By William Wolf


Co-sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, the 43rd annual New Directors/New Films series (March 19-30, 2014) offers a mix of films from various countries on assorted subjects. Of those I have seen, my favorite is “The Japanese Dog,” an accomplished film from Romania directed by Tudor Cristian Jurgiu.

Like other fine films we have been getting lately from Romania, “The Japanese Dog” gains from restraint in its telling. Victor Rebengiuc plays the elderly widower Costache Moldu in a village that had been hit by a flood, which claimed the life of his wife. He is depicted going through the daily routine of his life, relating to various villagers as best he can, but asserting independence and pride.

Drama builds when his son, his Japanese wife and their young son arrive from abroad for a visit. Moldu and his son have been estranged. Now they have the opportunity to get to know one another better again, and Moldu also becomes enamored with his young grandchild. He and his daughter-in-law also get along despite the cultural gap.

The beauty of the film lies in the quiet way it goes about telling the story. We are immersed in detail and gradually the film takes shape into one in which everything adds up to a view of village life, the central characters and the course eventually taken. This delicate achievement renders the film outstanding and very satisfying.

“Trap Street,” directed by Vivian Qu, is a strong and unexpectedly candid film from China. A young man who is a surveyor of streets is smitten by a beautiful young woman he sees and, after finally making contact, begins a gingerly relationship with her. But the work she is doing in a mysterious location leads to his life suddenly taking a dangerous and upsetting turn. What happens—and I don’t want to spoil the suspense—is an experience that will change his sense of security and his life forever. It is a fascinating film, both with respect to the sensitivity of its romantic story and the political dynamic that lurks in the shadows.

Another of my favorites is “Return to Homs,” an intense documentary depicting the tragedy of Syria, this one by director Talal Derki from the perspective of rebels who have revolted against the regime out of their idealism. But the film chronicles the losing battle they have been fighting, with comrades in arms dying and despair setting in under the withering assault. The film captures first-hand the grim battles being waged and the decimation of the proud resisters. The film has a you-are-there feeling with a view of lives on the line daily.

Also in the documentary category, “We Come As Friends,” directed by Hubert Sauper, is a look at how colonial power and attitudes persist as conditions in Sudan are investigated. Exploitation, it would seem, goes on forever. The film shows us the interaction of those who visit Sudan, including wheeler-dealers with business interests, and their alliances with Sudanese businessmen who prosper while the people suffer. Colonialism never dies.

We see the hopes and aspirations of local Sudanese expressed against the background of forces that couldn’t care less about such hopes and aspirations. It is a sad picture of the ways of the world that persist even in the face of the need for radical change, and the disappointments that relying on good faith can bring.

My designation of the most boring film in the series is “The Strange Little Cat,” Ramon Zürcher’s film from Germany that takes a fly-on-the-wall look at the doings of a German family in a Berlin apartment. We watch the various family members going about their lives one day—and yes, there is also the beautiful family cat—but since none of them are doing anything really worth watching, the film becomes a monumental annoyance. I only felt affinity with grandmother, who is seen mostly asleep. She has escaped it all.

There are a number of well-made films more accomplished than compelling. A case in point is the opening night choice, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” directed by Ana Lily Amirpour and set in Iran, although shot in California. It is a vampire film, an oddity in the vampire genre because this bloodsucker is an Iranian woman (played with plenty of mystique by Sheila Vand), who, in typical modest garb, prowls the streets at night looking for bad people to bite into. There is abundant weird ambiance, but my taste for vampire films vanished a long time ago. If you strain, you may find the film a metaphor for evil in Iran.

Then there is the case of “Story of My Death” by Spain’s Albert Serra. Here he poses a situation involving masters and servants, fused with a Casanova like figure and a Dracula-like vampire. The atmosphere is piled on, including a bleak-looking forest, the gloom of night and the seduction of women into a bloodsucker’s orbit. It is very well made, but extremely dreary and overlong.

More dramatic is “Of Horses and Men,” directed by Benedikt Erlingsson and set in Iceland. It is accomplished and populated by exquisite looking horses as well as people. The humans are mostly gritty, and as for the horses, they are treated callously as merely implements in the people’s lives. The lot of the animals is a cruel one sure to spoil the film for those who might want to see it for the beauty of the horses, but would be put off by their fate.

From Israel there is “Youth,” Tom Shoval’s crime story involving brothers who, troubled by the financial difficulties of their parents that can lead to the loss of their home, decide to kidnap a student and hold her for enough ransom to cover the debt. They plan carefully, but there’s one thing they didn’t bank on. Her parents don’t answer ransom calls—or any other phone calls—on the Sabbath. The situation gets messy. There is a streak of cruelty in the way the girl is treated, which makes the film unpleasant. Although well-directed, it doesn’t rise to the level of a good thriller.

“The Double,” based on Dostoevsky’s 1846 novella, it is well-directed by Richard Ayoade and properly bizarre, but it can get on one’s nerves, and maybe that’s the point. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Simon, a worker for a strange firm. He is on the sheepish side, but a dead ringer for him turns up and is a charmer who step by step assumes Simon’s identity. Of course, Eisenberg plays both parts and does them effectively. One can view the film as a story of a split personality, and it is superbly done, but however you look at it, the experience is generally bleak despite a cast that includes Mia Wasikowska and Sally Hawkins. Posted March 19, 2014.


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