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European Union Film Showcase

Oct. 27 to Nov. 12 at the American Film Institute National Film Theater

There are really two European Union Film Showcases. This annual festival, now in its 18th year, always introduces some high-profile films that will later get American commercial releases. But the fest’s other component is an overview of recent genre pictures—some of them box-office hits in their home countries—that will never be glimpsed here again. This year, as usual, these are the films that were made available for preview.

So I can’t say much about such attractions as The Widow of Saint-Pierre, Patrice (Ridicule) Leconte’s tale of a 19th-century Newfoundland man awaiting execution, which stars Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, and director Emir Kusturica in his first leading role; A Shot at Glory, with Robert Duvall as a Scottish soccer coach and Michael Keaton as the team’s owner; Pandaemonium, Julien Temple’s account of the friendship of Wordsworth (John Hannah) and Coleridge (Linus Roache); The Farewell, in which Wintersleepers’ Josef Bierbichler plays Bertolt Brecht; Endgame, Conor McPherson’s filming of the Beckett play, with Michael Gambon and David Thewlis; and Venus Beauty Institute, an award-winning French sex comedy that will open next month at Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge. None of them were previewable. I did, however, see nine of the fest’s 22 films, which included two excellent ones and no complete clunkers.

Many of this year’s entries were adapted from plays—or look as if they could have been, because they employ small casts and/or limited locations. The most striking exception is Ambush (Nov. 10, 11, and 12), a wide-screen epic about an almost-unknown chapter in World War II history: In 1942, with the Soviets retreating from the Germans, Finnish troops drove Russian forces from their land—and kept on going. Outfitted with bicycles, antique rifles, and machine guns, a patrol is sent deep into Russia, unsure of just what its goal is. The usual personal and political disunity tests the troops, while the commanding lieutenant tries to keep his composure after receiving the news that his fiancée, a nurse, was killed in a Russian ambush. Olli Saarela’s direction is restrained, with battles often depicted in long shots without quick cutting, but the tale is visceral nonetheless.

In director Kaspar Rostrup’s A Place Nearby (Nov. 2 and 8), a fiercely protective mother (Ghita Nørby) considers, and then quickly represses, the possibility that her autistic 20-year-old son, Brian, might be a killer. When a young woman is murdered in the park Brian frequents, a single-minded police inspector (Frits Helmuth) suspects the boy. The mother, who runs a small store in an iffy neighborhood, drills her son in what to say, in a process that seems as much for her own benefit as Brian’s. Like the Norwegian thriller Insomnia, this Danish film is set during the Scandinavian summer and derives its tension from light rather than dark. It’s both a psychological drama and a film noir illuminated by shafts of white-hot sunlight.

Total Loss (Nov. 1 and 4) is also essentially a three-person drama, but it covers a lot more ground—some of it, apparently, in the imagination of previously homeless Reinier, who claims to be on the run from a wizened female drug lord and a black gay-brothel pimp from Cologne. Reinier has taken refuge in Rotterdam with Duco, a doctor who’s decided to ruin his parents’ New Year’s Eve party by announcing that he’s gay. The third wheel is Jeroen, rescued by Reinier and (reluctantly) Duco after a suicide attempt. Dana Nechushtan’s film skillfully generates ambiguity and tension, but the payoff—the spectacular auto crash that’s the opening scene—isn’t much more satisfying when the events leading up to it have been revealed.

Far from Rotterdam, the three adolescent protagonists of Wild Mussels (Nov. 9 and 11) consider how to escape their provincial Dutch fishing village. Two of the guys are in a punk band that gets the occasional gig, but protagonist Leen (Character star Fedja van Huêt) has nothing except a vague ambition to race motorcycles and a vaguer admiration for a local nursing student. Then Leen fixes the car of a stranded Irish visitor, who tells him that Dublin is the most exciting city in the world. Ireland becomes Leen’s goal, but you know things will not turn out well when he decides to finance the trip by robbing the town’s tiny bank. Mussels are fished, eaten, and smoked in writer-director Erik de Bruyn’s gritty (if occasionally overstated) drama, and Nashville Pussy comes to town to demonstrate that thrash is the universal music of lost boys.

The guys are older but no less volatile in Portuguese director’s Joaquim Leitão’s Inferno (Nov. 3 and 4), which begins with the annual reunion of 10 guerrillas who fought together in Angola in the ’70s. There’s so much hostility between these 50-something men—who include Portuguese superstar Joaquim de Almeida, performing in a wheelchair—that it’s hard to figure why they keep getting together. Narratively, however, the answer soon emerges: One of the guys has run afoul of a drug gang, and the resulting showdown brings the men together for one last battle. The guys try to rejuvenate themselves with drugs, pot, hookers, strippers, and boogie rock—but there’s nothing like a nice bloodbath to bring men together.

Things get just as ugly without any gunfire in Manila (Oct. 28 and 29), a claustrophobic tale of a group of tourists—mostly German—waiting for a long-delayed flight back to Germany from the Philippine capital. A lot of the disgruntled travelers are men who trek to the Philippines for casual sex, although some have actually married their easygoing young Filipina women. Also in the mix are the hapless airport personnel, a couple of schoolteachers from the former East Germany, and a Jewish woman whose family emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1937 but who can’t stand the country where she grew up. Still, the Germans are much uglier than the Americans in Romuald Karmakar’s dark comedy, which satirizes German sex tourism in broad and sometimes hysterical terms.

Austrian director Harald Sicheritz’s Wanted (Oct. 28 and 30) is another German-language comedy with broad elements, mostly in its satire of psychiatric medicine. Writer-star Alfred Dorfer plays a surgeon, Thomas, who retreats into reveries of being a noble Old West outlaw—and into an asylum—after he comes home from failing to save a young girl’s life only to find his girlfriend leaving him. Thomas’ parents enlist a priest, their son’s childhood friend, to counsel him, but instead the cleric becomes obsessed with Thomas’ fantasy life. Ultimately, it’s the doctor who must redeem the priest, and the two men’s friendship comes to have warmth and delicacy lacking in the rest of their relationships—and the rest of the film.

The lightest of the previewable films are I Will Survive (Nov. 2 and 7) and Midsummer Night Dance. The former combines elements from Pedro Almodóvar (Madrid as a polysexual playground) and Julio Medem (his beguiling frequent star Emma Suárez) into what seldom amounts to more than a sitcom. When her boyfriend is killed in an auto crash, Marga (Suárez) is left pregnant and jobless. Several years later, after rebuilding much of her life, Marga falls in love with Iñaqui, a young artist who really likes her, too—even though he’s gay. It’s mostly Suárez who keeps Alfonso Albacete and David Menkes’ film interesting; she just can’t be as conventional as the script.

Pupi Avati’s Midsummer Night Dance (Nov. 10 and 12) is a characteristically nostalgic Italian romantic comedy, set in the sun-dappled early days of Il Duce’s reign. A promoter annually travels into the mountains to sign up men for a dance where they can meet young women from Bologna and environs. The two would-be lovers that the film follows, however, have already selected their mates: A doctor from the hills wants to reclaim the wife he met at the dance years ago, while a typist from the city (Artemisia’s Valentina Cervi) wants to catch the eye of her employer’s playboy son, who doesn’t even know her name. There are no surprises in Midsummer Night Dance—except by comparison to the utterly formulaic American fare cluttering most megaplexes.

Bahman Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses is another dispatch from foreign territory, parts of which won’t surprise viewers familiar with other examples of recent Iranian cinema. The director once worked as an assistant to Abbas Kiarostami, and like many of Kiarostami’s movies, Ghobadi’s feature debut focuses on a plucky child and ends without resolution. Yet the director is a Kurd, and his work draws on the circumstances of that persecuted minority, whose Iranian contingent—Kurds also live in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria—has little contact with mainstream Iranian society.

Like impoverished border-dwellers around the globe, some of Iran’s Kurds depend on smuggling for survival. The title of Ghobadi’s movie—which won the award for best first film at Cannes this year—refers to the practice of spiking with liquor the water given to horses and mules about to make the snowy, mountainous trip from Iran to Iraq. As is typical of the Iranian films exported to the West, Horses uses amateur actors and includes moments of pure documentary: In less than 80 minutes, Ghobadi provides a thorough primer on the hardships of Kurdish children who hustle for work at impromptu bazaars and Kurdish smugglers who work in an area where bandits and land mines supplement the border guards.

There’s also, however, a story. Ayoub (Ayoub Ahmadi) is the oldest boy in a family of four children who have already lost their mother and are about to be fatherless as well. The youngest child, Madi (Mehdi Ekhtiar-Dini), is severely handicapped and requires an immediate operation in Iraq. The marriage of older sister Rojin (Rojin Younessi) is arranged as part of a deal to care for Madi, but things don’t unfold as planned. Finally, the earnest Ayoub decides he has no choice but to take Madi across the border for the operation, hauling the boy while driving a horse bearing two truck tires. He must leave behind the story’s narrator, Ameneh (Ameneh Ekhtiar-Dini), Ayoub’s equally grave younger sister.

A Time for Drunken Horses is no less natural and solemn than its protagonists. Shot on location with handheld camera, the film has no time for contrivance; Ghobadi’s minimalism is a matter not of affectation but of integrity. The film is as purposefully austere as the score provided by Iranian setar master Hossein Alizadeh. Adding anything more—whether sappy music or happy ending—would have lessened the film’s poignant simplicity. CP