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European Union

Film Showcase 1999

To Nov. 14 at the

American Film Institute Theater

Like the New York Film Festival, which also takes place every fall, the American Film Institute’s European Union Film Showcase is partially an introduction to the new foreign movies that will open commercially in the upcoming season. Because it’s restricted to fare from the European Union, however, AFI’s fest offers a more comprehensive overview, including films that were highly successful in their home countries but are unlikely to screen here ever again. Ten of this year’s 23 films were available for preview, and the majority of them are exceptionally grim. The others, however, are mostly lighthearted social comedies.

The opening night entry, Bertrand Tavernier’s It All Starts Today (Oct. 29 at 8:45 p.m.) is a wrenching, documentary-influenced account of a kindergarten principal in a depressed northern French mining town, where unemployment has reached 30 percent. Based on the actual experiences of co-writer Dominique Sampiero (the fiance of the director’s daughter), the film depicts a France rarely seen on American movie screens—or, apparently, on French ones, either. This portrayal of the country’s underclass, its indifferent bureaucracies, and a teacher who battles the latter stirred French audiences and led to political reforms. The strongest of the fest’s previewable films, this is booked for a longer run at AFI early next year.

Several of the other films are equally dark, if less trenchant. German director Andreas Kleinert’s Paths in the Night (Oct. 30 at 4:15 p.m.; Nov. 2 at 6:30 p.m.) also depicts the underside of an affluent country, but its protagonist is considerably more nihilistic. Outraged at the decline in civility since the Wall came down, an unemployed, middle-aged native of the former East Berlin decides on a new avocation: Walter rides the subways at night with two young colleagues, delivering brutal lessons in good behavior to racist thugs and other troublemakers. Shot in greenish, shadowy black and white, the film takes little pleasure in vigilantism—or much of anything else. Walter is as obsolete as the abandoned factories that define the film’s bleak landscape.

Although most of its characters are more affluent, Alberto Seixas Santos’ Mal (Evil) (Nov. 3 at 8:15 p.m.; Nov. 4 at 6:30 p.m.) provides a similarly shadowy and weary portrait of contemporary Europe, this time embodied by Lisbon. Idealistic Cathy, who works with African refugees, ponders the end of her commitment to humanitarian causes as she learns that her husband has betrayed her. The other characters, all lost in various ways, include a man searching for his runaway granddaughter, a young junkie, and an IRA exile who was once Cathy’s lover. AIDS and a millennial Christian sect provide harbingers of some sort of social or spiritual apocalypse, and viewers who are interested in the film’s politics may not appreciate the fanciful ending.

Anders Ronnow-Klarlund’s Possessed (Nov. 12 at 9:45 p.m.; Nov. 13 at 4:15 p.m.; Nov. 14 at 4 p.m.) plays its tale of evil in the modern European city quite straight, but it’s actually a genre picture. It just seems fresher because it’s an example of a new and unusual genre: the Danish occult hospital thriller, known to American viewers only from Lars von Trier’s more satirically minded The Kingdom. After a man dies mysteriously in a Copenhagen parking garage, an ambitious virologist travels to Romania in search of what he thinks is the source of the disease. But another man who’s just arrived in Denmark (played by Udo Kier) has a better idea what the real contagion is. Ultimately, the premise of this taut, entertaining, and (inevitably) shadowy film can’t be taken seriously, but Ronnow-Klarlund does a credible job of doing so as long as possible.

It’s also concerned with the corruption of innocence, but Aki Kaurismaki’s Juha (Nov. 12 at 6:30 p.m.; Nov. 14 at 2:30 and 6 p.m.) doesn’t quite fit with the showcase’s other entries—or anywhere else. With this film, the Finnish director takes his laconic style to one logical conclusion: The movie is “silent,” which is to say that the skeletal dialogue is entirely on title cards. This story of a young farm wife who’s lured to the city by an ominous stranger has plenty of music, however, and those who listen carefully will hear the occasional ironic sound effect as well. Adapted from a novel by Juhani Aho, the story is a melodrama that continues Kaurismaki’s efforts to find a timeless style, sacrificing the deadpan humor of his earlier work in the process. It’s been years since a Kaurismaki film had a commercial run in Washington, so devotees should probably try to catch one of these screenings.

Set in a Spain that is, yes, grim and shadowy, Washington Wolves (Oct. 31 at 6:30 p.m.; Nov. 1 at 6:30 p.m.; Nov. 6 at 5:30 p.m.) transpires conceptually not far from Tarantinoland. Down-and-outer Miguel has a plan to get rich and leave the country, but it involves double-crossing most of his pals. Naturally, the scheme unravels, and Miguel and his angry ex-friends spend the rest of a rainy night tracking each other down for recriminations and reprisals. Mariano Barroso’s film is competently executed, but seven years after Reservoir Dogs, both its scenario and its disposition are a little bedraggled. The title, by the way, refers to a circus act of actual wolves, who when not being metaphorical are supposedly protected by the “convention of Washington.”

Ron Termaat’s Guts (Nov. 5 at 8:45 p.m.; Nov. 6 at 3:45 p.m.) also has elements of a gangster flick, but that’s because protagonist Olivier is in the process of writing the script for such a film, and he can’t help but imagine himself playing a suave antihero in sepia-toned interludes. In real life, Olivier does nothing more dramatic than travel from his Amsterdam apartment to a trailer by the beach to pound on his manual typewriter; the trip becomes more interesting when he meets free-spirited Marielle, who quickly strips off her clothes and jumps into the surf. The next day, however, she also jumps into bed with Olivier’s filmmaking partner, Luc, creating some tension among the trio. Olivier prefers Alain Delon to American stars, but this romantic comedy emulates Hollywood in the worst way: It propels Olivier and Marielle toward a perfunctory happy ending without ever providing the characterization that would make them interesting or their actions credible.

Both Guts and Olga Malea’s The Mating Game (Nov. 7 & 10 at 6:30 p.m.) end with a wedding, but the latter almost has to: It’s the tale of three attractive Athenian sisters involved in bad relationships and resistant to better ones, yet a movie this frothy could hardly leave dark-haired financier Emily, henna-headed fitness instructor Laura, or bleached-blond art student Elena stuck with her inadequate beau (a co-worker, a married man, and a guy who prefers sex in threesomes and foursomes) when a new and more sensitive one (a doctor, a photographer, and a cop) are available. This pleasant, lightweight comedy is so thoroughly upscale and up-to-date that it may surprise people who know Greece mostly from the films of directors like Costa-Gavras and Angelopoulos.

Babies complicate the mating game in The One and Only (Oct 30 at 6:30 p.m; Oct 31 at 2:30 p.m.), a Danish box-office smash that almost certainly will not attract the attention of American distributors. Two couples each decide to have a child—one by adoption, one by traditional means—but then, with the kids on the way, both couples are torn apart. Luckily, the more agreeable members of each twosome are about to meet. Susanne Bier’s film has some satirical elements that may seem tough-minded at home, but from a distance this film looks like fluff.

Of the unpreviewed films, the most obvious attractions are Humanity (Oct. 30 at 8 p.m; Oct. 31 at 8:15 p.m), by director Bruno Dumont, whose The Life of Jesus was a festival-circuit hit, although it didn’t play widely in commercial theaters; House of Angels director Colin Nutley’s Under the Sun (Nov. 7 & 10 at 8:15 p.m.); Werner Herzog’s remembrance of actor Klaus Kinksi, My Best Fiend (Nov. 12 at 8 p.m.; Nov. 13 at 6:15 p.m.); and Rosetta (Nov. 13 at 8 p.m.; Nov. 14 at 7:45 p.m.), the Cannes Golden Palm and Best Actress winner from La Promesse directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. The only European Union Showcase film with an imminent commercial opening is Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (Nov. 6 at 9 p.m.; Nov. 7 at 1 p.m.); it is, of course, a domestic tale of romantic intrigue in early 19th-century England, but with much darker undertones than Emma fans might expect. For the moment, let’s just say that Mansfield Park’s Britain has more in common with It All Starts Today’s France than with The Mating Game’s Greece.

The 1996 documentary Small Wonders offered a quick, somewhat dry look at the East Harlem Violin Project, a worthy New York public-school enrichment program that survived a funding cutoff thanks to a Carnegie Hall benefit concert featuring such violin stars as Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and Mark O’Connor. Any lack of emotion in the original is now more than compensated for by Music of the Heart, which fictionalizes the story of Violin Project mainstay Roberta Guaspari. A (melo)dramatic change of pace for slasher-flick director Wes Craven, the film sets the uplift quotient to stun.

The new treatment provides plenty of new backstory, with Guaspari (Meryl Streep) abandoned by her husband, quarreling with the two young sons who blame her for the marital breakdown, and acquiring and then divesting a boyfriend whom she ultimately deems insufficiently supportive. Initially a prickly outsider, Guaspari builds the program into a huge success and then—10 years later—has to fight for it all over again when school administrators cut the budget. In tribute to the project’s creator, Stern, Perlman, O’Connor, and many other violin luminaries play themselves, and Aidan Quinn, Angela Bassett, Cloris Leachman, and Gloria Estefan also celebrate Guaspari (or is it Streep?) by performing small, underwritten roles. As in the documentary, the finale comes at Carnegie Hall, but this time the pressure to be moved is crushing. Scream-master Craven might as well have called this one Weep. CP