Montreal finds gems beyond Hollywood

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a public statement about cinema on the eve of the next century, the chiefs of Montreal's respected World Film Festival link movies with television and the Internet, noting that the evolution of mass communication has been "phenomenal" during the past 100 years. But they quickly add that such technologies have a downside, encouraging a "globalization of culture and a homogenization of public tastes."

This observation points to the social value of well-programmed film festivals. In addition to launching new pictures and allowing movie-minded people to share ideas, a conscientiously planned filmfest shines its spotlight on works that reflect the diversified spirits of the diversified places from which they hail.

That's true of Montreal's annual event, which finished its 23rd edition earlier this week. This year's program represented no fewer than 68 countries, and while the quality of its many offerings was far from consistent, its overall mood amounted to a rousing celebration of the variety still thriving in world cinema despite the globalization and homogenization that programmers Serge Losique and Danile Cauchard rightly warn about.

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Montreal's program also gave North Americans their first look at pictures headed for commercial screens. Unlike malls and multiplexes, festivals can afford to focus their attention on films with artistic as well as financial aspirations, and one of Montreal's most cheering messages was that the worldwide clout of Hollywood blockbusters has not stopped worthwhile movies from being produced. Its best offerings may not make it to theaters everywhere, but the attention they received here from critics, distributors, and ticket-buying viewers increases their chances of reaching wide audiences.

The festival provided a public-relations boost to Dreaming of Joseph Lees, a British drama opening in the US next month.

Its setting is an English town in the late 1950s, and its main character is Eva, a young woman who escapes her humdrum routine via fantasies of a distant relative she's idolized since girlhood. He's at once an exotic figure - a rare family member who left England for a more interesting life abroad - and a troubled one, since a recent accident has brought him back home with a severe disability.

His physical problems don't diminish Eva's admiration for him, and this brings about new challenges as her growing love complicates her relationship with another suitor.

"Dreaming of Joseph Lees" was directed by Eric Styles, whose training in British television appears to have shaped the movie's blend of forthrightly emotional storytelling and a visually bland cinematic approach. The film's best assets are Rupert Graves and Samantha Morton, who lend gentle dignity to this portrait of ordinary people with inner lives more complex than their homespun surroundings would suggest.

Romance, a new French production, may generate far more debate when it arrives in the US next week. Directed by Catherine Breillat, whose credits include the incisive "36 Fillette" and screenplays for Federico Fellini and Maurice Pialat, this unconventional drama radically revises love-story conventions.

For one, it reverses movie-type gender formulas by making its main character - a young woman named Marie who wants to have a baby - far more interested in sex than her celibate boyfriend is.

For the other, it punctuates its story with moments of graphic sexual activity, much of which is deliberately disturbing as Marie makes a series of missteps in her haphazard search for fulfillment.

More cautionary than titillating, "Romance" appears to be strongly influenced by the work of Luis Buuel, whose "Belle de Jour" explores similar terrain with a higher degree of moral and cinematic finesse.

Film buffs may be the main audience for My Best Fiend, a documentary by German director Werner Herzog about his long association with the late Klaus Kinski, who starred in some of Herzog's greatest pictures.

Despite the success they enjoyed with movies like "Fitzcarraldo" and the brilliant "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," these ornery artists had a tumultuous love-hate relationship as dramatic as some of the movies they collaborated on. Herzog's account is less imaginatively made than his best nonfiction films, but will fascinate anyone with an interest in modern European cinema.

Other films on view in Montreal included The Other, an exuberant comedy-drama by Youssef Chahine, the versatile Egyptian director; Time Regained, a stately Marcel Proust adaptation by the prolific Chilean filmmaker Raoul Ruiz; and various movies with religious themes: Bruno Dumont's controversial French production Humanity, which took three top prizes at last spring's Cannes filmfest; Manoel de Oliveira's exquisite The Letter, which finds this towering Portuguese filmmaker in top form as he heads into his 90s; and Kadosh, by Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, who explores the intersection of sacred and secular concerns. German director Percy Adlon also unveiled a series of music videos filled with lively Strauss waltzes.

Homogenization may be rampant in today's culture, but many filmmakers are resisting it. Again this year, Montreal gave them a warm welcome.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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