Personally, I think that Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s new film, Sex & Philosophy (Sexe et philosophie), was not only the best in the 29th Montreal World Film Festival official competition (in which it had its world premiere) but also the only one that really displayed the vision and the complexity of a true artist behind it. In the main competition there were very few good films, and Sex & Philosophy was clearly the strange fruit: it was a film by an author convinced that he can think about the world and express his thoughts making cinema.
And he goes beyond the good use of its standard possibilities. Makhmalbaf dares to go beyond the “fear to be wrong” that ruined many of the films in this competition. The Iranian director is sure of what he is doing, and this assertiveness clearly puts the film in a dimension where philosophical reflections about love meet the brilliance of almost all the sequences (a long, emotional, virtuoso and deep aerial shot could be the best example of this brilliance).
This co-production between Iran, France and Tajikistan takes place in the latter country, and the main character is a man turning 40 (the film opens with a pregnant image of forty burning candles inside of his car). At this point in his life, he decides to come clean with his four lovers, each one of them unaware of the existence of the others. He, an intellectual, an artist, says: “It’s a revolution against me.” The structure of the film appears to be episodical, as he goes explaining to his lovers one by one the reasons and passions behind his actions. But Makhmalbaf, instead of running for cover and displaying every “chapter” in a similar way, changes the rules for each one of them and delivers an ever changing and vivacious narrative. If one of the chapters is based on flashbacks, the other one is in the present tense. If one of them is a musical full of sensuality and movement, the other is mainly static. Sex & Philosophy is clearly a film with an aesthetic vision, and the camerawork of Makhmalbaf may bring to the memory the fluent and elegant images of Max Ophüls and the impact of the colors of Sergei Paradjanov. After this journey on philosophy, love and great cinema, the final sequence puts a new light on the events that we have seen till that moment and provides closure to a film not only risky but also inspiring, not only intellectual but also deeply emotional.
If there was another film that could be paired with Makhmalbaf’s, it was not in the main competition. Of the films that I could see beyond that (too) large section (22 films), Awakening of the Dead (Budjenje iz mrtvih) by veteran Serbian Director Milos “Misa” Radivojevic stood out strongly as one of the big films of Serge Losique’s festival. Radivojevic’s film had its American premiere here (it had been shown previously only in its country of origin and in the Sarajevo film festival, and this was the reason it could not be in this official competition). Awakening of the Dead is a dark, almost sick film. It’s set in 1999 (while Belgrade is being bombed), and the main character is a Serbian professor, married and saddled with a kid, an aging father, and the unbearable burden of recent Serbian history.
If you are thinking of a film made in the latest Kusturica style, full of music and colors and music and noise and “funny characters” and shouts and more noise and confusion (for this kind of proposition, there was a Serbian film in the competition, the annoying Go West), let me tell you that you will be surprised. The atmosphere here is terribly gloomy; the tone is serious, but not solemn at all (there are moments of black humor). Awakening of the Dead is a journey into hell, a nightmarish travel into the heart of darkness: history meets individuals’ personal memories and moral decisions, and the results are devastating. The journey into the horror of the main character is portrayed not only by each encounter with his past in the present, but also through terrible dreams and thoughts and progressively fading colors. This is a film that is a harsh and brilliant thinking machine, a seriously strong and devastating aesthetic experience. Both Radivojevic and Makhmalbaf have presented films that prove cinema could be as profound as solid, that cinema can be more intelligent, more fascinating, more daring than the dull and clumsy proposals of most of the films in the main competition. I really thank them for helping us to remember that.