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European Union Showcase 2002

At the American Film Institute’s National Film Theater to Nov. 10

“This is not a rebel song,” Bono notoriously used to announce before launching “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” U2’s song about the Jan. 30, 1972, Derry massacre. The band permitted writer-director Paul Greengrass to use the tune in Bloody Sunday, so perhaps Bono has changed his mind. Or maybe he believes that Bloody Sunday has passed safely into history now that Northern Ireland is tentatively at peace. If it’s the latter, he’s wrong: Bloody Sunday is a rebel movie, a white-hot re-enactment of one of the most brutal days in Britain’s 700-year attempt to rule Ireland.

Derry is such a divided city that it even has two names: Unionists (and compliant journalists) call it Londonderry, in homage to London’s financial backing of the city’s politically dominant Protestant minority. Bloody Sunday’s 27 casualties—13 dead, 14 wounded—came from the ranks of 15,000 Catholic republican protesters, but the civil-rights march that was savagely suppressed by British “paras” (paratroopers) was not strictly a Catholic affair. Indeed, the film’s central character is march organizer Ivan Cooper (a convincingly driven James Nesbitt), a Protestant member of parliament whose inspirations were Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Bloody Sunday unfolds entirely on the day in question, in a style that’s both urgent (handheld camera rushing through the chaos) and contemplative (fades to black that turn each scene into a vignette). As the protest and the British response are being planned, the viewpoint switches frequently between Cooper and his cohorts and the military brass, officially commanded by Brig. MacLellan (Nicholas Farrell) but goaded by Maj. Gen. Robert Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith)—who is officially an observer but who clearly wants the blood to flow.

The point of the intercutting is not the elusive ideal of “balance.” The script draws on many journalistic and official investigations of the slaughter, including Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, a book by Don Mullan, who served as one of the film’s co-producers (and also plays a small role). These inquiries haven’t made a strong case for the conduct of the British troops during the incident: The “We Shall Overcome”-singing marchers were hit by lead bullets instead of the usual rubber ones, and wounded and surrendering protesters were shot at close range. Later, the British military distributed medals liberally.

Greengrass cracks an occasional in-joke and makes a few bows to storytelling conventions: He shows that Sunday Bloody Sunday, a 1971 art film that has nothing to do with the Troubles, is playing at a local cinema, and establishes a romance between a Catholic boy who’s about to march and the Protestant girl who will probably never see him again. (The former is played by Declan Duddy, whose 17-year-old uncle was Bloody Sunday’s first fatality.) He also gives Cooper the outlines of a private life, with the marcher promising his frustrated girlfriend that “one day we can be normal.” But the film’s action scenes sweep away such sentiments—and such subplots. The British have “given the IRA the biggest victory it will ever have,” Cooper angrily tells the press at the end of the day, comparing the carnage to the infamous Sharpeville incident in South Africa.

Shot in Derry and Dublin with volunteers playing the bulk of the marchers and ex-soldiers as the British troops, the movie is lean, visceral, and—for all its outrage—unsentimental. It doesn’t prettify its protagonists: The hangdog Nesbitt would never get such a role in a Hollywood picture, and in her small role as republican Member of Parliament Bernadette Devlin, Mary Moulds doesn’t look much like the former cosmetics model she actually is. As grim as it is galvanizing, Bloody Sunday brilliantly conveys the inevitability of a cataclysm that didn’t have to happen.

Something is haunting the great directors of Europe. Well, actually there aren’t that many great directors represented by the 10 entries made available for preview from this year’s 18-film European Union Showcase. If most of these filmmakers don’t share star status, they are at least linked by seriously bummed-out nostalgic dispositions. Half the 10 films (one of which has already had its only screening) rely heavily on flashbacks to childhood, and no fewer than four of them spiral backward from a major character who is either dead or about to die. Three of these movies’ protagonists do time in mental institutions, and of the four films that have “happy” endings, three turn on murder. And don’t get me started on the one in which God, despairing of the human race, decides to revoke the covenant.

The most distinctive of the previewed films is, not surprisingly, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne’s The Son (at 8:30 p.m. Nov. 8 and 8 p.m. Nov. 9), the third fiction film from these documentary-veteran Belgian brothers. Like their previous character study, Rosetta, this movie compulsively tracks a working-class Belgian on a mission. This time it’s Olivier (Olivier Gourmet), who teaches carpentry in a vocational center for young ex-offenders. One day, a new kid arrives, and Olivier initially refuses to take him as a student. As Olivier later tells his ex-wife, Magali (Isabella Soupart), Francis (Morgan Marinne) may be the youth who five years earlier killed the couple’s son. Over Magali’s objections, Olivier decides he will teach Francis, but it’s unclear whether this decision reflects a desire for revenge or redemption. Because Olivier keeps his feelings more hidden than Rosetta’s, the film doesn’t have quite the intensity of its predecessor, and the Dardennes’ quest to keep their handheld camera as close as possible to their protagonist’s face can be unintentionally comic. (At one point, the cameraman gets locked inside Olivier’s car.) Still, the filmmakers’ quest to portray Olivier’s moral quandaries yields a compelling and singular drama.

Although not as interesting thematically as his previous film, The State I Am In, Christian Petzold’s Something to Remind Me (at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 1 and 3:45 p.m. Nov. 3) is an above-average thriller. The movie poses at first as a romance, with workaholic Stuttgart lawyer Thomas (Andre Hennicke) unusually distracted by Leyla (Nina Hoss), the enigmatic beauty he meets at a public pool. After she vanishes, however, Thomas gradually realizes that Leyla was interested in information about one of his clients, not him. Petzold scores the increasingly ominous action to “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” reiterated with an obsessiveness worthy of Wong Kar-wai.

Mapmaker (at 2 p.m. Nov. 3) is also a more-or-less traditional thriller, using longstanding political enmity for an apolitical end. Fleeing a busted relationship, Richie (Brian F. O’Byrne) leaves Dublin for his granddad’s old village, which lies in a border region of Northern Ireland where unionist-vs.-republican conflicts are still seething. He gets a job drawing a map for the local heritage committee, a task that requires Richie to cross the land of unfriendly farmers, negotiate ancient trails now used by the IRA, and venture where the bodies are—literally—buried. The newcomer’s presence aggravates many unhealable wounds, so it’s unconvincing when writer-director Johnny Gogan tries to treat his tale as a routine murder mystery that can come to a tidy conclusion.

Of the films that flash back from a doomed character, the most epic is As White as in Snow (at 8:15 p.m. Nov. 1 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2), which is based on the life of Sweden’s first aviatrix, Elsa Andersson (Amanda Ooms). Directed by veteran Jan Troell, whose films include 1970’s The Emigrants and 1996’s Hamsun, the movie follows the rebellious (and ever so slightly bisexual) Elsa through her childhood battles with her father and de facto stepmother and on to her unprecedented escape into the air (and briefly to decadent, proto-Nazi Berlin). It’s all lovely and a little too obvious, although the recurrent brief inserts of Elsa on a train hurtling toward her final flight probably wouldn’t seem so corny if As White as in Snow weren’t in a program with three other films that use a similar structural device.

The flashbackee in The Cave (at 3:45 p.m. Nov. 2) is frustrated middle-aged Dutch geology teacher Egon (Character star Fedja Van Huet), who’s just lost his wife and is afraid he’s about to miss his shot at the research expedition of his dreams. On a menacingly mysterious mission to Thailand, Egon contemplates how he got there. A series of flashbacks leads to his college years and then to a teenage summer-camp trip, during which Egon discovered his interest in geology and befriended troublemaker Axel (Marcel Hensema), who grew up to be one of Holland’s major drug dealers. Director Martin Koolhoven probably means to evoke the tragic inexorability of fate, but writer Tim (The Vanishing) Krabbe’s scenario is too contrived to have much dramatic impact.

At the opening of Kites Over Helsinki (at 8 p.m. Nov. 3 and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 4), classic-rock DJ and recovering drug addict Dani (Pekka Strang) is already dead. The movie’s protagonist, however, is Dani’s little brother Riku (Paavo Kerosuo), who tries to salvage his sibling’s life when Dani reappears from years in drug-addled exile. Flashbacks lead to the boys’ ’70s childhood and then the greedy ’80s, when Riku leveraged his stock in the company owned by his father into partial ownership of the radio station that would employ Dani. With its two-decades-of-Brit-rock score (from “Substitute” to “Aqualung” to “Poison Arrow”) and corporate-buyout theme, Peter Lindholm’s movie reaches for social history, but the narrative pieces fit together like farce rather than drama: Finland’s takeover king, for example, turns out to be the kid who once charged Riku and his friends to peep at skinnydipping teenage girls.

Flashbacks lead into a fairy-tale world in The Only Journey of his Life (at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 6 and 2 p.m. Nov. 9), which is based on the writings and life of 19th-century Greek author Georgios Vizyenos (Ilias Logothetis). For his obsessive belief that he’s about to marry 12-year-old Bettina, the elder Georgios is committed to an asylum. There he recalls his boyhood days in Istanbul, where he was apprenticed to a tailor and aroused by the tales he heard from his grandfather (Logothetis again), which led him to expect he would encounter many wonders and marry a princess. Director and co-writer Lakis Papastathis offers a sort of Greek magical realism, followed by a series of ironic kickers.

There’s much less magic in Michele Placido’s A Journey Called Love (at 8:30 p.m. Nov. 4 and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 5), which is also based on the real life of a writer (or two). Well-connected Florentine feminist author Sibilla Aleramo (The Son’s Room’s Laura Morante) corresponds with fiery young poet Dino Campana (Stefano Accorsi), who is proud to live in a mountain village far from literary society. In 1916, with World War I raging, Sibilla goes to visit Dino and they fall in love. Flashbacks to episodes from Sibilla’s apparently autobiographical novel punctuate the stormy romance, but the most robust interjections are Dino’s pathological rages. Unlike Georgios, Dino doesn’t begin the movie in an asylum, but many viewers will be rooting for him to be institutionalized as soon as possible. “He’s doing all he can to be ill,” notes Dino’s mother, and that seems about right.

The outright stinker of the lot is The Discovery of Heaven (at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 9 and 2 p.m. Nov. 10), adapted from Harry Mulisch’s novel by scripter Edwin de Vries and director Jeroen Krabbe (a veteran actor who also has a small part). In this English-language Dutch film, angels hatch an overcomplicated plot to retrieve the Ten Commandments. The plan involves getting both linguist-politician Onno (Stephen Fry) and astronomer Max (Greg Wise), who has a “cute” Holocaust backstory, to mate with virginal cellist Ada (Flora Montgomery). This will supposedly produce a celestial envoy who can locate the sacred tablets and return them. Adherents of three major religions could deem this tale blasphemous, and nearly everyone will find it tasteless, but the film’s essential crime is that it’s labored and leaden.

The unpreviewed films include the work of a quartet of well-regarded directors: Claude Miller’s Alias Betty, a thriller that also opens next week at Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge; My Mother’s Smile, a religious-themed farce from former bad-boy director Marco Bellocchio; Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen, the story of a Glasgow teenager who hopes to build a normal life with his mother, a newly released ex-con; and The Uncertainty Principle, a philosophical melodrama from I’m Going Home director Manoel de Oliveira. CP