FILM festivals come in many shapes, sizes, and intensity levels. Some are huge, catch-all events like the extravaganza held in Cannes each spring. Others are smaller, highly selective affairs like the New York Film Festival.
By any measure, the recently concluded Montreal World Film Festival is one of the biggest. Ranked as North America's only "A level" film event, it stands alongside Cannes, Berlin, and Venice for the number of movies scrambling to attract attention during its 12-day run. Participants want praise not only from local audiences, but also from an international batch of distributors, exhibitors, and journalists on the lookout for noteworthy new pictures.
This year marked the festival's 16th anniversary. A number of entries competed for awards or appeared in a special "out of competition" series. The rest were shown in sideline events featuring Canadian, Spanish, and Latin American films, movies made for television, and a program called Cinema of Today and Tomorrow that proved as amorphous as its name.
Items on the menu with clear commercial potential - those with readily marketable stars, directors, and subjects - ranged from silly epics like the Hollywood adventure "Wind" to intelligent works like "Glengarry Glen Ross," a comedy-drama by David Mamet, and "Force of Duty," an Irish thriller about a police officer plagued by political terrorism.
Many entries, however, came from new filmmakers without established track records or high-profile collaborators.
This meant busy journalists couldn't scan the daily screening list and fill their schedules with pictures by tried-and-true talents. Instead, critics found themselves venturing into unfamiliar territory more often than usual - always a healthy exercise for professional filmgoers, and one I never fail to enjoy.
One way of sampling the overall flavor of a crowded festival is to check the opening and closing selections, since those slots are always programmed with special care.
Montreal showed superb taste in its closing-night choice, "Strictly Ballroom," an Australian production that's so original I hardly know how to describe it. Hovering somewhere between "Saturday Night Fever" and "Rocky," it's about a ballroom-dancing contest, a bunch of crusty old judges who wouldn't know a good time if it bit them on the toe, and a young couple who want to ignore the traditional rules and dance the way their hearts tell them to.
Every scene in this movie is like the grand climax of an ordinary film, with some huge crisis to be resolved or overwhelming question to be answered - whereupon the picture leaps to the next crisis or question, more quickly than its dancers can change their wildly flamboyant costumes. Directed by newcomer Baz Luhrmann, it's a triumph of art over glitz, of glitz over art, and of energy over everything. It deserves to be a walloping hit when it opens in US theaters this fall.
Montreal was less fortunate in its opening selection, "The Dark Side of the Heart," a Canada-Argentina coproduction directed by Eliseo Subiela, an Argentine filmmaker. It's about a freewheeling poet whose quest for a perfect lover grows into obsession with a Montevideo prostitute who refuses to return his affection.
The film mingles outrageous humor and movie-style romance with the "magic realism" that has become a major strain in Latin American art. The mixture is neither smooth nor convincing, though, and often borders on mere pretension.
Among the many Spanish-language pictures that showed up at the festival, I prefer Julio Medem's imaginative "Cows," a blend of Spanish politics, peasant lore, and surrealism; and some aspects of Dana Rotberg's unflinching "Angel of Fire," a searing Mexican tale about incest and revenge.
Social, cultural, and political changes lend special interest to films from Eastern Europe nowadays, and Montreal had several worthwhile examples. One that received much comment was "The Blue Danube Waltz," directed by Miklos Jancso, a Hungarian filmmaker whose mastery of lengthy, fluid shots has become legendary.
His latest is a darkly comic parable about assassination attempts on a prime minister, a police chief, and all sorts of other characters - whose destiny seems determined less by political scheming than by a hallucinatory delirium rooted in the depths of political consciousness itself.
As a bonus, the festival showed Robert Gardner's documentary "Dancing With Miklos," which chronicles the making of this complex film with humor, gracefulness, and an artistic finesse that echoes Mr. Jancso's own.
Other movies from Eastern Europe included "The Oak" from Romania, a ferocious tale of social turbulence touched off when a woman tries to donate her father's corpse to science; "Brats" from Hungary, the inventively filmed story of four streetwise boys and a Romanian refugee; and "Sweet Emma, Dear Bobe" from Hungary, about two women who teach Russian in a Budapest school until political shifts eliminate the market for their skills. It was directed by Istvan Szabo, who impressed American audiences with his
"Mephisto" and "Meeting Venus" in earlier years.
While some nations of Africa are sorely troubled today, others have become sources of richly creative cinema, and Montreal duly recognized this.
"Hyenas," made in Senegal, uses Friedrich Durrenmatt's classic Swiss play "The Visit" as the framework for a gripping fable of postcolonial tension and temptation, sparked by a wealthy woman who offers to help a poor village if the inhabitants will murder a man who once wronged her. "The Blue Eyes of Yonta," a coproduction of Guinea-Bissau and Portugal, brings Bissau's troubled history into its story of a young woman, her lover, and her beloved.
Black history from another part of the world plays a central role in "Stepping Razor - Red X," a darkly compelling documentary on the complicated life and violent death of Peter Tosh, the Jamaican reggae musician. Nicholas Campbell directed this Canadian production.
Despite recent upheavals in Germany, filmmakers there are busily at work, and Montreal showcased some results. "Love at First Sight," by Rudolf Thome, quietly portrays the romance of an archaeologist and a futurologist, perhaps symbolic of German reunification and the possibilities it holds. "The Liar," by Siegfried Kuhn, is the story - much too influenced by Federico Fellini's early films - of a woman with an overactive imagination. "Utz," a German-British-Italian production by George Sluizer, brings la nguid elegance to the bittersweet story of a figurine collector. It does for porcelain what "Babette's Feast" did for food.
Some of Montreal's more estimable offerings will soon appear at the New York Film Festival, and others will surely make their way to commercial theaters before long. Only at Montreal, though, could fans of Tim Burton attend a tribute to their favorite filmmaker, whose work includes "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," the Batman movies, "Beetlejuice," and "Edward Scissorhands."
With only five pictures to his credit, Mr. Burton is not exactly an Old Master of the Cinema, and he seemed wholly aware that his youthful age and limited oeuvre make him a dubious prospect for homage at a top-grade festival.
Yet he did his best to live up to the occasion, expressing satisfaction at how much fun his career has given him so far, and paying tribute to the performers who have collaborated on his projects. "I love watching them make all that stupid material work!" he said with a delighted laugh, and his unexpected candor made a refreshing climax to the Montreal experience.