4/14/03:

It was a hurried day today. We (Sarah and I) barely made it to the shows on time. They were both evening shows, one after another. We had a quick dinner before the first show, then walked (or rather, ran) to both places. The first was an excellent, poignant film from Iran, particularly interesting given the current events in the world. The next was a Spanish melodrama/mystery/police thriller. It was disappointing, but better than the other directorial debuts I've seen this year at the festival.

Films I saw today: Marooned in Iraq, X

Marooned in Iraq

Given the current climate in the world, the title of this film is quite intriguing, conjuring for most of us images of Saddam Hussein strutting confidently before the cameras in his palace, and night-vision vistas of missiles exploding over desert cities. And indeed, it must have been intriguing to a lot of people, since the screening that I attended was sold out and the theater was packed. In some ways, the film delivered on the expectations of myself and probably of a lot of the other people in the theater; missiles and Saddam both come up a lot. But on the other hand, Marooned in Iraq ends up being less about the large figures and events, like dictators and wars, and more about regular people and their lives. It is at times a very funny film, and at other times a very sad one. But it is always moving, humanistic, and intelligent.

Despite the nation mentioned in the title, Marooned in Iraq is an Iranian film. (I don't think Iraq even has a film industry, for obvious reasons; the IMDB lists only 40 films made by that country--only one of them was made in the 21st century, and that was a co-production with the United States.) Unlike its neighbor, Iran actually has a very strong film industry that has been responsible for many critically acclaimed films in the past decade or so. And the film does indeed begin in Iran--in Iranian Kurdistan, to be exact. Languages used in the film include Farsi and Kurdish. I had never heard these languages spoken extensively before, so they were interesting to listen to. Unfortunately, the subtitles left something to be desired; they were written in flat white text, which often makes reading them quite difficult. Also, the characters in the movie are constantly shouting long strings of dialogue back and forth at each other, but often only a few paltry words would appear haltingly at the bottom of the screen. Admittedly, the language sounded repetitive, so maybe whoever did the subtitles was omitting those repetitions to save space. But I highly doubt that all of that talking was just repetition, and it bothers me that a lot of the dialogue may have remained untranslated. This is a problem in a lot of foreign films. Much of the credits often remain untranslated, also; I was not able to get any information on the names of the characters, or the names of the actors who played them.

But anyway, I'll get down off my soapbox and get on with the plot summary: An Iranian man, having received a message from his father, is returning home to see him. It soon becomes apparent that he and his father are famous musicians, known throughout Iran and Iraq. The history of the family and their band is slowly revealed throughout the film. We even get to hear some of their music, which has a strange and unpolished (though not wholly unpleasant) sound to it, to Western ears. When the son arrives, he meets his brother and learns that their father wants them to accompany him on a journey into Iraq to find his ex-wife, who sent word that she needed help. The sons are utterly opposed to such a dangerous journey, especially when its object is to assist the woman who was basically the Yoko Ono to their Beatles. But their father reveals that he was never actually officially divorced from the woman, and the sons finally agree to come, since this fact makes it a matter of honor. (We soon learn that in fact they are divorced, and that this was merely a lie told by the father to trick his sons into helping him. The simple truth is, he still loves his ex-wife and wants to save her if she is in trouble.) The second son is still loudly grumbling, however, and is quite unhappy that he must leave behind his seven wives and eleven daughters. But, he decides, perhaps this is a chance to find an eighth wife, one who will finally bear him a son. So the father and the two sons mount the one son's motorcycle and ride off.

The journey is a slow and difficult one, fraught with danger from bombs and thieves, and finding word of the old musician's ex-wife is nearly impossible. This area of the world has no reliable road systems, public transportation systems, police, telecommunication, anything. There are no cell phones or e-mail or instant messages. To get in touch with someone, you have to talk to people who may have seen her, or try to find someone who may have a letter from her. To figure out which way to go, you cannot consult a map, or look at the road signs--there aren't any; there aren't even any roads to speak of. You have to ask people. To get somewhere, you have to walk, or hitch a ride, or be lucky enough to own a car or a motorcycle. In other words, to do almost anything you have to rely on other people. Luckily, as I said, these are well-known musicians, and it is relatively easy for them to find people that are willing to help them. In fact, they are often able to bring great joy to the people they meet with their music, even in the most dangerous and unhappy places. But it is amazing to see this world they travel through, so remote from the one we live in, so incredibly distant from our experience. When the family finds their way to a tea house, and there is a TV on showing an American commercial, it seems like something from an alien planet, it is so out of place here.

Along the way, the small, bickering family of musicians runs into a series of humorous, picaresque adventures. In an attempt to get information about a letter from the old musician's ex-wife, they are roped into providing music at a local wedding, which is promptly interrupted by a man with a rifle who wants the bride for himself. The wedding and music go on, surrounded by chaos and gunfire, and meanwhile the old man who may have the information about the letter has been buried up to his neck in dirt outside the village by the gun-toting man for refusing to help him in his plot to disrupt the marriage. In the middle of all of this, the unmarried son wanders off, following the voice of a woman singing. He is enchanted by it, and though he cannot see the woman (she has been turned into a silhouette by the glare of the sun) and has only heard her voice, he has fallen in love with her, and asks her to marry him. It is a beautiful scene, amidst the ridiculous chaos. The film abounds in these scenes of beauty and joy amidst violence and chaos. This is what makes it so moving and wonderful--and ultimately hopeful.

The journey takes a turn for the worse when the brothers and their father are captured by thieves posing as police, who beat them up and steal all their things, including their motorcycle. From here on in they are forced to walk, though they are occasionally able to hitch a ride from a passing vehicle. They move on into areas of desolation--towns destroyed, and people massacred, left homeless, or forced to join the army. Here the presence of Saddam, who has already been mentioned--in fact, "Damn Saddam!" is a common saying among the people--begins to be felt in earnest. He is blamed for much of the violence, destruction and lawlessness. He has left the place a scarred wasteland, populated now only by the dead and the mourning. As the family moves on into haunting mountain territory, the sound of planes is always overhead, and the sense of danger, loneliness and desolation is constantly increasing. As I mentioned, the family comes upon a tea house, which is surrounded by a kind of bazaar where people sell their wares. But this is a kind of nomadic tea house that is forced to constantly keep moving, due to the violence and chaos in the area. Here by chance the family finds a group of men with their motorcycle--they say they bought it from some other men and had no idea it was stolen. Unfortunately, the son can't prove that it's really his motorcycle, and they have no money to buy it back, so they must go on without it.

Further up the mountain, the family comes upon a strange scene in that barren wasteland--a teacher with a group of small children, giving a lesson. And his lesson is stranger still; he is teaching them about airplanes. He says an airplane has two purposes: transporting and bombing. When one of the children asks him if he has ever been in an airplane, he says no, but his brother's cousin had a friend who was once in a plane. Again, I was stunned by the incredible gap between this world and the world we know.

After the lesson, the teacher takes the father and brothers to a camp full of other children. He reveals that these are all orphans, their parents killed in the war. Also working at the camp is a beautiful woman that the married son immediately takes a fancy to. When she learns that he already has seven wives and eleven daughters, she asks him, "Why would you make so many women unhappy?" He says he has vowed to never leave women alone until he has a son. He hints that he is on the lookout for an eighth wife, and she asks, "You want to make another woman unhappy?" She suggests an alternative solution: adopt one or two of the orphan boys in the camp. He is quickly won over by the idea. The father and the other son go on without him. But soon enough they meet by chance the singing woman that the unmarried son fell in love with. She is in mourning; her brother is almost certainly dead, and now she and her family are traveling the country trying to find his body so they can lay him to rest. The musician's son decides to accompany and help her, and the father is left to carry on his journey alone. But this is just as well; the teacher has already told him that the way ahead would be too dangerous to travel with his sons. They would be killed or forced to join the army. But ultimately, through luck, perseverance and force of will, the father, too reaches his goal. He doesn't get what he hoped for, but he does become the guardian of a new life. In fact, all three of them--the father and his two sons--get what they want, in unexpected ways. So the conclusion of the film is hopeful, and happy in its own way, but it is also tinged with sadness and pain.

Marooned in Iraq is more than a fictional film--it is a vision of a place torn by war, chaos and difficulty. It is a place very alien to me, but also very familiar. The people in it, with their joys, sorrows, and petty squabbling, are all very human.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Intermission

Marooned in Iraq had started a little late because it was a sold-out showing and they wanted to fit in as many people as they could before they began. This meant that it ended a little late, and we had to run across town to our next movie. Along the way, we ran into a couple of friends, exchanged hurried greetings with them, and then ran on. We ended up making it in time, although I missed the introduction that the programmer gave in front of the film. But that was my own fault, really; I was out in the lobby purchasing snacks.

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X

This is a Spanish film (and this time it was actually in Spanish, with English subtitles) from first-time writer-director Luis Marías. And, unfortunately, like most of the other directorial debuts that I've seen in the festival, it was disappointing. The premise, though familiar, was intriguing to me--a police detective wakes up in a strange bed with a strange woman next to him, and no memory of where he was the night before. When he finds his car, he discovers in the back seat a pair of bloody scissors and a red gym bag that don't belong to him. What has he done? Soon the body of a young man is discovered, in a hair salon right across the street from where he woke up that morning. He becomes the prime suspect in his latest case. The question that haunts him, and that drives the film, is simple--did he do it?

Sounds kind of promising, right? But things start getting bad right away. First of all, there's the music. It's terribly melodramatic and over-the-top. Whenever anything important happens, the soundtrack flares up in a loud fanfare to make sure we don't miss it. The other elements of the film are pretty much in the same vein--characters, acting, story, camera work, etc. The letter "X" comes up over and over, and the filmmakers do not let us miss it. The camera focuses in on it and the music crescendos practically every time it appears. The hair salon where the murder took place is called X, and there are many giant, red signs all around advertising the place. The murder weapon was a pair of scissors, which are also shaped like an X when open. I think we are also supposed to realize that the letter X stands for the killer, whoever he may be; X is a variable, so what does the X stand for in the equation of this murder? Kind of a clever idea, but like almost everything else in the movie, it is overdone. Symbols are nice and all, and to get them across you do need to use repetition, but you don't have to be quite as obvious about it as this film.

There is a long tradition of the anti-hero as the main character in detective films of this sort, but X goes a step too far. An anti-hero is one thing, but an out-and-out scum bag is another. The main character of this film is a violent, immoral brute of a man. The movie begins with him in the bed of another woman, and though the evidence of his tryst is plain to see, he immediately heads home and asks his pregnant wife to lie for him to the police department about where he was the night before. We learn soon after that he is a homophobe, that he has done violence to gay people before, and that the murder victim was gay (lending more credence to the theory that he is the killer). Not only that, our hero is a drunk, like his father (this is supposed to be part of the drama of the film--will he end up like his father, who destroyed his family's lives and died in an institution?--but it just adds more unnecessary melodrama to the story). Later on in the film, he attacks a couple (the same couple whose house he slept in the night of the murder), threatens to kill a small dog, and then knocks down a crippled woman. When the cop's wife, who has already warned him about her lack of faith in him, finally chooses to leave him, and tells him to stay away from her and her child (which, frankly, is a totally understandable move on her part), his only reaction is, "Very well." And we are asked to sympathize with this man, to care what happens to him. It is difficult to do. Admittedly, the film had to walk a fine line--it had to convince us that this man could have killed someone in a drunken rage, and yet also keep us interested in his fate. But, at least in my case, it utterly failed to do the latter. By the end of the film, when the cop gets into a gun battle with a group of crooks who are also possible suspects, I really didn't care if he was killed or not. If anything, I wanted him to die.

Many of X's characters and story are so extreme and melodramatic that they are not only grotesque, they are totally unbelievable. Take, for instance, the couple whose house the detective found himself in the morning after the murder. The woman he slept with is a slutty bitch who puts on tight-fitting, skimpy outfits, covers herself with make-up, and prowls the streets looking for men to sleep with. That's how he ended up in the house that night; she found him drunk on the street and dragged him inside. When the detective left the house that morning, the husband he had obviously cuckolded slipped bashfully out of his way to let him outside. Like the woman, this man is a ridiculous caricature of a person. He is sickeningly devoted to his wife, who treats him like garbage, ordering him around and slapping him. He cannot stand up to her, or to anyone else who might decide to bully him. (Warning: spoiler ahead. I don't know why you'd ever want to watch this film, but if you plan to for some reason, you might not want to read the rest of this paragraph.) When two gangsters arrive later to question him about the night of the murder, he jumps out the window because he is afraid that he will talk under torture, thus putting his wife in danger. If that wasn't ridiculous and melodramatic enough, the wife witnesses this suicide and, though she was just before telling the detective how little she cared about her weasely little husband, she responds by trying to kill herself, as well.

The eventual solution of the murder is also unbelievably melodramatic. (Another spoiler coming up here.) The victim's sister, whom the detective has been protecting almost since the case began, turns out to be the real culprit, along with her father. They killed the boy together because he "destroyed their lives." The father hated him because he was gay, and the sister because he caused the car accident that crippled her and marred her features (yes, this is the crippled girl that the detective was pushing around earlier, but at that point he had no idea she was the murderer, so he had no excuse). They have kept all of this from the sick mother, although of course she ends up overhearing the confession that they make to the detective.

Like I said, it's all completely ridiculous and over-the-top. It's also all rather hideous. A lot of film noir detective films end up being a kind of journey to the seamier sides of places and people--an exploration of the weird, the sick, the awful, the evil. X is certainly this. But rather than pulling us in with a disturbingly fascinating view of the darker part of all of us, it is constantly repulsing us and pushing us away. I cannot remain interested in something that is not only hideous and awful, but also unbelievable. The people in this story are ridiculous. They are not the darker side of anyone--they don't exist. And even if they did, I wouldn't believe in them.

And after all of that, X doesn't even come to much of a conclusion. As soon as the mystery has been solved, the film simply ends. There is no denouement, no explanation of what will happen to these characters now. Not that I really cared that much by then. But the film leaves you unsatisfied. A Private Affair, the other, far superior, film noir-inspired detective movie that I saw at the festival, ended in a similar way, but in that film the ending felt playful, intelligent, and deliberately abrupt. X just seems to peter out.

Basically, X is a poor attempt at a film noir detective film. It has a decent premise, and some of the basic elements of that genre (an anti-hero who maneuvers his way through a slimy world of freaks and criminals in an attempt to solve a mystery), but it is lacking the subtlety, sympathy, and believability necessary to keep an audience involved. If it hadn't been so extreme, especially in its characterization and plot, which were rife with repulsive grotesqueries and ridiculous melodrama, X might have been a good film.

My Poll Rating: Fair

Epilogue

We headed back home quickly after the film. I wanted to make some notes before I forgot everything about the films we'd seen. Also, we were both eager to get to sleep. It's tiring work, seeing all these movies until late at night, then getting up early the next morning and going to work all day. But there's only one more late night of films ahead for me, and then I'm through with the festival. And the festival itself will also be through. Tonight was the last night of regular screenings; tomorrow they screen the festival favorites. I'm still not clear on exactly how these films are chosen. Supposedly it's based on the audience votes, but the schedule for the favorites is usually set before half the screenings are done, which doesn't seem quite fair. Anyway, I've decided to see two of the festival favorites, and then I'll be done for this year. It's rather sad to see the festival come to an end, but it's also a relief. I'll finally get a chance to do my laundry, do some shopping, and get a good night's sleep! And then there's all these diary entries to catch up on...

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Jim Genzano





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