequence of clips from films like “The Social Network,” “Side Effects,” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (among others) indicated how rich and varied Mara’s talents are. The interview following the clips revealed interesting facets of her career. For example, asked whether she had read the novels and seen the prior Swedish version of the film before making the American one, she replied that she had done so, and that viewing the Swedish film led her to approach her character very differently.
A screening of Mara’s latest film, CAROL, followed the interview. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith and directed by master filmmaker Todd Haynes, CAROL offers a deeply moving performance by Cate Blanchett as a mature woman who falls in love with an elfin, almost Audrey Hepburnesque, Rooney Mara. Set in the mid-ninety fifties and beautifully filmed with period costumes and autos, the film evokes the deep romanticism of that era (echoed in the popular music of the soundtrack) and applies it to a lesbian relationship—to which that same culture is both oblivious and persecutory. CAROL will be appearing in Cineplexes soon, but during our era of turmoil over gay relationships, it can change hearts and minds by showing in universally understandable ways how gay people share the human emotion of love.
RON’S GRADE: A (Don’t miss it at the Cineplex)
The string of excellent films continued in the afternoon with 45 YEARS directed by Andrew Haigh and starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as Kate and Geoff. An intelligent and progressive couple living in rural England, Kate and Geoff are about to celebrate their 45th anniversary with a large party (their 40th anniversary celebration was put off because Geoff needed surgery). But the childless couple’s tranquil existence is suddenly disturbed when Geoff receives a letter that reveals a largely hidden aspect of his life before the two met. 45 YEARS opens with Kate walking their well-loved dog and whistling “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” This was also the couple’s wedding day dance song. As the film ends, with the Platters’ version of the song repeated for the celebratory dance by the pair at their anniversary party, we realize that smoke can mislead people in love and also conceal deep fractures beneath the surface of what seems to be a happy marriage. Courtney and Rampling are terrific, with Rampling, one of the great beauties of modern cinema, courageously showing every line and wrinkle of her 69 years.
RON’S GRADE: A minus
Saturday concluded for me as I descended along with five anonymous Festivalgoers in a darkened gondola, all of us returning from the young Hungarian director Lázló Nemes’s unsettling Holocaust film SON OF SAUL With the town of Telluride glittering far below, we engaged for twenty minutes in an impassioned seminar on the film. “Son of Saul,” we agreed, is a different Holocaust film. As Nemes observed in the brief Q&A following the film, it seeks to avoid reassurance of any sort, such as that offered by films like “Schindler’s List” or “Life is Beautiful.”
Saul is a member of one of the briefly surviving Sonderkommando teams that conducted the gassing and burning of Jewish victims until that team, too, was gassed and burned in the Nazis’ effort to erase the crime. As the film begins, Saul, chillingly played by the Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig, moves like a dead man, helping to lead the unwitting victims into the “showers,” standing by the steel doors hearing the screams as they’re gassed, and scrubbing away the blood and filth. We see a new terror of the Holocaust in the merciless forced pace of the crematorium death factory, as inmates move from difficult task to difficult task under the constant threat of joining the piles of “pieces” they process. Saul is shaken out of his indifference when he encounters the body of a young boy, who he claims to be his own son (though it’s never clear that this is so). Thus begins Saul’s obsessive effort to provide a traditional Jewish burial for the boy. This leads us through every chamber of the crematorium complex and through the turmoil of a failed Sonderkommando uprising. Shot with 35-millimeter film, shallow depth of focus, and a screen size deliberately reduced to the older 4:3 ratio, the camera always keeps the worst images—full views of the victims and the treatment of their bodies—at the edge of our vision. But the hand-held shots and the cacophony of languages—Hungarian, Yiddish, German—convey the chaos and terror of this hell within a hell.
As I and my fellow filmgoers descend in our gondola, we debate whether Saul’s behavior is an insane mental break—an additional assault on his humanity caused by the insane conditions—or a profound spiritual affirmation that takes him beyond the instinct for survival that drives the other men. Or is it both? SON OF SAUL provides no easy answers, but in the bleakest of ways, it forces us to deepen our comprehension of the Holocaust.
RON’S GRADE: A minus
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 6
Sunday started for us on a bad note. After waiting for an hour and a half, we were denied admission to the Danny Boyle tribute and viewing of his latest film, STEVE JOBS. Our W2 line passes to the Mountain Village Chuck Jones cinema normally guarantee admission, but a surge of “filmmakers of tomorrow” shut us out five places short of admission. In compensation, we were given one-time priority passes that put us among the $3900 patron pass holders for any upcoming film. This was emotionally assuaging but not total recompense.
After a three-hour wait we were admitted to the Chuck Jones for the French director Xavier Giannoli’s MARGUERITE. It was worth the wait.
The year is 1920 and the context, brilliantly portrayed with period settings and costumes, is the catastrophe of the war and the emerging cultural turmoil and excesses of the twenties. Baroness Marguerite Dumont, still living in the protected bubble of the pre-war aristocracy, is passionately devoted to musical performance, and believes herself to be a diva of importance. She stages a private recital at her magnificent chateau “for the benefit of orphans of the war.” But when she starts to sing it is chalk on a blackboard. Her devoted audience of private music club attendees, family servants and war orphans applauds warmly, but they must also suppress their laughter (our film audience viewers did not).
What makes this film move beyond comedy into deep human insight and emotion is the performance of Catherine Frot as Marguerite. Her sweet face and gentle disposition stir us to affection for her just as they do her colorful retinue of followers. Like them, we fear the encounter with reality that could shatter her illusions. But we also feel admiration for Marguerite. Her passion suggests to us that life itself is nothing more than the illusion we weave for ourselves, and we admire her courage and tenacity in pursuit of her artistic dream.
In the Q&A that followed the film, Annette Insdorf revealed that a film based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, the American diva whose story inspired MARGUERITE, is now in production starring Meryl Streep. We’ll see how that film compares with “Marguerite,” and whether Streep can match Frot’s performance to make us pity, admire, and love this beautifully deluded person.
RON’S GRADE: A (and my second personal nomination along with “Taxi” for this year’s “Best Foreign Film”)
Very positive line buzz led us to privilege ROOM for our late afternoon viewing. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson with a screenplay adapted by Emma Donoghue from her novel of the same name, ROOM is a factionalized account of the experience of the Cleveland teenager who was abducted, imprisoned for years, and raped and impregnated by her psychopath abductor. Joy (Brie Nelson) protectively raises her five-year old son Jack (brilliantly played by Jacob Tremblay) to believe that their tiny room is the whole universe. Only when it becomes necessary to make him realize otherwise in order to make their escape, does five-year-old Jack begin to understand that there is a larger, real world beyond the TV screen.
I confess to being uncomfortable throughout this film. Using a thriller format to move events forward creates a constant feeling of menace even after Joy and Jack are freed. More than seems to be needed in order to explore the psychological challenges facing mother and son, we’re constantly led to worry that Jack or Ma will suffer some terrible new harm. To its credit, ROOM offers an uplifting vision of the intensity of maternal love. But some viewers may worry that Joy’s response to a forced pregnancy is depicted in too redemptive terms.
RON’S GRADE: B plus
ONLY THE DEAD SEE THE END OF WAR closed my day. (Mary Jean and Kate chose not to attend a film with a 10:30 start). Co-directed by Michael Ware and Bill Guttentag, this documentary chronicles Ware’s seven years as a Time correspondent in Iraq from before the invasion to the fighting to recover Fallujah and Ramadi from Iraqi insurgents. Videos shot by Ware’s reporting team with Ware’s taut Australian-accented voiceover and captured insurgent footage document the war from the brief, heady days when U.S. troops entering Baghdad were welcomed with flowers, through the emergence of the deadly Iraqi “resistance” to the U.S. occupation, to the retaking of Fallujah and Ramadi from insurgents led by the vicious Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Ware doesn’t say anything about the larger issues of the conflict (although one’s stomach turns at brief TV screen clips of George W. Bush stupidly boasting of the initial successes and then blaming the insurgents for the resulting mayhem). But the film powerfully documents the increasing cruelty on both sides, from the barbarous bombings and beheadings by Zarqawi’s followers to the increasing anger and callousness of the young American soldiers dropped into this hell (often without sufficient support). A dramatic closing video shows the GIs dragging a badly wounded insurgent off the street into a courtyard where they’ve sought shelter. The Iraqi’s brain oozes out of his head, but his chest continues to heave as the soldiers search his pockets, pulling out two ammunition clips and an identity photo bearing a fresh young face. In violation of military law, no one makes an effort—not even Ware—to secure medical help, and we watch for minutes until the chest stops heaving. The film closes as Ware regrets the toll the war has taken on his own humanity.
ONLY THE DEAD SEE THE END OF WAR has been sold to and will be shown on HBO. For a view we never quite got to see on TV of this terrible and misguided conflict, Don’t miss it.
RON’S GRADE: A
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 7
Our final day at this year’s festival began at the limited seating Opera House where our consolation-prize priority passes earned us quick entry to what soon became a packed house for the Irish-Cuban film, VIVA. Directed by Paddy Breathnach and beautifully filmed in Havana, VIVA stars Hector Medina as Jesus, a young gay man who supports himself as a part-time hairdresser. Jesus’s work for the divas at a transvestite cabaret draws him into their performance world. But his life is abruptly changed by the return of his long-lost father, Angel, a failed prizefighter who has just been released from prison. Angel has no room for “maricons” (“fags”) and after slugging his son during Jesus’s first performance at the cabaret, forbids him to perform. We watch how in order to support them both Jesus begins to descend into prostitution, while longing to return to the intense world of song and performance to which he’s so drawn
In the Q&A following the film, Luis Alberto Garcia, who plays Mama, the cabaret owner (and in some ways Jesus’s foster-father), observed that this film is not only about gays or transvestites but also—and even more directly—about love and family. That’s exactly right.
I was bothered a bit by VIVA’S use of narrative clichés—for example, the bitchy friend whose boyfriend knocks her up and leaves her (and Jesus) to pick up the pieces. But even these clichés may convey aspects of Cuban life, such as the intra-familial and neighbor-bonding shaped by the needs of an impoverished community.
RON’S GRADE: A minus (but my third personal “Best Foreign Film” nomination)
I have often said that the Telluride Film Festival involves going to a small mountain village in Colorado and then, in three days, traveling the world. IXCANUL (Volcano), directed by the young Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamente, is an example of Telluride’s best world cinema. As the film opens, we see Maria (beautifully played by María Mercedes Coroy), a 17-year old Mayan girl, as she is being prepared to meet her future husband and his family. Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo) is foreman at the local coffee plantation whose spouse has died and left him with three young children. Unfortunately, Maria upsets these plans by becoming pregnant in a one-night stand with a local ne’er-do-well who soon takes off to the north, breaking what she believes was his promise to take her with him. As IXCANUL follows Maria and her family through the turmoil that her condition causes for them, we feel like privileged anthropologists who have been invited into the intimate life of an indigenous community. Events hint at the depth of rural poverty and exclusion: census takers who don’t speak Mayan and few locals who speak Spanish. Deprived of resources, people resort to ineffective folk remedies or to beliefs and rituals with a thin Catholic veneer and deeper Mayan roots. Over them looms the protective power and support of the volcano.
But what raises IXCANUL above even this fascinating series of cultural insights, is the relationship between Maria and her mother, Juana (María Telón). Juana’s non-judgmental, unsparing love for her beautiful daughter shows us that poverty and backwardness do not eclipse what is best in the human spirit.
RON’S GRADE: A (and my fourth personal Oscar nomination, though, sadly, an unlikely winner)
For my final film of the Festival I chose not to follow my companions’ choice of a first draft of Danny Boyle’s STEVE JOBS which has received the best line-buzz of the Festival. This is because I think it’s unwise to see films here that I can soon catch at a local movie theater (such as this year’s selections “Spotlight” and “Black Mass”) and in the process miss the full screen viewing of a film that will never appear again outside of Netflix (if there). My choice this evening was RAMS, written and directed by Iceland’s Grímur Hákonarson, RAMS follows two septuagenarian bachelor brothers, the shy Gummi (Sigurour Sigurjónsson) and the frequently drunk and truculent Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) who herd sheep in a remote and treeless Icelandic mountain valley. Although they live only a few hundred yards apart in different houses on their inherited family land, the two brothers haven’t spoken with each other in forty years. The only thing they share is a passionate love for their sheep, evidenced in the gentle caresses and kisses Gummi bestows upon them. But this harsh status quo is broken when one of Kiddi’s sheep (and some on other farms) are found to be infected with Scrapie, a fatal and incurable disease. All sheep on farms throughout the valley must be destroyed. We watch as the crisis and a bitter winter intensify and transform the brothers’ relationship.
The fraternal drama of RAMS may appeal more to those in similarly intense and difficult sibling relationships than it did to me, but I enjoyed my brief visit to this austere and forbidding landscape and my glimpse into the life of a community of dedicated and modern farmers who base their livelihood on one of humankind’s most ancient relationships with animals.
RON’s GRADE: A minus (I needn’t nominate this for “Best Foreign Film” because I hear that RAMS will likely be the Icelandic entry in the Oscars).
Midway through this year’s Festival, I found myself thinking that since Bill Pence retired several years ago, there has been a subtle change in programming emphasis. Where world cinema once predominated, with smaller and fascinating films, more recent Festivals have moved in the direction of trying to identify upcoming Oscar contenders. To an extent this is true. Witness films this year like CAROL, “Black Mass,” “Spotlight,” “Suffragettes,” or “Steve Jobs” that will probably all be in this year’s award contention as well as in local theaters. But I formed that judgment before seeing VIVA, IXCANUL and RAMS, films that can stand besides the best world-cinema offerings of Telluride in the past. So I’m pleased to say that in its forty-second year, Telluride remains as vibrant and exciting as ever. On to forty-three!