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Northern Exposures

Every year the Montreal World Film Festival runs for ten days through Labor Day, and the Toronto Film Festival picks up a few days later and carries on for another ten. Twin colossi of the Great White North, they unspool some 300 movies each, and, as in the past three years, I once again had the bleary-eyed good fortune to scale both summits. Scale is perhaps not the right word: I did not, after all, see 600 movies. Forty is more like it.

Nor did I find the peaks all that exhilarating. I encountered no masterpiece. On the other hand, the high view was invaluable. Great films may not be rampant, but if nothing else I discovered that there sure is a lot of bustle on the international film scene, with fresh names cropping up along with the usual slew of stalwarts.

The most interesting entry I saw in Montreal was Of Freaks and Men, directed by the Russian Alexei Balabanov, whose work is new to me, even though his films have played the festival circuit before. (His 1997 film Brother was Russia's biggest commercial success that year.) Set in turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg, Of Freaks and Men (in Russian) is a disturbing, expressionist black comedy featuring, among other characters, a maker of pornographic photos, a blind wife, a mistress, and a pair of Siamese twin boys. The tone is leering yet distanced. While the film's high-society setting might indicate some kind of political agenda, Balabanov is far too eccentric to be a social satirist. Often he's just gnomic. Movies that flaunt their obfuscations are my least favorite kind, and yet I found myself being drawn into the strangeness of this escapade. And Balabanov has a feeling for pathos that most mumbo-jumbo artists lack. When one of the Siamese twins slowly expires, the helplessness of his brother -- and his awareness of his own imminent death -- is excruciatingly moving.

Another film that tries to balance disparate tones is Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful. Benigni is Italy's most famous -- and exportable -- movie comic. (He's turned up in a couple of Jim Jarmusch movies, 1986's Down by Law and 1991's Night on Earth.) I've often enjoyed his curlicue movements and bugged-out facial comedy, but he can be Chaplinesque in all the wrong ways -- he jerks pathos. Set during the tail end of World War II, Life Is Beautiful (in Italian) is a "comedy" about a sweet couple and their little son who are sent to a concentration camp. It would take a comic artist of genius to bring this off without seeming either offensive or misguided. Benigni essentially works his shtick in a horrific setting; the contrast isn't shocking, it's just odd, as if we were watching two different movies that somehow got spliced together. The film made me yearn once again to see Jerry Lewis' legendary unreleased concentration camp picture The Day the Clown Cried. For complicated legal reasons, just about nobody has seen it since it was completed in the early '70s. It must be ineffable.

Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run (in German) is a film I enjoyed for its kinetic charge. Lola (Franka Potente) has 20 minutes to get the necessary deutsche marks that will save her in-hock-to-the-Mob boyfriend's life. In three separate what-if? scenarios that interconnect, we see Lola sprint nonstop on her mission. Tykwer's camera style and sensibility are a cross between Brian De Palma and Chuck Jones; his work has such dazzle that it's a shock to realize he also has a feeling for character. He makes you care about Lola. With her punk red hair and lean racer's body, she's a sprinter propelled by her own ardor. What a girlfriend! Every guy should be so lucky.

The most controversial movie I saw in Montreal was Jeanne Labrune's French folie a deux drama Si Je T'Aime... Prends Garde a Toi -- in English, Beware, My Love. Maybe you have to be French, or at least French-Canadian, to get this film. Nathalie Baye is a writer who meets a man (Daniel Duval) on a train who eventually becomes her lover. He's so unstable and possessive that after a while you realize she's at least as nuts as he is for wanting to keep him around. But the film presents their nuttiness as something transcendent. We're supposed to think these two are acting out some primal ritual of passion. All it looked like to me was a lot of hair-pulling and face-slapping.

Unlike Montreal, which feels like a European fest, the Toronto shindig was crammed with marketeers and Hollywood types. Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks SKG -- he's the "K" -- showed up for the closing-night screening of his studio's Antz. Tom Cruise, sporting his stubble, was on hand to promote Without Limits, which he produced. And so on.

As an antidote to all this hustle, a lot of critics found refuge in small and esoteric fare. I mean, why shuffle off to see Home Fries when you can see that acclaimed new Brazilian movie?

As it turns out, a lot of the highly touted small stuff had its share of Hollywood-style sentiment. Walter Salles, Jr.'s Central Station (in Portuguese), for example, was promoted as one of those "up from the streets" social dramas in the manner of Hector Babenco's great Pixote (1981). What I saw was something else again. It's about an orphaned boy and an old woman who works in the Rio de Janeiro train station; she writes letters on behalf of the illiterate poor. They join to find the boy's errant father, and the whole trip becomes one of those allegorical jaunts that you just know is going to end in heartbreak. With a little jimmying, this movie could easily be adapted for Hollywood: Call it Grand Central Station, and cast Anne Bancroft and whoever is the new Macaulay Culkin. The one genuine article in the film is the performance of Fernanda Montenegro, Brazil's premiere movie actress, as the old woman. The movie may be mushy, but she keeps her ballast.

Another squishy movie that got the respectful treatment from the press was The City, which is about illegal Hispanic immigrants and sweatshop workers in Manhattan. The film is structured as a series of self-contained vignettes, and some of the stories, such as the one about a homeless father trying to enroll his daughter in school, are touching. But mostly The City, which was directed by NYU film grad David Riker, has all the semidocumentary earnestness of Hollywood social realism circa 1930.

I was happy to get a chance to see The Way We Laughed, the latest film from Gianni Amelio, a director who is vastly unappreciated throughout the world. Anyone who has seen Open Doors (1990), Stolen Children (1992), or Lamerica (1994) knows what I'm talking about. His new film (in Italian) is a lyrical and somber study of two Sicilian brothers who emigrate from Sicily to Turin. It spans the period from 1958 to 1964, and each year is represented by an ordinary day in that year in the lives of the brothers. Amelio has a feeling for the beauty and mystery in the human face that places him in the company of the great neorealist directors -- De Sica and Rossellini -- who are his spiritual mentors.

The most huzzah'd Italian director in Toronto, however, wasn't Amelio. It was Bernardo Bertolucci, who arrived with his most recent film Besieged. A new film by Bertolucci is, of course, always an event, but it's been a long time since I've liked anything he's done. (Anyone for 1996's Stealing Beauty?) Besieged was originally shot as a one-hour TV movie and then expanded by about 30 minutes for theatrical release. It has an arty, attenuated feel. Thandie Newton plays an African exile who lives in Rome, attends medical school, and tends house for a British emigre pianist played by David Thewlis at his most pouty-mouthed. The relationship between these two is an approach-avoidance extravaganza, but it's difficult to gauge what anyone is doing or thinking because Bertolucci fills the screen with oodles of visual claptrap. He's such a fluent filmmaker that he lets his eyes take him for a ride. There's nothing to connect to in this film -- not even the imagery, because it's divorced from human feeling. Bertolucci has become a chic species of rock-video director.

Of such insights are film festivals made.

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Peter Rainer

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