Below-average film selection only has a few surprises to offer

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Midway through this year’s edition of the infamous Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), I came to one stark realization: I’ve never watched so many mediocre films in one festival before.

Any wishful presumption that Egypt’s biggest film event might finally get its act together this year quickly went down the drain. The Fest’s permanent ailments haven’t been cured: bad organization, favoritism, a lack of publicity, and low audience turnout still remain its hallmark.

The film selection contained a number of exceptional works — Catalin Apostol’s “Meekness,” Joud Said’s “Once Again,” Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán’s “Jean Gentil” — but, overall, this year’s selection was, as in recent years, overwhelmingly average. The poor quality of the Arab film crop released this year added further woes to a fest hanging by a thread. In addition, the popularity of the Eid blockbusters distracted the audience away from a festival reluctant to publish its program until a few days before its inception. Although there has been some serious effort to pull out the fest from its longstanding slump, the deeply-ingrained problems of old still persist.

With no sense of curation, an absence of big titles, and a dearth of new talents, the 34th CIFF could very well be the weakest, most irrelevant edition in recent memory. I realize that this may sound like a broken record, but unless something radical is done in the near future to lift the fest up from its ceaseless downward spiral, the 2010 round could officially mark the beginning of the end for one of the oldest film fests in the region.

Another Year
The obvious standout picture this year was Mike Leigh’s Cannes hit, “Another Year.” CIFF’s opening film centers on a meek, happily married elderly couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Geri (Ruth Sheen), and the troupe of dejected characters who orbit their universe.

Taking place over the course of one year, the film is divided into four chapters, one for every season of the year. Leigh’s free-flowing opus contains no plot and, as in his previous classics, relies heavily on improvisation by its stellar cast. A fascinatingly quiet meditation on aging and happiness, “Another Year” is firmly attuned to the sensibilities of modern middle-class life.

The most intriguing aspect of Leigh’s observational comedy-drama is the film’s new take on a theme he has previously explored. In his last film, 2008’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Leigh’s message was quite clear: When basic needs are fulfilled, the question of happiness becomes a choice rather than a state of mind.

In “Another Year,” the picture explores the idea of happiness in a much more complex — and much less blitheful — manner. Leigh divides his characters into two separate groups: the happy and the sad. Both co-exist with each other, yet neither seems to fully comprehend the other. Tom and Geri are not entirely sympathetic to their guests as they initially appear to be, and on occasion they seem quite smug and insensible. Their indifference to the lonely, neurotic Mary (played by a magnificent Lesley Manville) exemplifies the great divide between the two separate worlds. Happiness, in this case, is rather elusive; love is essentially a stroke of luck.

As warm and gentle “Another Year” appears to be, the bitter note left by the ending offers very little comfort. Leigh’s signature deadpan comedy cloaks the unnerving reality of a time governed by anxiety and distress.

Unoriginal competition
The scarcity of originality was the defining norm of this year’s unremarkable International Competition. A prime example is Marc Fitoussi’s “Copacabana,” staring French screen siren Isabelle Huppert. A run of the mill frothy French comedy, Huppert plays Babou, a middle-aged socialite and a reckless mother trying to earn her engaged daughter’s respect (and love) by taking on a serious job for the first time in her life.

Known for her intense, morose, and edgy roles, Huppert breaks away from tradition, delivering what could possibly be her cheeriest role to date. And while it’s exceedingly refreshing watching Huppert letting loose for the first time in many, many years, the material is too thin and too conventional to illicit any real interest.

Abounding with clichés, Fitoussi’s script is too obvious and doesn’t really go anywhere. Neither charming enough nor sufficiently comedic, “Copacabana” feels rather inert, impeded by commercial concerns that prevent it from charting into daring territories. The final product thus feels calculated, dull and utterly forgettable.

A more successful effort was Juanita Wilson’s Macedonian/Swedish/Irish co-production, “As If I’m Not There.” Wilson’s widely acclaimed debut feature is set in the Yugoslav Wars. Newcomer Natasa Petrovic plays Samira, a Bosnian school teacher transported to the concentration camps where she and dozens of other Bosnian women find themselves subjected to torture and sexual servitude.

Based on the acclaimed novel by Slavenka Drakulic, the film, which could be regarded as a prequel to Jasmila Zbanic’s “Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams,” depicts the horrors of the war with an unflinching audacity, drawing a morally complex portrait of a place and time completely devoid of any humanity.

Petrovic delivers the best female acting of the competition with an emotionally and physically brave, naked performance. Unlike her fellow submissive detainees, Samira uses her femininity to manipulate her captors. In the face of death, Wilson suggests, any means are justified to stay alive.

Wilson should be lauded for not resorting to cheap, Hollywoodish sentimentality to force the sympathy of the viewers. What she churns instead is a shockingly honest picture that, despite its starkness, doesn’t fall into the trap of sensitization.

In spite of its strengths, “As If I’m Not There” remains a straightforward survival tale no different than numerous past treatments of the subject. Wilson does little in both the visual and narrative departments to elevate her film into the ranks of the greats. And while the film is indeed powerful, it, alas, doesn’t break any new ground.

An interesting yet fruitless competition entry was Eliseo Sobiela’s “The Hostage of Illusion” from Argentina. A meta-erotic thriller, the film centers on middle-aged award-winning novelist Pablo, who embarks on an affair with his former student, Laura. The torrid affair takes an unexpected turn when Laura is driven steadily towards paranoia. As Laura’s secrets begin to unfold, the love-struck Pablo realizes it’s too late to back off.

Taking a leaf out of Juan José Campanella’s Oscar winning “The Secret in Their Eyes,” Sobiela uses the thriller template to inject a subtle political commentary on the relationship between Argentina and its dictatorship past.

Sobiela’s ideas never truly come to full fruition, though. Crucial details concerning Laura remain vague, and her character is poorly developed. And while her relationship with Pablo is quite convincing, it lacks depth. Sobiela’s standard surrealistic touches are ineptly conceived and at times feel forced. The abrupt ending leaves plenty to be desired.

Another competition entry that fell flat despite its initial engrossing premise is Svetoslav Ovcharov’s “Voice Over” from Bulgaria. Set in the late ‘70s at the height of the communist era, Desa Krasova plays Diana, wife of talented cameraman Anton (Ivan Barnev), who flees to Western Germany with her ailing son in need of treatment. The successful Anton refuses his wife’s incessant pleas to move with them, choosing career over his family. As the State Security Services closely monitors the pair’s intimate and revealing phone calls, their relationship gradually disintegrates.

Similar in structure and tone to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others,” Ovcharov’s film, based on a true story, dissects the direct implications of Bulgaria’s former totalitarian regime on ordinary lives. Like Wilson, though, Ovcharov offers nothing new here, covering the same ground as other recent films from Eastern Europe.

Ovcharov’s direction is pretty pedestrian, lacking the spark and oomph of, for example, Donnersmarck. The drama ebbs and flows, but doesn’t really soar. A critical lack of empathy is missing for the rather flat characters.

Atrocious & pleasant surprises
Before the end of the festival, I stumbled upon several cinematic atrocities, which included Miklos Jancso’s “So Much For Justice,” Miklos Jancso’s “Emir,” Patxi Amezcua’s “25 Carats,” Hussein El Hulaybi’s “Longing,” and, of course, Said Naceri’s notorious “The Clandestine” — possibly the worst film screened in any festival anywhere in the world.
“Jean Gentil” aside, the most pleasant discovery for me was Frédéric Pelle’s small-scale French drama “Elsewhere,” a delicate, moving study of a man imprisoned by fear of the unknown.

Nicolas Abraham is Patrick Perrin, a dealer in a small seaside casino dreaming of leaving everything behind and discovering the world. Patrick is not looking for a temporary sojourn; he pines for something permanent. He craves to break the shackles binding him to his home, refusing to engage in any long-term relationship and shunning any kind of obligations. He’s selfish, misguided, and pitiful.

Everything seems to be set: The cash, the vaccines, the travel guides and equipment… everything. For all the extensive preparations, Patrick can’t bring himself to leave, rationalizing his impotency by convincing himself that he’s not ready yet. Years pass, valuable opportunities are missed, and his grand dream progressively dissipates.

Pelle’s misleadingly simple, restrained direction ultimately manages to pull punches with the last heartbreaking part of the film. Pelle uses recurring visual motifs and repetition to stress the banality of Patrick’s life. The passage of time is appropriately condensed, emphasizing the unfortunate fate of this man.

The most remarkable accomplishment, “Elsewhere,” lies in how it slowly creeps under the audiences’ skin. For those brief 90 minutes I felt I was aging, struck by deep melancholia and an inexplicable sense of helplessness. Pelle’s theme is a universal one that will always remain relevant. There’s simply no bigger fear than having one’s dreams unrealized.

 A scene from "As if I’m Not There." 


 A scene from "Elsewhere".


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