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Pike time in Vallalodid, awards and memories

Somehow eight days of compact quality cinema viewing have slipped by, the main problem being how to find some time to write at least some of it down between widely spaced out screenings. Downtown Valladolid is a tricky maze of narrow streets with sixteenth century churches at every turn, but fortunately, with an extremely friendly populace willing to steer you straight every time you get lost -- on average, three times a day -- but what a nice city to get lost in! The festival is centred at the four-star Olid Meria hotel which is a constant beehive of activity and the location of the press room but, unfortunately the five cinemas where festival screenings take place are scattered in no logical order about the maze. This said I can only add that it is still one of the best festivals I have ever attended for “cinephilic” atmosphere and high quality of programming, which is, after all, what really counts.

Today is prize awards day, the distribution of the Golden Spike for best film in the international competition and many other spikes in other categories. The symbolic spike in question is not of the cast iron railroad variety, but refers rather to the cluster of seeds at the top of a stalk of wheat, as this is a strong agricultural region and the wheat belt of Spain.
But at this point, with so many interesting films now more or less absorbed, the distribution of spikes for certain ones doesn't seem to be as important as the overall cinematic experience which has come my way over the past week, as if by magic.

For the record, however, the main prizes announced to the media on Saturday afternoon were as follows:
The Golden Spike award of the International Jury for best feature film was conferred, most unexpectedly, to "En La Cama" (In Bed) by young Chilean director, Matias Bize, who at 26 is the youngest director ever to have captured the top prize at this festival. Considering that he was competing against such seasoned veterans as Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke, the boyish looking director was himself taken aback by the jury's decision and had to be notified not to bug out or leave town before the evening ceremony.
On the stage he expressed his surprise as well as his joy at receiving the award for a basically modest film up against works by other directors, such as the above named, while admitting that he greatly admires both von Trier and Haneke, and even regards them as role models. Bize's "In Bed" is just what the title says it is, a film shot entirely in one room with two casual lovers in one bed the entire time. After making love the young strangers start to exchange life stories and gradually, in the course of the night, achieve a certain intimacy -- the intimacy which the mere act of copulation did not provide. Nice little film, but no one expected it to walk off with The Golden Spike. Commenting on the surprising selection one local journalist pointed out -- most aptly in his Sunday column -- that a film festival is not a popularity contest but a gathering of specialists who often see things from a different perspective than the general public.
No truer words were ever said...

The big cash prize of 50,000 Euros, the 50th Anniversary Prize commemorating the fifty years of the Seminci festival, was in fact shared ("ex-aequo" is the elegant Latin term) by the two of the festival favorites, Austrian Michael Haneke, for his puzzling French thriller, "Caché" (Hidden), and the quirky Dane, Lars von Trier, for his pseudo-American successor to "Dogville", "Manderlay". From a purely personal point of view I must say that I regard Von Trier films as an aquired taste (like poison) which I have never aquired -- in fact I have always found them rather revolting and have never been able to sit through one of his schizzy nightmares from beginning to end -- although I did sort of make it through "Dogville" -- by sheer will power, with many cigarette breaks -- but mainly because of a fascination with Nicole Kidman's uncannily shapely nose. In short I thought "Dogville" was nothing but pretentious b*****t, and I couldn't believe that an actress like Lauren Bacalll lent her prestige to it, but -- I have to admit -- against my better judgement -- that I actually (sort of) liked "Manderlay". For one thing, Bacall, who was wooden in "Dogville", dies off in the first ten minutes, "Grace", who was Kidman in the first installment of this projected trilogy, has now metamorphosed into a less glamorous but far more credible actress, Bryce Dallas Howard, and a ponderous James Caan as Grace's gangster father, has been replaced by a more digestible (if slightly ridiculous) Willem Defoe, but what really makes "Manderlay" work as a drama
(rather than a pretentious lecture on the sad state of the world by Lars von Trier) is the excellent cast of black actors, especially Danny Glover, but all uniformly good -- who somehow infuse this Von Trier head game with some real soul. Another thing which helps, is that Von Trier has mercifully gotten a little away from the overweaning Monopoly Board sets and invisible clicking doors which made "Dogville" unbearable after the first half hour. There is still, in "Manderlay", a certain amount of the artificial Monopoly
Board geometry in place, but not so much that it totally distracts as it did in the earlier film. Who knows, maybe Part III will be set on a Ouija Board -- in any case, "Manderlay" has a certain feeling going for it that makes it far more watchable than any of Von Trier's previous sessions of celluloid sado-masochism.

The title, incidentally, has nothing to do with Kipling•s Mandalay, but is a co-opting of the name of the spooky mansion in Hitchcock's "Rebeccah". Here it is the name of a strange Alabama plantation where, in 1933, slavery is still going on and the slaves seem to like it that way -- for as head slave Danny Glover (great role) puts it, "We ain't reddy fo' no freedom yet -- we's better off dis way".

Haneke's "Caché" is a handsomely filmed puzzle with no clear -- or even unclear -- answer at the end but the work of two of France's finest actors, Daniel Auteuil and Juliet Binoche, make the trip to nowhere more or less tolerable. The couple-Auteuil Binoche, quite well-off haute bourgeois media people, are being spied upon and start getting strange videos from whoever the spier is -- which we will never find out for sure--- and the mounting paranoia starts putting a heavy strain on their seemingly perfect marriage
-- on and on -- until the plot gets so convoluted that only a mother could love it, and there is no resolution in sight. This is a picture that is all style and actor driven, but as Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, "There isn't any 'there' there". In any case, intense Daniel Auteuil is the Gallic answer to Al Pacino, and Binoche is always a pleasure to watch, even when she's suffering. Not for every taste, but there's some class in there somewhere. The official jury statement proffered to explain this dual selection: "In these two films the jury acknowledges the artistic maturity of two European filmmakers with very individualistic career trajectories"

The Silver Spike for Second Best Film went to France's Francois Ozon -- who is rapidly becoming THE French director -- for "Le temps qui reste" (The time we have left). This is the story of a young arrogant fashion photographer who is gay and has cancer, as played by Melvin Poupaud, age 32. Poupaud won the Best Actor award for this role, but it was one of the pictures I missed so further comment is necessarily reserved. The film also has Jeanne Moreau as the protagonist's grandmother and Valeria Bruni-Tadeschi, which means it's a must-see ASAP. The Best Actress award went to veteran Polish actress Krystyna Feldman for her amazing portrayal, at her current age of 85, of an illiterate, homeless old man, Nikofor, who was also a naive self-taught painter of genius in XXth century Poland. Since the death of Kieslowski nearly a decade ago Polish films have been painfully absent from the major festival scene, however, this film entitled "My Nikofor" by Krzystof Krause may signal the beginning of a new Polish wave which has been building for some time, but is still waiting for a push in the right direction. This bio-pic of the artist who died in 1968 and whose genius was only recognized at the very end of his strange undocumented life (he didn't even have a birth certificate and nobody knew his real name for sure) is clearly a labor of love set in the wintry mountains of Krynica Spa in South Poland, where the artist lived most of his life, and filmed, according to Krauze, whenever possible from the angle of a Nikofor painting.

The best cinematography prize went to Chinese cameraman Jie Du for his work in "Ping Pong Mongol", a Chinese film set on the grasslands of outback Mongolia. An ordinary white ping-pong ball comes floating down a creek and is found by Bilgee, a Mongolian boy, whose grandmother tells him that this strange object is a pearl from heaven. After many adventures with this "treasure from heaven" Bilgee and his friends see a ping-pong ball on a movie screen and their illusion is quashed. This charming film was one of the audience favorites and will undoubtably travel far on the festival circuit. A number of other films of high interest, long and short, were seen during the week. If time permits desciptions will follow in the next few days.

Alex Deleon, Valladolid, Spain




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