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2006 Philadelphia Film Festival: My Report

15 April 2006

The 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival showed somewhere around 150 films. I saw 10 of them. That’s not a big enough ratio for me to make a definitive statement about what the festival was like. With that many films shown across 13 days, who could see enough to summarize the festival? All I can give is a summary of what my Philadelphia film festival was like.

Though I saw two films I didn’t care for (American Dreamz and Lower City), most of the films I viewed were excellent. There were two even better than that: films I was in awe of, that I wanted to tell everyone about. Both were perceptive human dramas, though stylistically they had little in common.

Half Nelson stars RYAN GOSLING as an inner-city 8th grade teacher trying to give his students a progressive, bigger-picture version of US history. Unsure of the impact he’s making, and feeling helpless in the face of the US political climate, he turns to hard drugs for relief. The plot centers on his friendship with a student who catches him smoking crack in the locker room. What could have been a ludicrous melodrama is instead insightful and realistic, giving voice to the complicated feelings of someone struggling with the inability of one person to change the world.

Director CRISTI PUIU has described his film The Death of Mister Lazarescu (Moartea Domnului Lazarescu) as the first in a series of looks at life in Romania. Death is ostensibly a portrait of one man’s death, but actually much more. It takes place more or less in real time, as we follow one man’s pursuit of health care. More than just an attack on the health-care system, it’s a moving study of how people treat each other, especially in times of need. It’s riveting from start to finish, with the tension of a thriller, yet we’re reacting not to plot twists but to universal human experiences and feelings.

I also saw two compelling documentaries (This Film Is Not Yet Rated and Our Brand Is Crisis), and four more foreign films.

Lady Vengeance (Chin-jeol-han Geum-ja-ssi) wraps up PARK CHAN-WOOK’s ‘vengeance trilogy’ of revenge movies. As a director he uses an anything-goes, freewheeling style that incorporates humor and flights of fancy into the tale, which at its core is not only brutal but also quite sad. More than just an action film, Vengeance is a complex meditation on justice, forgiveness, and ethics.

The German film Truth and Dare (Wahrheit oder Pflicht), about a girl who flunks out of high school but can’t bear to tell her parents the truth, starts out like a fairly predictable coming-of-age story but ends up more substantial, filled with melancholy and the sense that achieving ‘adulthood’ can involve a loss of some part of your personality and soul.

Also quite powerful was ALEXANDER SOKUROV’s The Sun (Solntse), a detailed portrait of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito coming to terms with Japan’s loss, and his own flawed humanity, at the end of World War II. And French director LAURENT CANTENT’s third film Heading South (Vers Le Sud) was both entertaining and provocative. It depicts Haiti in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, using as its frame the story of three women who travel there to hook up with handsome young local teenagers. It critiques capitalism and imperialism, but not in a way that suggests easy answers.

These films were filled with visual, intellectual, and emotional pleasures. At their best they contained revelations, making me again aware of the true power of film.