BAM Passes the Dutch 

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Rotterdam@BAM
March 3-9 at BAM

Raising the stakes of its nominal adjective this week, the International Film Festival Rotterdam unleashes at BAM an ambush of films that just a month ago vied for VPRO Tiger Awards. The U.S. series features a showing of each of the fifteen competition features (and one shorts program), all by first- or second-time filmmakers from around the world. The selection is very uneven—not the least bit surprising given the competition's guidelines—but there are certainly plenty of reasons to be thankful that what happens in Rotterdam isn't staying in Rotterdam, at least for this year.

A partial but generous sampling of the BAM slate suggests most of the films at least partially accomplish their goals, but coming down squarely on the un side of uneven is C'est déjà l'été (It's Already Summer), a Belgian-set bit of realism about an out-of-work man who drives around humiliated, his dash littered with empty beer cans, while his ne'er-do-well son plays hooky and prepares a shock ending. Director Martijn Maria Smits does some fine work with his actors, but the film's regular vacillation between two types of video (one clear and direct, the other more "poetically" degraded) is distracting, as is its often pat parallel cutting (dad smoking/kid smoking). Mama, a Russian film directed by a husband-and-wife team who credit only their common surname, Renard, likewise wallows interminably, though it's at least admirable for its stylistic austerity: no dialogue and no camera movements whatsoever in this "based on a true story" tale of a hovering mother who lives with (and still bathes!) her incredibly obese adult son. The Japanese biopic Miyoko, about a schizophrenic manga artist but puzzlingly titled after his muse and eventual wife, also offers a heavy dose of humiliation, though of a more sexual nature.

It seems the jury more or less got things right in awarding Tigers to Paz Fábrega for Cold Water of the Sea, Anocha Suwichakornpong for Mundane History and Pedro González-Rubio for BAM's opening-night selection, Alamar. Fábrega's gorgeous film centers on the intertwined lives of an unruly and possibly disturbed girl and a microbiologist whose fiancé is visiting the Costa Rican coast (think tide pools and washed-ashore legions of sea snakes) in order to sell a piece of inherited property. My personal favorite, though, is Thai writer-director Suwichakornpong's first feature. Mundane History revolves around the developing friendship between a recently paralyzed young man and his live-in nurse. The film's elliptical structure and serenely haunting sound design (insect choruses; the roaring silences of an empty house) induce a kind of hypnosis that even the second half's rather flagrant cosmic hopefulness—perhaps best exemplified by a planetarium visualization of a supernova set to a melodramatic instrumental post-rock build—can't break.

In Alamar a son leaves his mother in Rome to spend a summer with his fisherman father on Mexico's Banco Chinchorro. González-Rubio presents a threatened way of life in a remote part of the world in an appealingly unadorned way, but these striking aquamarine images of a possibly vanishing daily routine shoehorn rather awkwardly into the custody-narrative framework. A sort of rehearsed documentary not dissimilar from Alamar, the American director Ben Russell's much longer, more fully realized Let Each One Go Where He May, which follows two brothers in Suriname as they travel and labor, took home the equivalent of the critics' award. Russell's film consists of 13 10-minute 16 mm shots, many of them quite stunning Steadicam negotiations of sinuous footpaths almost certainly first trod under Dutch colonialism.

Perhaps the highest-quality film unrecognized last month back in the Low Countries is The Temptation of St. Tony, a mordant black-and-white Estonian comedy about an unhappily married middle manager—as the workers leave the factory, he creeps up behind in his Aston Martin—who seems to be developing a conscience following the death of his father. The proceedings devolve into some sort of demented dinner theater with the wild-eyed French actor Denis Lavant as ringmaster. Director Veiko Õunpuu won acclaim for his first film, 2007's Autumn Ball, making him old news by the standards of the Tigers, but St. Tony is at once the most visually polished and completely unhinged film among those discussed here.

Like The Temptation of St. Tony, the Georgian film Street Days, from director Levan Koguashvili, hinges on the proximity of the haves and the have-nots in Eastern Europe, also finding in it a bleak humor. Street Days is perhaps the most conventional film in the group—a hopeless but always well-meaning junkie tries to make good in a variety of ways—and it also bears superficial similarities to Police, Adjective (plainclothes police officers, unsuspecting but mischievous kid dabbling in drugs). Wildly variable in tone, the film is anchored somewhat by a soulful lead performance by Guga Kotetishvili, and distinguished by its unusual, almost theatrical compressions of urban space—the discontinuous liminal public areas that collectively form the sphere of Tblisi junkie-dom.

Also dealing with the corrosive effects of the drug trade and deploying some familiar tropes is the Danish prison film R, a thoroughly grim account of one man's increasingly desperate struggle to survive in a particularly brutal cellblock. Filmmakers Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm find a way to make the familiar subject matter their own, though, artfully using close handheld and thick drones to evoke a vivid atmosphere of dread. In many ways R seems to be the archetypal Tiger contender: a teeth-cutting by formally ambitious emerging filmmakers on visceral but incompletely realized (not to mention faddishly despairing) material. Promise abounds, though, in this series, a gift to grounded cinephiles.

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