SFIFF Film Capsules

Why Didnt Anybody Tell Me It Would Become This Bad in Afghanistan?
(Cyrus Frisch, Holland)

Filmmaker Cyrus Frisch set out to record deteriorating relations between the native Dutch community and immigrants from the Middle East in his Amsterdam city square, using only his cellphone as his camera. Secretly filming the confrontations outside his window between teens and police, or a fight in a supermarket, Frisch's furtive spy cam records windowsills, tile floors, and his spectacularly pointy boots as often as it records items of interest. The fictional ruse that the camera operator is an Afghan veteran muddies things but does allow Frisch to cut in some combat footage. While many of this film's incidents are indeed socially revelatory, this "first feature film made on a cellphone" is most interesting for the smeary beauty of his enlarged cityscapes, which pushes Why didn't anybody tell me ... away from hard-hitting realism and toward pure formal abstraction. (Gregg Rickman)

(Joachim Trier, Norway)

This peripatetic first feature has the hell-bent energy of the opening track of a debut record, and more ideas than a double album. Most of them work, although there's a point where the onslaught becomes fatiguing before precocious newcomer Joachim Trier wisely dials it down a notch. Erik and Philip, best friends and aspiring novelists, drop their manuscripts in the mailbox together. Philip gets published, gets famous, and cracks up. Erik's path to adulthood is a bit less dramatic. The film aggressively — and skillfully — shifts tones, going back and forth between Philip's nervous struggle with mental illness (and his desperate attempts to recapture what he had with his girlfriend) and Erik's rueful evolution from easygoing buddy to solo artist. The snippets of punk rock and Joy Division, however, don't quite mesh with the natty set design and middle-class values on display. Trier is a director to watch, but he's not quite the rebel he thinks he is. (M.F.)

(Michael Glawogger, Austria/Switzerland)

In his previous fest films, the globe-trotting, mind-blowing documentaries Megacities and Workingmans Death, Michael Glawogger strived to erase the gulf between the haves and the have-nots — or at least our sense of the distance. His riveting, dark-humored return to fiction has the same aim but offers, if that's possible, an even more pessimistic view of human nature. Glawogger puts a homeless alcoholic savant and an amoral yuppie scum on crossing paths in wintry Vienna, then pushes them within belching distance of both nihilism and redemption. A well-meaning elementary school teacher who randomly gets involved with both men serves as the ineffectual conscience of the film. As a director, Glawogger is both a cruel and beneficent God, ultimately repaying each indignity he inflicts on his characters with an opportunity for profound enlightenment. He is almost as generous to his audience, "sweetening" his tough-minded tale with caustic one-liners and devastating insights into dating and sex and, finally, an ending that conceivably, possibly, just might be interpreted as hopeful. (M.F.)

(Philippe Falardeau, France)
The unassuming Olivier Gourmet (known for his work with the Dardennes) is a balding Everyman, and his ramshackle, distinctly ordinary appearance distracts us for a long while from the complex construction of Philippe Falardeau's jam-packed script. Gourmet plays a frustrated Belgian inventor and son of a famous writer who discovers in his 40s that he's adopted. A bulldog of sorts, Michel kisses his Congolese wife goodbye and flies to French Canada, where the plot snowballs with delicious misdirection and irony. There's as much pleasure to be had from this film as any in the festival, whether one views it as a goofy hoot with a feel-good frosting or something weightier. (I opt for the latter.) At the very least, this poignant comedy harbors serious hopes for the possibility of sons acquitting themselves with their fathers, and vice versa. The numerous references to the Congo (which inevitably evoke Belgium's horrific colonial treatment) do not completely coalesce, but the briskly matter-of-fact depiction of Michel's interracial marriage is so refreshing that one wishes it got more screen time. How about a sequel, Philippe? (M.F.)

The 12 Labors
(Ricardo Elias, Brazil)

In this entertaining Brazilian film, young Heracles (Sidney Santiago) takes a job as a bike messenger for a day. An 18-year-old just out of a juvenile reformatory for drug dealing, his attempt to go straight is threatened by old associates and the 12 tasks he's assigned. The jobs are of increasing difficulty and he needs a great deal of ingenuity to manage them — paralleling his namesake of legend. Filmmaker Ricardo Elias keeps things moving as the likable if shy Heracles zips around São Paolo on his motorbike, the film's plot allowing a cross-sectioned portrait of a huge city and its several levels. Strongly sketched-in supporting characters, like Heracles' buoyant cousin Jonas (Flávio Bauraqui) and harassed dispatcher Roseli (Vera Mancini) help fill in gaps in Elias' social tapestry. Movies like this are Neorealism Lite, fun to watch in ways Bicycle Thief (an obvious influence) never was, but no less involving. (G.R.)

The Island (Pavel Lounguine, Russia
Crazed Russian monk Anatoly faces the wrong way when he prays, insults parishioners, and sets the monastery on fire. His bizarre behavior annoys his colleagues, and may annoy you, too — Pavel Lounguine's wintry film is more taxing than funny to watch. Andrey Zhegalov's superb cinematography does let you feel every bone-chilling moment of existence (not life) in this isolated North Sea hideout for a man with a reputation for holiness. Anatoly (former rock star Pyotr Mamonov) is in fact taking a lifetime to atone for his cowardly behavior in the face of Nazi brutality. "Why did Cain kill Abel?" he asks his long-suffering fellow monk Job, and he's not kidding — he'll come to terms with his crime before the film ends. At times morose, tedious, and bizarrely compelling, The Island plays like a lost novella by Dostoyevsky, like Crime and Punishmentor The Possessed, all about an insufferable man's suffering soul. (G.R.)

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