Cats, dogs and other domestic animals By Rich Cline

in 24th Torino Film Festival

by Rich Cline

With a bracing attention to risky programming, a clear love of cinematic history and a classy special guests including Claude Chabrol, Walter Hill and Ernest Borgnine, the 24th Torino Film Festival was sleek and sexy, knowing and provocative. And yes, as cuddly as a kitten. Sweetly mewling cats seemed to pop up in far too many films for it to be mere coincidence. And where there wasn’t a cat to be seen, we could find faithful dogs, loyal horses and even a snuggly salamandre.

But between sighing at the purring cuties on screen, adventurous filmlovers in search of something off the beaten path found plenty to enjoy in the challenging selections. Sections dedicated to innovators like Robert Aldrich, Claude Chabrol and Joaquin Jordá, plus a tribute to the too-cool Joe Sarno, sat easily alongside competition films ranged from experimentally demanding to deliciously silly. So what makes one film stand out from the bunch? Besides the kitties.

As always, it boils down to those three essentials: storytelling, structure and theme. Anyone with a videophone and editing software can make a feature film, and thankfully this new technology is giving a voice to artists from previously underrepresented places like the Philippines and rural China. But even the most extreme fringe filmmaker needs to remember those basics in order to connect with his or her viewers.

The programmers selected a remarkable spread for the official competition. Twelve films from 12 countries, four of them shot and projected digitally. There were documentaries, dramas and comedies. And a couple that blended all three genres.

The digital features were slice-of-life documentaries, showing us reality without much in the way of narrative. Mauro Santini’s Flòr da Baixa (Italy) is an ethereal collection of holiday video clips strung together to weave a vague expression of love and home. Uruphong Raksasad’s Tales from the North (Thailand) is a series of observational short films centred on a community that survives on farming and livestock. Brillante Mendoza’s Manoro: The Teacher (Philippines) follows a young girl back to her home village, where her reading and writing skills make her invaluable. And Xia Peng’s Pleasures of Ordinary (China) is an eye-opening, unstructured collection of well-shot and edited clips of the rural China officials don’t want us to see. It also earns the Cutest Kittens Award hands-down.

Three films lived in a kind of alternate reality. Tominaga Masanori’s The Pavilion “Salamandre” (Japan) is a madcap caper comedy with both romantic and gangster subplots. Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake (USA) is a sharply made feel-good comedy overflowing with Lynchian quirkiness. And Zina Modiano’s La Vie Privée (France) is a delightfully surreal examination of the stresses of family and class, all observed by the charming family pooch Braque.

Three more films marched to their own internal rhythms. Ghassan Salhab’s The Last Man (Lebanon) is a slow, creeping drama linking vampirism to Israeli violence. Mehdi Nourbakhsh’s Parole (Iran) accompanies a man who discovers the world has changed drastically during the nine years he was incarcerated. While Albert Serra’s Honor de Cavalleria (Spain) is a hilariously gentle comedy about Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’s small adventures in the fields of Catalunya with their trusty steeds.

Finally, two films broke through with their finely tuned sense of narrative and strongly universal themes. Zhanabek Zhetiruov’s Notes by a Trackman (Kazakhstan) tells a beautifully simple tale about the disparity between old world skills and new world technology, as seen in a tender story of a man and his ageing father. And Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s Bled Number One (Algeria) captures the dangers of isolationism and fundamentalism in the powerfully intimate story of two people who can’t fit into their home culture. Sadly, the family bull doesn’t quite make it to the end of the film. But they do have a big party to celebrate is demise.