Good Dentists are Hard to Find

in 30th Istanbul International Film Festival

by Philip Cheah

A Turkish Film critic once answered, when asked about his profession, that he was a dentist. This isn’t such a shocking metaphor for the life of a full-time film critic after all. Seeing films day in and day out produces a kind of numbness. But the professional film critic knows that with certain films — even when you kind of know what to expect — the feeling is like a satisfying dental appointment. You can take it lying down.

Critics thinking of attending the Istanbul International Film Festival can be assured of one thing. They will never be bored. The cliche of the Turkish Delight also happens to be a truism. This is borne out by the international competition selection and I suspect that Festival Director Azize Tan’s taste comes into play in a major way here. By and large, the competition selection is peppered by a constant number of films that straddle the middle path between art and entertainment. They are basically films that give a new spin to old chestnuts.

Gerald Hustache-Mathieu’s Nobody Else But You (Poupoupidou), for example, plays on the Marilyn Monroe myth. A local girl becomes the town’s advertising queen and starts imagining that her life follows that of Marilyn’s tragic trajectory — affairs with athletes, authors and politicians. Told in a ghostly flashback style (as in Otto Preminger’s Laura), the film veers off into a darkly comic Coen Brothers’ terrain with its quirky irony and detective work in the snow.

Then there is Jonathan Nossiter’s Rio Sex Comedy. After two hours one can only conclude that there wasn’t enough sex nor comedy but too many storylines that wore the film down. Still it did have one challenging idea that wasn’t given enough flesh — that the necessity of being a couple fades away after three decades of being together.

Even Zhang Meng’s The Piano in the Factory had a nice genre twist. While it could have descended to a cliched marriage comedy, Zhang took the zany over-the-top comedy genre of Eastern Europe as his muse, replete with Russian songs, and worked up a rollicking fantastical rhythm that sneakily commented on the new capitalism taking over the industrial working class.

Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip fills the middle-path bill best of all. With Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon gamely playing themselves, the laugh-a-minute comic one-liners never hit a dry spell. Yet Winterbottom manages an undercurrent of tension that provides an emotional reservoir from whence the jokes spring.

But just when you feel that you have had enough of middle cinema, the festival throws you an odd ball right at the end. Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross is a gorgeous attempt to get inside a painting through computer graphics. Flemish master Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 painting, “The Procession to Calvary”, comes to life when Majewski weaves a narrative around 12 of the 500 historical and religious figures in the painting. The visuals are stunning with wondrous sets and carefully layered scenes that explode multi-dimensionally. While the narrative doesn’t quite carry the sumptuous visuals, it still feels like a successful dental appointment. It wasn’t too painful and a little healing did take place.