By Joseph Fahim
The past decade has been quite uneventful for award-winning German filmmaker Wim Wenders (“Wings of Desire,” Paris,’Texas”).
Big duds such as “Don’t Come Knocking” and “Palermo Shooting” prompted critics to write him off; his best years appeared to be far behind him. But after three years of silence, Wenders finally makes a triumphant comeback with “Pina,” one of the most invigorating cinematic experiences of the year that left me in pure ecstasy.
The centerpiece of this year’s documentary selection, “Pina” is an entrancing tribute to the late great German dance choreographer Pina Bausch. Shot in 3-D, Wenders’ best film since 1999’s “Buena Vista Social Club” is an assemblage of some of Bausch’s best-known pieces (“The Rite of Spring,” “Café Müller,” “Vollmond”) intercut with brief interviews with old and new members of her company. Bausch herself makes a fleeting, if deeply felt, appearance in black and white footage.
“Pina” is a not a straightforward documentary, nor is it a standard dance film. Viewers seeking to learn about Bausch the person or the significance of her work will not find it here. Instead, Wenders allows her work to speak for itself, creating a stunning visual feast with no narrative.
I’ve always been against 3-D, regarding it an annoying special effect that adds nothing to storytelling. “Pina” is that rare exception to the rule, easily the best 3-D picture I’ve seen thus far. This often misdirected technique opens up Bausch’s world in unexpected ways, inherently different from the theater experience. Wenders’ camera immerses the viewers inside Bausch’s captivating world.
The film soars to staggering heights when Wenders ventures outside the theater, in parks, railway stations and swimming pools, injecting Bausch’s signature pieces with new life. Wuppertal, the small Germany city that was Bausch’s home for more than 20 years, becomes a grand stage for Wenders’ experiment.
Every step, gaze and gesture carries a wide spectrum of emotions. There’s little harmony in the dancers’ movements; Bausch’s company was never really about the dexterity of the dancers. Calculated randomness was Bausch guiding norm; a harmony born of chaos. Bausch’s greatest gift was in nurturing her dancers’ individuality in a way that perfectly fit her vision, pairing her dancers’ distinctive personalities with the images, moods and narratives she created.
Wenders’ film becomes a beautiful celebration of the human body, which ultimately transpires as a divine piece of art, with all its gloriousness and imperfections. Despite minor lapses into sentimentality and unrequited reverence, “Pina” is a fitting, gorgeously-looking tribute to one of the greatest modern artists, brimming with energy, passion and inventiveness. A joy from start to finish.
In the narrative section, one of the standout features is Na Hong-jin’s “The Yellow Sea,” one of the best action thrillers of the year. Coming on the heels of the South Korean director’s 2008 breakout hit “The Chaser,” Hong-jin expands his palette in his second feature to produce an epic crime story with strong social commentary.
Hong-jin reteams with the two “Chaser” leads, Jung-woo Ha and Yun-seok Kim, whose roles are reversed. Ha’s China-based Gu-nam is a down-on-his-luck Joseonjok (ethnic Korean) taxi driver crippled with debt and addicted to mah-jongg gambling. His wife moves to the South Korean capital in search for work and disappears (possibly with a lover) ever since. He crosses paths with Kim’s volatile mob-boss Myun-ga who offers a hit-job in Seoul. Desperate and lost, he accepts the offer. Before long, he finds himself on the run, thrust in a turf war between the two biggest gangs in Korea.
Hong-jin takes his time introducing his characters and constructing the different fragments of his story in the first hour. The pace then frantically accelerates and never stops until the very end. The gritty, and sometimes graphic, action sequences are simply astounding. Everything action junkies look for is here: car chases, fistfights, gun battles and the best foot chase I’ve seen in years, all brilliantly integrated in a tightly-woven plot populated with unpredictable, multi-dimensional characters. The plight of the Joseonjok is embodied by Myun-ga, a stranger searching for a place to lay his head.
“The Yellow Sea,” is an exhilarating ride; a visceral thriller with brain and ambition rare to find in American cinema these days.
The biggest disappointment of the fest so far is Nanni Moretti’s “Habemus Papam” (We Have a Pope), a religious satire about a newly-elected pope (great French actor Michel Piccoli) suffering from acute stage fright.
Before the big announcement, Piccoli’s Il papa surrenders to a meltdown, much to the chagrin of the College of Cardinals. Il papa’s anxiety pushes the cardinals to hire a psychiatrist (Moretti) to get to the root of his anxiety. When he fails, Il papa visits another shrink before fleeing the Vatican’s security and hitting the city.
When the film premiered in Cannes in May, critics criticized Moretti, Italy’s greatest and fiercest leftist satirist, for being too kind to the Catholic Church, offering no criticism of an institution that continues to play a prominent role in Italian political life. “Toothless” was the word most critics used to describe the film. In an interview with The Guardian published shortly after the premiere, Moretti stated that it’s because critics expected him to lambast the Church that he decided to do the exact opposite and subvert expectations.
I can’t fault him for adopting a different approach, and I must admit I found it quite refreshing for a European filmmaker to treat Church officials with such benevolence and generosity. Yet the whole affair remains shallow and ultimately insubstantial. Moretti — a former Palm D’or winner for “The Son’s Room” — says nothing about Church politics. The Cardinals are depicted as gullible men-children covertly craving excitement. The Vatican routine receives a passing glance. The primary source of agony behind the Pope’s repressed emotions — his failure as a college student to become a stage actor — is exceedingly slight and unpersuasive.
As a modest comedy, “Habemus Papam” works in parts (the volleyball tournament sequence is particular amusing); as both a religious satire and a character study, it falls flat by its lack of ambition.
“Habemus Papam” is ultimately insubstantial, saying nothing about Church politics.
“The Yellow Sea,” is an exhilarating ride with everything action junkies look for.