By William Wolf

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2006 (I)  Send This Review to a Friend

This year the opening night and the closing night of the 2006 New York Film Festival, its 44th, showcased the two best films in the event, and fortunately there also were some excellent choices between. But hands down, my favorites were the opener, “The Queen” and the closer, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” I believe this festival will be well-remembered for both.

“The Queen,” starring Helen Mirren as the present Queen Elizabeth and wittily delving into palace machinations after the death of Princess Diana, has already opened commercially. Mixing insightful fiction with fact, dramatization with film clips, “The Queen” leads us into private palace and 10 Downing Street scenes involving the Queen, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, the Queen Mother and assorted key personnel. The major problem all must deal with is how to respond to the sudden tragic death of Diana in the Paris auto crash and the burgeoning public response idealizing her life and paying massive tribute with tears and flowers.

With Diana having become a pariah to the Royal Family, it would prefer that she be buried with a minimum of fuss with the Queen remaining secluded at her Balmoral home. Mirren is marvelous portraying icy adherence to traditional reserve compounded by distaste for Diana as a star-like public figure, and efforts to understand and deal with the contemporary British public.

(See full review in the Film scroll or by clicking on Search).

As the closing night film, “Pan’s Labyrinth” sent audiences home on a high note. This is probably the most unusual and accomplished film of the year, a mix of fantasy and grim reality to provide a stunning metaphor for the legacy of Franco Spain and the ongoing battle to eradicate it. The amazing thing is that much of it unfolds as a fairy tale in the mind of a child and is deftly and imaginatively interwoven with a suspenseful story of oppression and resistance. This is great filmmaking.

Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, whose work includes “The Devil’s Backbone,” spins an engrossing tale. Ofelia, a young girl of about 11 and charmingly played by Ivana Baquero, is resentful of her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergí Lopenz), a ruthless officer charged with stamping out pockets of anti-Franco resistance still operating in the Spanish countryside in 1944. Ofelia’s mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), has been married to Vidal in her effort at stability, and she is pregnant with what the macho captain is certain to be a son to carry on his family name. Ofelia, has her own method of coping—building a fantasy world involving creatures and tasks she is given to do in her created world.

Del Toro soars in visualization of Ofelia’s fantasy life, as well as in depicting the labyrinth into which she wanders as her mysterious refuge near the abandoned old mill that the captain has set up as his headquarters and military base for his soldiers. A key character in the drama is the captain’s housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), whose brother is in the resistance. She is sympathetic to Ofelia, as well as a key to how the plot develops.

The drama builds forcefully, with some brutal scenes necessary to define the battle between the Franco army and those who defy it. How the director moves the drama along with the intersection of Ofelia’s magical world and the harsh reality of the horror going on around her is suburb filmmaking.

(“Pan’s Labyrinth” will be reviewed more fully when it opens commercially in December, 2006)

Another coup of the New York Festival was getting “Volver,” the latest film by Spanish director Pedro Almadóvar. In “Volver” associations are complex. There is a mother-daughter relationship between Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) that binds them even more by a killing. There is also the relationship between Raimunda and her assumed dead mother Irene (Carmen Maura), as well as relationships from the past that govern the present, when family secrets begin to be revealed.

The writer-director has handled all of this with his customary gusto, and the larger-than-life performance by Cruz set off talk about her as a potential Oscar nominee. The film was positioned to be one of the major foreign language entries of the year when commercially released.

Another important film is Alain Resnais’ “Coeurs,” going by the English title “Private Fears in Public Places,’ the name of the Alan Ayckbourn play from which the film was adapted. Although British playwright Ayckbourn wrote about Brits in England, the switch to France works extremely well, probably because of the universality of the relationships examined.

The story involves an assortment of characters, all of whom are lonely in one respect or another. There are Thierry (André Dussollier), a real estate agent, and his colleague Charlotte (Sabine Azéma), who fights to maintain her religious morality but secretly makes porn videos of herself and gives them to Thierry without revealing that she is on them. Thierry’s sister Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré) is seeking a man through lonely hearts ads, and she is smitten when she meets Dan (Lambert Wilson), who also falls for her. Dan is in the process of breaking up with Nicole (Laura Morante), who is fed up with him and decides to leave.

Meanwhile Gaëlle spends part of her time helping barman Lionel (Pierre Arditi) care for his ill, nasty father, whom we hear but never see. She develops her own method of pacifying him. The film, ultimately a sad one because the relationships do not get the chance to flourish and bring people out of their loneliness, is beautifully constructed and meticulously acted in a way that is emotionally moving and touching.

Todd Field’s “Little Children” is another key film introduced by the New York Film Festival just prior to its commercial opening. Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley star in a drama of suburban lives in the throes of complications. Sad but provocative, the film is well acted and directed. It is based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, who collaborated with Field on the screenplay. (See Film scroll or Search) for full review.

(More to Come)


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