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FNC '10 Reviews: 'The Strange Case Of Angelica,' 'La Quattro Volte' & 'Music From The Big House'

by Kevin Jagernauth
October 25, 2010 8:19 AM
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The Fesitval Du Nouveau Cinema recently hit Montreal theaters providing a sample of films that have already done the Cannes/Venice/TIFF run as well a handful of world and Canadian premieres. While we didn't have time to catch as much as we would have liked, the festival allowed us to fill up a few slots of films we missed at past festivals and an opportunity to catch a couple of new ones. Here's the first dispatch the from the fest.

At 101 years old, Manoel de Oliviera has earned respect from arthouse fans and critics not only for his films but for the advanced age at which he's putting them out. But "The Strange Case Of Angelica" finds the director unfortunately out of sync.

To be sure, Oliviera can compose the hell out of a scene and shot for shot, "The Strange Case Of Angelica" looks fantastic. But the film itself, based on a script Oliviera wrote in 1952 (that was censored at the time), is stiflingly formal. The story follows Isaac, a photographer who is summoned to take a picture of a recently deceased young woman and subsequently, and absurdly, he falls in love with her. Oliviera uses the set up to examine the conflict of old world sensibilities within a contemporary era but doesn't have too much to say about it. Isaac forgoes digital, has no interest in current issues or even the wonders of the world and and it's only in the realization that the woman he loves is dead that he is made truly aware how outside society he truly is. His obsession with the girl cripples his ability to engage with a world he already feels estranged from, leading to a surprising turn of events.

Lined with a sly humor and unfolding with a painstaking (and at times molasses-like) pace, "The Strange Case Of Angeliaca" is austere if uninvolving filmmaking. The world in which Isaac lives actually seems not to far off from the values he lives by, so the disconnect is never quite as sharply drawn as the melodrama seems to need it to be. And more often than not, the dialogue and scenarios set up within the film don't organically draw out the thematic elements, instead, they pretty much explain them straight to the audience making the film feel sometimes more like a lecture about the film, rather than having the piece speak for itself. The film is not without its small pleasures, but it's certainly not enough to make 'Case' worth investigating. [C+]


Similarly, Michelangelo Frammartino's "La Quattro Volte" is also a gorgeously shot film with some big thematic ideas.

Without dialogue, and with a strictly observational approach, 'Volte' simply and quietly tracks the circle of life and like Oliviera's film, combines a rigid aesthetic with minor key humor. Not much "happens" in "La Quattro Volte" (and to elaborate on the handful of sequences would be to spoil some of its surprises) and it's not until about 45 minutes into the film that you see where it's going, but it's not nearly as profound or moving as the film thinks it is. The film starts as a tale about a shepherd and his flock of goats but slowly evolves from that, into a tale that spans something much bigger that the little village in which it takes place. And while the picture plays out with some finely composed scenes and elegant sequences, the film is never quite the sum of its parts. Though barely 90 minutes long, "La Quattro Volte" feels like a great short film idea stretched out unconvincingly to feature film length. [C]

So after viewing two very somber, respectful films, the latest from non-stop Canadian director Bruce MacDonald was a much needed jolt of energy.

The slim, 87-minute documentary, "Music From The Big House," is an intriguing, moving and fascinating profile of Canadian blues artist Rita Chiarelli's efforts to stage a concert at the notorious Angola Prison, collaborating with talent serving time behind bars. But don't expect this to be an apologetic look at the very engaging and charming prisoners serving time, nor an indictment of the penal system. Instead MacDonald's film serves as a window into the power of music to heal, energize, unite and give focus for those who will be spending every day until their death at Angola.

MacDonald tracks Chiarelli's visits to Angola as she rehearses with the band, and we slowly learn about the lives of the inmates who have organized (some very talented) bands. We are drawn into their world, learn about life behind bars, and many share their experiences of the years they have spent at Angola. One inmate's tale about how he screwed up his parole hearing -- he had a job, housing and family waiting for him on the outside -- is particularly heartbreaking, but the lesson he takes away from the experience is imbued with an astonishing wisdom and maturity. But it's the music that counts here, and it's ace. The three inmate bands here are bewitching, their performances infectious, and the tracks bring out the kind of energy and vigor that we can only imagine is all too rare in the day to day operations at Angola.

Cynicism is so easy in today's cultural music environment, with acts here today and gone tomorrow (or as fast as Pitchfork approves an act before moving on to something else). But in "Music From The Big House" music is not a fad, or a collectible or a lifestyle enhancer-- it's a lifeline. Watching these men -- all of them found guilty of serious crimes such as murder and rape -- whose lives have been transformed in the decades they've spent in prison, and what the opportunity to sing and play together brings them (an opportunity afforded to only a very few of Angola's prisoners) is something quite special. MacDonald has made a beautiful, observational film that doesn't shy away from painful truths about its subjects (the epilogue in which we finally learn what each prisoner is serving time for is sobering), while showing that redemption is a process, one that never quite comes to an end. [B+]

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