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Europe comes to Town
Over the last two decades, the European Film Festival (EFF) has grown substantially, if only because Europe itself has grown more nations: one of the strongest films of this year’s festival and probably the strongest female acting performance—Ursula Ratasepp’s title role in Kertu—comes from Estonia, which only formally remerged as a political entity from under Soviet domination in 1991! (Estonia is also the source country of The Poll Diaries, a film set at the start of World War II, the 100th anniversary of which passed last year.)
If one of Europe’s “newest” countries has produced the leading female role of the festival (and a contender for the best supporting male performance in Mait Malmsten’s village ram/drunk), the strongest films from both the critical and commercial perspectives come from two of the continent’s oldest: Germany is the source nation of Stations of the Cross, which most cinephiles would probably declare the best film of the festival, and Spain is the home—and lends its national character to—the stunningly good, action-packed crime thriller No Rest for the Wicked. If you see only two films for the festival, they must be these.
Stations of the Cross is properly classifiable as a tragedy, and one of eternal proportions. It follows, in 14 installments matching the 14 stations of the Catholic liturgical cross, the story of a young innocent made to suffer cruelly at God’s hands—or at least those of His appointees.
With its backdrop of the terrorist attacks on Spain, No Rest for the Wicked also stands up to serious critical analysis, but it is as a crime thriller that it shows its chops. Had the first five minutes of this film been a Cricket World Cup match, it would have begun with six sixes in the first over and accelerated from there.
Violent in the extreme, but considered in the intellectual detail, No Rest is as good as crime cinema gets. Jose Coronado, in the lead role, is unnervingly good and almost spookily cast; long after the film itself has faded from memory (and that will take a while), his face in its final frame will be recalled as vividly, even if not quite as gloriously, as the visage in the Shroud of Turin. His must surely be the strongest male role in the EFF.
Spain, too, is the host country of the most Woody Allenesque film in the festival line-up, A Gun in Each Hand, a dialogue-heavy, character- and relationship-led romantic comedy that follows, in half-a-dozen segments, the interconnected lives of its dozen-plus characters. Even in subtitled translation, and almost entirely bereft of spoken nuance, the script sparkles.
Good mutterings were also heard of a supposedly very funny French film, The French Minister, but, at press time, with your correspondent resident in Barbados, advance viewing was not possible. Similarly, films from the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, and three of the four British films could not be considered in-depth, even though they included what might be the leading children’s and young adult films in Shaun the Sheep Movie (animated, British), Finn (drama, Netherlands) and School of Babel (documentary, France).
Subject to that limitation, the most topical film of the festival is likely to prove to be Colour of the Ocean, a German film wrestling, with remarkable sympathy for both sides, with the genuine dilemma of sub-Saharan boat people crossing the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. With Congolese-Senegalese, German and Spanish actors in lead roles set in the Canary Islands, this film depicts the near-insoluble crisis now facing the world—or at least those parts of it.
Another film that will sadly never cease to be topical deals, very well, with the immense hurt involved when people who are supposed to protect others instead exploit them. Don’t Be Afraid, a Spanish film, touchingly shows the depth and permanence of the damage caused by child abuse by parents; the film’s great strength may be that it shows that, even after all their suffering, good children still love their bad parents.
The lone Polish film in the festival, My Father’s Bike, may offer the best musical score, for adults—two of its three lead male characters are musicians, one a jazz woodwinds-man, the other a classical pianist – but younger, hipper folk are more likely to be taken by the soundtrack to the one British film available for advance screening, Gone Too Far!
The film most likely to be underrated in the next fortnight is Lionel Baier’s Longwave, the lone Swiss entrant in the field. A satire set largely in revolutionary Portugal in 1974, it spends almost all of its runtime on the thinnest of comedy edges, slipping off, occasionally (as in a dance sequence that misfires) or frequently, depending on who is watching, but, when it works, as it does in almost every slapstick and/or mistaken language scene, it works hilariously well.
It was not picked as a Guardian daily selection (check the Features sections on festival days), but only because unequivocally stronger films screened on the same days.
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