Rotterdam 2010: Geoff Andrew's report

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Geoff Andrew finds rich leftfield pickings at the 2010 Rotterdam Film Festival

As Dave Calhoun has pointed out in his report on the thirty-ninth-edition Rotterdam Film Festival, its huge and very varied selection of world cinema makes for a variable experience. You might emerge from an overly indulgent Hungarian allegory in which a moody young beauty apparently represents the soul of her country (‘Europe, East’), pop briefly into a sprawlingly incoherent New Mexican indie written, produced, directed by and starring Puerto Rican prog-rock star Omar Rodriguez Lopez (‘The Sentimental Engine Slayer’), find yourself increasingly bored then bewildered by a very sub-Apichatpong Thai pic (the appropriately titled ‘Mundane History’), before hitting a high (if harrowing) note with an extremely bleak Danish prison movie (‘R’ – see Dave’s report – which this particular writer liked at least as much as ‘A Prophet’).

Such is Rotterdam. Truth to tell, most movies this year were neither masterpieces nor utter dogs, but somewhere in between. For example, two otherwise admirable films were badly let down by trite endings. Young Dutch director Martijn Maria Smits courted comparisons (in which he was, of course, bound to come off worst) with the Dardenne brothers by setting ‘C’est déjà l’été’ (‘It’s Already Summer’) in the Belgian industrial town of Seraing. Happily, while the movie is very much a realist study of working-class lives, it isn’t actually that close to the Dardennes' work, in that for the most part it dispenses with plot almost entirely and makes a great virtue of using locals for most of the minor roles. It’s a pretty persuasive portrait of the demoralising consequences of poverty and unemployment, but goes awry in the last half hour when a teenager on the brink of delinquency happens to come across a gun. Since we all know that such discoveries are always going to end up being used, the film ends both predictably and in a needlessly melodramatic mode that undermines the good work done in the film’s first two acts.

The same goes for the Québecois ‘Les Signes vitaux’ (‘Signs of Life’), in which Sophie Deraspe deals very sensitively and honestly with a range of issues surrounding death, ageing, illness and pain through the story of a young woman who starts doing voluntary care work at a hospice. Beautifully shot by the writer-director herself, littered with astute insights into the universal but too often avoided ‘problem’ of mortality, and featuring a fine lead performance from non-professional actress Marie-Hélène Bellavance, the movie is a quiet gem – until the last ten minutes when a couple of implausible plot developments occur, seemingly with the intention of closing the film on a tidy, more ‘positive’ note.

Like these two titles and ‘R’, ‘Mama’ – by Russians Nikolay and Yelena Renard – was a competitor in the Festival’s ‘Tiger Awards’ strand. Its measured, near-wordless account of a faintly bizarre relationship – between an obese, fortysomething man and his mother, who caters, all too subserviently but not without some barely concealed resentment, to his each and every need. Another bold and promising work. Again, non-professionals are used to impressive effect, while the images often have a vivid, almost Lynchian strangeness – all the more strange in being taken from reality, with no artificial lighting or colour correction. But even this film’s assurance was overshadowed by that of ‘Honeymoons’, a Serbian-Albanian co-production by the veteran Serbian auteur Goran Paskaljevic. Two parallel stories of newly wed couples – one Albanian, one Serbian – are deployed to reflect not only on various social issues blighting the two countries, but also on their desire to become fully fledged European Union members – despite the prejudices of their Western neighbours. Characteristically for Paskaljevic, the movie combines dark humour, sharp observation and unflashy but highly expressive camerawork before reaching a coda as thought provoking as it’s quietly powerful.

Dave’s report has already praised the very engaging ‘Agua Fría de Mar’, another Tiger contestant which I myself saw immediately after watching the likewise watery ‘Alamar’, perhaps the film I enjoyed most at the Festival. Though it too was in the Tiger strand, the film is actually rather closer to documentary than the other competing features. The film focuses on a young Mexican divorcé who has some time to spend with his five-year-old son before the boy goes off to live with his mother in Rome, and who decides to visit his own father, who works among the coral reefs off the Mexican coast. The film simply observes the three generations as they go about their daily lives together: catching, cleaning, selling, cooking and eating a colourful variety of fish, enjoying life on the water, and making friends with a particularly sympathetic cattle egret. The relationship of the men both with each other and with the world they inhabit is portrayed with subtlety, expertise and great humanity. I loved every frame of it.

Read Dave Calhoun's report from Rotterdam

Author: Geoff Andrew



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