Shortly before I left London for the Taormina Film Festival I read a Guardian newspaper article about the distribution of foreign-language films in the UK. It did not make inspiring reading. Twenty years ago, ten per cent of the titles distributed in the UK were sub-titled; today that figure is less than one per cent. Independent and institutionally-subsidised cinemas are both finding it increasingly hard to sustain an audience for ‘foreign’ films. Television stations such as BBC2 and Channel Four, once champions of Art House cinema, no longer show sub-titled films. The BBC has relegated all foreign-language titles to its minority interest satellite station BBC4, where the films are screened in prime slots but attract tiny audiences. Worst of all, Channel Four’s satellite station Film Four has all but abandoned its once-radical World Cinema strand due to budgetary problems and poor viewing figures.
So what relevance does all this have to my stint as a Fipresci juror at the 2003 edition of the Taormina Film Festival? On the plus side, my colleagues and I selected the winner of the Fipresci prize – Diego Arsuaga’s El Ultimo Tren – from ten features which emanated from countries as diverse as Estonia, Iran, Albania, Sweden, Spain and Uruguay. On the other hand, one feared that few of these titles would receive the theatrical distribution they deserved, either in their country of origin or beyond their own national borders. Once upon a time, the phrase ‘festival film’ was a slightly pejorative term for a feature which, while it might survive in the rarefied hot-house atmosphere of the international festival circuit, would not survive if exposed to the harsher climate of the commercial market place. Nowadays, we are moving towards a situation in which the vast majority of films produced outside of Hollywood will be ‘festival films’, at least until the Americans decide to re-make them.
A case in point is the aforementioned El Ultimo Tren, in which three elderly men steal an old locomotive and become fugitives from the law, fleeing across country pursued by the police, the media and members of the public, who get caught up in their unlikely Robin Hood-style adventure. Pertinently, the train in question is due to be shipped to Hollywood, where it will feature in a movie but then be lost to the Uruguayan nation forever. One could easily imagine a Hollywood re-make starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and some other much-loved veteran actor. Perhaps Robert Duvall, who was a guest at the festival with his latest film as an actor/director, Assassination Tango.
The only mystery regarding El Ultimo Tren is why Mahmoud Shoolizadeh’s Noorah was preferred for the public prize. For Noorah was a quintessential ‘festival film’. A typically linear, simplistic Iranian film, featuring the seemingly obligatory cute children, it was heavily over-laden with religious symbolism and sentiment. By contrast, El Ultimo Tren portrayed its one boy character with a robust honesty, and was unflinching in its depiction of the travails of old age, never once straying into manipulative sentimentality or spurious ‘artistic significance’. The reason for this anomalous decision may be that the voting apparently was not in the form of a referendum of all viewers’ opinions. It was based instead on the views of a dozen selected members of the audience. Either way, it made no sense whatsoever.
All this aside, there is no doubt that, with careful and sympathetic handling, the Uruguayan/Argentinean original could find an enthusiastic audience world-wide. Witness the five-minute ovation which El Ultimo Tren received after its public screening in Taormina, a showing introduced by one its three male stars, the amazingly youthful-looking Argentinean actor Federico Luppi. If film festivals such as Taormina have a continuing artistic function, it is to keep the line open until the next such ‘iron horse’ comes steaming, hissing and clattering down the track.
© FIPRESCI 2003