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New York love affair with Europe

In a remarkably crowded end-of-year film season, New York film audiences are buzzing about the excitement being created by European films, which have been on abundant display in theaters across town. In short, New York loves European cinema.

Of course, this is no new story. The films of pioneers Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut and Luis Bunuel first took root with New York film critics and film buffs. The Festival’s major film festivals always feature a strong contingent of films from European talents, both revered and undiscovered.

But in the past few years, the “specialness” of European cinema (most particularly their sexual frankness and libertarian view of life) has somewhat declined in our imagination. Familiarity has bred….abit of indifference, so the more “exotic” cinemas of Latin America and Asia have caught the fancy of moviegoers.

But perhaps now that world politics have intensified a cultural divide between America and Europe once more, the films coming out of France, Spain, Italy, Scandinavia and the UK are again “abit foreign”, and even more intriguing.

Remember, the most damning thing that right wing Republicans could say about Presidential candidate John Kerry was “that he looked French”. Now, we are abit more mystified by our former close allies and that distance has actually energized interest in a new generation of European filmmakers.

But back to the love affair…..In the Sunday New York Times, the must-read for film lovers in New York, European films loom large….Mike Leigh’s morality play Vera Drake, Jean-Luc Godard’s career summation Notre Musique, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s visually astonishing A Very Long Engagement and Pedro Almodovar’s Hitchcock homage Bad Education are all in major release, and the talk of film circles.

Not only are these very different films signs of a vital diversity of European cinema, but in a year that is bound to go into the record books as one of the weakest for the Hollywood studios, there is definite Oscar buzz about these films, as well.

While (tant pis!) Godard will probably never get his Academy Award, there is definite Oscar buzz surrounding directors Leigh, Jeunet and Almodovar. And don’t be surprised to see nods to actors Gael Garcia Bernal (for Bad Education or the Motorcycle Diaries), Javier Bardem (in the yet to be released Spanish film The Sea Inside by Alejandro Amenabar), Amelie herself Audrey Tautou (for A Very Long Engagement) and Imelda Staunton as the stoic abortionist in Leigh’s Vera Drake.

But the excitement is not confined to the biggest names in European cinema. New York audiences in the past few weeks have been treated to extraordinary showcases of the new film generation. It has truly been a very full plate and reason enough for Thanksgiving.

It started in mid November with a showcase of Swiss and American films held at New York’s Quad Cinema. Dubbed SWISSAM: The Swiss American Film Festival, the event was an unexpected mix of Swiss and American films, all of them “independent” in budget and attitude.

While not as well known as its neighboring German, Austrian and Italian cousins, Swiss cinema has been a staple of the international film scene for decades, with many international awards and Oscars to its credit. The Festival, as any showcase of this type, is really about discovery of new talents.

Among the intriguing films on display were Charlie Chaplin—The Forgotten Years, an intimate biography of the screen legend’s years of isolation in Switzerland directed by Feline Zenoni; Hilde’s Journey, an amusing and heartfelt portrait of the troubled extended family of two male partners directed by Christof Vorster; The Fallen, director Ari Taub’s war film that explores the intimacy and alienation of the lives of men on the battlefield; and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross—Facing Death, a remarkable portrait of the “goddess of death and dying” who often could not live up to her own philosophy as she faced her own mortality (…..and how human is that).

Fast on the heels of Switzerland came the boot of Italy. In the same Quad Cinema in downtown Manhattan, the latest in a new crop of Italian directors was presented under the banner of NICE: New Italian Cinema Events.

While almost impossible not to be lured into the temptation of calling this a “nice” Festival, the truth is that it is just that. A nice programming selection of ten features, nice group of shorts, nice parties, nice people, nice Catalogue.

Even the films were nice. Andrea Manni’s Il Fuggiasco (Runaway) is a powerful true-to-life story about a man on the run for almost twenty years after he is falsely accused of murdering a woman. Andata E Ritorno (Round Trip), written and directed by Marco Ponti, is an amusing spoof of American gangster films about a man who breaks from his humdrum life for adventures in Barcelona. Fiorella Infascelli’s Il Vestito Da Sposa (The Wedding Dress) is an absorbing tale of violence and amour fou that fits perfectly into the current trend in European cinema of films of disturbing violence and moral chaos.

And what true film buff is not interested in a new film from Lina Wertmuller?
Although she is mainly under the radar these days, it is important to remember that not only are her early films considered modern classics, but she is the ONLY woman, so far, to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Director (for Seven Beauties). Her newest film, Peperoni Ripieni E Psci In Faccia (Too Much Romance…It’s Time For Stuffed Peppers….huh?) is a gentle meditation on aging and a life never fully realized in the story of a woman who retreats to the Amalfi Coast to ponder her life.

The Festival, a staple of the Fall season now in its 14th year, first presented its films and group of attending directors in New York, and then the whole show moved on the road to premiere in San Francisco. In short, NICE is not bad….ok, nice.

The European film radar has now moved across the Mediterranean Sea to the Spanish Cinema Now series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The mini Festival, which began this past weekend, is returning to New York for the thirteen time, with an intoxicating mix of acknowledged masters, new film stars and a nine-film tribute to Spanish stage and screen star Fernando Fernan-Gomez.

The best known directors in the series are Carlos Saura and Julio Medem. Saura’s film El 7 Dia (The 7th Day), for which he won the Best Director prize at the Montreal Film Festival, is a scorching work about clan revenge in the austere plains of central Spain. Victoria Abril, a great beauty and a gifted actress, delivers an extraordinary performance as the terrifying matriarch whose insatiable anger can only be assuaged by more bloodshed.

Medem, Spain’s leading surrealist filmmaker in the tradition of Luis Bunuel, is presenting his controversial cinema montage La Pelota Vasca (The Basque Ball). Mixing interview footage, dramatic snippets and evocative archival footage, Medem offers a mixed-media portrait of the troubled Basque region and its fire for cultural independence.

Several young directors are starting to make their mark on the international scene. debuts at the series. Iciar Bollain was the surprise winner this year as Best Director at the Goya Awards (the Spanish Oscar). His film, Te Doy Mis Ojos (Take My Eyes), which opened the series, is a bracing look at domestic violence and the truths about human behavior and our capacity for compassion.

Spanish comedian Pablo Carbonell makes an impressive directorial debut with Atun Y Chocolate (Tuna And Chocolate), a wise and knowing portrait of social and religious pressures in a family of atheists whose son insists on making his Holy Communion.

Other films to be presented include Gracia Querejeta’s Hector, a beautifully observed coming-of-age drama about that inevitable time in the life of a teenager when he realizes that his parents are not perfect; Antonio Gimenez-Rico’s Hotel Danubio (Hotel Danube), a homage to Spanish film thrillers of the 1940s; Manuel Gomez Pereira, one of Spain’s best comic directors, funny sad portrait Cosas Que Hacen Que La Vida Valga La Pena (Things That Make Life Worth Living), about a middle aged woman who must reinvent herself after she is abandoned by her philandering husband; and Las Voces De La Noce (Voices In The Night), an emotionally intense story set in the conservative 1950s of love, secrecy and the on-going, always fascinating battle of the sexes.

Spain’s cinema, led by the international success of Almodovar and his production company El Deseo, is among the hottest around. As a natural co-production partner, Spain is also represented in the films coming from Latin America, including Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries and the new wave of Brazilian and Argentine cinema. It is an exciting time.

New Yorkers, who always insist that everyone come to them, have been able to negotiate the Swiss Alps, drive down the Italian coastline and spend time on the arid flatlands of Spain, without once leaving Manhattan island. For New Yorkers, that is the kind of Christmas gift that they can truly appreciate.

Sandy Mandelberger, Industry Editor


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