PHILADELPHIA — 'You need to be in town for this!" That was the slogan of this year's Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, an event that's still young - only half a decade so far - but ranks with plenty of older filmfests in terms of scope and energy.
Best of all for movie fans who don't live here, you don't need to be in this particular town to see all the attractions listed in the festival's hefty program. Several are already on their way to theaters, where their box-office prospects should benefit from the advance buzz from the festival circuit.
None is more likable than "Under the Domim Tree," a gentle Israeli drama. Set in that country during the mid-1950s, it focuses on a group of teenagers living on a kibbutz that shelters children cut off from their families by the Holocaust. One the kibbutz's few luxuries is a splendid old domim tree that grows nearby, offering a quiet place for either socializing or solitude. The movie visits several of the youngsters who like to gather under the tree's branches. One is a girl who relies on her mentally disturbed mother for connection with her family's past. Another is a teenager who rebels when a married couple arrive at the kibbutz and insist they're her long-lost parents.
"Under the Domim Tree" was directed by Eli Cohen from a screenplay he wrote with Eyal Sher and Gila Almagor, based on Almagor's own experiences. Acted by a talented ensemble, it's a modest but affecting look at young people working to build healthy lives under circumstances that are anything but easy.
"Welcome to the Dollhouse," an American movie by Todd Solondz, is a more complex view of youth. At first it appears to be a conventional ugly-duckling tale with many comic overtones, about an 11-year-old girl who's not as pretty or popular as the other kids in 7th grade. The story grows darker as it goes along, though, evoking dangers that kids must be alert to in today's world - from drugs to child abuse - and showing how cruel youngsters can be to one another when adults aren't around.
The movie is unsparingly frank about precocious sexual interests, and includes more four-letter words spoken by preteens than any movie since "The Bad News Bears" took the field 20 years ago. Some may consider it an offensive attempt at vulgar comedy, but I see it as a serious warning aimed at parents who think their kids are safe from bad influences just because they live in cozy suburban surroundings. In any case, it fully earns its R rating, and moviegoers should approach it with caution.
"Guimba - The Tyrant," directed by Cheick Oumar Sissoko in the African nation of Mali, begins with a "griot" storyteller chanting the tale of a selfish king whose power rose and fell in the years before colonialism changed the face of African culture. Soon the griot's narration leads to a dramatization of Guimba's life, showing how shameless favoritism and sexual obsessiveness lead the despot to an unhappy fate. The moral is earnestly conveyed but the filmmaking is often festive, with color, commotion, and even comedy.
Music also plays an active part in "Celestial Clockwork," about a Venezuelan singer who flies impulsively to Paris and makes eccentric new friends while dreaming of a career as an opera star. The soundtrack swings from salsa to the classics as Fina Torres's filmmaking showcases the star Ariadna Gil and a spirited supporting cast. It's not a major film, but it's always lively.
Also featured at Philadelphia were many pictures that aren't yet headed for theaters, but may acquire distribution deals. Among those worth keeping an eye out for are "The Wife," director Tom Noonan's satirical look at "new age" marriage, starring Wallace Shawn and Julie Hagerty; and "Coming to Terms With the Dead," an imaginative French drama about intertwined lives.
And don't miss "Aelita, Queen of Mars" if its travel schedule brings it anywhere near you. Made by Soviet filmmaker Yakov Protanazov in 1924, it has been rediscovered by Dennis James and his Musica Curiosa Ensemble, who accompany its science-fiction plot with live music played on exotic instruments like the Theremin, the cristal, and the Stroh phono-violin. A blend of historical authenticity and rollicking fun, the presentation makes for a memorably good-humored evening that Philadelphians greeted with rapturous applause.
*'Under the Domim Tree,' has not been rated but contains some rough language and emotionally wrenching situations. 'Welcome to the Dollhouse,' opening May 24, has an R rating and contains foul language and sexually related material. 'Guimba - The Tyrant' also opens May 24 and contains sex-related subject matter. 'Celestial Mechanics,' opening later this summer, has not been rated but includes sexual material.