Film-Fest Pick Hits

Favorites from the second week of the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival

On the opening night of the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival at the State Theatre last Friday, the mayors of the Twin Cities addressed the near-capacity crowd with a pair of speeches that seemed to separate them by more than just a river. Which is as it should be: If politicians generally refuse to disagree about the war, they might as well disagree about the movies.

Film is more vital now than ever, claimed Randy Kelly, because times are tough and we Minnesotans deserve the chance to sit in the dark and turn off our brains. (For the St. Paul mayor, that pleasure would appear to come even before the lights go down.) Begging to differ, R.T. Rybak courted the MSPIFF constituency. Movies from around the world, he argued, offer not only escapism, but the potential to further our understanding of other cultures. Judging from the volume of applause, I'd guess that Rybak boosted his approval rating among Twin Cities cineastes by a hundred percent.

Believe it or not, we at City Pages have only cheers ourselves this week, as all ten of the MSPIFF reviews that follow are enthusiastic raves. This actually isn't another case of embedded journalism, even though the paper happens to be a major sponsor of the festival. Want proof of our impartiality? Wait a month and ask U Film Society veteran Al Milgrom--whose irate phone calls to City Pages have spanned decades--whether our MSPIFF coverage represented peace or just a temporary cease-fire.

He shoots, he scores: Djolof Mbengwe in 'L'Afrance'
Cine Classic
He shoots, he scores: Djolof Mbengwe in 'L'Afrance'

--Rob Nelson


Oak Street Cinema, Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.; and Bell Auditorium, Friday at 7:15 p.m.

A true festival film, this Hungarian genre-buster from first-time director György Pálfi yanks us into an inventive, self-sustained cinematic world and refuses to let us go. Made as Pálfi's thesis project in film school, Hukkle is set in a small, rural Hungarian village, and begins with the relentless hiccuping of an old peasant by the side of the road. The rhythm of the hiccup--which remains exceedingly annoying for the duration of this wordless film--eventually comes to seem part of a creative depiction of rural life. Pálfi's roving, omniscient camera observes both large and small, even pausing for close-ups of growing plants and crawling bugs as if the film were a Slavic cross between Microcosmos and Berlin, Symphony of a City. But the hiccup that won't go away isn't the only thing gone awry in this serene town. Somehow, long after the director begins dropping hints, a murder mystery begins to unfold: A dead body surfaces from the depths of a muddy swamp; a policeman begins to investigate; and the sense develops that there may be a serial killer on the loose--with accomplices everywhere. (The movie's Lynchian echoes are surely intentional.) Taking full advantage of his layered soundtrack, Pálfi pitches even more curveballs, including a number of special effects that, like everything else in this elaborately structured yet thoroughly unclassifiable film, come out of nowhere and stick in the mind. --Mark Peranson


Lagoon Cinema, Thursday at 7:15 p.m.

This latest social-realist drama from writer-director Ken Loach could be seen as a corrective coda to the embarrassment of Guy Ritchie, et al. that tore out of Cool Britannia several years back. When Loach's characters exit the straight life, he doesn't hand out the usual parting gifts: retro-hip soundtrack, ADD-enhanced editing, et cetera. Crime pays here, but just enough to, say, buy a trailer for your mom once she's sprung from prison on the eve of your 16th birthday. Impulsive, wary-eyed Liam (remarkably played by newcomer Martin Compston) knows that his mother is taking the rap for her boyfriend Stan, a menacing drug dealer. So the kid exacts a rough justice when he pinches Stan's heroin stash and hawks it around his hometown of Greenock, a bleak former shipbuilding village in west Scotland. Liam breaches the territorial pissings of the local don, who absorbs the boy into his minions, but not Liam's mate Pinball, whose insanely enacted jealousy forces the young protagonist into an impossible decision between loyalty and self-interest. As always, Loach plumbs the consequences of personal choice in a context where most decisions are foreclosed by cruel socioeconomic constraints, and people's well-earned anger only turns upon themselves. The path from youth to adulthood hardens into a vise for Liam (who evokes Antoine in The 400 Blows and Billy in Loach's own Kes), gripped by an Oedipal crisis beyond his understanding or control. Indeed, this convincing whiff of Greek tragedy allows Sweet Sixteen to sustain Loach's familiar weakness for the Big Ending--which at this point can be interpreted either as a tiresome habit or a scathing motif. --Jessica Winter


Oak Street Cinema, Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Filmed over the course of seven months, this documentary portrait of a one-room schoolhouse conveys the sensation of a faraway but tangible world that's slowly slipping through one's fingers. It begins in the midst of a severe winter in the rural French region of Auvergne; the lone teacher, Georges Lopez, will retire at the end of the year, and so a cloud of gentle melancholy begins to form over his deft handling of the four-to-eleven-year-old students. He mediates quarrels, demystifies addition and subtraction, and moderates a peer review on beginners' penmanship. (Renderings of "Maman" draw notices ranging from "It's a little bit good" to "It's lots of good.") Sometimes we step outside the school's walls: A knuckle-cracking bully gains extra dimension when he's glimpsed struggling with math homework at his fly-ridden kitchen table, distracted by the clamor of family members. To Be and to Have doesn't hesitate to break the letter, if not the spirit, of the vérité laws set down by Frederick Wiseman, to whom director Nicolas Philibert (In the Land of the Deaf) is often compared; the film makes restrained use of piano accompaniment, and the enormously admirable Lopez sometimes addresses the camera directly. But the two documentarians share an uncanny knack for an empathic, near-invisible immersion in their chosen communities. Radiating the tranquil watchfulness of an attentive pupil, Philibert's improbably riveting chronicle of becoming takes on an ethereal glow. The director is quietly thrilled by the everyday yet extraordinary passages of childhood, and his fascination is contagious. --Jessica Winter

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