The Greatest Shows on Earth

Uzbek beauties! Swedish peaceniks! Iranian mummies! A guide to the high-wire act otherwise known as the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.

Which of the world's film festivals could include "a cinematic bildungsroman that magically mixes comedy and sadness" and "a movie that suggests a Nora Ephron screenplay directed by Sergeant Schultz of Hogan's Heroes"? A fest in which one film offers "a cautionary exemplar of Poland's currently uneasy moment" while another "doesn't move much beyond the standard-issue tourist trash you'd find at the local all-things-Irish novelty store"? A showcase for the "acerbically funny yet disarmingly tender" and a movie that is "to be fled like a mad-cow Whopper with Cheese"? Why, it's the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, of course--or at least according to our crew of opinionated world-cinema taste-testers, whose highly diverse assessments (collected below) reflect the split personality of the festival itself.

On the one hand, the massive MSPIFF--which presents more than 100 features from 49 countries on seven screens over the course of three weeks this month--provides a rare and excellent service as an alternative to the largely ethnocentric state of local "art-film" exhibition. And, in the process, it turns up countless wonders that may never again see light in this city--or on this continent, even. On the other hand, stemming in part from the meager resources allotted to such a commercially unorthodox venture, the festival's chaos theory of curatorial practice too often seems to allow the inclusion of unpreviewed esoterica from hinterland environs on the basis of being available immediately, and for free.

Interpretations of our coverage are apt to be split as well. No doubt festival director Al Milgrom will again find ample evidence of "reviewers who are not familiar in handling the unwonted titles," as he writes in this year's festival program. But since we've never once heard him (or any exhibitor) complain about an uninformed rave, we prefer to take the programmer's pans of our pans as a perverse form of praise. As distinct from the enthusiastically undiscriminating plot summaries that one finds in festival catalogs (how to distinguish between the "fascinating and gorgeous" and the "highly touted and beautiful"?), the capsule reviews below aim to increase the ticket buyer's odds of winning a game that's a crapshoot by design. Perhaps even our more flagrant defiance of critical etiquette ("like a mad-cow Whopper with Cheese"!) is appropriate to a festival that has always stood in opposition to the predictable and the practical--a state-of-the-world survey that, being at once thrillingly expansive and frustratingly uneven, has never lacked for personality.

Grace Maksimik

To cut to the chase: Here's what we think of the first week's offerings (alongside a similarly unexpurgated profile of the organization that's providing it), which we'll follow in subsequent issues with coverage of the films screening in weeks two and three. A word of gentle warning: Given U Film's singular devotion to screening prints that rely on Moldavian air-freight companies for delivery, the dates and times included with the capsule reviews below (and even on schedules) should be double-checked by calling the society hotline at (612) 627-4430, or clicking on Happy hunting.

--Rob Nelson



Herman, USA


The first MSPIFF opener with local credentials since Spark lit up the joint in 1998, this fact-based, fully Minnesota-made indie follows suit with the national media stories that turned the titular town's plea for fertile womenfolk into run-of-the-mill Capra-corn. Must have been a slow news week in 1994 when the highly eligible bachelors of Herman, Minnesota (pop. 485), caught the attention of Katie Couric et al. But you wouldn't know for certain from the movie, in which one eagle-eyed junior editor's human-interest pitch leads instantaneously to busloads of prospective brides chanting, "Herman! Herman!"--not to mention the four upscale black women from Chicago who inexplicably make the trek to farm country in order to sample "the other white meat." Just as miraculously making a $3.5 million movie without a single star (unless you count a thin-haired Michael O'Keefe), writer-director Bill Semans does afford several helicopter shots of sunlit farmland accompanied by the most majestic musical score since Saving Private Ryan's. Although Semans's New Morning in America proffers a view of courtship that's scarcely more modern than the one in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, it does culminate in a very 21st-century vision of racial integration in Prairieville--which may or may not be based on a true story. Rob Nelson


Seven Songs from the Tundra


Minimalist ethnography writ small, this Finnish film presents seven historical tales of the Nenets, the most numerous indigenous peoples of the none too densely populated frozen outback of Siberia. Bookended by two documentary slices of life, Seven Songs progresses forward through the seasons (at least I think so--it's hard to tell when winter lets up in Siberia), examining the pressures upon the natives' independent mindset. The threats come mostly from the rise of Soviet communism, and the changes are best captured through the juxtaposition of the first "narrative" song, wherein a woman refuses to marry her arranged husband, and the last, in which a child refuses to attend school and is dragged away by commie thugs. Seven Songs is the first film ever written in the Nenets' native tongue--one of the two directors, Anastasia Lapsui, based the stories on her family's experiences--and performed by Nenets, whose nonprofessional acting helps yield the feeling of historical reconstruction. The film is at times fragile and compassionate but, as a whole, its flirtations with storytelling are merely tolerable side trips on a long trudge through two-foot-deep slush. Mark Peranson

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