MSPIFF 2012: Reviews

Headshot, Unforgivable, Natural Selection, and more

Love can be a thing of great power, as shown in this middling Moroccan import. When Thami rejects his pious father's plans and decides to become a butcher, he feels free and liberated. A hopeless womanizer, he offers much more than choice cuts to his female customers. But when he falls in love with a beautiful married woman, he discovers how dangerous liberation can be in a strict society. Omar Lotfi gives a charismatic performance as the young butcher, albeit more convincing as a womanizer than a desperate romantic. He is surrounded by a gifted ensemble, particularly the women who populate his life. But the by-the-numbers script makes the film just another example of youthful rebellion against the establishment. —Andrew Newman

Sennentuntschi: Curse of the Alps

Monday, April 16, at 9:50 p.m.
Wednesday, April 25, at 9:45 p.m.

The Swiss Alps, long the setting for intrigue and romance, are now home to horror, legends, and illegal absinthe. Director-writer Michael Steiner concocts a heady brew based on on a Swiss myth about lonely shepherds (no, not that myth) sewing female companions, the Sennentuntschi, out of straw and cloth. Eventually, the women come to life and fulfill the sheperds' fantasies ... until the ladies kill them. Nicholas Ofczarek plays a cop in a small Alpine village in 1975. He becomes the ward for a beautiful, mute wild child (Roxane Mesquida) who wanders into town shortly after the mysterious suicide of a priest. All the villagers are convinced she is a spawn of Satan, while the level-headed cop seeks to discover the child's identity. Meanwhile, a grotesque cheesemaker and his demented nephew indoctrinate a volunteer farmhand, fresh from the city, into the sick ways they unwind after a hard day's work. Sennentuntschi is expertly paced, and presents its shocks and gore without taking itself too seriously. But the film is made repugnant by repeated rape scenes and a generally misogynistic attitude toward all the women characters (okay, it's set in 1975, but still...). And whose idea was it to use the Black Sabbath knock-off band Dust for the closing credits? —John Ervin

Payback

Natural Selection
Natural Selection
Bert Stern: Original Madman
Bert Stern: Original Madman

Details

Festival Essentials

Dates: April 12-May 3

Location: St. Anthony Main Theatre, 115 Main St. SE, Minneapolis

Admission: $11 ($10 for students and seniors; $6 for kids under 12). Visit the MSPIFF website for prices on opening- or closing-night films and multiple-show packages.

More info: www.mspfilmfest.org

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Friday, April 20, at 7:10 p.m.
Sunday, April 22, at 1 p.m.

Inspired by Margaret Atwood's bestselling book, Payback is an ambitious documentary that struggles to define debt. Exploring financial debt, societal debt, and other varieties, the film shines an almost frantic spotlight on the different ways debt invades the world. While director Jennifer Baichwal is preoccupied with the 2010 oil spill and BP's misguided response to it, she also features a man struggling with drug addiction and repeated jail sentences, a tomato labor dispute in Florida, and other issues. The film jumps between too many topics to let any one story completely unravel itself, though emotional interviews with the drug addict are revealing and moving. The man's story of his continual fall from grace is the film's most apt depiction of "debt" as an idea — and of how difficult recovery can be. Atwood is also featured, showcasing her brilliantly wry reading of her own work. —Andrew Newman

Free Men

Friday, April 27, at 2:45 p.m.
Thursday, May 3, at 4:50 p.m.

Another loosely factual gloss on a little-known chapter of Nazi-occupied Europe, Free Men tells of a Vichy France mosque that supplied North African Jews with fraudulent Muslim identification, even as Parisian authorities bore down on the place of worship. The political awakening of Algerian immigrant Younes (A Prophet's Tahar Rahim), tied closely to his relationship with the Jewish singer Salim (Mahmoud Shalaby), provides the drama, such as it is. Director/co-writer Ismael Ferroukhi includes a smattering of close calls and double crosses, but mostly his solidarity story consists of characters speaking in low tones while seated indoors. "You know why I'm here — to make my pile and go home," says black marketeer Younes early on as he declines his cousin's invitation to a Resistance meeting. After being hauled in by the police, Younes buys back his freedom by agreeing to spy on the comings and goings in the local mosque's paradisiacal courtyard. There, he first hears Salim sing, eyes a mysterious mosque worker (Lubna Azabal), and sits down with the noble resident rector (Michael Lonsdale, in a nice reversal of his role in last year's Of Gods and Men as a French monk in Algeria). This all spins Younes around to the side of the freedom fighters. But Free Men never feels like a movie about a developing conscience, due largely to the shallowness of the protagonist as written and, by extension, Rahim's portrayal: Younes lights up in the few moments when he watches Salim perform onstage; otherwise, he hardly appears to have an inner life at all. Benjamin Mercer

Michael

Sunday, April 15, at 6:45 p.m.
Thursday, April 19, at 9:30 p.m.

Michael (Michael Fuith) is a thirtysomething unmarried insurance agent who, by necessity, meticulously keeps up domestic ritual. Michael, you see, is a homosexual pederast. Behind his suburban home's mechanical steel shutters and a soundproof basement door, Michael is holding a 10-year-old boy (David Rauchenberger) captive and apparently has been for some time. Depicting this domestic hell, writer-director Markus Schleinzer stays detached and objective; the boy sheds tears only with his back turned tactfully to the camera, so as not to be accused of petitioning the viewer for sympathy. It's an anti-entertainment style that forswears obvious tools of viewer manipulation without adding much of anything in their place. The poker face "sustained tone" is often indistinguishable from cruise control. Given the intrinsic queasiness of the subject, Michael is a difficult movie to watch. But aside from whatever special problems come along with casting and financing a movie about a pedophile, was it really difficult to make? Schleinzer approaches his subject not as an investigator, but as though covering up a crime scene and scrubbing it of anything that might provide insight or empathy or psychological traction. The cleanup is so thorough, you can't detect what possible motive he might have had for making Michael, other than to play a nasty game with the viewer's natural concern for a child's life. This is cheap when it comes with a Hollywood happy ending and no better without. —Nick Pinkerton

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