You know you’ve got a good film festival, like this year’s Virginia Film Festival, when it gives you a sense of the world seeming small and large all at once. Small for having gathered so many mini-worlds in one place; large for, well, the overall largeness they collectively imply. Bearing in mind that films made beyond America’s shores offer good ways to get out of comfort zones, here’s some fest fare worth seeing not just for its excellence but also for its cosmopolitanism and complacency aversion. Notably these selections include an American director getting to know a Chinese artist, an Indian director reminiscing with Swedes, and an Austrian director working in French (plus a French director working in French, which sort of ruins the pattern here, but not really because most festival-worthy French films are innately worldly anyway). It’s always an epiphany, and one well suited to cinema, to see ostensible foreignness revealed as universality.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Alison Klayman’s documentary profiles the Chinese art-star activist Ai Weiwei, whose ongoing problems with authority beget increasingly creative solutions. Klayman’s aesthetic sense is a lot less refined than her subject’s, but a more important qualification might be her receptiveness. Ai says early on that he prefers hiring helpers to implement his big ideas (which most often have to do with transparency and persistence), and the filmmaker’s access to him seems, agreeably enough, like a sort of enlistment. Looking cutely aggressive, like some post-punk Buddha, and confronting the surveillance operatives who always seem to follow him around, Ai achieves absurd camera-on-camera standoffs in which opposite tyrannies—of old totalitarianism and new media—stare into each other’s abysses. The essential insight to Klayman’s conscientious, yet unfussy portrait, is about how the contemporary Chinese Communist Party has produced a culture so desperately in need of jamming, and also the jammer it most deserves.
From the elegantly pitiless Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, here’s a chamber play of sorts about the most basic human stuff: love and death. (Significantly, love alone is what the title comes down to.) It stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as an elderly Parisian couple coming to terms with the end of their life together, along with Isabelle Huppert as a vexed daughter. The pedigree of talent promises mastery, and in very straightforward terms the story delivers it. Maybe no other living filmmaker can so frankly assay the buildup to bereavement—that universal terror of lost companionship, and certainty, and consolation—as the rigorously intelligent Haneke. Amour draws great power from its maker’s subtlety, and from its main players’ affirmingly lifelike but anti-sentimental intimacy. It’s not just because the leads are elderly that this movie makes so many others seem like trite juvenilia.
Liv & Ingmar: Painfully Connected
What better pretext for a documentary than the profound and complicated relationship between creative soul mates? Especially if the souls in question are those of a titan of international cinema, Ingmar Bergman, and his muse Liv Ullmann? As she puts it here, in her imperfect but telling English: “I used to be a happy person, a very happy person, but you know, five years doing his films, I was also getting a kind of depressed, neurotic person.” Well, that’s just scratching the surface, and filmmaker Dheeraj Akolkar knows his material well enough to go much deeper than surface-level. Ultimately Liv and Ingmar’s painful connection spanned 42 years and a dozen films—several of which still stand as pinnacles of the art form. And in Akolkar’s project, Ullmann’s cinematic assets—her great face, her depth of feeling, her fearlessness—again are on display. It’s a bracing reminder not only that most films are too shallow, but also that if you’re not careful, so might be your life.
As it happens, the penchant for ripping procedural melodrama from the headlines is not exclusively American. The French have been doing it beautifully for generations. Polisse, an extraordinary ensemble drama from 2011 just now arriving stateside, plays out very much like a grand, Gallic episode of “Law & Order SVU.” But instead of tautly topical formula best-suited to a half-watched TV show, it sprawls with unruly big-screen dynamism and doesn’t dare let go of your attention. As seen by a shy photographer, played by director/co-writer/force of nature Maïwenn Le Besco—or, as the credits call her, just “Maïwenn”—it’s ostensibly a group portrait of short-fused cops at the child protection unit. “We don’t judge; we don’t care,” one officer says, coaxing a confession, and it is the movie’s great privilege to investigate that claim. What’s miraculous is the degree of lyricism it derives from unquenchable and innately compassionate psychological curiosity.