Montreal is a city of festivals. A marathon and an openly promoted fetish festival competed with the international cinema of the Montreal World Film Festival in its final weekend. The site of a jazz festival earlier this summer was transformed into a screening space for outdoor movies, including Pelle the Conqueror, the 1987 feature by Danish director Billie August, this year’s MWFF jury head. Adem (Oxygen), directed by Hans Van Nuffel, received the grand jury prize at the festival’s closing ceremony Monday night; French actress Natalie Baye and Italy’s Stefania Sandrelli received honorary awards; and a tribute was given to Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who was not in attendance, but who participated last year as jury president. Earlier in the day, the formidable acting icon Gérard Depardieu gave a highly anticipated master class.
My top films from Montreal:
Box: The Hakamada Case by Japanese director Banmei Takahashi stood out among the titles in world competition. Like many Japanese filmmakers, he began his career directing softcore “pink films” before turning to theatrical features. Based on a true story, Box recounts the plight of Iwao Hakamada (Hirofumi Arai), a miso factory worker who in 1966 was accused of killing his employer. According to the detectives eager to make an arrest, Hakamada’s strength as a former boxer could match his boss’ strength as a martial artist; and one judge assigned to the case, Norimichi Kumamoto (Masato Hagiwara), was convinced of the man’s innocence, but was obligated to issue the death sentence. The film follows Kumamoto’s anguished journey to clear the man’s name and appease his own tortured conscience. The action proceeds at a quiet, deliberate pace but builds to a devastating climax, and the elegant filmmaking conveys the power of an individual who fights an unjust system. Today, Hakamada is still in prison pending an appeal. Could this film have the impact of The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’s 1988 documentary of a man sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit, who was freed a year after the release of the film?
Apnea, the debut feature for Greek filmmaker Ari Bafalouka, follows Dimitris (Sotiris Pastras), a swimming champion whose activist girlfriend gets caught up in a mission to save the dolphins. Bafalouka, a swimming record holder like his protagonist, is so visceral in his depiction of water that the smell of chlorine practically wafted through the screening room. In the film, Dimitris competes to support his working-class family and is at odds with his girlfriend’s dangerous endeavors. When she goes missing, he regrets the choice he made, to continue his training instead of accompanying her. The atmospheric film was inspired by the “apnea” technique used by swimmers and divers to stay under water for several minutes. Misuse can cause hallucination or drowning, and for Dimitris, apnea brings on nightmares of the tragic disappearance of his girlfriend.
Bollywood meets the MGM musical in Philippine-born Chito S. Rono’s Emir, the story of a Filipino nanny (Francheska Farr) in a fictional Arab country. Amelia’s employers, an emir and his wife, are benevolent and respectful, as is their son—making this immigrant worker tale out of the ordinary, as it doesn’t involve exploitation. The household’s teams of servants have various colorful experiences, played out in song and dance on spectacular Middle Eastern sets. When a warring faction attempts to kill the emir’s family, Amelia saves the son’s life by escaping into the desert, and the uplifting mood of the film turns foreboding. The introductory scenes, where Amelia works on a farm in the lush verdant countryside of the Philippines, contrast with the gritty urban settings of Rono’s fellow directors, Auraeus Solito and Brillante Mendoza.
French horse trainer Clément Marty, best known by his stage name Bartabas, directed a magical collage-like tribute to his Zingaro equestrian theater in Galop Arrière (Backwards Gallop). The title refers to a reverse saddle technique and also implies a rearview look at the impresario’s career. Skilled bareback riders race around a circus ring. The dancers, acrobats, performing horses, and international musicians are dazzling to watch and fantastic to hear as they travel the world. Even the sound effects that mimic clopping horses are breathtaking. Inserted black-and-white scenes with lines of poetry in voiceover, lovingly depicting horses being trained or groomed, call to mind the work by Jean Cocteau. So cherished are the dozens of horses who perform in the film, they are individually named in the closing credits.
The Montreal World Film Festival runs from August 26 to September 6.