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Rotterdam 2021--An Overview
by Peter Sobczynski

Here is a brief overview of this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam, the first half of which was presented virtually from February 1-7.

Like so many other film festivals throughout the world over the course of much of the last 12 months, the International Film Festival Rotterdam had big plans for its 2021 iteration. In their case, perhaps more so than others since not only was it to be the first under the aegis of new festival director Vanja Kaludjercic, it also marked the 50th anniversary of the event itself, a moment for great and elaborate celebration in normal circumstances. Of course, thanks to Covid-19, "normal circumstances" as we know them are currently a thing of the past but instead of postponing or cancelling altogether, the festival elected to roll with the punches and adapt to a new presentation approach that would allow the show to go on while still acknowledging current realities.

Because of the continued coronavirus infection rates in the Netherlands, the festival has this year chosen to break things up into two separate events. Between Feb 1-7, the festival went virtual, presenting the films, including the 16 participating in the Tiger competitive section (up from 10 last year) as well as those screening in the Big Screen competition and Limelight section, for online viewing. If all goes well, the festival will pick up again in June with a physical event designed to shine a spotlight on the festival's anniversary. For the most part, the switch to an online format proved to be effective and relatively snafu-free. In a strange way, it might have even been to the festival's overall benefit since the new presentation allowed its offering to be viewed by those who might not have ordinarily made it to the actual screenings and thereby helped to give greater exposure to a festival that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle between the higher-profile unveilings from Sundance and Berlin. I know that I wouldn't have been able to attend under normal circumstances and considering how exciting some of the presentations proved to be, that would have been a shame.

The winner of the Tiger Award for the festival's best film was "Pebbles," an Indian drama from Vinothraj P.S. about a cruel and alcoholic husband who, along with his young son, sets off on a journey to find his wife and bring her back home after she finally leaves him. The Special Jury prizes went to Pascal Tagnati's coming-of-age story "I Comete--A Corsican Summer" and Norika Sefa's Kosovo-set family drama "Looking for Venera." The festival's VPRO Big Screen Award--which includes a guaranteed theatrical run in the Netherlands as part of the prize--went to Ana Katz's offbeat "The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet." The second annual Robby Muller Award, given to a filmmaker who creates an "authentic, credible and emotionally striking visual language throughout their oeuvre," went to Kelly Reichardt on the occasion of her most recent film, the extraordinary "First Cow." The Audience Award went to "Quo Vadis, Aida?," Jasmilla Zbanic's harrowing look at the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica that is Bosnia's entry for this year's International Feature Film Oscar. The Fipresci Award, given by a jury of international film writers, went to Take Sakpisit's debut feature "The Edge of Daybreak" and the Circle of Dutch Film Journalists gave their top prize for a film from the Netherlands to Ane Hjort Guttu's "Manifesto." Finally, the Youth Jury Award went to Philippe Lacote's mesmerizing "Night of the Kings," which has been a festival hit throughout the world and is also this year’s Oscar entry from the Ivory Coast.

Leaving out a number of films that screened during the festival that I had already seen beforehand--including the aforementioned "First Cow" and "Night of the Kings," the weird feminist war fantasy "Mayday," Andrei Konchalovsky's Soviet-era drama "Dear Comrades" and the Polish social media drama "Sweat"--I still managed to catch a number of the films presented, ranging from the latest efforts from highly regarded filmmakers and actors to the audacious debut efforts from a new generation of talent. Here is a brief overview of most of the films I was able to catch--while a couple of them admittedly did not quite sit right with me, most of them proved to be bold and ultimately satisfying excursions into what is going on in cinema across the globe at this moment in time. Additionally, at least one of these films has caused me to now look at the formerly lowly foodstuff known as tofu in an entirely new light that I for one may never shake.

ARCHIPELAGO: Utilizing a combination of archival footage, animation and a narration from a soft-spoken woman who nevertheless refuses to let the story at hand be told by others, filmmaker Felix Dufour-Lapernere creates a meditation on the province of Quebec that constantly veers between documentary truth and dream logic while encompassing everything from the natural beauty of the land to the perils of colonization and industrialism to questions about what it is that makes a piece of land and its inhabitants into a true community. The result is not a documentary any traditional sense (though it might make for an intriguing double feature with Guy Maddin's equally audacious "My Winnipeg)b'ut it is a constantly surprising and fascinating work that celebrates the spirit of Quebec while acknowledging its past mistakes as it tries to make amends for the future.

BLACK MEDUSA: Over the course of the nine nights depicted in Youssef Chebbi's dark thriller, Nada (Nour Hajri), a mute Tunisian woman cruises the local bars to pick up men and listen to them pour out their life stories before brutally assaulting them as a form of revenge for a past sexual assault that she suffered. The setup may sound reminiscent of any number of rape-revenge thrillers ranging from the brilliant "Ms. 45" to the atrocious "Promising Young Woman" but it has an energy and feel that is all its own. Chebbi's approach favors enigma over exploitation and Hajri's fascinating performance as Nada fits right in with its mysterious and compelling tone. It stumbles a bit towards the end but for the most part, this is a taut and gripping drama of revenge and self-realization that held me in its grip for every single minute of its running time.

DEAD AND BURIED: A group of five young, attractive and insanely rich young people--all from families whose fortunes were based in part by stealing indigenous land for their own purposes and profit--decide to spend the night camping on what was once sacred land and end up blacking out after taking part in a mysterious druggy ritual, only to wake up convinced that they have become vampires. Not surprisingly, the idea of staying out all night and feeding off of those beneath them is not that radical of a mental shift for some of them. Director David Verbeek's blend of horror and social satire is a bit of a mixed bag--it looks great and there are some very funny moments here and there but it has a tendency to meander and the ending just does not work at all. Still, the good points do ultimately outweigh the bad and this is one that genre fans should keep an eye out for in the future.

THE DOG WHO WOULDN’T BE QUIET: At first, this entry from writer-director Ana Katz appears to be a straightforward and sentimental tale about the love between an ordinary man (Daniel Katz, Ana's real-life brother) and his pet dog, an animal for whom he unhesitatingly quits his job when he is informed that he cannot bring his friend into the office with him. Things quickly take a turn as the story ends up charting the man's life over the course of several years--some of which go by in the blink of an eye, cinematically speaking--as he goes from one event to the next, ranging from the commonplace to the bizarre. For a while, the film is undeniably interesting--it offers a nice blend of comedy and more serious matters, Katz finds a unique manner in suggesting the passage of time by utilizing a storyline spanning a number of years, and a decidedly contemplative pace that plays against the film’s brief running time and it always looks wonderful thanks to the luminous black-and-white photography. However, it does stumble in the late innings with a wild plot development that, despite its inadvertent resonance in the face of current events, seems trucked in from an entirely different movie and which is more than a bit jarring here. That flaw aside, the film is, for the most part, a unique and entertaining meditation on the mysteries of life and how quickly they pass by.

FRIENDS AND STRANGERS: Throughout a series of vignettes ranging from a camping excursion with a female friend to visiting a family that he may be filming for an upcoming wedding videography gig, the equally self-absorbed and self-conscious Australian twenty something Ray (Fergus Wilson) proves himself unable to come across an awkward situation that he cannot make more so with his peculiar inability to connect anyone or anything around him. It appears that the intent of debuting filmmaker James Vaughn was to create a film that would skew millennial solipsism via a comedy of manners that would evoke the highly verbose spirits of such directors as Eric Rohmer and Whit Stillman. Alas, what might have been witty and insightful in their hands proves to be little more than enervating here--seeing our gormless antihero going about his paces, always talking but never actually saying anything, is more irritating than edifying and the section involving the planning for the wedding gig, in which the humor takes a turn for the surreal, may come across as simply intolerable to many viewers. While I found the whole thing to be excruciating, it is certainly the work of a singular artistic vision and if you happen to find yourself on the same wavelength as Vaughn, there is a possibility that you might get a lot more out of it than I evidently did.

MANDIBULES: In the latest darkly comic freakout from Quentin Dupieux, a pair of dimwitted friends/low-level criminals (Gregoire Ludig and David Marsais)steal a car as part of their latest attempt at a job, discover an enormous housefly hiding in the trunk and impulsively decide that they will somehow train the creature to help them in their work. This, somehow, leads to an encounter with a young woman who mistakes one of them for a college friend and invites them back to her place to spend a few days with some pals, one of whom (Adele Exarchopolous) is suffering from a malady that causes her to yell whenever she speaks. In all honesty, I must confess is that I think that this is what happens--the festival only made available a version in which the dialogue was in French and the subtitles were Dutch. Normally, I would have just given up instead of taxing the limits of my extremely limited French but I figured I would press ahead because if ever there was a time when that sounded like a viable idea, it would be in regards to a Duplex film. He is definitely going for a "Dumb and Dumber" vibe that transcends borders ("duh" is the truly universal language, after all) and the combination of the goofball schtick from the two stars and the surreal sight of that giant fly never quite wears out its welcome (thanks in part to an abbreviated running time). This may be a one-joke film but the joke is just intriguing enough to ensure that I will watch it again when I can get a copy with English subtitles to see what I did and didn't miss the first time around.

RIDERS OF JUSTICE: Hard-bitten soldier Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) returns home after the death of his wife in a terrible train accident to care for his estranged teen daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeburg), who was also on the train and is wracked with guilt because it was the theft of her bike that put her and her mother on the train in the first place. While struggling to connect with Mathilde, he is visited by a data analyst (Nikolaj Lie Kass) who was also on the train and who, with the help of a couple of misfit pals, has evidence not only suggesting that it wasn't an accident but the identity of the group that was responsible for it as well. Markus winds up gunning for the suspects with the nerdy guys in tow and when Mathilde becomes suspicious, the three pretend to be unconventional family therapists hired by Markus to help work through his problems. While the combination of strong action and occasionally broad comedy might seem like an odd fit for the festival's opening night slot, Anders Thomas Jensen's film is an undeniably winning crowd pleaser thanks to the oddball humor, the well-staged action beats and the strong performance from Mikkelsen that holds all of the elements in check and keeps it from becoming too cartoonish. I don't know if the film will ever make it to the U.S. but I am fairly certain that someone is going to pick up the remake rights and do a new version that will almost certainly be nowhere near as effective as this.

SEXUAL DESIRE: Quite possibly my favorite new film in this year's lineup, Kota Yoshida's fascinating film explore the link between food and sex through a trio of darkly funny and surprisingly sexy tales that all share the same central character, a limping semi-satyr named Kurita (Tateto Serizawa) who enters each one bearing a box of chestnuts and a startling story to tell. In the first, he arrives at the home of another man to tell him about his wild sexual adventures with the man's wife that are fueled by her lust for a soybean dish known as natto. In the second, he is sideswiped by a woman suffering from social anxiety and, while she is giving him a lift, reveals that he knows who she is and demands that she do something that will release her true self. Finally, he torments a man in a silent ramen bar over via a phone headset with the details of how he was the beneficiary when the man's mistress, upset over him cancelling a date, consumed a bowl of ramen laden with pork backfat that unleashed her own erotic desires. The results are stylishly staged and very funny throughout and while some may complain over the notion of a film with such a title not actually having any sex scenes per se at first, few will be that upset by the time it comes to its very satisfying end. (The scene in the middle story in which the woman, her true self finally released, makes up some extremely spicy tofu instead of the bland variation she had been planning on contains more genuine erotic heat in just a couple of minutes than the entire "Fifty Shades of Grey" franchise put together.)

SUZANNA ANDLER:The always-prolific French filmmaker Benoit Jacquot returns with his latest effort, an adaptation of Marguerite Dumas's 1975 play about a 40-year-old woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who co-starred in Jacquot's "3 Hearts") who, while visiting the Riviera beach house that she is planning on renting for her family’s summer vacation, is forced to confront both her unhappy marriage to a rich but unfaithful husband and her rocky relationship with her younger lover (Niels Schneider). Although some of the material on hand is a bit on the dry and dusty side and will admittedly test the patience of some viewers, the film is still more than worth a look thanks to Gainsbourg's often-galvanizing central performance, one that so thoroughly dominates the proceedings (in the best possible way, I assure you) that even though Gainsbourg shares the screen with other actors throughout (besides Schneider, Jacquot regular Julia Ray turns up for a key scene as a mutual friend of Suzanna and her husband who is revealed to be much more than that), it almost feels at times like a 90-minute solo performance from one of the most endlessly fascinating actresses working today.

THE WITCHES OF THE ORIENT: When Tokyo was named the host city of the 1964 Summer Olympics, it was seen as a way for Japan to finally put WWII in the past and demonstrate to the world that they had become a fast-developing and forward-thinking country. Helping to serve a symbol for this dynamic new Japan was a women's volleyball team that began among the workers at a Osaka textile factory, took on and defeated all comers in a run that stretched for 258 straight victories while becoming cultural sensations and culminated with them winning the gold medal at the Olympics. Julien Farault, whose previous film was an overview on John McEnroe, recounts the story of the women, whose prowess on the court earned them the nickname "Witches Of The Orient," through archival footage, anime clips and, best of all, new interviews with the surviving members of the team who have reunited to talk at length for the first time about their experiences and about their trainer, Hirofumi Daimatsu, whose own life experiences could inspire a pretty gripping movie on their own. The result is one of the more engrossing sports documentaries in recent memory and it is one that even those without much interest in athletics in general or volleyball in particular will find to be worth watching.

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originally posted: 02/10/21 04:05:55
last updated: 02/10/21 09:28:42
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