The Death of Mister Lazarescu (Romania, 2005) * * * *
D: Cristi Pulu
So here you have the ending of the film--and the point of it--right there in the title. That must betray more than a few cardinal rules. But announcing its intention right off the bat subtly alters how the viewer watches the film. As Mister Lazarescu--an abandoned intellectual living in a dirty apartment with three cats, and addicted to alcohol--is taken on a long nighttime journey in an effort to find a hospital with the time and staff to perform a surgery to save his life, the audience knows that effort will be in vain, and becomes especially attuned to the very gradual decline in poor Mister Lazarescu's syntax, senses, and control of his body. The audience knows he is being prepared for death. He's accompanied on this journey by an ambulance driver and a nurse, who initially only has a mild concern for her patient, but as she comes to gatekeeper after gatekeeper who refuses to allow her patient admittance, she--and, by extension, the prone Mister Lazarescu--become sympathetic victims of a Kafkaesque lealth care system. This isn't just the Castle and the Trial rolled into one; it also announces its allusions to Dante in its heartbreaking conclusion. Over two-and-a-half hours in length, it almost seems to unfold in real-time, particularly in its first act, as Mister Lazarescu patiently waits for an ambulance which his neighbors insist will never arrive. The documentary feel draws you in, until you no longer become aware of watching a film, but actually feel present in the sterile hospital rooms and halls, watching in horror as the staff treats Lazarescu and his nurse with petty indifference. This is a remarkable film. I'm not sure how much of the audience was aware, though. When it abruptly ended, many members of the audience derisively laughed. This is why I want to kill the snark! Sometimes a film is better than its audience. Some of us, at least, remained stunned in our seats until the ending credits ceased. Maybe the laughter wasn't derisive but defensive; this isn't just a satire, it's a horror film: it's a film that tells you that however you lived, you won't die necessarily die in dignity.
My Dad is 100 Years Old (Canada, 2005) * * *
D: Guy Maddin
Guy Maddin directed Archangel, Careful, The Saddest Music in the World, and Cowards Bend the Knee--all films that used the techniques of German expressionism (with a great deal of Vaseline smeared on the lens) to create the sensation of watching lost films from the era of the earliest talkies. On Saddest Music he worked with Isabella Rossellini, and she loved the director so much that she asked him to direct this short film which she wrote in tribute to her father, the Italian neorealist director Roberto Rossellini. Her earliest memory of her father is of his round, almost pregnant belly, so here he's only played by a giant belly, defending his crude film techniques against characters such as David O. Selznick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Federico Fellini, all played by Isabella. (She also plays Charlie Chaplin and her mother, Ingrid Bergman, to whom she already bears a striking resemblance.) The film's weakness is also its strength--it's an essayistic love letter to her father, and sometimes read directly to the camera. But it's also tender because of its directness. The great irony is that for much of the film Roberto Rossellini defends his documentary-approach to filmmaking against the great film stylists; all this, of course, is being directed by one of today's great stylists, Guy Maddin.
Film Portrait (U.S., 1972) * * 1/2
D: Jerome Hill
Jerome Hill died shortly after the completion of this autobiographical film, which, while offering a rough biography of his life (and his childhood in particular), offers his reflections upon the birth of cinema and its potential as the last great art form. Hill was apparently best known as a philanthropist, but with this film he wants to recreate his identity as an artist and innovator. He made only about a half-dozen films, and two are shown in their entirety in Film Portrait. La Cartomancienne, from 1932, still impresses, and would compare favorably in a collection of late 20's/early 30's avant-garde films. But what makes Film Portrait as a whole interesting is the emphasis Hill places on the need for creativity and experimentation in filmmaking. He runs film backward to create trick effects (Georges Melies is name-checked as a fundamental inspiration), and, more strikingly, paints directly onto the frames of the film to create brightly-colored animated images that dance around the live action, such as a stick-figure horse pulling at a (real, stop-motion) toy carriage, or halos of paint that frame and embrace old friends that he adores. Its flaw is that it's a bit too long and lingering, while leaving great gaps in his biography that might leave you seeking out other sources.
So that was the film festival. I decided The Death of Mister Lazarescu was the best I'd seen; Anne chose the Maddin short, followed closely by The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. If I could have changed one thing--I would have loved to substitute Isolation for something else, perhaps Innocence, but there could be no perfect schedule in such a cramped weekend. WIFF still has too much to fix. Though they've added more venues and a few more screenings this year, they need to stretch the festival over the week, and show each film more than once. It would hurt no one, and everyone could see more films. I wish I'd had the chance to see much more--like Hamilton or Darwin's Nightmare or Triviatown. Still, it's hard to complain, and I'm already exhausted from the lack of sleep; it's not an awful thing, to live in Madison.