Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival Week II: See No Daylight

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the multiplex...

 

True Moments

This thoughtful romantic melodrama from Sweden crosses the Baltic for a story involving Estonian emigration, Nazi occupation, and general Swedish guilt over being too neutral throughout history. A Swedish man of Estonian background (Krister Henriksson) meets an Estonian woman violinist (Lena Endre) at his father's funeral, whereupon they launch into a heated affair that's overshadowed by events. Like many of the best made-for-TV movies, True Moments is a work of edutainment. The fine actors keep their characters memorable as they fumble rapidly into love and then just as quickly face up to the possibility that they could be siblings. Was the Swede's father a fascist killer? Was the Estonian woman's father an underground hero--or a hero by default? The movie digresses into mini-explanations of bygone disputes and lectures on the finer points of Swedish-Estonian relations, which makes it all incredibly earnest. Shot largely in Tallinn, Estonia, which has a suitably unrestored appearance, the film must have been spawned by some high-minded Swedish-Estonian Cultural and Political Exchange Commission. But despite these tendencies (and some sappy music), it remains a well-made and interesting exploration of a hidden history. (Phil Anderson) Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 5:00 p.m.

 

Opera Fanatic

"It remains just beautiful singing and not a soul that sings," says the '50s-era Italian opera star Magda Olivero of current opera styles, highlighting this German documentary's central question: How did postwar Italian opera divas manage to do what no singer can seem to do today--that is, make the audience feel the full range of emotion in the music? In pursuit of an answer, director Jan Schmidt-Garre follows "opera fanatic" Stefan Zucker--a roly-poly Jewish New Yorker with a Mickey Mouse voice--as he travels across Italy interviewing ten divas from back in the day. As much a film about the quirky, passionate Zucker as it is about the performers, Opera Fanatic derives some bizarre humor from watching the music lover in action, as when he confesses to one diva that "this is the first time I've found an interview erotic." Later, Zucker is shown pouting in a corner after the temperamental singer Marcella Pobbe wonders aloud, "Why does he ask such stupid questions?" Indeed, as the film's most beautiful scenes include rare footage of impromptu performances by the now-elderly prima donnas, Zucker's fawning interviews fail to further amplify the talent that comes through loud and clear in the recordings. (Mark Bazer) Oak Street Cinema, Sunday at 5:30 p.m.

 

The King of Masks

With this graceful, gorgeously filmed story of family love set in 1930s Sichuan, director Wu Tianming ended his eight years of political exile in the U.S. and re-established himself as a leading voice of Chinese cinema. The king of the title is Wang (Zhu Xu), an elderly and impoverished street performer determined to pass on the secret of his act, which involves the rapid-fire presentation of delicately hand-painted masks. Since tradition dictates that only a male heir be taught the skill, the master illusionist proceeds to buy a young boy from the child slave market, only to discover that the child, Doggie (Zhou Ren-ying), is actually a girl in disguise. Disgusted by his mistake, the master attempts to discard the girl as her own family did. As these two social outcasts establish a makeshift family and overcome a traumatic break, the acting appears no less spellbinding than the characters' relationship: Zhu Xu won the Best Actor award at the 1996 Tokyo Film Festival, and his eight-year-old partner's supple performance includes stunt work mastered in her previous five years(!) working as an acrobat. (Shannon McLachlan) Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 7:15 p.m.

 

The Ogre

In German, to say "he licked blood" means "he got a taste for it," and so when co-writer-director Volker Schlöndorff's young protagonist puts his tongue to a buddy's injured knee, we know that something has been set in motion. So does Abel (Caspar Salmon) when, not much later, he prays for the school to burn down, watches his dream come true, and sees his friend perish in the flames: "That day I understood that fate was real, that she was cruel, and that she was on my side." The allegories come fast and furious in these first few minutes and they never let up. What about those pigeons the grown Abel (John Malkovich) carries with him into a German POW camp, only to see his fellow prisoners make a feast of them? The black horse he receives from the head forester of Hermann Goering's hunting lodge? And where is Cain? Even more than in The Tin Drum and The Handmaid's Tale, Schlöndorff lets his plot unfold in the style of what you might call German magic realism. Abel, who loves "nothing more than the young boys," ends up assigned to a castle populated by hundreds of blond, blue-eyed adolescents, along with a couple of Nazi archetypes, a forlorn count (Armin Müller-Stahl), and a housekeeper (Marianne Sägebrecht). A tribute to Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia follows, as the camera ogles leaping, flexing, climbing bodies, and for a few minutes it's hard to remember that all this is a prelude to murder. Which is just where Schlöndorff wanted us: This is a film about the allure, even the beauty, of evil, and the danger of innocence. By the end, we, like Abel, wonder where we crossed the line between naiveté and complicity, whether fate is real or just a copout, and whether redemption is anything but a cruel hoax. (Monika Bauerlein) Oak Street Cinema, Monday at 7:30 p.m.

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