The Film Festival feels better already than how it was under Clare Stewart, the plump lollypop-garbed foe of human happiness and palliative caffeine for much of the current millennium. Now there is time for a sandwich between sessions. The coffee queues are short. My reviewer’s pass did not require a four-day shamefaced wrestle with a shrugging American fool. No shrill bore preens herself/himself on stage before the screening. It is as if the past cruel tyranny, of old folk stumbling through the rain in filthy alleys starved for a pie, a piss and conversation, had never occurred and was all a terrible dream.
But there was some genuine discomfort nonetheless. The Taviani Brothers’ backstage-prison-rehearsal-movie Caesar Must Die, for instance, was near unbearable. Real gaolbirds quarrel and suffer stage fright learning Shakespeare’s text, but what we, in subtitles, endure, a coarse, colloquial mistranslation, horrible for those like me who know five sixths of the Bard’s best political play, and perhaps best play, by heart, is beyond all Christian forgiveness.
The black-and-white images, lit from above, are abysmal, grimy, sordid and unmysterious, and the performers, though very passionate, sweaty and snarly, nothing like the lofty patrician world-conquering Romans (pampered, lordly, devious and well bathed) whom they are playing. And I don’t see the point.
Why it was done at all is a puzzle. It was like … well … Vietnamese street gangs reconfiguring Henry V as a struggle for mastery of the heroin trade in Cabramatta. Why go there? Why bother?
Under African Skies was a masterpiece, however. Paul Simon meets again his African collaborators on the Gracelands album and their shows in the 1980s, with a bomb scare every other night of their tour. We see in old footage how rehearsals were then, and his propaganda war with the ANC, who said he had crossed the picket lines and supported Apartheid by merely being there, now genially recapitulated by his former tormentors, including the kindly, august, regretful Dali Tambo, now keen to forgive and re-embrace him. If it seemed at the time that it was the best album ever, it seems even more so now, and Phillip Glass, Paul McCartney, Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte say so too.
Joe Berlinger directs, and the warm glad Puck of my youth seems even more kind and gifted than his blithe sweet well-remembered teenage self, and it’s not as good as When We Were Kings — nothing is as good as When We Were Kings — but it’s in the league. It occurred to me watching it that Black South Africans were the wisest, bravest, funniest and most musical people on earth; a master race perhaps; but what would I know?
The Duplass Brothers’ Jeff, Who Lives At Home is about a torpid sluggard living in his mother’s basement by the tenets of a religion he is inventing. Signs come to him, and he follows them. Today’s involve, tellingly for this nation, a name, ‘Kevin’, which he pursues through the day to a near-apocalyptic resolution.
Apparently aimless and improvised at the start, it builds — like ‘Signs’, the Mel Gibson sci-fi movie Jeff loves and sees all the time — towards the end and is very funny. Jason Segal, who seems to be Rock Hudson’s adipose foundling bastard child, is wonderfully soft and sombre and sane as the central maniac, Ed Helms (from Hangover) very fine as his feisty aspirational cuckolded brother and Susan Sarandon superb as their displeased mother, being computer-stalked and finding true love, or is it, just four partitions away in the office in late middle age.
Bertolucci’s Before The Revolution was an unbearable bag of tricks– jump-cuts, overdubs, bad acting and homoerotic writhings and pratfalls off bicycles reminiscent of Alby Thoms — and I left after forty minutes but his later film The Spider’s Stratagem was very fine indeed. To an ominous crumbling provincial town with no young people in it there comes a young man who bears the face and name of a local hero, a martyred revolutionary, his father, Athos Magnani, whose murder is still unsolved. He meets his father’s mistress, his fellow-revolutionaries, his political enemies, all still living, unrepentant and unwelcoming. He visits the the opera house in which his father during a performance of Rigoletto was shot, the applause masking the gunfire noise. He wonders who it was betrayed him; or is the story more complicated, more suicidal, as it were, than that?
With its echoes of Hamlet, and the famous Borges story, Theme Of The Traitor And The Poet on which it based, and excellent performances from Vallii as the ageing mistress and xxx as both her lover-hero and her spiritual son-and-lover, and the ochre and russet and autumn colorings and the restless, ominous tracking shots for which Bertolucci became eventually famed, it weaved a melancholy-suspenseful-stoic mood that suited the times, and the year of Che Guevara’s death in which I guess it was filmed. It was good to see it at last, and to wonder if my life would have been different if I had seen it at the time.
Nicolas Arcel and Rasmus Heiserberg’s A Royal Affair, like The Young Victoria, is a true story about love and world-changing politics and the early arrival and the early arrival through stained bed-sheets of Whitlamism in 1770s Denmark. The king is mad, or nearly, and his doctor Struensee, a secret essayist of the Enlightenment, works on him to save orphans, cure smallpox, feed the poor, redistribute the wealth of the idle rich and mock the Church while tupping his English Queen, Caroline Mathilde, herself a secret Voltaireist freethinker, revolted by her husband’s rude peremptory swivings and adulteries, and, eventually pregnant not by him but by his fellow whoremonger Struensee, who determines, while he is up (as it were) to change the world, thus enraging the Dowager Queen and the punishing puritan Lutheran ascendancy.
Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) is an interesting fellow, most like the drunk womanising medico-revolutionary Fred Hollows, and the mischievous-mad King Christian VII, in some ways more so, a bit like, say, Graham Bond, aware of what reality is, but keen to tweak it a bit. Their shared Queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), a bit mad herself, like, say, Princess Di, assists with her adultery world change and we see what a good thing the Monarchy was/is in this Jubilee week, with a Labour-voting monarch Elizabeth new acclaimed for her dutiful earnest decency and great Social Democrat heart.
This is a fine, fine film, with no human sin airbrushed from it (Struensee, a whoremonger, is also a medical saint; Christian, a beast with his wife and a kook, is also a pre-French Revolution architect of democratic reform), no emotional complexity diminished. Look up wikipedia for the punchline; it is a corker.
MoreFilm Fedtival reviews above.