The New York Times

September 29, 2006

Critic's Notebook

New York Film Festival Quietly Demands Attention


The Walter Reade Theater, home of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the primary screening site for the New York Film Festival, used to be connected to the rest of the Lincoln Center complex by a wide plaza that stretched across West 65th Street. Because of the elaborate reconstruction and expansion of Lincoln Center in progress, that familiar bridge is gone, and the broad stairway that rose from Broadway over Alice Tully Hall is closed. To reach the mezzanine where the Walter Reade sits, you now must climb a narrow stairway tucked into the middle of the block (an escalator and elevators are also available), and from the top of it you look across 65th at Avery Fisher Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House as though gazing from a lonely parapet over a moat full of taxicabs.

The physical separation of the theater from its Lincoln Center siblings is temporary of course, but it suggests a metaphor for the festival, which is an increasingly unusual outcropping on the cultural landscape. Film festivals crowd the calendar and circle the globe, but New York’s is different. Instead of hundreds of films, it presents a few dozen, and it presents them, for the most part, one at a time, rather than in a frenzy of overscheduling. It is neither a hectic marketplace nor a pre-Oscar buzz factory, like Cannes or Toronto, or a film industry frat party, like Sundance. Its tone tends to be serious, sober, and perhaps sometimes a little sedate, even when the movies it shows are daring and provocative.

If I may trot out another metaphor, the New York Film Festival might be compared to an established, somewhat exclusive boutique holding its own in a world of big box superstores, oversize shopping malls and Internet retailers.

If you want quantity — racks and shelves full of stuff to sort through in the hope of finding something that might fit your taste — wait for Tribeca, with its grab-bag programs and crowd-pleasing extras. The New York Film Festival, in contrast, prides itself on quality, refinement and selectivity. It is not so much programmed as curated. This selection is a form of criticism — it involves applying aesthetic standards and deciding that some films are better than others — and to understand this festival it helps to understand that its selection committee, led by Richard Peña, the festival’s program director, is made up of film critics. This year’s movies were chosen by Mr. Peña; Kent Jones, associate programmer at the Film Society and editor at large of Film Comment; Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly; John Powers of Vogue; and Phillip Lopate, editor of the recently published Library of America anthology of American movie criticism and an all-around man of letters.

These critics, like others in their profession, incline toward material that is sometimes described as difficult or challenging, but that requires a disciplined, active attention. In previewing the movies that will be shown over the first week of the festival — and some that will come later — I have been struck by how few of them conform to the conventions of genre and narrative that dominate American commercial cinema. The split between the domestic mainstream and the world of international “art” films has rarely seemed so wide. As the big Hollywood studios, with their eyes on the global market, strive for maximum scale and minimal nuance, independent-minded filmmakers in other countries seem to be going in the other direction. Or, rather, in their own idiosyncratic directions, forging a decentralized, multifarious cinema of nuance, intimacy and formal experimentation.

Some of them veer toward abstraction, like Marc Recha’s “August Days,” in which the story is a faint shadow cast by the images, which consist mainly of views of the mountains and rivers of Catalonia. Other films mix their moods in ways that complicate traditional distinctions between comedy and drama, realism and artifice, or even present and past. All of them reward a first look — even if you don’t like what you see, you will have seen something new — and some may even change the way you look at things.

The director Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Bamako,” the most politically urgent film in the festival and also the most formally audacious, combines a bracing indictment of the world financial system with a subtle glimpse at daily life in Africa. At the center of this film from Mali is a mock trial, during which robed lawyers argue over whether the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are guilty of increasing Africa’s misery. But around the edges, as passionate speeches are made, we witness a wedding, the breakup of a marriage and the routines of work and play. The juxtaposition of the abstract and concrete, of macrocosm and microcosm, makes “Bamako” much more than the sum of its arguments. It’s a film that needs to be seen, argued over and seen again.

But after “Bamako” (and maybe also “The Queen,” Stephen Frears’s opening-night offering about Elizabeth II), there are not many overtly political films in the first third of the program: another difference between New York and other festivals, which frequently showcase angry, earnest denunciations of injustice and war. There are other things to think about, and other ways to feel. Complications of feeling are the subject of Hong Sang-soo’s “Woman on the Beach.” Mr. Hong, a wry, unsparing anatomist of the romantic discontent of South Korean twenty- and thirtysomethings (with special emphasis on the failings of South Korean men), has made his most coherent and emotionally accessible film yet. On the surface the story of a short, not-too-happy love affair, filmed in a clear, unassuming style, it turns out on closer examination to be full of subtle narrative symmetries and visual patterns. It’s a wicked comedy of manners in a blue key of disappointment.

Manoel de Oliveira’s “Belle Toujours” is a charming, small-scale movie that exists entirely in reference to a 40-year-old film, Luis Buñuel’s “Belle de Jour.” It’s a sequel (with Bulle Ogier in the role created by Catherine Deneuve), a homage, a parody and also a lovely meditation (by a director well into his 90’s) on the passage of time and the persistence of desire.

“Belle Toujours” is one of two films at the festival featuring the great French actor Michel Piccoli (who also appeared in “Belle de Jour”). The other is Otar Iosseliani’s “Gardens in Autumn,” a delightful shaggy-dog comedy in which Mr. Piccoli shows up in drag. The movie is surreal in a matter-of-fact, almost offhand way, its frames pleasingly cluttered with curious objects and odd-looking people. It’s in French, but Mr. Iosseliani, who moved to France from his native Georgia in the 1990’s, has a droll, bawdy, earthy sensibility, at once cynical and warm-hearted, that is unusual in the cinema of his adopted home. Following a government minister (Severin Blanchet) into disgrace — he loses his job, his mistress and his mansion all at once — Mr. Iosseliani’s camera wanders among alcoholics, immigrant squatters, Orthodox priests, prostitutes, pianists and petty bureaucrats, and finds that the pursuit of pleasure is in every way superior to the pursuit of power.

“The Go Master,” from the Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang also, in its way, honors the impulse to turn away from politics. A restrained, elegantly photographed biopic, it traces the life of Wu Qingyuan (Chang Chen), a renowned (and real) Chinese Go player who lived mainly in Japan during the middle decades of the 20th century. War, imperialism and religious persecution occasionally challenge his commitment to the game, but never for long. In one astonishing scene, an important match is interrupted by an explosion and a shock wave: the atomic bomb has just landed on Hiroshima. “Let’s continue,” says Wu’s mentor as he dusts off the board, and the game resumes.

The festival’s main program includes a restored print of “Mafioso,” Alberto Lattuada’s 1962 film about Antonio (Alberto Sordi), a supervisor in a Milan factory who leaves his middle-class, modern life for a vacation in the Sicilian village where he grew up, bringing his very blond, very Northern wife and daughters along.

A lost forerunner of Hollywood’s endless obsession with Italian organized crime, “Mafioso” is a revealing portrait of Italian society and an utter blast, happily blending low comedy, high sentiment, neorealism and farce — almost a film festival unto itself, and evidence that the gap between popular entertainment and artistic accomplishment has not always been so wide. Surely the bridge can be rebuilt.

Also Screening

The 44th New York Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, opens tonight at Lincoln Center and continues through Oct. 15. Most films are shown at Alice Tully Hall, except the late show tonight and the closing-night film, both at Avery Fisher Hall. Tickets range from $16 to $40 ($10 student rush tickets may be available at the box office the day of the screening) and are available at or (212) 721-6500. Information: (212) 875-5050.

There are also special programs in conjunction with the festival.

At the Kaplan Penthouse: “HBO Films Directors Dialogues,” a three-part series, begins at 4 p.m. tomorrow with a discussion with Stephen Frears, director of “The Queen.” Other directors to appear are Michael Apted (“49 Up) on Oct. 7 and Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) on Oct. 14; $16. Two restored films by Alejandro Jodorowsky will be shown: “El Topo (1970) on Oct. 6 and “The Holy Mountain” (1973) on Oct. 7; tickets are $16 and $20. At the Walter Reade Theater, “50 Years of Janus Films” will offer screenings of more than 30 films, through Oct. 26. “Views From the Avant-Garde” will feature screenings of new and restored films through Oct. 15. Tickets are $10, $7 for students, $6 for members and $5 for 65 and older at weekday matinees. “Scenes From the City: 40 Years of Filmmaking in New York” will be shown Oct. 9. “Looking at Jazz,” on Oct. 11, is an evening of rare jazz films and performances by Wycliffe Gordon and other musicians, with the scholar and pianist Lewis Porter as host; $16. Tickets for the Oct. 15 screenings of Guy Maddin’s “Brand Upon the Brain!” are $25. The Walter Reade Theater and the Kaplan Penthouse are at 165 West 65th Street. Walter Reade tickets and information: (212) 875-5600; Kaplan Penthouse tickets and information: (212) 721-6500.