Bergmanesque Bleakness in Modern Dress By Stephen Locke

in 18th Stockholm Film Festival

by Stephen Locke

It is perhaps fitting that this year’s Stockholm International Film Festival is devoted to the recently deceased Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, who dealt relentlessly with the bleakness of life’s existence in a world void of spiritual redemption. For this year’s competition programmed, a cross-section of current award-winning films from around the world, reveals an obsession of current filmmakers with the bleakness of our present-day lives, with a search for meaning, for love, for companionship, for identity in a world marred by war, disparity in wealth, a lack of social justice and an inability to connect and communicate with our fellow creatures.

Strangely enough, few of these films are decidedly political, although a number of them relate the social condition to a political background. The current war in Iraq provides the backdrop for In the Valley of Elah by writer/director/producer Paul Haggis, in which the upright, patriotic ex-sergeant Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) searches for his son Mike, who, upon returning from the war, has apparently gone AWOL. The search leads Hank to a cesspool of corruption, negligence and drug abuse stemming from the war and culminating in the death and mutilation of his son. In the darkly animated story by Iranian filmmaker Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis, directed with cartoonist Vincent Paronnaud, war and political corruption lead her autobiographical cartoon character Marjane into exile in Austria and later France. It is the decadence and socio-political corruptness of the closing years of the Ceausescu regime that form the background for the desolate story of an abortion in Romania in Cristian Mungiu’s celebrated 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile), the main prize-winner here and in Cannes. Young Otilia (Anamaria Marinca, also named Best Actress by the International Jury) suffers repression, sexual abuse and humiliation as she accompanies her highly pregnant friend through the back alleys of Bucharest. The excellent Mexican-Spanish debut feature The Zone (La Zone) by Uruguayan director Rodrigo Plá shows a disparate society collapsing under the conflict between a wealthy community that has caged itself into a heavily guarded zone and the rest of the inhabitants of the city, who live in abject poverty.

There is a tendency among the young filmmakers to weave together seemingly unconnected stories à la Short Cuts or, to cite the more recent Swedish example, Roy Andersson (You, the Living — Du levande), as if in this fast-moving world we only brush against each other briefly in passing. In Autumn Ball (Sügisball) the talented Estonian writer/director Veiku Õunpuu follows six drifters through the depressingly grey remains of Soviet high-rise architecture on the outskirts of Tallinn: a writer who drowns his anger in alcohol when his girlfriend leaves him for another man, an overworked single mother who is afraid of her ex-husband, a Finnish barber who takes too great an interest in the single mother’s young daughter, a married couple bored with each other, and an attractive, taciturn doorman whose silence is interpreted as genius by an upper-class, love-hungry literary woman — pure Estonian existentialism. Similarly, Jalil Lespert meshes the stories of four different characters on a grim Christmas Eve in his gritty, documentary-style French drama 24 Measures (24 Mesures). Here fate brings together a prostitute who wants custody of her son, a taxi driver who has lost his faith, a lesbian woman with a domineering mother and a jazz drummer bent on taking revenge on an arrogant bandleader. Similarly, Chinese actor/director Jiang Wen tells four loosely connected tales of revenge, betrayal and desire in The Sun Also Rises (Tai yang zhao chang sheng qi) in the style of magic realism. In his quirky debut The Nines, on the other hand, US American director John August cleverly uses the same actors in completely different but related roles to demonstrate cynicism, back-stabbing and betrayal in the media world.

At least two of the movies cloak their search for love and their dramatic conflicts in sanguine, hope-giving and often humorous stories. Jason Reitman’s witty portrait of American school kids, Juno, follows pregnant teenager Juno in her effort to find an alternative to abortion by looking for a suitable family to adopt the baby. Reitman’s second feature, after Thank You for Smoking, won the Audience Award. In her debut feature film Caramel, which received the International Critics Prize, Nadine Labaki from Lebanon has painted an extremely humane, entertaining and sophisticated portrayal of the lives of six women in their search for love and happiness in a multicultural society constantly threatened by external forces. Nadine Labaki effortlessly leads her non-professional cast through their sometimes hilarious effort to bring order into their chaotic lives.