By William Wolf

NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS 2009  Send This Review to a Friend

Some exciting new work has surfaced in the 2009 New Directors/New Films series (March 25-April 5) presented annually by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. While not having seen all of the entries, I can point to films that have made a strong impression.

Among the best is “Amreeka,” an accomplished work by writer-directed Cherien Dabis, who tells a story about a Palestinian mother and son who leave the desolate life on the West Bank and immigrate to the United States to join relatives in Illinois. Learning from her sister already living there that she has received a green card, Muna, played by Nisreen Faour, and her son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) make the trip to America.

Trouble begins at the airport. Muna has hidden her money in a cookie tin, which is confiscated by customs because the cookies aren’t allowed. She is ashamed to tell her sister and brother-in-law that she is broke, and she goes looking for work. Having worked at a bank at home, she tries for a similar job without success. She does get one at a White Castle hamburger joint, but very proud, she tells the family she is working at the bank next door and maneuvers daily to conceal the truth.

Meanwhile, her son Fadi is running into prejudice in the wake of 9/11 by students who look upon him as a terrorist, and he struggles to fit into his new environment. Problems escalate. What director Dabis achieves is a sensitive, candid portrait of contemporary immigrants struggling to find a place in their new land. An excellent cast led by the particularly strong performance by Faour helps make the film as successful as it is important.

“Birdwatchers,” a film by Marco Bechis, takes us to rural Brazil and looks at the lives of native Guarani-Kaiowá Indians who want to reclaim land that they say is theirs but is now occupied by a white farmer. The film achieves an intense feeling of authenticity as it delves into a vital issue through its portrayal of characters and conflict.

The survival of Indian populations in Brazil has been a major social problem and Bechis highlights it with this compelling drama that should make audiences aware of the issues and difficulties involved in preserving the Indian cultural heritage and redressing their long-standing grievances.

On a lighter but still tension-fraught note, the documentary “Every Little Step,” directed by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, chronicles the auditions for a revival of the hit show “A Chorus Line” on Broadway. Formidably talented dancers and singers compete to get the coveted spots in the show as the director and associates evaluate them and winnow the applicants into the final few, with further eliminations until the show is cast.

The film in effect makes each member of the audience a “casting director” who can watch the various candidates and decide who is best, then see if the choices matches the choices of those doing the auditioning. Apart from the exhilaration of the dancing, singing and impassioned line readings, we get the stories of various performers with their hopes, aspirations and frustrations. There is heartbreak for those who don’t make the cut. One actor is so affecting with his monologue that those doing the judging start crying. He gets the part.

“Cold Souls,” written and directed by Sophie Barthes, is the most way-out film seen in some time. It is also often hilarious. The situation involves Paul Giamatti as an actor who is having trouble getting into his role. Reading of a business of storing souls, he thinks this might be a help. He submits to a scanner-like machine that can extract a soul for storage, and then, as a result of an international scheme of selling and marketing souls, he is thwarted when trying to get his soul back.

Not only is the premise funny, but the film becomes a suspense-adventure yarn as well, all the while giving us a portrait of the increasingly frantic Giamatti trying to get his soul back. Beneath the surface intrigue lies a lesson about knowing what is important in life. The style of the film is low-key most of the time, as is the delightful humor.

A film that gives us pause in this era of unemployment is “Parque Via,” directed by Enrique Rivero. In Mexico City an unassuming man named Beto (Nolberto Coria) has worked for many years as a caretaker in a house that has become empty and is about to be sold. He has been treated kindly, and the house, where he also lives, has become a haven for him, as he enjoys the comfort that he fears he won’t find in the outside world. His mentality is that of a recluse. His friend is a woman named Lupe (Nancy Orozco), with whom he has sex.

What happens to Beto when he gets the news that the sale has occurred and he must leave? His stunning solution will leave you jolted.

“Ordinary Boys,” directed by Daniel Hernández, takes us to a poor neighborhood in the Moroccan city of Tetouan, where five suicide bombers involved in the blowing up of Spanish trains lived. The drama focuses on three young people who are trying to figure out what to do with their lives. What are their options? Also becoming suicide bombers?

The film uses neighborhood residents who never acted before, thereby creating an aura of authenticity while shedding light on young Muslims depicted as youth with normal dreams and hopes despite growing up in impoverished locales.


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