Over There

While American critics script eulogies for foreign film, this year's festival at Cannes suggests that reports of its death are an exaggeration


For the critical doomsayers, maintaining a persuasively bleak outlook within the space allotted has seemed to require them to avoid substantive discussion of films like Taste of Cherry and Russia's Mother and Son--which in turn has the obvious effect of perpetuating the problem the critics purport to despise. "Predictably, the love of cinema has waned," wrote Susan Sontag in '96. And predictable it is when, like Denby, Sontag treats exceptions to the rule of globally deteriorating artistry in one short sentence about recent foreign films that are "wonderful" but described only by director and title (Mike Leigh's Naked, Gianni Amelio's Lamerica, and Fred Kelemen's Fate).

This hardly seems enough to encourage the youth of America to seek out these films on video; to start a subscription to the British film journal Sight and Sound; to read Jonathan Rosenbaum's informative essays about world cinema on the Chicago Reader's Web site; to purchase a membership at an independent video store specializing in foreign obscurities (e.g., Intercontinental Video in Minneapolis, or Facets Multimedia's mail-order tape-rental club in Chicago); and/or, even better, to support those few regional independent theaters showing rare and essential foreign films (which in our town means U Film Society, Asian Media Access, Oak Street Cinema, and Walker Art Center). It bears mention that tracking down foreign films doesn't always require an oath of monasticism or a journey to the ends of the retail universe: No less a corporate fortress than the Uptown outlet of Blockbuster Video rents two of Sontag's three "exceptions" for $1.99 each.

Instead, just as regional film critics or their editors too often squander available space on, say, the umpteenth lengthy review of The Mummy rather than, say, a unique and comparatively unknown masterpiece that might be screening for a limited time at just one local theater (e.g., the Japanese comedy-drama After Life that's now at Oak Street), Sontag, Sarris, and Denby apportion their pessimism in a way that practically suggests a vested interest in keeping things as they are. (Much to his credit, Corliss appended a sidebar to his article that included critical comment on seven hard-to-find foreign gems.) Indeed, for critics to say that world cinema is dead is to convince their readers--and, I dare say, themselves--that they're not missing anything of value that isn't being widely reviewed and nationally advertised. When Sontag writes, "The reduction of cinema to assaultive images, and the unprincipled manipulation of images (faster and faster cutting) to make them more attention-grabbing, has produced a disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn't demand anyone's full attention," she creates a fine review of Episode I (though not of Face/Off). But again, what about, say, Makhmalbaf or Sokurov (Mother and Son)? Rather than sing the latter's praises, Sontag prematurely mourns the death of his unmade films: "And how will Aleksandr Sokurov find the money to go on making his sublime films, under the rude conditions of Russian capitalism?"

As it happens, Sokurov has completed two highly experimental features since Sontag's essay in '96: Mother and Son, which played for a week at Oak Street one year ago, and Moloch, which had its world premiere in competition this year at Cannes. Funded with the support of film boards in Russia, Germany, and Italy (another reminder of the virtues of national endowments), Sokurov's movie was the most challenging in the festival on a number of levels, not least being its visually cloudy, soft-focus portrait of 24 hours in the lives of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun in their Berchtesgaden retreat circa 1942. That setup aside, hardly anything happens in the conventional dramatic or political sense.

If Mother brought its own gorgeously gloomy images and near-total lack of narrative to bear on a relationship to which almost anyone could relate, the snail-paced Moloch situates the century's most despicable character (Leonid Mosgovoi) and his unsympathetic lover (Elena Rufanova) within a dead landscape of washed-out colors and a steady stream of impenetrable conversation. Amounting to an austere, poetic rumination on the mystery of human evil, it's an audacious, mesmerizing film, utterly without precedent in the history of cinema (with the possible exception of Sokurov's previous work). Not surprisingly, perhaps, the walkouts began ten minutes after the start of the first public screening and continued for about an hour, until the film finally broke in the projector and caught fire, thereby relieving several hundred other viewers from the seeming burden of staying to the end. (Popular or not, world cinema is apparently more incendiary than ever.) "My film is aimed at people who like to read," Sokurov said during the Moloch press conference. "I wouldn't be upset if people choose to read Dickens or Tolstoy rather than watch my movies." A fine wish, that, although I doubt many of the departing cineastes were rushing home to their dog-eared copies of Anna Karenina.

Ultimately, there are two ways to interpret the ostensible disaster of this event. One would be to despair that even paying audiences at the world's most prestigious international festival of art cinema have little tolerance for true experimentation. The other, less defeatist conclusion would be to say that in spite of this experimental film's utter lack of commerciality, it was nonetheless financed, produced, and screened for a huge, international audience of people whom it thoroughly provoked. Which is also to say that world cinema lives.

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