I’m surprised and flattered when Festival artistic director Karel Och comes up to me and invites me into his sanctum sanctorum, asking if there’s anything they can do to make my Festival a little easier. I ask for a ticket to today’s 5:30 screening of the Iranian film “Peleh Ahkar,” aka “The Last Step,” directed by Ali Mossafa and starring his wife Leila Hatami, who was so good in last year’s Oscar-winning “A Separation.” That way I can see the 3:30 p.m. press screening of “Smrt coveka no Balkanu,” aka “Death of a Man in Balkans,” without having to leave early and get into the dreaded (though effective) rush line.
Ticket obtained, I can relax while watching what I think of as the “Balkan suicide film”. (Suicide is a recurring theme here.) When I read its program blurb, I’m intrigued because it says the movie is shot entirely in one take. I think of Sokhurov’s propulsive “Russian Ark,” and Hitchcock’s witty “Rope.” But in the event the one take means a fixed camera (supposedly the computer camera of the suicidee), before which the action is played out like a one-act play. My mind wanders and I think of the more fluently filmed recent productions of Britain’s National Theatre, mendaciously called National Theatre Live, of which I’ve seen Helen Mirren in “Phedre”, James Corden in “One Man, Two Guvnors”, Arnold Wesker’s “The Kitchen,” and one version of the double-cast “Frankenstein,” among others. They’re what I term “better than nothing,” i.e., not seeing real live theater at all. I would happily see lots of stuff I can’t travel to or afford, filmed exactly like “Death of a Man in Balkans,” whose Croatian humor is going over better with most of the rest of the audience than it is with me.
The highly-anticipated “The Last Step,” about an actress who’s just lost her husband to an accidental death, confuses the hell out of me. I grow groggy somewhere in the middle (happily, a rare occurrence, which I credit to lots of judiciously ingested caffeine and no midnight movies), but I’ve lost the narrative thread long before then. I just don’t get it.
Afterwards, in the same main Festival hall, “Polski Film,” a hometown favorite (before the screening fully thirty members of the production are introduced onstage, including the second assistant cameraman and a woman who’s either the casting director or the costume designer, holding her jolly fat baby whose first premiere I assume this must be. It’s about a reunion of four well-known Czech comic actors (well-known in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, though not to me, of course), making a movie together in which they play themselves, financed and made in Poland (which leads to, yes, all kinds of Polish jokes). I try gamely to follow, but it’s as though I’m an alien who’s never seen TV or films, watching a movie about the reunion, say, of Beyond the Fringe or Monty Python. As Variety might say: US prospects iffy. (Or any other country that doesn’t speak Czech or Polish).
I must be growing up. Years ago if I saw two movies in a row that I didn’t understand at a festival I would grow morose and question my entire existence. Tonight I merely chalk it up to life’s rich pageant and turn in early, resisting the probably sure-fire charms of “Grabbers,” a comedy thriller about drunken Irishmen and bloodsucking aliens screening at 10:30. Plenty of chances to be enthralled or baffled again soon.