A lack of excitement was the guiding sentiment most critics shared when the awards for the 2010 Abu Dhabi Film Festival were announced Saturday evening.
The success of last year’s edition under new executive director Peter Scarlett established Abu Dhabi as a force to be reckoned with in the region and raised the bar for this year’s round. Unfortunately, the fest failed to meet expectations, producing an average edition packed with many duds and few masterpieces. And while the New Horizon and documentary sections did stir some buzz, the Narrative Competition was received with an even mix of frustration and weary indifference.
The most disappointing offerings of this year’s edition happened to be the most anticipated ones. The biggest letdown of possibly the entire fest was Julian Schnabel’s Palestinian saga “Miral,” a colossal failure on nearly every level.
Based on Rula Jebreal’s autobiographical novel of the same name, Schnabel’s adaptation traces the lives of three Palestinian women from different generations, beginning with the 1942 Nakba and ending with the Oslo Accord in 1993.
Veteran Palestinian thespian Hiam Abbass is Hind Husseini, a wealthy philanthropist who sets up a school for orphaned girls in 1947. “Caramel” actress Yasmine Elmasri is Nadia, a beautiful, battered woman forever scarred by the sexual and physical abuse she’s subjected to at the hands of both her father-in-law and the racist Israeli authorities. “Slumdog Millionaire” star Freida Pinto is the titular character and the daughter of Nadia, a young, earnest student grappling with notions of armed struggle and non-violent resistance.
An unusual choice for such material, Schnabel — an American-Jewish painter who earned an Oscar nomination for directing another biopic, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” — fails to provide a concrete perspective for a difficult, thorny issue in desperate need for one.
Employing a mismatch of different cinematic styles (a regrettable trend for a big chunk of the fest films), Schnabel throws in a mix of domestic melodrama, political commentary and a cross-culture romance edging the main coming-of-age story.
The result is one hackneyed piece of cinema too coy to take a solid stance towards the big subject at hand. Everything in this film fails to work, from the awfully bizarre soundtrack (a combination of Marcel Khalife and Tom Waits) and the over-stylized direction to the overwhelmingly English dialogue and the lifeless, stiff performances.
Speaking of performances, the casting of Indian newcomer Pinto is probably the most head-scratching casting choice of the film. With little depth and a thick Indian accent, Pinto doesn’t convince for a second; her knowledge of Arabic is restricted to two words: ahlan and marhaba.
Schnabel’s characters ultimately emerge as figureheads culled from a very murky tapestry. He hops from one era to another, constantly plunging the viewers into the middle of action, severing crucial plot threads for the sake of economy.
“Miral” is one of those “good-intentioned films,” as a friend of mine described it; a simple-minded treatment of an exceedingly dense issue realized with a puerile vision. Schnabel’s Hollywoodish message of “give peace a chance” is not only naïve but quite distasteful given the complexity of the subject.
‘In a Better World’
Equally disappointing was Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World,” another good-intentioned movie whose early promising premise is demolished with a histrionic third act and an overly neat conclusion.
Bier’s tightly contorted drama centers on two Danish families whose fates cross paths when their children get entangled in a vicious cycle of violence.
Fronted by three of Scandinavia’s biggest stars — Mikael Persbrandt (“Everlasting Moments”), Trine Dyrholm (“In Your Hands”) and Ulrich Thomsen (“Festen”) — the first part of the film sees Bier drawing a sincere picture of two families in turmoil.
The African backdrop, paralleled by the unfolding events at home, provokes a set of intriguing, hard-hitting questions regarding violence, vengeance and retribution.
In her previous work — “Open Hearts,” “Brothers,” “After the Wedding” — Bier showed an exceptional gift for amalgamating familial melodrama with contemporary concerns. Her films, which maintain a careful balance between those poles, thus feel both timeless and urgent.
Alas, in here, she loses that balance. Her film gradually descends into sappiness as she readily gives away easy answers to questions that should’ve remained unanswered. As the final scene rolls — soaring African music and tracking shots of little black kids running joyously in the picturesque desert — all traces of subtlety are lost.
A slightly more successful effort is Michael Greenspan’s debut feature, “Wrecked,” starring Academy Award winner Adrian Brody.
A minimalist thriller shot on a shoestring budget, the film begins as Brody’s unnamed character wakes up to find himself injured and trapped in a smashed car stuck in the wilderness. Amnesiac and alone, he fights the unseen forces of the forest to stay alive while trying to piece together the events that led him there.
“Wrecked,” which had its world premiere in Abu Dhabi, is a one-man show. After several missteps in the past few years, Brody exhibits his acting chops with a wounded physicality and a soulful inwardness that recalls his outstanding turn in “The Pianist.”
The entertainment value lies in the tiny procedures and Brody’s interaction with the uncertain, alien surrounding. There’s Herzogian touch to Greenspan’s direction in the way he depicts the relationship of Brody’s character with nature, but he never he goes as wild as the great German filmmaker.
While the concept of the film and Greenspan’s atypical direction are interesting, the film pales in comparison to Rodrigo Cortés’ more daring “Buried,” also a minimalist thriller about a man who wakes up to find himself buried in a coffin. Yet the biggest problem with “Wrecked” is that it doesn’t amount to much by the end and the whole affair feels rather insignificant.
‘Chico and Rita’
The biggest delights of the festival came from the unlikeliest of sources. One of the few great findings in the Narrative Competition was “Chico and Rita,” a charming, vivacious animated musical directed by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando.
Spanning more than 60 years between Havana, New York and Las Vegas, the film chronicles the turbulent romance between Chico, a young ambitious pianist/songwriter and Rita, a chanteuse with a golden voice who grows impatient with her lover’s philandering.
Constructed in the form of Latin ballad, the bolero, the pair continues to fall in and out of love with each other before destiny separates them.
Rendered in thick, bold black lines, famed Spanish artist and designer Javier Mariscal gives the story a freewheeling, comic-like look with lush colors and striking designs. A contrast between the warm, bright colors of the Havana setting and the rather monochromatic and slightly dark structure of New York and Las Vegas is made palpable to distinguish the two different lifestyles.
Supplemented with an enchanting soundtrack featuring Chano Pozo, Cole Porter and Dizzy Gillespi, Mariscal and co. create a classic, deeply felt lovely story swathed in nostalgia and realized with sumptuousness, class and affection. “Chico and Rita” is feast for the eyes and the ears, an unabashedly sentimental piece of first-class entertainment that grants the viewers exactly what they expect to have. This is, by far, the most joyful 90 minutes I’ve spent at the movies this year.
While the narrative sections offered little to relish, the documentary sidebars were abundant with many gems: Laura Poitras’s “The Oath,” Patricio Guzmán’s “Nostalgia for the Light” and Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s “Kings of Pastry.”
The most original entry among the lot was Argentinean production “El ambulante,” also helmed by three directors: Eduardo de la Serna, Lucas Marcheggiano and Adriana Yurcovich.
The central figure of the film is Daniel Burmeister, a highly prolific DIY filmmaker who wanders from town to town hiring townsfolk with no acting experience for his homemade movies. Armed with an old camcorder, a light bulb and a broken automobile, the resourceful Burmeister always manages to find quick solutions for the never-ending onset setbacks.
One of the biggest crowd-pleasers at this year’s edition, “El ambulante” works brilliantly on three different levels: A character study of a very eccentric man, an ode to the magic of filmmaking and a celebration of small-town communal bond.
The uproarious comedy eventually gives way for something far more sublime and moving: a beautiful rumination on a world and an ethos deemed to have long disappeared.
Three high-profile films I’ve watched prior to the Abu Dhabi Film Fest are also worthy of note: Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy,” Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” and Pedro González-Rubio’s “Alamar (To the Sea). Both “Certified Copy” and “Carlos” are among the very best films I’ve seen this year.
Aleksei Fedorchenko’s “Silent Souls” aside, the one movie that lingered in my mind the longest this year is Matías Bize’s “The Life of Fish,” a gentle, melancholic romantic drama that left me enthralled with its honesty. But that’s another story.
Next week: Arabic movies flounder in Abu Dhabi.
Animated musical “Chico and Rita” was one of the few real delights of this year’s edition.
Argentinean documentary “El ambulante” was one of the most original documentaries screened this year.