By William Wolf

NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS 2012  Send This Review to a Friend

As usually happens, the very nature of presenting new films by new directors to show what’s going on in the world of cinema results in a mixed-bag of quality. My sampling from this year’s New Directors/New Films series (March 21-April 1, 2012), co-sponsored as customary by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, indicates that the event has run true to form in the screenings split between MoMA and the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center.

One of my favorites this year is “Where Do We Go Now?” This France-Lebanon-Italy-Egypt production, directed by Nadine Labaki, is set in a village in Lebanon, where Christians and Muslims live in an uneasy situation in which violence can break out at any time. The women of the village are tired of losing husbands and sons in battle.

The film turns the Lysistrata story on its head. Village women want to distract their men from the tendency toward hot-headed violence and come up with a scheme. The women conspire to import a group of strippers form the Ukraine to tantalize the men and keep them occupied. The screenplay, which Labaki wrote in collaboration with Jihad Hojeily and Rodney Al Haddad, offers the opportunity for much hilarity as well as moments of poignancy.

The spectacle of the whorish-looking strippers who can shake their butts in sexy dancing is funny in itself. But we also get a look at what these women are really like, working at their profession to earn a living. The set-up offers a comment on sex as well as on the challenge of keeping the peace.

A conglomeration of character types, all well-cast, adds to the overall amusement, and at the same time the film makes a salient point in striking a blow against war, as women are empowered to take matters into their own hands.

The most powerful film that I saw was the Iranian film “Goodbye,” directed by Mohammad Rasoulof. It contains a strong, moving performance by Leyla Zareh as Noora, a human rights lawyer who has been disbarred and desperately wants to leave Iran. She is going through complex maneuvering in order to get a visa to leave the country, the announced reason being to attend a conference.

A pregnancy further complicates the situation, raising the issue of abortion but also offering a potential avenue for remaining abroad if the baby is born outside the country. Throughout there is an extremely tense and perilous atmosphere as Noora is being closely watched and harassed. Can she actually get away with leaving?

The film is harrowing and sad, and the odds are stacked heavily against Noora in light of the portrait we get--the restrictions, the secret maneuvering and the all-powerful oppressive Iranian government.

An interesting aspect of the New Directors/New Films series is the opening of windows on life in different countries. As a further example, “Twilight Portrait,” directed by Angelina Nikonova, offers a nasty view of life in contemporary Russia. Any vestige of idealism is missing as we see the corruption depicted in the screenplay that Nikonova has written with Olga Dihovichnaya.

The police are shown to be dirty and prone to rape women who fall prey to them. If someone wants to make a complaint to the authorities about a stolen purse, one minor example, it is regarded as a nuisance and the person taking the complaint will manipulate it so as not to have to follow-up.

Marina, played by screenwriter Olga Dihovichnaya, is a child psychiatrist. She is fed up with what she has to deal with, the brutality in some families, the child abuse and the difficulties in finding satisfactory solutions. Meanwhile, she suffers an attack at the hands of the police.

Marina decides to take revenge when she spots the person responsible for what happened to her. She stalks and plans to attack him. Instead, the unfulfilled sexuality raging in her and her feeling of lack of self-worth lead to her initiating sex with him. She spends a few days in such debauchery, including taking drugs and drinking excessively. Believable? Perhaps. Where will it end?

The point is not so much how the story winds up, but the depiction of sullied life in Russia in this cynical little film.

China also gets a going over in “Huanhuan,” directed by Song Chuan. Infidelity and disillusionment in every day life is shown in this unusually candid drama set in Yunan. In addition to depicting the woes of the key woman character, the film delves into maneuverings concerning the enforcement of the one child policy in a rural village.

A young woman, Huanhuan, has fallen into a degrading relationship with a married doctor. He gives her money to keep her happy, but she is becoming increasingly resentful and restless, and his promise to take her to live in the city hasn’t materialized. The doctor’s wife, who has caught them together, is angry. Huanhuan marries a local man, and the story gets increasingly more complicated.

Various soap opera elements thicken the plot, and one comes away with the impression of a society brimming with lies, immoral behavior and scheming to beat the system, with plenty of unhappiness to go around. There was one surprising note. Villagers, children and old folks included, are seen gathered round a television watching very raunchy stuff by singing groups that use much profanity and explicit sexual terms. This is China?

Moving on to Columbia, we get a view of yet another country in “Porfirio,” directed by Alejandro Landes. The protagonist this time is Porfirio, a man paralyzed from the waist down as a result of being hit by a stray pullet fired by a policeman. He earns what living he can by selling cell phone minutes to people who don’t have phones.

We witness the daily struggle to exist with his handicap, and there are very frank scenes, from the mechanics of bathing and the need for diapers to explicit views of how he has sex. Eventually we learn that for all of his problems, Porfirio is quietly plotting a scheme involving a plane trip with his son. We know something serious is afoot when he arranges with a traveling salesman to buy two grenades and we see his bitterness at not collecting the compensation due him.

It would seem that he is preparing to hijack a plane, but beyond that, I was left puzzled as to exactly what his ultimate goal was, even with his facing-the-audience song about his saga at the end. Still, watching Porfirio through the film is spellbinding.

I was less satisfied with a film set in Brazil—“Neighboring Sounds,” written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho. The film held my interest as a result of its location and characters, but the ending is abrupt and seems more manipulative than stemming from the attenuated set-up.

The story zeroes in on a middle-class neighborhood in Recife and we get to meet a variety of characters, including an influential, well-fixed aging man who has been looked up to as neighborhood force in the real estate development. We also get to know his young, good-looking grandson who attracts women, and the grandson’s irresponsible cousin, who is in the habit of stealing.

Into this environment comes a private security firm, with tough-guy agents who set up headquarters on the street and are supposed to keep crime down in the neighborhood. It is at the end of the film that their personal agenda is revealed. What takes them so long?

The best part of the film is the look we get of this area, its buildings, streets and inhabitants. But the story is shallow.

The above choices constitute a selective introduction to the wide-ranging program made available to the public in the event looked forward to every year and generally yielding some films that may already have distributors and others that may go on to get distribution.


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