AFI Fest 2007: Day Four – Feel-Good with a Conscience
My fourth day at AFI Fest 2007 brought a close to the first of the two stints in which I saw films during the festival. (I resumed attending screenings on the following Friday, during the festival’s second weekend.) For the most part, I highly enjoyed the first half of AFI Fest, only having to endure one total stinker (Déficit) during the four days. On the final day of the long festival weekend that I invented for myself (I skipped the one Monday-class that I had in favor of staying for the Centerpiece Gala), I tried to schedule light-hearted crowd-pleasers to relieve myself from some of the heavy-hitters that I had seen in screenings prior. Unfortunately, only one of the three was able to function as a work of more than just pleasant cinematic diversion.
My first screening of the day was Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit, an understated Israeli picture that juggles light-hearted comedy and human drama. The movie is wholly likeable and completely inoffensive, but also neither treads new artistic territory nor engages the audience beyond a conventional degree. As I watched the story unfold, I certainly developed sympathy for its many characters and was somewhat interested in their plights, but not once did the film really impress me or teach me anything new. Sure, The Band’s Visit is a nice piece of work from first-time film-director Kolirin, but there is also no reason to seek it out in theatres when it will be available for low-key home viewing in a matter of months.
The Band’s Visit opens with an introductory line of text that perfectly captures the tone of what’s to come: “Once—not long ago—a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this… It wasn’t that important.” Indeed, this is exactly what the movie is about; it is a no-frills character drama of little consequence. Veteran actor Sasson Gibai plays Tawfiq, the police band’s stern leader. Tawfiq must take his group to an Arab Cultural Center, where they have been invited to play. The process ends up being much more of a chore than he had expected, however, when the men end up taking a bus to the middle-of-nowhere town of Beith Ha-Tikvah (rather than Petah Tikvah, where they are actually supposed to play). With little Israeli money in his pockets, Tawfiq enlists the aid of kind local restaurant owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), who offers to help the members of the band find places to stay for the night and then see them on their way to Petah Tikvah the next day.
The Band’s Visit smartly chooses not to try to gain the interest of the viewer through its rather conventional story. Instead, it focuses on deriving modest pleasure from its off-kilter tone. The movie is delivered in an ingeniously droll manner, dryly coming to win the audience over. In many respects, Kolirin appears to be channeling the deadpan style of accomplished Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki. This comparison proves apt in that the viewer comes to sympathize for these characters mainly because they are lovably pathetic, a common tendency with Kaurismäki films. Selah Bakri’s Haled is particularly endearing in this respect. As a means of breaking the tension in dialogue exchanges, he often asks other characters: “Do you like Chet Baker?” When they respond in a perplexed manner, Haled merely proceeds to uproariously croon Baker’s “My Funny Valentine” in a softly dark manner that is impossible not to be entertained by.
Clocking in at a painless eighty-seven minutes, The Band’s Visit is a tough movie not to like. Still, there isn’t anything inherently fresh or surprising about it other than its slick, affably maudlin delivery. Fond as I am of the movie, I openly recognize that its concept could’ve just as well made for a good sitcom. In other words, The Band’s Visit is as forgettable as it is satisfying, an obliging if ordinary cinematic concoction.
Salif Traoré’s Faro: Goddess of the Waters proves to be just as unremarkable as The Band’s Visit, but for almost entirely opposite reasons. This is a movie with a riveting setting and central story, but no memorable characters to express these through (largely due to Traoré’s stylistic difficulties in developing them). As a result, what could’ve been a powerful motion picture instead comes across as an underwhelming, muted work. I wish I could laud Faro: Goddess of the Waters on the whole because of the relatively-unknown locale that it turns its cameras on, but I am unfortunately not able to do so because of the mediocre manner in which it does this.
Like its fellow AFI Fest Audience Award competitor, Caramel (reviewed in my Day Two coverage), Faro: Goddess of the Waters will prove most interesting for Western audiences who are interested in learning about the foreign culture that it depicts. (Unlike Caramel, however, this film was clearly made for said Western audiences, meaning that this depiction functions as a credit to co-writer/director Traoré, not a point of critical ambiguity.) The picture’s setting is a tribal village in Mali and its focus is two interwoven subjects: 1) the native peoples’ strong belief in spirits and its slowing-effect on modernization in Mali and 2) said peoples’ poor treatment of so-called “bastard children” in their society.
Fili Traoré stars as Zanga, a thirty-something successful government-worker who was once one of the aforementioned poorly-regarded bastard children in the village. In the film, he returns to the village, first claiming that his only reason for doing so is to find his long-lost father. As he becomes progressively frustrated in this quest, however, he reveals another one of his intentions: to convince the village chief to approve of the building of a government-financed aqueduct in the bordering river. Zanga’s proposition is made at the heels of the drowning of a young villager in this river, which leads the local tribal elders to believe that his presence has infuriated Faro, the title-implied “goddess of the waters”. Traoré uses the central story to meditate on a commonly-discussed concept in the field of cultural anthropology: is Zanga’s attempt to “develop” his native village impossible and exploitive of the village’s culture, or are the villagers ignorant of the rich social and economic possibilities that development could bring them?
Traoré’s assembly of Faro: Goddess of the Waters struck me as being highly peculiar. The movie’s narrative is told in a distinctly Western format, using the central plot and the dilemmas that it encompasses as points of interest for the viewer. By stark contrast, the characters and themes are handled in a manner that is indicative of African Cinema, internally focusing on the people involved and their accompanying plights. The result is a conflicted work of stunning blandness; neither style works harmoniously with the other. Because its story’s structure is so concentrated on external action, the film can’t help but seem underwhelming when it has only introspective emotions to offer. Faro: Goddess of the Waters looks and feels a bit like what might result if Rob Reiner tried to direct a script that was written for the late Ousmane Sembene. Still, the film is able to capture a substantial amount of the audience’s interest merely through its wide-eyed depiction of the indigenous Malian people. This, if nothing else, makes it a moderately worthwhile viewing.
My final screening of the day was the festival’s Centerpiece Gala Presentation of Jason Reitman’s much-anticipated Juno. While I am not about to proclaim that this is the masterpiece and surefire Oscar-contender that many reported to have seen at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, I am certainly willing to champion it as both a charmingly zany comedy and a fittingly poignant drama. Director Reitman also helmed last year’s Thank You for Smoking and, while Juno is much broader in its approach than that pointed satire was, the filmmaker has noticeably retained every bit of his previously-seen socially-observant style with this effort. In addition, he has matured substantially, this time injecting his story with a resonant understanding of human-nature that is as warmly uplifting as it is bitterly tragic.
Ellen Page stars as Juno MacGuff, a quirkily identifiable misfit of a teenager who, in the film’s opening scenes, discovers that she is pregnant. Juno doesn’t react to the revelation with the outburst of visible emotional duress that one would expect to find in a girl of her age. She thinks herself to be above that, and only expresses such anguish on the inside. Externally, Juno only shows nonchalant dismay in her discovery, recanting to the talky convenience store clerk who sold her the pregnancy-test (Rainn Wilson), “that little pink plus-sign is so unholy.”
After ruling out the possibility of having an abortion when she realizes just how despondent the employees of the local Planned Parenthood-like clinic are, Juno realizes that she must inform her father (J.K. Simmons) and step-mother (Alison Janney) of the presence of her newly acquired, unborn roommate. “Who’s the father?” her dad questions in disbelief, only leaving Juno even more humiliated when she informs him that the boy is Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), the high school’s resident nerd of a track-star. Paulie still sleeps in a kiddy car-bed and applies antiperspirant to his thighs each morning to prevent him from sweating as he runs, hardly constituting “father” material. (Still, he and Juno share a connection that is bittersweet and wonderful in its own way.) Juno ultimately resorts to looking for parents to adopt the child in the local Pennysaver, where she finds Vanessa and Mark Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), who appear to be a modern Stepford Couple. Despite not being able to conceive a baby of their own, Vanessa is determined to raise a child and Mark is, well, along for the ride.
As comedic as Juno sometimes is, the main purpose of Diablo Cody’s screenplay (her first) is not to bombard the viewer with fits of laughter. In fact, most of the humor naturally derives itself from the offbeat personalities of the characters, which come across so genuinely that it is impossible to of think them as being gimmicky. First and foremost, this film functions as a beautiful tale about the human condition. Its best moments come as the characters realize the people that they need to become when confronted with the daunting situations that the script lays before them. Most notably, Cody’s treatment of Mark and Vanessa’s marital problems is particularly accomplished in this regard.
Whether she wins the Oscar or not, Ellen Page certainly gives an extraordinary performance in the film’s title role. As off-the-wall as Juno’s personality and actions may strike us, Page ensures that we are always able to observe a hint of ourselves in the character. If there has been a more sympathetic protagonist than Juno MacGruff in a movie released this year, I haven’t seen it. Also providing a wonderfully accomplished performance in the film is Jennifer Garner, who here continues her recent push to take on more challenging material than she is typically thought of tackling. Garner injects strong empathy into Vanessa throughout, which is vital to the audience’s involvement in the character’s beautiful third-act transformation. Jason Bateman and Michael Cera also have their charms as Mark and Paulie, respectively, but they never pretend to attempt to find the level of emotional complexity that Page and Garner do.
Juno’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, hopes that the movie will acquire the widespread commercial success of their 2006 pet-project, Little Miss Sunshine. While I think that the latter film is a more accomplished work, I hope that Juno is able to find the same audience regardless of this. Juno is a wonderful little film that functions beautifully as a crowd-pleaser, but carries far more emotional resonance than the average release in the genre does. I recommend it to virtually every filmgoer who seeks a rewarding time at The Movies.
And, with that all being said, I have completed coverage of my first weekend at AFI Fest 2007 and my first stay in Los Angeles. Stay tuned for commentary on the eight films that I saw during the second weekend of the festival.