I see a lot of movies. New releases in the theaters, old stuff on DVD, curated programs at such places as the Walker, DVR detritus from the Sundance Channel and IFC. Every April, when the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival unleashes a hundred-some films that demand attention, I can’t help but wonder when my vitamin D levels will bottom out.
The two-week festival of global film, itself perennially in danger of flat-lining, kicked off over the weekend with about sixty titles, most of them playing at festival hub St. Anthony Main Theaters. Lobby bottlenecks and rump-busting seats aside, the movies I saw were well worth the contained chaos. I spotted festival-goers carrying seat cushions and unsanctioned theater snacks to weather their brutal screening schedules, and more than a few looking permanently disoriented. All considering, I think I held up pretty well.
The first screening for me was Traveling With Pets , a hypnotic little movie from Russia that had the arc of a good short story and some of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve seen all year. Russian stage actress Kseniya Kutepova (a Julianne Moore doppelgänger in a headscarf) plays a rural woman whose whole world opens up when the foul man she was sold to when she was sixteen drops dead. Newly liberated, she buys a flat-screen TV, punches up her wardrobe, and makes a not-so-elegiac pyre of the deceased’s belongings.
When the neighboring town’s resident cad tries to convince her he’s domesticated enough to share her bed, she tells him she doesn’t want another man but would appreciate a baby. Instead, a stray dog and a baby goat become her companions in the crumbling railroad-side hut she slowly begins to make her own. Gorgeous, lilting camerawork and a restrained tone that is by turns comic, sad, and slightly magical make for a quiet story of self-discovery that refuses to shortchange its dynamic, searching heroine with easy emotional payoffs. Put this film at the top of your Netflix queue if by some miracle it finds a U.S. distributor.
Restraint is also a strength of And Along Came Tourists , a German import that follows a young Berliner assigned to a year of civil service at Auschwitz, where he’s charged with caring for a concentration camp survivor who never left the camp. The old man has become the town’s go-to living history, delivering testimonials to indifferent school kids and the German execs that recently bought the town’s chemical plant. He certainly doesn’t want a young city kid, especially a German, intruding in his life—and the kid, who had hoped for a placement in Amsterdam, doesn’t particularly want to be there either.
All the elements fall into place for some fairly conventional (and, frankly, American-style) turns of plot. Our protagonist finds love with a young translator who grew up in the town and can’t wait to get out…by the third act. The boy and the old curmudgeon call a truce brokered over petty domestic arguments. And the kid intervenes when he learns the Auschwitz museum wants to push the old man out of his job repairing the suitcases that were taken from Jews.
There’s not a lot of dimension to the characters, but director Robert Thalheim plays the drama in a low key and has a capable cast that allows him to respectfully tackle the uneasy marriage of tourism, restitution, and resentment that permeates modern-day Auschwitz without overplaying his cards. His film is interested in what it means to live with and honor history, but it just as clearly wants us to know that it’s important not to let that history define us. This seems like a fairly noncommercial premise even in today’s indies-everywhere market, so kudos to the programmers for plucking it out of the festival circuit ether.
Talk about box office poison, the grim, low-budget Chinese film Little Moth (playing again at 5:20 p.m. on April 29 at St. Anthony Main) turned out to be my Saturday night date with dystopia. A no-good husband and wife buy an eleven-year-old girl so she can beg for them on the streets. The little girl can’t walk, but the man won’t let his wife spend money on medicine that could treat her paralysis.
Soon, another child trafficker enters the picture, unhappy that the couple is working the same block where his one-armed boy also begs. One night, the man drinks too much and the boy escapes with the little girl on his back. The wife and shady-man-number-two take off after them, and the story only gets bleaker.
With no musical score to cue our disgust; a cast of amateur actors; and jittery, handheld camerawork, the film has a nonjudgmental, documentary-style aesthetic that isn’t quite so much detached as it is buffering. Imagine what Steven Spielberg would have done with the same story and one-hundred-times the budget. It’s not a pleasant thought.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival continues through May 3 with films, parties, and special events.