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The New European Cinema At Sundance: Dramatic Features

While the Sundance Film Festival is internationally known as a launching pad for American independent cinema, the past few years has seen the Festival organization pay more attention to world cinema. While international films have always had a place at the table, it was just two years ago that they rated two separate Competition categories, one for narrative features, the other for documentary features. Sundance has positioned itself to be a film event on the par with Cannes, Berlin and Venice, in showcasing work from new and established film artists from all over the world.

With the Festival kicking off last Thursday with a European film (IN BRUGES, an Irish/US co-production starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes, directed by Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh), new films from emerging European talents are definitely an important trend at this year’s Festival. Most of the European films unspool in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, which reflects Sundance’s commitment to championing the independent spirit in filmmakers everywhere and to fostering creative dialogue between divergent cultures. This year, 16 dramatic feature films (from a total submission list of nearly 1000) represent 17 countries including Spain, Peru, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Lebanon, Mexico, Panama, Russia, and Sweden. The European films in this group represent some of the most daring and creative films to be seen at the Festival.

ABSURDISTAN, a German/Azerbaijan co-production from director Veit Helmer, is an inventive and allegorical comedy that centers on two childhood sweethearts who seem destined for one another until the women of their isolated village go on a sex strike that threatens the young couple's first night of love. The film is being presented as a world premiere at the Festival, further testament to Sundance’s growing influence as a place to unveil new films for the vast contingent of North American and international film professionals in attendance.

French cinema continues to evolve and produce exciting new talents. Making its North American premiere at the Festival is I ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A GANGSTER (J'AI TOUJOURS RÊVÉ D'ÊTRE UN GANGSTER) from director and screenwriter Samuel Benchetrit. The film, which stars Sergi López, Jean Rochefort, Alain Bashung, and Anna Mouglalis, is told in four vignettes, relating the exploits of four aspiring criminals who find that they might not have what it takes for a life of crime. MÁNCORA, a co-production from Spain and Peru by director Ricardo de Montreuil, is making its World Premiere at the Festival. Set in the lush picturesque beach town of Máncora, Peru, the film tells the family story of a young man, his estranged stepsister and her arrogant husband, who are mourning the death of a distant father.

MERMAID (RUSALKA) from Russian director and screenwriter Anna Melikyan is the fanciful tale of an introverted little girl who grows up believing she has the power to make wishes come true. This closely held belief is put to the test when she grows up and journeys to Moscow, where she grapples with love, modernity and materialism.

Scandinavia is represented by two films. The Swedish film KING OF PING PONG (PING PONGKINGEN) by director/writer Jens Jonsson is a worthy entry in that country's established expertise of films about young people coming into adulthood. Sibling rivalry and dark family truths are revealed in this story of a bullied teenage boy, who finds solace as a ping pong champion. A hidden family secret and a bitter struggle with his popular younger brother creates a strong tension and serves as a catalyst in this moving coming-of-age story. The influence of Lars Von Trier and the dogme school of filmmaking is evident in the Danish dark comedy, JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY (KÆRLIGHED PÅ FILM) by writer/director Ole Bornedal. In this quirky dramatic comedy, a suburban family man’s life takes an unexpected twist when he causes a car crash that leaves a young woman with amnesia. When he is mistaken for her boyfriend, he decides to play the role, which gradually unravels his life. The film has a stellar cast that has been seen in recent Danish films by Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and Susanne Bier, including Anders W. Berthelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Charlotte Fich, Dejan Cukic and Ewa Fröling.

A World Premiere from Italy is director Anna Negri’s tragicomedy RIPRENDIMI (GOOD MORNING HEARTACHE). In this unusually structured film, a modern young couple with a new baby are forced to deal with a rupture in their relationship, all while being the subject of a reality television series that crosses into their private lives. The tensions between the personal and the public are also explored in THE WAVE (DIE WELLE) from German director Dennis Gansel. In this second entry from the revigorated German film renaissance, a high school teacher's unusual experiment to demonstrate to his students what life is like under a dictatorship spins horribly out of control.

While it is a little pretentious to find connecting strands between such a diverse group of the films, it seems that the emotional upheaval of family and societal ties is a resonant theme in all these European entries. Conflict and resolution seems to be a well of cinematic insp (...)

Sandy Mandelberger Sundance editor

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