Cinema Paradiso

The St. Louis International Film Festival gets its act together

For those who could resist their anti-American leanings, there was the extraordinary George Washington. First-time writer/director David Gordon Green takes a setting of small-town Southern poverty and makes it as strange and unfamiliar as a Kafka dreamscape: A man spends his time amid misshapen fallen trees, perpetually chopping wood; a boy directs traffic dressed in a superhero costume of his own creation; a group of railroad workers hang out by the tracks discussing philosophy and diet. George Washingtonis the kind of movie that film festivals were made for.

Another criterion for a film festival's success is the surprises it offers. In this case, on the very first evening, Swimming failed to arrive, and in its stead Clark inserted Allan (Pump Up the Volume) Moyle's New Waterford Girl, a wonderfully quirky little film with the sorts of ingredients Bill (Local Hero) Forsyth used to make movies out of: strange, isolated community; bizarre characters; and a central figure -- the actress Liane Balaban -- who draws an audience to her. Seeing Balaban onscreen was reminiscent of encountering the film presence of Samantha Morton for the first time.

Other highlights included the Turkey-set Journey to the Sun, which could have been subtitled Portrait of a Police State, and singular, riveting performances by Hitomi Kuroki (The Frame) and Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche (The Widow of St. Pierre). Binoche has grown into a film actress without peer and now fits into a noble lineage of French stars: Moreau, Deneuve, Huppert, Binoche.

George Washington is the kind of movie that film festivals were made for.
George Washington is the kind of movie that film festivals were made for.
George Washington is the kind of movie that film festivals were made for.
George Washington is the kind of movie that film festivals were made for.

Yet, for all this, the most uncompromising films to be found in St. Louis last week were at the other film festival, the contemporary French films shown at Webster University. Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité and Erick Zonca's Le Petit Voleur (The Little Thief) and "Seule (Alone)" are the kind of movies that linger on the skin like cigarette smoke the morning after. These are filmmakers who are taking a course divergent from accepted modes of form and content, risking being called both pretentious and ridiculous, responding with sullen convictions in the tradition of their auteur forebears.

The dual festivals made for a cinephile's paradise. It's not too greedy to ask for more.

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