Steam: The Turkish Bath
directed by Ferzan Ozpetek
starring Alessandro Gassman, Francesca d'Aloja
opens March 5 at Broadway Market
directed by Paul Wagner
starring Jampa Kelsang, Dadon, and Anonymous
plays at the Egyptian March 5-11
A Moment of Innocence
directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf
plays March 5-11 at Grand Illusion
directed by Carlos Saura
starring Miguel Angel Sola, Mia
opens March 5 at Harvard Exit
Irish Reels Second
Annual Irish Film and
Pacific Place and 911 Media Arts
Center March 5-9
call 682-1141 for more information
A MARRIAGE CREAKS and strains in snapshot-like scenes squeezed between the opening credits of Steam. Husband Francesco (Alessandro Gassman) keeps his distance as Marta (Francesca d'Aloja) takes impulsive verbal pokes to get a reaction. They are also partners in a design and interior decoration firm, but he shows no confidence in her abilities to handle their most important clients. Reluctantly, he leaves the business in her hands when he's called to Istanbul to oversee the sale of a piece of property. Marta sullenly contemplates her future as he leaves, and we're left with her quiet frustration as she stares off into the night sky.
Imagine my surprise when she disappears for the next hour! Marta's story of slights and disenchantment is dropped for the spiritual rebirth of Francesco in a kind of old-world paradise of community, family, and tradition. Francesco takes residence in the modest family home where his aunt once lived and is soon treated as a long-lost son. The worldly, stylish Italian of impeccable taste and social grace finds an earthy core of love and support that breaks through his cool surface. Francesco even finds true love when his visits to the Turkish bathhouses—or hamams—unlock his repressed sexual impulses. He chooses not to sell his property, which he discovers is an old hamam, but instead restores it and preserves this legacy of Turkish culture and new symbol of his sexual freedom. Ferzan Ozpetek, making his directoral debut, fills the screen with color and atmosphere, and the soundtrack with throbbing, percussion-heavy melodies. His vision of this little community is like a time capsule: Neighbors shout from windows and balconies to share news and celebrate good fortune, and families come together over glorious feasts. It's like an Eastern variation of Leave It to Beaver, complete with happy homemaker mom. The few cracks in the shiny portrait (the father repeatedly goes out for a night on the town over the objections of his wife) are quickly papered over (she shrugs it off) and replaced with happy visions of communal enterprise. No wonder Francesco doesn't want to return home. He's found an unlikely paradise and it's hard not to get caught up in it.
Steam comes off as an exotic new-age parable, a Dances with Wolves for the La Dolce Vita set. Even Marta gets caught up in it when her unexpected visit brings those initial tensions back to the drama. The wise old Turkish mother embraces the wounded cosmopolitan, and Marta is taken into the fold, swept away in this nurturing culture. Of course it only works if you keep it at the symbolic level—in reality, would aggressive, independent Italian businesswoman Marta find acceptance so easily in the traditional working-class quarters of Istanbul, let alone one that seems stuck in a time warp? Ozpetek's quick dismissal of all internal conflicts leaves it as nothing more than a beautiful fantasy: lush, sensual (though hardly the carnal playground the title Steam suggests), and ultimately hollow.
TO PROTECT THEIR families from the Chinese police, about a quarter of the Tibetan cast and crew withheld their names from this film's credits. Windhorse, a fictional story about the Tibetan-Chinese conflict, was shot clandestinely: Paul Wagner, an Academy Award winning documentarian (The Stone Carvers), entered Tibet in 1996 with only a Sony mini-DV handy-cam, passing it off to customs officials as home-movie equipment. While he filmed in one week's time with as few takes as possible, his bare-bones cast and crew approached each scene as if they were doing live television. The result is a very refined work and a more powerful and multilayered examination of Tibetan-Chinese politics than either last year's Kundun or Seven Years in Tibet. Part of the movie's success is due to the way it distills the political into the personal by focusing on the day-to-day lives of an "average" Tibetan family.
Set in contemporary Lhasa, Windhorse doesn't give us the typical idyllic views of Tibet, and it thoroughly debunks Western stereotypes about the country and its inhabitants. Lhasa is shown to be a crowded metropolis rather than a spiritual oasis—it is full of markets, cars, and discos crowded in among its more traditional features. Nor are the movie's characters ideal: Dorjee (Jampa Kelsang) is an unkempt twentysomething rogue who whiles away his days in bars and pool halls; his sister Dolkar (Dadon) is an ambitious nightclub singer who blends in well enough with the Han Chinese to have a yuppie boyfriend from Chengdu. The tensions between brother and sister are thick—he considers her a traitor, she accuses him (rightly) of not helping support the family.
While the movie's other main character, cousin Pema (Anonymous), a persecuted nun who gets tortured in prison, illustrates the extreme atrocities of the Chinese occupation in Tibet, the less sensational relationship between Dorjee and Dolkar proves an equally compelling portrayal of the region's crisis. Symbolic of the Tibetan population at large, both have been robbed of their culture; but while Dorjee is a lost soul, Dolkar tries to survive the best way she can by assimilating herself into the oppressing classes. While she is loyal to her family, she can't help liking Duan-Ping, her Chinese boyfriend, who is undoubtedly good for her career (he helps her get in touch with a recording producer). He's also not a bad guy, and is shown to be a rather sympathetic character (his family too has suffered at the hands of the Maoist regime, during the Cultural Revolution).
Long-haired and pretty, Dolkar is all smiles and pleasant words. When her grandmother yells in Tibetan at Duan-Ping to "go back to China," she quickly covers up and "translates" that her grandmother would like to see him again. Yet her compliance with the Chinese may make you cringe at times. When she is marketed as a "model Tibetan" by her Chinese record producer, she cooperates and starts recording songs hailing Chairman Mao. It's an uncomfortable moment that's far from being heroic; it's also as brutal a demonstration of the means and effects of cultural domination as any determinedly realistic torture scene.
Iran: A Moment of Innocence
FOR THOSE WHO TOOK the opportunity to watch Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up, the Grand Illusion's follow-up film, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence, may feel like a case of d骠 vu. Each film reconstructs a real-life event for the camera with the actual participants; each uses the exercise as a way to explore the collision between the tale, the teller, and the new story created by the synergy of filmmaking; and each features director Makhmalbaf portraying himself. From this point on, however, the films take divergent perspectives.
In 1974, Makhmalbaf was an anti-Shah revolutionary who stabbed a young policeman while trying to take his gun. (It's not mentioned in the film, but the director spent four years incarcerated and tortured in the Shah's prison as a result.) Twenty years later, the former policeman (Moharam Zinalzadeh, who remains unnamed in the film) seeks out Makhmalbaf for a part in his new film. Instead, the director uses this fortuitous meeting as catalyst to create a film about the event, with each man independently directing a young performer who will reenact his part.
A Moment of Innocence occupies undefined territory between fiction, docu-drama, and autobiography, where the convergence of genres doesn't blur reality as much as it acknowledges the creation of something new through the collision. The set-up reverberates with Rashomon-like echoes, but instead of competing interpretations of the same event contradicting one another, they dovetail into a new story. The two perspectives provided by the participants, filtered through memory and reassessment, are inflected with the interpretations and experiences of the young actors playing them. The sharp divisions and violent oppositions they prepare to act out are beyond the ken of these kids, who have grown up in a post-revolutionary society; the very thought of even pretending to stab another boy drives one actor to tears.
The pleasures of Iranian cinema we've come to appreciate (or abhor, depending on your taste) are all here: narrative side trips of characters walking and talking through the streets of Tehran, the enthusiastic, engagingly amateurish performances of non-actors, the modest but surprising character humor that seems to arise as much from the discomfort of the performers as the characters they portray. . . . But unlike the best-known recent Iranian filmmakers, Makhmalbaf tears away all pretense of the world happening in front of the camera. His hand is evident throughout, directing the drama, and the clapboard slate that provides visual credits and reappears periodically to provide chapter markers constantly reminds us that this is piece of staged entertainment.
As the participants converge to shoot the re-creation at the film's conclusion, coming together without rehearsal while two cameras record the event as if they are shooting competing versions in a sporting contest, it becomes a dramatic stunt rife with comic possibilities more than any real bit of filmmaking. It's a marvelous conceit, leaving all pretense of realism behind as the parallel stories wind together at a meandering pace until re-creation takes over. The whole of the drama bears down on this moment as the characters and their stories collide to create a new story of hope and forgiveness out of old conflicts.
THOUGH THE PARALLELS between them are shaky, Tango unavoidably calls to mind Sally Potter's charming, narcissistic curiosity, The Tango Lesson. In Potter's film, dance is an embodiment—albeit an awkward one—of clashing artistic wills, power relations between the sexes, and idealized love and the disillusionment that follows it. She divides her story into "lessons," some about dance, others about the messy reality for which dance can be explication, sublimation, or escape. Carlos Saura's movie, filmed just outside Buenos Aires, attempts a similar employment of tango as all-purpose metaphor, and even boasts another charming narcissist at its center. Mario Suarez (Miguel Angel Sola) is filming a tango musical (one that appears to be modeled after West Side Story), but autobiography keeps seeping into his frame, mostly in the form of the wife who left him and the dewy-eyed gangster's moll with whom he's now entangled. Ever-prudent Mario, true to form, has cast them as his two female leads. Eventually, the auteur abruptly decides to inject some historical allegory into his film, with overt allusions to the suffering of Argentines under years of military dictatorship. His newfound political impulses bring on a softer, more reflective Mario; he's no longer merely a cad—he's a wistful Zen cad.
While The Tango Lesson drew a permeable boundary between life and dance, Saura's film sets up a two-way mirror. He'll give his audience a by-the-numbers scene of seduction or betrayal one moment, then in the next, recast it as a tango number, providing a welcome distraction from the hackneyed script. Lighting the performers in silhouette against a back screen may seem a hokey device, but Saura's austere approach maintains the hard-edged purity of a dance that is at once rigidly precise and impulsively erotic. These scenes are thrilling, but ultimately redundant; one wishes Saura had followed his protagonist's lead and made the far more efficient, eloquent film that lurks in Tango—one in which dance does all the talking.
Ireland: Irish reels
IRISH REELS IS a young festival, and judging by its opening-night feature, 2 x 4, directed by and starring Jimmy Smallhorne, it's suffering some serious growing pains.
Smallhorne plays Jonnie, a recent Irish 魩gr頷ho's trying to make a go of it in New York City. He works as a construction worker with a bunch of other Irish blokes for a contractor who happens to be his Uncle Trump, a wily, raspy-voiced guy with unruly hair and a face etched with deep, river-like wrinkles. Everyone speaks with thick Irish accents, and the dialogue is difficult to understand, except for the word "fuck," which is used as frequently as a vowel. I did manage, however, to get the gist that Trump shortchanges his workers week after week, while at the same time pretending to take care of them like a surrogate father, taking them out to Irish bars and diners.
If 2 x 4 stuck to this story, it might have fared better. It could have really captured what it feels like to be an immigrant in a perpetual state of limbo, isolated from all the glory of Manhattan that draws people there in the first place. But 2 x 4 only gives hints of the difficulties of being a foreigner. The rest of the film diverges. Jonnie carries deep scars from the past, and suffers from bad memories and dreams that make him get up in the middle of the night and strike a pose like a cat in heat. He's also sexually confused, which leads to a couple of scenes of him taking off his shirt in gay sex clubs enhanced by a techno soundtrack. Perhaps Smallhorne was trying to draw parallels between the ambiguities of one's sexuality and the ambiguities of being an immigrant. But he doesn't delve deeply into either story line and leads the viewer nowhere.
I did not see the other movies playing at the festival, as preview tapes were not available. Let's hope that the rest of the lineup is much better. The full schedule for Irish Reels is as follows:
March 5—Opening-night reception at 6. Freesia of Eden, a short dealing with youth, old age, and a well-tended garden. At 6:45. 2 x 4 at 7:15. All screenings at Pacific Place.
March 6—"Best of the Northern Ireland Film Commission Shorts, Part 1." At 3. Southpaw, a documentary about a boy from western Ireland who went on to compete as a boxer in the Atlanta Olympics. At 6. Ailsa, a feature by Paddy Breathnach, billed as an atmospheric psychodrama adapted from Joe O'Conor's short story. At 7:45. All screenings at Pacific Place.
March 7—"Selection of Shorts." At 3. Double bill: A Basketful of Wallpaper, a short film about a young man who yearns to know the secrets of a Japanese man living in his small Irish town, and Just in Time, a feature by John Carney and Tom Hall about a weekend in the country ruined by gate crashers. At 5:30. The Bogwoman, a feature by Tom Collins, is the tragi-comedy of three women living in the Derry Bogside during the '60s. Incorporates home movie and archival footage. At 7. All screenings at Pacific Place.
March 8—"Best of the Northern Ireland Film Commission Shorts, Part 2." At 7. Irish Cinema: Ourselves Alone, a documentary that examines the past 100 years of filmmaking in Ireland. At 8. At 911 Media Arts Center.
March 9—My Great Grandmother Was a Boxer, an interesting-sounding documentary about the history of women's boxing at the turn of the century. At 7. The Three Brothers, a documentary that goes behind the scenes of the Quinn brothers making their popular feature film This Is My Father. At 8. A closing party sponsored by Guinness to follow. At 911 Media Arts Center.