Mpls./St. Paul Film Fest Roundup

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

The second week of the 17-day Mpls./St. Paul Film Festival features a restored classic (Jour de fête); two brand new period-pieces from Miramax (The Truce and Artemisia); two rockumentaries (Driver 23 and Lou Reed: Rock & Roll Heart); two docs that resemble fiction (Who the Hell Is Juliette? and Voices Through Time); and one that simply cannot be described ("Mystery Film").

Subjects include war (Captaine Conan) and peace (The Way); family unity (Will It Snow For Christmas?) and the gender gap (The Dress); honeymoon killers (Deep Crimson) and the postman from hell (Junk Mail). Settings range from a computer-generated Victorian drawing room (Conceiving Ada) to a fictionalized rendition of the Uptown Theatre (Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore).

All of the above are discussed below (with the exception of Lou Reed, which is reviewed in Film Clips, p. 35). There's plenty to recommend, although, at a time when movies are too often talked to death, one of the virtues of a film festival is being able to take a chance on something you've never heard of before. Happy hunting.

--Rob Nelson

The Truce

Featuring an impassioned performance by John Turturro as Primo Levi, this old-style epic draws on Levi's autobiographical book for the incredible story of his 19-month trip home to Italy after being released from Auschwitz in 1945. Surprisingly lavish for a new Italian production, the film convincingly renders the vast scope of its drama through big-budget period recreation and densely populated crowd scenes (and, alas, an egregiously sentimental musical score). Although these conventions occasionally threaten to minimize the impact of the personal story, Turturro (who lost considerable weight for the part) keeps the film's focus intact as it spans from Levi's liberation through his continued struggles against poverty, isolation, and his own excruciating guilt over having survived the war. Augmented by voiceovers taken directly from Levi's book, The Truce makes a worthy narrative corollary to the forthcoming documentary Oscar-winner The Long Way Home. (Nelson) Oak Street Cinema, Wednesday at 9:15 p.m.

"Mystery Film"

Sorry, no more hints about this secret screening except to say that the film is a documentary with humor made by a former Minnesotan, and that even a few jaded critics are apt to attend. (Best to arrive early if you want to get in.) Well, okay, just one more tidbit: The reason for the mystery is that the filmmaker is currently in negotiation with a major distributor that would probably prefer not to have its product sneak-previewed so early, and especially not at a festival--which by itself is reason enough to go. (Nelson) Bell Auditorium, Friday at 9 p.m.

Junk Mail

Delivering a black-comic portrait of the postman as a young stalker, this Norwegian cult item hardly merits a clean bill of health. Each of Junk Mail's unkempt Oslo locations appears caked in grime--not least being the protagonist's own flat, where he eats spaghetti out of a can, washes his armpits with a rag over a dirty dish-strewn kitchen sink, and struggles to open stolen letters with the steam from a teapot before resorting to a filthy, foot-long knife. Incredibly, the film is a romance of sorts, with the bleary-eyed mail carrier Roy (Robert Skjaerstad) pilfering the house keys of a woman (Andrine Saether) he'd spied at a newsstand between racks of porno mags, making himself at home in her apartment where he rescues her from a suicide attempt and an even more psychotic villain (Per Egil Aske). Under these circumstances, it's no small feat that director Pal Sletaune actually commands some sympathy for the main character, employing a near-silent comedy style to turn the postman into a Norwegian grunge version of Chaplin's Little Tramp. (Nelson) Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 7 p.m.

Jour de fête

Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean owes a big debt to Jacques Tati, the pioneering French actor-writer-director who took a few lessons of his own from Buster Keaton and then applied them to a genuinely modernist film style. At the same time, Tati also managed to entertain mass audiences, as witnessed in this, his first feature (1949), about a village mailman (Tati) who's mocked by his neighbors but remains deadpan. As Tati's postman is inspired by a newsreel to try out modern "American" delivery methods (a metaphor for his cribbing from Keaton?), Tati the actor brilliantly exhausts the possibilities of the bicycle as comedic tool. Meanwhile, the village goes on at its own antic rhythm, as Tati the director, in typical fashion, makes his character part of a larger world in which all stories are possible and amusing. After decades of black-and-white and color-tinted prints, U Film is screening the newly discovered, fully restored color version. (Phil Anderson) Suburban World, Saturday at 7:15 p.m.  

Capitaine Conan

Set in the Balkans near the end of World War I, this French tale of war-era disillusionment (based on Roger Vercel's 1934 novel) focuses on the self-proclaimed "warrior, not soldier" Conan (Philippe Torreton) and his friend, Lieutenant Norbert (Samuel Le Bihan), a young intellectual assigned to a military tribunal. Left in the trenches after the official end of the war, the volatile, passionate Conan and his cooped-up band of French guerrilla fighters can only cause trouble in Bucharest, a town they're supposed to protect. When Norbert tries to convict a few of Conan's men for the murder of two innocent women, he must face--just as the viewer must--the difficult issue of how these soldiers could seem to be both criminal and heroic at the same time. Meanwhile, as the war-ravaged Conan stands fiercely by his men in the courtroom and again later on a blood-stained battlefield, he gradually comes to ask himself, "What the hell are we doing here?" Of course, this is the salient question of every anti-war movie from Paths of Glory to Stalingrad, and in Capitaine Conan the question is made most compelling by director Bertrand Tavernier's powerful images of combat and Torreton's intensely scary performance. (Mark Bazer) Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Driver 23

Local filmmaker Rolf Belgum's low-budget doc focuses on the idiot's travails of one Dan Cleveland, a Prozac-snarfing, roughly 30-year-old metal singer/guitarist trying to rock his way out of a delivery-boy day job via the "progressive metal band" Dark Horse. Sadly, Cleveland is a lugubrious, untalented guitarist with an Ozzy-inspired screech horrific enough to spook a pit bull--and a fascist of a bandleader to boot. Dark Horse predictably falls apart, and we're left with a string of almost unwatchably embarrassing scenes, such as the one in which our hero entertains his bemused but quietly supportive mom with an egregious axe solo that embodies "the phases of the grief cycle." And while Belgum's marriage of Brother's Keeper and This Is Spinal Tap might seem like shooting fish in a barrel, his protagonist goes way beyond the call of dork duty--at one point comparing his "visionary" passions to those of "the prophet Ezekiel." Still, this guy isn't just a tool; he's a clearance sale at Menards, and by film's end our pity transgresses into full-bodied contempt. Thus credit Belgum with making an aptly depressing tragicomedy. (Jon Dolan) U Film Society, Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 9 p.m. and Friday, May 1 at 11 p.m.

Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore

Loosely based on writer-director Sarah Jacobson's pre-college stint schlepping popcorn at the Uptown Theatre, this distaff coming-of-age comedy suggests a grungier take on Amy Heckerling's classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Shot in 16mm on a well-tied shoestring, it follows the straight-laced high-schooler Jane (Lisa Gerstein) in her dual effort to lose her virginity and find herself. What the movie lacks in production values, it more than makes up for in freedom: The DIY showstoppers include a masturbation montage and a late-night road-trip to Madison that climaxes near the Wisconsin border with some oral adventuring between the heroine and Tom (Chris Enright). Autobiography or no, Jacobson's film celebrates a coming-of-age that seems inseparable from her own. For one thing, Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore concludes with a shot of the theater marquee touting a movie entitled Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore. For another, Jacobson's fierce independence can be measured by the fact that her film isn't playing at the landmark that inspired it. (Nelson) Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 10:15 p.m.

The Dress

Although it's billed as an absurdist comedy--perhaps due to Dutch writer-director Alex van Warmerdam's offbeat reputation and idiosyncratic style--this gloomy picture is less droll than depressing. The film follows an azure and cherry-colored summer dress along its life cycle from cotton boll to rag, as it passes from one wearer to another and assumes a fetish-like power. While the frock sparks passionate dreams of youth, adventure, or intimacy in the women who don it, it elicits fear and rage in the vengeful men whom these women encounter--including a fashion designer who tries to force his weeping lover to mate with a pig, a toothless man desperate for French kisses, and a pathetic rapist (played by the filmmaker) who only wants to snuggle. While the idea that a garment could provoke rape is absurd (unless, of course, you're a defense lawyer), the communication gap it symbolizes isn't laughable in the least. (Leslie Dunlap) Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 5 p.m.


Agnes Merlet's warm, sensuous bio-pic about Europe's first acknowledged female painter is as much a tale of sexual awakening as it is a feminist anthem. Seventeen-year-old Artemisia Gentileschi (a delicious Valentina Cervi), the daughter of a renowned Italian painter, exhibits her father's talent, but in the chauvinistic world of early-1600s Italy, women are forbidden to paint human nudes or enter the Academy of Arts. So Artemisia seeks the tutelage of Agostino Tassi (Mike Manojlovic), her father's collaborator in painting frescoes for secular clients, and a man notorious for his nighttime debauchery. The two hone their skills as artists, but when their relationship moves into the realm of physical pleasure, Agostino is clearly the master and Artemisia the apprentice. Merlet's film is lavish in its dark, opulent composition, and the sexual encounters maintain a tastefully erotic edge. But the plot eventually deteriorates from compelling drama into courtroom boorishness that can only be likened to The Crucible less the emotional conviction. Merlet's eye is in the right place--and in Cervi she has an alluring piece of art--but she fails to complete what promised to be a masterpiece. (Tom Meek) Bell Auditorium, Sunday at 7 p.m.  

Who the Hell Is Juliette?

Actually, the name is Yuliet, or so insists the teenage subject of this meta-everything film from Mexico. "My fucking name is Y-U-L-I-E-T!" she yells giddily, as the film rewinds before our eyes and the title corrects itself: Who the Hell is Yuliet? Turns out she's a 16-year-old Cuban girl whom director Carlos Marcovich met while filming a music video: ebullient yet belligerent, kind but malicious, still possessing a child's wonder even though she prostitutes herself without a thought. Yuliet's father left for America when she was 6 months old and her mother subsequently killed herself--but, as the film reveals, that story isn't as simple as it seems. Nor is the movie. Throughout, Juliette/Yuliet chants the words "actual" (real) and "actuar" (to act), with one swapped letter seeming to change everything about the film's relationship to "truth." Later, a stonefaced actress proclaims to the camera, "The director is biding the time to discover which of his two actresses he will sleep with," then she suddenly breaks into giggles. "I got the line wrong," she says. "Let me try it again!" The question "Who the hell is Yuliet?" is as unanswerable as "What the hell is this film?" But the enigma is the point, and the question is plenty compelling. (Anne Ursu) Oak Street Cinema, Monday at 7:15 p.m.

Voices Through Time

Albeit Italian, this evocative piece of visual storytelling forgoes subtitles in its exploration of the secret life of a small town, focusing primarily on the faces and body language of its people. When it succeeds, the film leaves you with sequences that possess the vivid texture of real memories. These scenes have isolated power: children playing and bonding in the street, a wedding party with elderly couples waltzing in perfect sync, a park dance in which a gaggle of flirting teens displays every emotion from lust to jealousy. But fans of plot and character may pine for the exit door, since nothing unites these fragments except the Almighty Theme implied in the title and director Franco Piavoli's fascination with filmed portraiture. Still, not since Kids has a filmmaker so successfully made the viewer feel like an invisible voyeur onto a real, heretofore hidden world. (Peter S. Scholtes) Oak Street Cinema, Monday at 9:15 p.m.

The Way

While this dreamy, soft-spoken movie seems to be about an aging Chinese immigrant looking for love through the personal ads from his home in Budapest, Hungarian director Ferenc Moldovanyi has infused every scene with the weight of existentialism; it exudes the vast and insignificant feeling of having realized that planet Earth is probably just a tiny speck of dirt in a space creature's eyebrow. The way that Moldovanyi overlaps the old man's small-voiced monologues with slow-burn footage is incredibly subtle, panning along the back doors of restaurant kitchens so we can peek in at the unknowing customers and the staff. These voiceovers--in which the old man describes his loveless marriage, his devotion to education, and the horrible years of the Cultural Revolution, often in the form of vague riddles such as "You want to take the secret of life to heaven"--take on new meaning when they're coupled with smooth, elegant footage of everyday scenes. Watching the movie feels akin to staring at a passing landscape from a slow train, pondering its ordinary beauty. Scenes in which the old man chitchats with his hairdresser, scopes out a potential girlfriend, and visits with his son bear the same meandering spirit--one that leaves a complex impression of tedium, yearning, and humble affection. The fact that nothing really happens throughout the film only makes its bittersweet impact all the more intriguing. (Carolyn Petrie) Bell Auditorium, Tuesday at 7 p.m.


Will It Snow For Christmas?

This emotionally ambitious debut from French filmmaker Sandrine Veysset received warm reviews when it opened in New York last December, although the director herself has admitted that some people may be understandably bored by her movie. Indeed, this is one of those smart, well-made films that thoughtful viewers will appreciate intellectually but find tough to love. The story--which moves so slowly that it almost seems to unfold in real time--follows a saintly woman and her seven illegitimate children, who are de facto indentured servants on the farm of their tyrannical father. One of the kids' favorite games is to take turns trying to make each other cry; whoever doesn't cry wins. Days blend into one other as summer becomes fall becomes winter, and the work cycles of planting, harvesting, and going to school drive the children toward adolescence. The mother (Dominique Reymond) is the magnetic core of the kids' lives, but she's so incredibly perfect that we start to lose belief in both her and her equally ideal children. Along with the film's languorous pace and drab visual style, these flawless characters keep us at a distance and rob the surprise ending of its power. (Kate Sullivan) Oak Street Cinema, Tuesday at 9:15 p.m.

Deep Crimson

This Mexican film noir is pitch-black in tone, blood-red in style, and otherwise colored by the darkest misanthropy. Directed by Arturo Ripstein (White Lies), it's set in 1940s Mexico and based on the same true story that inspired the American cult classic The Honeymoon Killers: A pair of low-lifes embark on a savage killing spree, dispatching old widows and stealing their money until greed and jealousy tear them apart. The director's own sadistic m.o. involves dwelling on the killers' most unappealing qualities--the ludicrous vanity of the balding gigolo (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) who seduces the victims, the desperation of the obese nurse (Regina Orozco) who pathetically clings to him--while drawing out the murders to excruciating lengths. One widow is given a slow-acting poison that ravages her insides for more than 10 minutes of screen time, while the penultimate scene is so grisly that even the slightly edited version shown at the New York Film Festival last year was more than I could watch. Deep Crimson is a film that means to drag the viewer through the mud and make him feel filthy; it succeeds. (Nelson) Bell Auditorium, Wednesday, April 29 at 7 p.m.

Conceiving Ada

This story of a computer genius (Tilda Swinton) who communicates through cyberspace with a long-dead Victorian mathematician poses enough intriguing questions and dreamy technological solutions to hold its own. It's also helped in no small measure by Swinton's haunting performance as Ada, a woman who inherited her genius--as well as her affinity for sex, drugs, and gambling--from her father, Lord Byron. Multimedia artist Lynn Hershman Leeson has created a pioneering work of cyber-filmmaking here, although its form of out-and-out techno fantasy does demand a hearty suspension of disbelief from those who take their computer science literally. In particular, the simplistic method that a beautiful, work-obsessed codewriter (Francesca Faridany) devises to "find" and "save" scenes from Ada's life is tough to swallow, "explained" as it is by such excited mumbo-jumbo as "I've imported a memory bank made from DNA molecules." Still, sci-fi hurdles aside, the parallels of the women's lives--from their ambivalence about motherhood to their decidedly unfeminine ambition in a field as manly as math--seem to make the case that we've come a long way, baby. Or is Leeson's point that our ultimate creative power remains in the womb? The least one can say for Conceiving Ada is that it sets a clear path toward post-screening discussion--or debate. (Petrie) Oak Street Cinema, Wednesday, April 29 at 9:15 p.m.

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