Fuse Film Review: The Montreal World Film Festival — The End is Nigh?

It would be a great pity if the MWFF, with its luminous history, was put out to pasture.

Kenichi Matsuyama, left, and Rinko Kikuchi in a scene from the 2012 film "Norwegian Wood," directed by Anh Hung Tran, a French director of Vietnamese origin ...

Kenichi Matsuyama, left, and Rinko Kikuchi in a scene from the 2012 film “Norwegian Wood,” directed by Tran Anh Hung.

By Gerald Peary

Mother of Mercy, is this the end of the Montreal World Film Festival? The 38th edition, which ended earlier this week, threatens to be the last, as Quebec filmmakers participated in a boycott, as government money dried up, as long-time sponsors, including Air Canada, cancelled out. The trickle-down effect: this year, I had to fly to Montreal on my own nickel, not a pleasant thing for a journalist.

I’m not privy to the inside story, why this year of all years everyone has gone after the Montreal Fest and its forever president, Serge Losique. But it would be a great pity if the Fest, with its luminous history, was put out to pasture. Attending it has been part of my life since 1978. I’ve gone probably twenty times, and seen hundreds of films, usually from foreign lands, at this most European-centered of North American festivals. There have been special moments, like the North American premiere of Blue Velvet. And there have been guest personalities whom I’ve seen nowhere else on earth. This is where I interviewed Ginger Rogers, where I got the autograph of La Strada star, Giulietta Masina. And the scoop of scoops: an hour chat in his hotel room with the frisky, excitable Toshiro Mifune, he telling me intimate stories of acting in Rashomon and The Seven Samurai, and of his grudges against director Akira Kurosawa.

In 2014, I stayed away from celebs (there weren’t many) and packed in lots of movies. Since eight or nine played at the same hour in one multiplex, the Quartier Latin, I bounced from one theatre to another, taking advantage of my press pass. When a film was working, I stayed on until the end. And here’s a sampling of what I found interesting:

War Reporter: A stirring non-fiction film about Muslim cameramen, heroic humanists, who stand and film between the rocks thrown by the revolting populace and the lethal guns of the police. The sympathetic filmmaker is Mohamed Boukhris, himself a Tunisian cinematographer. The war photographers are not only interviewed but followed into dangerous battles, during the promising Arab Spring and also its depressing aftermath, in Egypt, Libya, Tunis, Iraq, Gaza (called “Palestine” in this work). One daring cameraman even sneaks past Assad’s forces in Syria. This noble work, the finest film I saw at Montreal, demands distribution.

Obama Mama: A low-budget, amateurish documentary trying to tell what should be the fascinating story of Our President’s mother, who died of cancer in 1995, long before Barack got to the White House. For those who don’t know, Stanley Ann Dunham was a trained anthropologist who was a pioneer, starting in the early 1980s, in the field of microeconomics. As a feminist, her obsession was lowly paid women, and she spent her time in rural Indonesia assisting the poorest with start-up textile-based businesses. In his speeches. Obama often has praised the extraordinary woman who raised him. He’s not interviewed for this little film.

Norwegian Wood: This adaptation of Haruki Marukami’s beloved novel about the stormy love affairs of a Japanese youth was released in Japan in 2010, and supposedly opened in the USA in 2012. Did it? Whatever, four years after its making, Norwegian Wood popped up at the 2014 Montreal World Film Festival. I liked it, a decent stab at bringing a book to the screen that I would have considered unfilmable. For one thing, it’s gorgeously shot, in line with the opulent aesthetic of the director, Tran Anh Hung, who made his native Viet Nam look shiny and beautiful in The Scent of Green Papaya. An odd note: what lovely shirts in the 1960s-set Norwegian Wood! I’m hardly a fashion guy, but I coveted many of the retro short-sleeve shirts worn by Toru, the lovesick protagonist.

The Lesson: A controversial film from Latvia. A new high school teacher, sexy and estranged from her cheating husband, tries to win over her students by partying with them, and even joining them for a nude swim. And then there’s that one older male student, cocky and persistent, who keeps pushing her to get involved. Hmm, maybe they do these things in Riga, Latvia’s capital, for the school committee is lax and passive about disciplining an instructor clearly going over the line. No worry: in America, she’d be out on her bottom!

Dani Menkin -- the director of "Is That You?"

Dani Menkin — the director of “Is That You?”

Is That You?: A 60-year-old Israeli projectionist is fired from his job but given an open airline ticket as severance. That’s the setup for an old-fashioned road movie, as the projectionist flies to America and then takes to the highway, searching out Rachel, his love of 40 years ago. A sweet, sweet story, made by leading Israeli director, Dani Menkin, in his year in the USA teaching at Syracuse and Wesleyan. At Wesleyan, he offered a course in—what else?—the road movie. His recent favorites, Menkin told the audience at Montreal, are Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine.

The Last Wish: At last, the truth can be told, about what happened in Albania during the murderous, paranoid Communist regime of Enver Hoxha. This political melodrama, an Albanian-Italian co-production, is among those byzantine stories, of how Hoxha in the 1980s killed off his most trustworthy inner circle. One of the worst of these butchers, Mentor, the head of the secret service, decided enough was finally enough, as he was about to be the next victim. He wrote up a diary of Hoxha war crimes and sent his son to escape the country with this document. This is a fairly ordinary genre movie made far more intriguing because the setting is Albania, the North Korea of Europe.

Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.

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