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2003 European Union

Film Showcase

At the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center and the AFI National Film and Theater to Nov. 9

In its 16th year, the American Film Institute’s European Union Film Showcase has added three new countries—Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic—and three new screens. The 2003 survey of new movies from EU countries will be presented at both the AFI Silver as well as its longtime home, the AFI National Film Theater at the Kennedy Center. But there’s one counterbalance to this abundance: Only six of the 20 films were available for preview, the lowest number ever. (Actually, three more films were seeable—but only seeable, because they arrived without sound. And one of those, Bánk Bán, is an opera.)

Include the one EU Showcase entry that’s already playing commercially—in another snafu, Claude Chabrol’s The Flower of Evil opened at the Avalon five days before its AFI screening—and a theme emerges. Generalizing from only seven of 20 features is risky, but it seems that this is the showcase’s year of the family—sometimes extended, frequently ruptured, but usually the source of some uplifting sentiment. The previewed films don’t include any stylistic coups or directorial star turns, but that doesn’t mean such attractions are not lurking among the 10 unglimpsed entries.

Two of the best films take the viewpoint of a girl whose broken household provides lessons in self-reliance. The 17-year-old protagonist of director and co-writer Geneviève Mersch’s Always Wanted to Be a Saint (at 1:45 p.m. Nov. 1 at the Silver, and at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Kennedy Center) lives with her loving but buttoned-up father in Liège; her parental grandmother lives nearby, but she’s never known her mother or maternal grandparents. Under the circumstances, Norah (Marie Kremer) seems fairly well-adjusted, although she has an intense fantasy relationship with dead auto racer Nico Marcuse and briefly appoints herself the surrogate mother of a neglected girl she meets at an after-school enrichment program. Then Norah’s other grandmother arrives unexpectedly from Portugal with two gifts: a crucifix from Norah’s just-deceased grandfather and the address of her mother in Switzerland. (This is officially a Luxembourgian film, but none of the story transpires in that country.) Norah’s obsession with Marcuse seems contrived, but otherwise Mersch’s characterization of a girl who sometimes tries too hard to be good is cogent and nuanced, as is Kremer’s performance.

Unlike Norah, the title character of Swedish writer-director Richard Hobert’s Everybody Loves Alice (at 9 p.m. Nov. 1 and 8 p.m. Nov. 2 at the KenCen, and at 8 p.m. Nov. 8 at the Silver) has thus far lived a normal two-parent life. But almost as soon as 12-year-old Alice (Natalie Björk) notices that her journalist dad, Johan (Mikael Persbrandt), is awfully close to a female co-worker, he’s out the door. Alice is angry and sad and quite capable of sulking, but she spends much of her time comforting her outraged mother and sensitive little brother. When Johan tries to blend his two families on the weekends, Alice must also deal with her high-strung putative stepmother and the woman’s surly 12-year-old son. Next to Ingmar Bergman’s withering accounts of infidelity and divorce, Hobert’s tale is relatively mild, and the event that ultimately leads to a cross-family truce is all too convenient. Yet all the characterizations are persuasive, and both Björk and Persbrandt (who played the sidekick in the Martin Beck series presented at the AFI in 1998) ably convey mixed emotions.

A child also leads Reunion (at 6 p.m. Nov. 1 at the Silver, and at 8:15 p.m. Nov. 8 at the KenCen), but in a more banal direction. Månnes Herngren and Hannes Holm’s film opens in a Stockholm suburb, where innocuous high-school outsider Magnus blows a chance to run away with his new amour, Danish-Senegalese firebrand Hellevi. Twenty years later, Magnus is even blander than he was in high school: married, the father of a 7-year-old girl, and an insurance agent. He dismisses an invitation to his high-school reunion, only to have his 16-year-old self appear to insist that he must go—after all, Hellevi might be there. Sure enough, halfway through an evening in which all the old resentments and insecurities resurface, so does Magnus’ lost love. Still smitten, he decides to abandon his life for Hellevi; she’s not sure she wants him to. Magnus, Hellevi, and the movie all dither tiresomely as the directors stage not one but two opportunities for the adult to replay his teenage mistake. Set to a soundtrack album’s worth of late-’70s and early-’80s Anglo-American pop, this Swedish box-office hit is a sweet but formulaic nostalgia piece.

Though a taboo-defying teen romance is at the center of Kassablanka (at 3:45 p.m. Nov. 1 at the Silver, and at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 6 at the KenCen), Ivan Boeckmans and Guy Lee Thys’ film doesn’t concentrate on the two lovers, who live in the same building in a working-class Antwerp neighborhood known for its many residents of Moroccan origin. Spiky-haired dropout Berwout Van Loock, whose father is a Flemish ultranationalist, and headscarf-wearing student Leilah Fawzi, whose family is devoutly Muslim, are merely two pieces in a larger mosaic that involves drugs, skinheads, gay-bashing, and especially politics. Set during the week leading to “Black Sunday”—when a far-right party won a third of the votes in a local election—the story follows various members of the Van Loock and Fawzi clans, most of them behaving badly. Like most movies that present so many players, Kassablanka largely reduces its characters to a single attribute. The depiction of the neighborhood and the issues that roil it, however, are more complex.

Writer-director Tom Barman’s Any Way the Wind Blows (at 9 p.m. Nov. 6 and 2:30 p.m. Nov. 8 at the Silver) also tracks a large cast through Antwerp, but its mode is more magical-realist than anthropological. Set in a single 24-hour period in June, the movie is another example of contemporary European cinema’s taste for overlapping lives and serendipitous structures (and underwhelming payoffs). Barman’s widescreen traveling shots follow several dozen characters, most of them bohemian types: two poster artists, a cinema projectionist, a photo food stylist, and a guy who has a very special relationship with the wind. As night falls, clubs open, parties commence, and the soundtrack goes in a half-dozen directions—among them Charles Mingus, J.J. Cale, Yazoo, Squarepusher, Archie Shepp, and Queens of the Stone Age—the movie’s tone becomes both trippy and satirical. Barman promises not to explain anything, but the final shot does suggest that the film is a valentine to Antwerp.

Three brothers—filmmaker Tamás, womanizer Akos, and aimless youngest sibling András—are the family tree from which Gabor Herendi hangs A Kind of Amerika (at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 2 and 8:40 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Silver, and at 8:15 p.m. Nov. 9 at the KenCen). When Alex, a purported producer with an American passport, arrives in Budapest, Akos, András, and various significant others combine to help commercial and music-video director Tamás wangle the money for his first feature. The brothers don’t know much about Alex, though, and don’t realize that he can understand all the rude remarks they make in Hungarian. Herendi’s film is an amiable farce, distinguished less by its routine narrative twists than by its tour of the Budapest rock scene.

This year’s showcase isn’t well-endowed with name directors, but among the unpreviewed films are new efforts from George Sluizer (The Vanishing) and several filmmakers who will be familiar to EU Showcase regulars, including Christian Petzold (The State I Am In). In Sluizer’s The Stone Raft (at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 31 at the KenCen, and at 8:30 p.m. Nov. 4 and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Silver), based on a José Saramago novel, the Iberian Peninsula breaks free of Europe and five adventurers go along for the ride. Petzold’s Wolfsburg (at 2 and 6 p.m. Nov. 8 and 3:20 p.m. Nov. 9 at the Silver) is the stark tale of a hit-and-run driver who becomes entangled with the mother of his young victim. Aside from The Flower of Evil, the EU selection that’s most likely coming to an art house near you is Peter Webber’s The Girl With a Pearl Earring (at 8:15 p.m. Nov. 1 at the Silver, and at 8:30 p.m. Nov. 5 and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 7 at the KenCen). With Scarlett Johansson in the title role, however, it might not be the most European of these films. CP