So many films, so little time. If you plan to attend the Wisconsin Film Festival (March 27-30) and haven't filled up your dance card (and don't mind waiting in line for possible rush tickets), here are some things you might want to consider checking out. For a complete list of times and venues, see the insert in this issue.
Divine Intervention: We're not used to having someone's sense of humor applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Elia Suleiman's deadpan comedy ' a series of blackout sketches that begins with a guy in a Santa suit being chased through a cemetery by a group of young ruffians ' manages to turn life in the West Bank into a theater of the absurd. Some of the bits seem altogether too real ' neighbors hurling garbage into each other's yards, for instance. Others lift off into fantasy, as when a balloon bearing the smiling image of Yasser Arafat floats past a military checkpoint and heads straight for Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock while Israeli soldiers debate whether to blow it out of the sky. Suleiman himself floats through the movie, as a Buster Keaton-ish clown who seems to be suffering from shell-shock. But Divine Intervention, by laughing rather than crying, offers a slender ray of hope.
The Son: If, like me, you thought even In the Bedroom was too schmaltzy, wallowing in grief, then you'll want to check out this Belgian film by brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Its premise is a little far-fetched: A woodworking instructor at a trade school for juvenile offenders takes on the kid who (known only to him) murdered his son five years before. But the movie's execution displays the precision and polish of a master craftsman, despite a dizzying use of handheld camera. The Dardennes started out in documentaries, and The Son is nothing if not realistic, devoting minutes on end to, say, planing and sanding a board. But there's also a religious allegory in play ' father, son, carpentry, vengeance, forgiveness. The kid playing the kid (Morgan Marinne) is great, but Olivier Gourmet, who just happens to look like Norm Abram on "The New Yankee Workshop," is a revelation, living proof that work will set you free.
The Real Old Testament: Call it the Revised Substandard Version. Filmmakers Curtis and Paul Hannum put the Book of Genesis through the "Real World" grinder, and what comes out the other side is the craziest take on the Bible since...well, since The Bible, John Huston's hallowed attempt to tell the story straight. Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac ' find out what happens when biblical patriarchs and matriarchs stop being polite and start getting real...funny. And prepare yourself for a painfully hilarious scene when Abraham introduces circumcision into the affairs of men. Complete with testimonials from God, who leaves the "Reunion Show" in a huff, Ã la Puck, The Real Old Testament is a veritable orgy of comic improvisation. Remember that name, Hannum. These guys are going places.
Blackboards: With its penchant for symbolism and allegory, Iranian cinema has become increasingly didactic in recent years. But don't let that keep you away from Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards, which is about the imparting of knowledge. Set in northwestern Iran, where Kurdish nomads scrounge for a living, this political parable opens with a shot of pterodactyls trekking along a mountain road. Actually, they're starving teachers, each with a blackboard strapped to his back. And before the movie's over, those blackboards have assumed any number of roles ' a shield, a stretcher, a dowry, a bedroom wall. About the only role they haven't assumed, it seems, is the role they play in a classroom. For the Kurds who negotiate this rocky landscape like mountain goats, learning to read and write is a bit like drinking a glass of water in hell ' momentarily diverting, but what about the moment after that?
Stevie: From the makers of Hoop Dreams comes this compelling look at a guy who was perhaps destined to wind up in prison. Almost 20 years ago, director Steve James served as a Big Brother to Stephen Dale Fielding, an 11-year-old kid from the hills and hollers of Southern Illinois who'd been beaten and abandoned by his mother, raped while under the state's care and, in a way, abandoned by James when the filmmaker moved to Chicago to pursue his career. Ten years later, feeling somewhat guilty, James returned, and the resulting documentary tries to show us what's hidden behind your average crime statistic. "Wherever I go, there's just nothin' but trouble," the childlike Stevie says at one point, and it's hard to disagree with him, especially after he's been arrested for molesting a little girl. But as the movie wears on, introducing us to Stevie's loved ones and loathed ones (often the same person), we begin to see him as a single link in a long chain of abuse. Did the system fail him? It's a question the documentary never gets around to answering. But one thing's quite clear: Stevie's never done anything to anybody that wasn't done to him first.
Morvern Callar: I had trouble deciphering the Scottish accents in this wayward look at the various stages of grief. Samantha Morton, last seen inhabiting that amniotic sac in Minority Report, plays a supermarket checkout girl who wakes up on Christmas morning and finds 1) her boyfriend's dead body, 2) a suicide note and 3) a recently completed novel. Never mind what she does with the body, but the novel she parlays into a life without the guy who, whatever his reasons, abandoned her. "Don't try to understand," he wrote in a note left on his computer. "It just seemed like the right thing to do." And those words could be used to describe Lynne Ramsay's free-floating film, which follows Morton to Spain and back and never does quite figure out what she's up to. Let's hear it for not tying up loose ends.
Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony: "Throughout the struggle, there was music," someone says in this inspiring documentary about the role that protest songs ' all kinds of protest songs ' played in South Africa's anti-Apartheid movement. But music wasn't just in the air, it was taken into the protesters' lungs. And in the form of the toyi-toyi, a combined chant/kick/ march, it was wielded as a weapon, sending a chill down the spine of Afrikaner riot police. Continuously breaking into song, Amandla! (the Xhosa word for power) may not provide all the musical context we'd like to have, but it nevertheless drives home the point that, in this particular revolution, music was both the soundtrack and the script.
Bend It Like Beckham: Soccer moms and daughters everywhere should get a kick out of Gurinder Chadha's Anglo-Indian comedy, which restages the old tradition/modernity debate, this time in London's Southall neighborhood. Parminder Nagra is quite appealing as a Sikh girl who prefers soccer over, say, preparing aloo gobi. Alas, her parents beg to differ, at least until the day of the "big game." Chadha (Bhaji on the Beach) gives the movie a bounce, perhaps too much bounce ' lots of you-can-do-it montages. And to call Bend It Like Beckham (which refers to the ability of England's top footballer to curve a free kick past the goalie) a crowd-pleaser would be to engage in rampant understatement. How else to explain all those scenes where Nagra and her teammates hang around the locker room in various states of undress?
La Captive: Chantal Akerman is still best known in this country for 1975's Jeanne Dielman, her cinematic tribute to the murderous drudgery of peeling potatoes. But the former enfant terrible, now a femme terrible, continues to provoke us, this time with a loose adaptation of Proust's The Prisoner. Except, forget Proust and think Hitchcock ' specifically, Vertigo, where the Kim Novak character was named Madeleine. Set in contemporary Paris, La Captive features Stanislas Merhar as a guy who wants to know everything about his live-in girlfriend (Sylvie Testud). The problem is, curiosity has curdled into obsession, which has curdled into vampiric possession. "What do women want?" Freud famously asked. Akerman's feminist fairy tale suggests that, if you have to ask, you'll never know.