Film Reviews

WorldFest's World View

After taking his show on the road -- specifically, to Charleston, South Carolina -- for a film festival last fall, Hunter Todd will, on April 15, once again bring his WorldFest to Houston. When Todd opened the Charleston branch of his film festival, now in its 27th season, there was talk that he would ease out of Houston altogether. Todd admits that that was his original idea, but he adds that "reality" dictated that he maintain his festival here as well as in South Carolina. Actually, now that the Spoleto festival is approaching economic meltdown, the fundraising climate for Charleston arts events has gotten dicey. So it may be that the two-state festival will again be all Houston by 1995.

If so, maybe it'll have more to offer. This year, WorldFest will screen only some 45 films (the exact number varies from day to day), of which 24 will be by foreign filmmakers. This is down from last year's total of 75 films, foreign and domestic, and way down from the approximately 150 movies shown in previous years. Unfortunately, despite the reduced number, none of the films will be shown more than once. According to Todd, this is because the distributors "won't let me repeat the ones worth showing twice." More's the pity, and more's the reason to get there first time around.

This year the festival will open with style, presenting the 1994 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film, the Spanish Belle Epoque, at the Landmark Saks. Getting it was a nice coup for WorldFest, but the real buzz promises to come from closing night. The star that evening is scheduled to be Pedro Almodovar, who's set to appear with his new film, Kika. If he actually shows, the high-spirited filmmaker should have Hunter Todd on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or something like that.

Even if Almodovar decides to back out, there will still be foreign items of interest. Of the 12 foreign films I was able to preview, I saw several that were intriguing, though none whose memory I'll carry to the grave (assuming I'm still around for, say, the 60th WorldFest). In fairness, I wasn't able to screen the higher-profile films such as the Spanish offerings already mentioned, France's The Accompanist (which features Romane Bohringer, who was sensational in Savage Nights), Mexico's Cronos, apparently an unusually inventive horror film, and Portugal's The Valley of Abraham, which was very favorably reviewed by The New York Times' Vincent Canby (before he turned over the critical reins to his more easily pleased successor, Janet Maslin).

The fact that the foreign films I saw are competent but not memorable (okay, maybe Fetus will haunt me) may reflect the U.S. film industry's domination of the non-Chinese-speaking world. (The festival features only one Taiwanese film, May Jane.) Indeed, the only overarching theme I noticed is that many of the filmmakers' characters want to come to America. Just send us your movies, folks, like in the good old days.

Here are capsules of the films I was able to preview, in roughly descending order of interest:

Fetus is a film by Hungarian director Marta Meszaros. Because it is obsessed with pregnancy and motherhood, you can tell it's from a culture other than our own. Here, Anna (Adel Kovats) is married to a young man who can't find his way, or a job, in the post-Communist world. Worse, she's pregnant with their third child. He says she must abort, but while she understands his logic, she's haunted by her image of the child inside her. When her big-shot capitalist of a boss -- a woman who is barren and terribly unhappy -- offers to solve her problem and buy the baby from her, Anna is at first repelled, but then won over by a logic different from but no less compelling than that of her husband. Would it be better for her to abort her child than to bear and then sell it? She doesn't think so. Anna knows that her husband would never agree to such a scheme, so she and her boss pretend Anna has gone to America, though she's actually living with her employer, surrounded by material delights (and horrors) as she awaits birth. As time passes, Anna grows closer to her rich patron of maternity, and a disturbing battle for her soul starts up.

Before dismissing Fetus as the product of an Operation Rescue auteur, consider that Meszaros, who calls motherhood "the most beautiful and purest thing that is still left," is labeled "a militant feminist" in her native land.

The Slingshot, a Swedish film by Ake Sandgren, tells the story of inventor Roland Schutt's tough childhood. Sandgren nicely evokes the Stockholm of the 1920s, and Schutt's life didn't lack drama. His father was an outspoken socialist and his mother was a Jew, so in his youth Schutt combined almost everything bourgeois Stockholmers despised. The boy responds to his trials with unfailing courage and inventiveness, but the litany of his sufferings becomes a little repetitious. Lovely filmmaking compensates for the dour story, however, and The Slingshot remains absorbing.

India is a double rarity: a film from Austria and a German-language film with a sure comic touch. Essentially a buddy movie, India follows a mismatched pair of Austrian health and food inspectors on a tour of provincial kitchens. (Todd should get Marvin Zindler to introduce this one.) One lives for fried food, playing cards, and the wine he accepts in bribes; the other is a yuppified New Ager who eats his vegetables and memorizes Trivial Pursuit cards. This sounds like stock Hollywood fare, but the performances are fine, and director Paul Harather's approach is low-key and detailed. This is the funniest film I've seen in some time.

France's Should We Love Mathilde? is, like Fetus, an intricate exploration of women's lives. Despite her haunting, or rather haunted, looks, Mathilde leads an apparently uneventful life in the France of the 1950s. Her husband has abandoned her and their two children, but she seems disinclined to brood over her problems until she's almost killed in an industrial accident. Afterward, she seems to have one foot in the other world (shades of Fearless) and has to rediscover her path in life. Dominique Blanc carries the film with her soulful performance.

Those are best of the films I viewed. The Belgian Just Friends, about a 1950s jazz man who wants to move from Antwerp to New York and take on Charlie Parker, has a strong score and is generally worth watching, though its characters aren't closely observed. A handful of Canadian films -- The Lotus Eaters, Cadillac Girls and Paris, France -- are a bit tame, despite the frequent and explicit sex of Paris, France, which tries to go in too many directions at once. The Australian Silver Brumby is a good-looking family film about a mystical horse, and the British Blonde Fist is an unconvincing working-class comedy.

Actually, the best foreign film I saw in the bunch available to me is The Last Butterfly, a Czech rendering of the Holocaust. It's a beautiful and heartbreaking story set in the Terezin camp, where the Nazis sent Jewish artists and children to live in relative comfort -- and to be presented to foreign relief workers as proof that the Jews were not being mistreated -- before killing them. The story follows a group of performers who decide to risk their lives by artistically telling the truth to a foreign delegation. As beautiful as this film is, I don't feel right in pointing to it as the cream of this year's offerings because it has premiered at a WorldFest once before. That happened in 1991, right here in Houston. The Last Butterfly's reappearance is a goof on somebody's part, but you might as well take advantage of its "re-premiere."

The film festival will also offer three seminars. A screenwriting session will be led by Helen Childress, the local who wrote Reality Bites, and there will be sessions as well on the production of independent features and on new technical filmmaking concerns.

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David Theis
Contact: David Theis