17th Annual Washington, D.C. International Film Festival

Elbert Ventura

Less a curated collection than an eclectic grab bag, the films defied audience expectations and easy categories, even the ones its organizers devised.


Dracula (Zhang Wei-Qiang) appears to Mina in the convent.

Mondays in the Sun
Javier Bardem in Lions Gate's Mondays in the Sun
© Copyright Lions Gate Films

The Sea
Helene de Fougerolles and Hilmir Snaer Gudnason in Palm's The Sea
© Copyright -1080

The Weather Underground

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Boasting repentant radicals, cuckolded dentists, and a dancing Dracula, the 17th annual Washington D.C. International Film Festival -- Filmfest DC -- coincided with the premature-as-ever arrival of the summer movie season. Running from April 23 to May 4 and overlapping in its second weekend with X2's record launch, the Fest seemed to this viewer like a tall, cool drink before the long desert trek that is summer moviegoing: a last hurrah before the small, the personal, and the otherwise explosion-less hibernate for a few months, occasional counter-programming notwithstanding.

Opening on more than 3,700 U.S. screens (and who knows how many in 93 other countries), X2's bow is the biggest of all time, uniting millions around the world for one hugely profitable weekend ($85.6 million). Contrast that with Filmfest DC's project: to blur national and cultural boundaries, to suggest common links, to expose area audiences to movies that are unlikely to open beyond festivals. And yet, both events aspire to the same thing: to make the world a smaller place. In that uneasy similarity lie our anxieties about an increasingly globalized world.

If Bryan Singer's opus seeks to cross borders via brute commercial force, Filmfest DC did it through the old-fashioned virtues of taste, enthusiasm, and curiosity. Less a curated collection than an eclectic, globetrotting grab bag, the films defied audience expectations and easy categories, even the ones its organizers devised. So general that they could be used every year and no one would notice, the themes ("Politics in Film," "Global Rhythms") served as organizing ideas in only the most token of ways -- which is just fine.

The lineup, or at least my sampling of it, proved to be an unusually perceptive international bulletin, expressing ambivalence about the very process that brought them together. From the fear struck in Britons by a vampiric Easterner to the dismal fates of two port towns -- one in sunny Spain, the other in frigid Iceland -- they tapped into a pervasive dread: the loss of agency in the age of globalization.

The subjects of Sam Green and Bill Siegel's The Weather Underground (2003) spent their lives fighting the embodiment of that fear: the U.S. government. The militant faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Weathermen tapped into the New Left's growing frustration with nonviolence in the late 1960s. After the fervor of the antiwar years faded, the group went incognito, changed their name to the Weather Underground, and perpetrated a series of bombings against government targets. Though it recalls Chris Marker's monumental A Grin Without a Cat, Green and Siegel's documentary doesn't come close to the artistry of Marker's achievement. Conventional though it may be, the movie nonetheless offers a penetrating look at the dangers of radicalism. Looking back on their days of rage, the dissidents' ideological certitude has given way to circumspection. As one of them puts it, "When you feel you have right on your side, you can do some pretty horrific things" -- a poignant admission of the pitfalls of moral clarity.

If the Vietnam War was the galvanizing moment for the New Left, Kosovo was its confounding crucible. As Paul Berman tells it in his wonderful book A Tale of Two Utopias, some of the street-fighting men of the '60s had, by the '90s, learned to stop worrying and love America -- or NATO at any rate. Plunging us headlong into the Balkan quagmire, Daniel Calparsoso's Guerreros (Warriors, 2002) is a vivid exploration of the moral conundrums posed by liberal interventionism. The movie traces the rapid spiral into disaster when a Spanish peacekeeping unit gets caught up in the fighting between Albanian and Serb paramilitaries. A slick piece of machinery, this actioner from Spain is as glossy and gory as a John McTiernan flick. Marred by Calparsoso's grandstanding technique, it can't help but be compelling for its relevance, and for the confusion over interventionism it actualizes. Guerreros opens with the cold-blooded slaughter of Albanian civilians, only to follow it with a 90-minute slide down the slippery slope of military peacekeeping. It's Calparsoso's peculiar failure that we're never sure whether the ambiguity is deliberate or the result of sloppy thinking.

A Spanish/Argentine entry, En la ciudad sin límites (The City of No Limits, 2002) is just as polished, if infinitely more pointless. This family drama (genus: skeletons in the closet), a skin-deep meditation on the ties that bind, was the bewildering winner of the original screenplay prize at the Spanish Goyas. An affluent family gathers in Paris to preside over their dying patriarch (Fernando Fernán Gómez), whose senile utterances open up a Pandora's box of contrived revelations. The castrating mother of this brood is played by Geraldine Chaplin, who apparently acts only in Spanish films now. Director Antonio Hernández does cartwheels with his camera, but his arbitrary flourishes can't disguise his movie's mezzabrow limitations. Capped by a ridiculously protracted denouement, The City of No Limits proves that other national cinemas can match Hollywood's capacity for impeccably produced mediocrity.

Slightly better, if not by much, is Iceland's Hafið (The Sea, 2002), yet another stomp on overgrazed ground. Baltasar Kormákur's follow-up to his slacker-hipster debut, 101 Reykjavík (2000), is a stab at big-league seriousness. Like The City of No Limits, The Sea gathers the members of a dysfunctional family for a reunion, leading to a climactic exposition of the sins of the past. With its intimations of incest and Scandinavian gloom, the movie bears more than a passing resemblance to Thomas Vinterberg's overrated The Celebration (1998). The family drama may be an eye-roller, but the edges of the frame nearly salvage Kormákur's movie. Set in a seaside village, The Sea offers a keen snapshot of the globalized present: Asian immigrants rub elbows with locals on the assembly line, even as the patriarch-cum-seafood-mogul seeks to keep their thankless jobs in the community. The tension between his Old World values and the encroaching new economy makes for more interesting drama than the dinner-table histrionics.

Fernando León de Aranoa's Los Lunes al sol (Mondays in the Sun, 2002) taps into the same anxiety and employs the same metaphor. In an overcast town on the northern coast of Spain, a group of middle-aged men find themselves unemployed and unwanted when the local shipping magnate packs up and leaves for cheaper pastures. The Best Picture winner at this year's Goyas, and Spain's surprise representative for the Academy Awards' Foreign Language Film category (it beat out Talk to Her), Mondays in the Sun is a touching ensemble piece with an unabashedly pro-prole agenda. Anchored by a standout performance by a bearded Javier Bardem (who also won Best Actor at the Goyas), the movie is a plea for solidarity, not to mention a skeptical screed against capitalism and its excesses. The perpetually gray port town of Vigo is the setting for this sad wallow, which is leavened by gallows humor, gruff camaraderie, and a wry spirit. Mondays occasionally wavers and panders, but León largely displays an assured touch, steering his ship clear of bathos.

A true unclassifiable, Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Mon-Rak Transistor (2002) was a happy change of pace. Thai cinema has made waves on the festival circuit in recent months, and this kooky musical has been part of the vanguard. The plot is as old as the sun (or Sunrise, at any rate). A blissful country couple is separated when the husband gets drafted into the army. From there, he goes AWOL to pursue a career as a pop singer. The city works its charm on the impressionable rube, and before he knows it, his pining wife is a distant memory. Known as Thailand's foremost satirist, Pen-ek is a resourceful visual stylist with a flair for the anarchic. His characters arbitrarily break down the fourth wall for goofy asides; our genial lead keeps falling into shit, figuratively and literally. A breezy, old-school picaresque, Mon-Rak Transistor is a jaunty trifle that could stand a good snipping -- at two hours, it's 30 minutes too long. Its theme of constancy packs a punch, however, supplying the movie its surprisingly soulful finale.

Alan Rudolph's nicely titled The Secret Lives of Dentists (2002) also has a couple in trouble at its center. Campbell Scott and Hope Davis play David and Dana Hurst, married dentists whose relationship seems headed down the drain when he catches her in another man's arms. David doesn't reveal what he knows, keeping mum for fear of the finality a confrontation would bring. Not helping matters is Slater (Denis Leary), a cranky patient who unaccountably appears in David's daydreams, heckling away. Based on a novella by Jane Smiley and written by playwright Craig Lucas, Secret Lives turned out to be a safe choice for the Fest's closing night: entertaining, humanistic, if not terribly challenging.

Scenes of suburban humdrum and clamor are perfectly played, and Scott and Davis prove their unheralded worth yet again, but Rudolph's movie never quite takes off. Pin the blame on an overused trope: Leary's appearances as Scott's id. Leary gets some cheap laughs doing his Tyler Durden bit (he even wears the same jacket Brad Pitt wore in Fight Club), but the device is woefully lame -- a literal-minded gimmick that exemplifies the movie's general lack of imagination. A minor Rudolph work, the movie is salvaged by the performances and a beauty of a climax.

Hands down my highlight of the Festival, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (2002) is an ecstatic fever-dream of a movie. His first feature film in six years, Canadian cult director Guy Maddin was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Commission to do a screen adaptation of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's interpretation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. The dancing is still here, but the movie is all Maddin. This defiantly cinematic transposition may be the movie-mad director's most fully realized feature to date, and the closest in spirit to his undisputed masterpiece, the 2000 short The Heart of the World.

Dracula's first half focuses on the seduction and surrender of the virginal Lucy Westenra (Tara Birtwhistle) to the mysterious Dracula from the East (Zhang Wei-Qiang). In the second half, the action shifts to a convent, where Dracula chases after Mina Harker (CindyMarie Small), with vampire hunter Van Helsing (David Moroni, C.M.) and Lucy's suitors hot on his trail. Shot in glorious black and white (except for a few drops of crimson), largely silent (but for well-deployed sound effects and wall-to-wall Mahler), the movie seems like a miraculous artifact from a lost era -- which can be said of most of Maddin's photoplays. Appropriating the forgotten tropes of silent film, Maddin creates postmodern pastiches that are as snarky as they are affectionate. Dracula introduces its Dracula with paranoid title cards: "Immigrants! Others! From Other Lands!" screams the screen when the vampiric Asian makes his first appearance. The hyperbole hardly stops there. Maddin piles on the antic effects, from switching tints to lens distortion, all the while spelling out the novel's allegorical aspect. Flying by at a brisk 75 minutes, the movie has perhaps the looniest interpretive ending ever to Stoker's story. Hopefully ushering in a breakout year for Maddin, it's a definitive exponent of this antiquarian's cinema: intertextual yet filmic, ironic yet fervent, ridiculous yet sublime.

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