It was the 1970's and film was made of acetate or polyester and projected onto something called the silver screen. At Nicholson, the projector broke down at least once during a viewing, and the seating often consisted of folding-like chairs on a flat floor. But once the screen began to glow with exotic creatures and tiny, cramped subtitles, we felt the immediate enchantment of being swept off into other worlds.
Nothing has changed for me. Except the venues. There are more of them, the seating is marginally better and the films yet, occasionally, mess up - digitally now - or they don't show up at all (as tends to happen at big international film festivals). But foreign films continue to diverge enough from typical American fare, that it is still possible to become spellbound and transformed. So far, this year, I attended the Cuban, Italian and Minneapolis St. Paul International Film festivals, and hit the Landmark Theaters a few times. These days, I'm most in love with Latin American/Spanish filmmakers such as, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (21 Grams), Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), Alejandro Amenabar (Open Your Eyes), Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien), and one of my all-time favorite directors: Spain's irrepressible, Pedro Almodovar (All About My Mother).
The other-worldliness found in the films not only provides an escape from my sometimes stale life and narrow sensibilities, but shows me hidden avenues scored with beliefs and institutions that connect me to the planet, and its people - wherever they may roam.
Mostly, I confess, I go because I DO NOT know what I will encounter. I love immersing myself in randomness. Even if I read a few reviews first, a true, other-cultural experience will always be waiting for me - a mystery, a discovery in-the-making. And isn't that the most delicious sort of engagement? After it's over, the experience always seems to linger madly for some time to come. So, that does that mean there are no bad foreign films? Beats me.
Recently, I saw two film gems that blew me away.
1) As some may well remember, A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It should have garnered Best Picture.
From the first scene to the moving and cryptic finale, I was at the edge of my seat, worrying myself into a stupor. Only a great movie can do that to me. Basically, this is the story of what happens when someone inside a tight-knit community steps out of bounds and makes a controversial decision. Afterwards, when the dominos begin to topple, more than one family faces unexpected changes, sudden betrayal and a confusing array of choices. This film taught me so many things about Iranian culture, its traditions, relationships, the generosity of the people. Based on an intelligent and raw screenplay, A Separation, is a fast-paced lesson on the sweeping range of emotional and behavioral possibilities.
2) Return to Aeolian Islands or Fughe E Approdi, directed by Giovana Taviani, is a feast for the senses. Twenty six years after her father, Paolo Taviani, shot the acclaimed film Kaos, on the islands, his daughter returns to the volcanic archipelago north of Sicily, to remember. She and the crew set sail on the same boat that long ago transported her family to those rocky shores. Along with the sailor, that was then, and would become again, the guide to the terrain and the history of places called Vulcano, Stromboli and Salina.
I've never seen this kind of narrative filmmaking applied to a documentary feature. Layer after layer of factual history gets peeled back to expose something even more stunning: Italy's cinematic history on the islands. The film is a film inside film(s). Imagine, revisiting the places where generations of Italian filmmakers found their inspirations: Rosellini, Stromboli, Antonioni, L’Avventura, Michael Radford, Il Postino. These enigmatic islands were also home to WWII prison internments, deadly pumice-mining and luscious winemaking. Most documentaries cover the history and culture and vagaries of their subjects. Return to Aeolian Islands bows in respect to unseen forces that continue to awaken and renew creativity in artists.