Dispatches from the 34th Montreal World Film Festival

The 34th Montreal World Film Festival (August 26-September 6), proved most heartening for those of us anxious about the state of global cinema. I saw splendid works from all over the world, from both first-time and veteran filmmakers. Over several days, I watched eight movies in a row that I really liked. That might just be a new record for me, and I've been to a hundred festivals. So kudos to Serge Losique and Daniele Cauchard for their inspired programming.

But then the frustration: hardly anything I admired at Montreal will be picked up for American distribution. These are mostly small films without box-office names, and often from the wrong geographic places. When was the last time a good Hungarian movie played in an American theatre, much less an arresting one from the country of Georgia? So scratch, respectively, Kolorado Kid and Chantrapas. Then there was Scientologie: la vérité sur un mensonge, a truly scary muckraking documentary, taking you inside the Church of Scientology's unholy brainwashing in Paris. Here's an urgent, important film, but an impressed distributor from San Francisco passed on it because, he told me, it was "too French" for American audiences.

Even more depressing, Montreal was also rife with American feature films of unusual interest that seem exiled to the film-festival circuit. Consider A Little Help, a moving, beautifully written drama starring The Office's wonderful Jenna Fischer as a suffering single mother whose adulterous husband (Chris O'Donnell) has just dropped dead of a heart attack. This movie isn't perfect, but at its best, it achieves a Chekhovian heartbreak. A Little Help is so, so much better than the infantile "adult" movies we're currently getting in the theaters -- but I don't think we're getting this one. It was shot several years ago (there's a Bush presidential joke), and its original release date was May 2009. Film-festival limbo.

And what are distributors to make of the very odd William Vincent, even though it stars James Franco, that stoner dude from Pineapple Express and who was Harry Osborn in three Spider-Man flicks? If you haven't heard, Franco is stretching out -- as a serious painter with major shows; as an academic earning a master's megree from the Tisch School at NYU. It was there that he met Jay Anania, an ex-Bostonian who'd worked at WGBH and is now head of NYU filmmaking. Franco agreed to play the lead in this experimental narrative, which Anania wrote, directed, and edited, using a crew of mostly NYU film students.

In William Vincent, Franco plays a subterranean New Yorker, presumed dead in a plane crash, who walks about ghostly fashion under his assumed name, "William Vincent," and becomes embroiled with some underworld types, including a hardboiled moll (Julianne Nicholson) with Shirley MacLaine freckles. Anania slows his saga down to a dreamy, sleepwalking pace -- a sort of avant-garde film noir.

Great for film festivals, dead in the lake for your favored American multiplex.

Getting back to that Georgian film I mentioned, Chantrapas is actually a deadpan comedy about the utter failure of eccentric art movies to catch on with the paying public. The filmmaker, Otar Iosseliani, knows it well. Born in 1934, he's seen his many films come and go at festivals around the world, championed by critics. To my knowledge, not one of his Keaton-and-Tati-influenced, meandering comic epics has ever played American theaters. In Chantrapas, a young Georgian "auteur" brings his movie to Paris. At the end of a preview screening, the only people left in the theater are the horror-stricken producers. The French audience has fled.

And for one afternoon, so did we. For one day out of our trip, my wife, Amy, and I skipped the film festival for:

A) A blue-collar Quebec lunch of steamed hot dogs and pommes frites dipped in gooey poutine.

B) A visit to Old Montreal and the Montreal Science Centre's mind-boggling "Sex: A Tell-All Exhibition." We had been prompted there by a come-on poster in the Montreal streets openly showing male and female anatomy: a penis, a vagina, pubic hair. [PHOTO] We were thrilled -- an enlightened Canadian city, nothing like the priggish USA. The exhibit itself was spectacular, totally uninhibited, and open to those 12 and over! Oui, there were parents there with curious kids learning about the joys of sexuality, including masturbation and homosexuality. Not to mention sexual responsibility and using protection -- this, in heavily Catholic Quebec.

The Fall of Womanland director Xiaodan He

But even in open-minded Montreal there's an occasional bluenose, as evidenced by the middle-aged English-Canadian lady in the audience for The Fall of Womanland, a Canadian-produced documentary about a region of southwest China that has been traditionally matriarchal and where the local Mosuo people have rejected marriage, practicing their version of free love. At the end of the screening, the lady stood up and screeched at the stunned female filmmaker, Xiaodan He:"Nobody with this film talked to those who suffer, the Chinese children! I think this film is scandalous. I don't want to hear about it with taxpayers' money!"

Filmmaker He, who emigrated from China to Canada, politely responded: "It's a big family there, and the children are happy." Her next project? She'd like to return to the Mosuo land, on the edge of the Himalayans, and investigate homosexuality.

If there was one film I saw that has a chance for American distribution, it's Of Love and Other Demons, an opulent, intelligent adaptation of a 1994 Gabriel García Márquez novel by skilled Costa Rican filmmaker Hilda Hidalgo. Set in the 18th century, it's a "l'amour fou" tale of the fatal attraction of a doubting priest and an imprisoned teenage girl suspected of witchery.

Hidalgo met Marquez at a workshop in Cuba and told him that this novel, unlike others he's written, is cinematic. To her surprise, Marquez said, "Do you want to do it?" and gave his permission. When the film was almost finished, she screened it for the Nobel Prize-winning author.

"We showed it to Marquez in Mexico," Hidalgo explained in Montreal. "I didn't know I would be so nervous. For the first 25 minutes, he was silent. I was checking his face. Then he whispered to me, ‘The story is very well told,' and that he felt transported into the 18th century. At the end, he said, ‘I felt the essence of my novel was in your film.' "

I asked Hidalgo if she's now ready to adapt One Hundred Years of Solitude. "No!" she said, laughing at the idea. "I don't think Marquez wants One Hundred Years adapted. There is beauty and strength in the words. But with Of Love and Other Demons, the strength is in the images as much as the words."

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