Faithful To Its Cultural Origins

in 48th BFI London Film Festival

by Michel Ciment

With nearly two hundred features, fiction and documentary, old and new, mainstream and underground the London Film festival – non competitive like New York and Toronto but less exclusive than the first one and more selective than the second – is before anything else an event for the people of the town and an apportunity for them to see films that may never be released in their own country.

Remarkably well organized it screens a broad sample culled from the various festivals of the year – from Berlin to Cannes and Locarno – including even some films seen very recently at Venice and San Sebastian like Café Lumière, Vera Drake, Palindromes, Melinda and Melinda or Innocence, the striking debut feature by Lucile Hadzihalilovic.

For a long time housed in the three screening rooms of the National Film Theatre in the South Bark Bunker under Waterloo Bridge (sadly deprived now of the Museum of the Moving Image and even the book shop) it has expanded recently to the West End and is playing at the Odeon Theatre on Leicester Square, reaching thus the many cinema-goers who may have been reluctant to enter that den of cinephilic which the NFT has always been. However, the London Film Festival – now in its 48th year and under the enlightened artistic direction of Sandra Hebron – has remained faithful to its cultural origins. One of its most striking aspects is the section devoted to the “Treasures from the Archives” where film curators coming from France (Archives du Film de Bois d’Arcy), the USA (the UCLA Film Archive) and many similar institutions bring along their latest restorations.

What was a few years ago the domain of specialised events – “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto” in Pordenone or “Il Cinema Ritrovato” in Bologna – has now become part of the regular programs of big festivals such as Cannes and London. Particularly rewarding were the new prints of Jean Renoir’s The River (1951) which has not been seen in its pristine splendid original technicolor for half a century and Le Miracle des Loups (1924), a masterpiece by Raymond Bernard, an expert in historical spectaculars and too little known outside France like many French directors of the twenties such as Antoine and Epstein who suffered from the comparison with the great directors of German, Soviet and Hollywood cinema in spite of their genuine talent.

The London Film Festival is also brimming with special events, talks with Kevin Bacon or David O’Russell (about his disappointing I Heart Huckabees), master classes by Jonathan Demme or cinematographer Tim Orr, panel discussions on the Argentinian new wave or on new documentary movies. There was even a surprise film: the flawless Sideways by Alexander Payne with a remarkable script, two wonderful performances by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church and an intoxicating cocktail of comedy and drama that gives a new impetus to the road movie genre.

Michel Ciment