Film Scouts Diaries

2004 Karlovy Vary Film Festival Diaries
Diary 3

by Henri Béhar

KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic, July 5 -- Be it deliberately or by mere happenstance, kids -- sometimes physically disturbed, sometimes emotionally, sometimes both -- seem to emerge as one of the major themes of this 39th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, whether in competition or out of competition..

First out of the gate, Leon and Olvido, by Spanish director Xavier Sanchez Bermudez (in competition) sets it squarely. Leon is a 20-year-old with Down's syndrome. After his mother died, Olvido, his slightly older sister, places him in an institution, then in another, then in another, until no institution will have him, for Leon refuses to adapt. Forced to take him back in, Olvido insists that he become self-sufficient at least in the most basic situations: she refuses to pick him up at school, she assigns him daily chores around the house. But the emotional burden gets too heavy on her... and on him -- when things crumble between her and her boyfriend Ivan while he falls in lust with a young salesgirl. Desperation mounts, as do the tensions between the two siblings.

All right, I know what you think and I fully take the blame. Leon and Olvido is much more interesting than I made it sound, mainly because the director does not go for the sentimental and the cute. As portrayed by Guillem Jimenez (himself affected by Down's syndrome), Leon can be a major pain in the butt. As can Mary (Maria Larralde). And one cannot help but see Leon and Olivdo as a darker pendant to Jaco Van Dormaell's The Eight Day

The disabled character in Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's Niceland, (Iceland, in competition) is more traditionally approached He is the pigeon-breeding best friend of the leading character, Jed, an idealistic sixteen-year-old who promised his girlfriend Chloe that he'd marry her. When her beloved cat is run over by a car, Chloe suffers from acute depression and slips into a coma. Distraught, Jed turns to an eccentric man he caught a glimpse of on television, ruminating on ''the meaning of life''. The eccentric man, Max, who has his share of traumas, lives in a junkyard. Determined to make Max his guru, certain that the man does hold the key to the meaning of life, Jed moves into a battered caravan in the midst of the junkyard..

As in his previous films, Iceland's most internationally known director Fridriksson views the eccentric and the mentally disabled as more perceptive than ''normal'' people. The film was shot in English - pardon: in Scottish -- and performed mainly by Martin Compston and Gary Lewis, two veterans of Ken Loach's films (Sweet Sixteen and My Name is Joe, respectively). Surprisingly, it is also subtitled in English. Were the distributors and producers really so afraid the audiences wouldn't get it despite the accents? ''I hated it, but what could I you?'' said Fridriksson at the cocktail party before the gala screening. ''C'est la vie.''

The teenagers in Dennis Gansel's Napola (Germany, in competition, world premiere) are also outsiders. But they are at the other end of the outsiders' spectrum: they are to be the elite of the elite. In Berlin in 1942, young and poor Frederich, 17, is spotted for his talent in and enthusiasm for amateur boxing and enrolled in a top Nazi school ("Napola'' was the German acronym for such schools). Soon his team's star boxer, Frederick befriends Albrecht, the son of the Nazi chief who runs the school - and his family - as if they were mere battalions. Albrecht soon voices his doubts about the ideology that is being banged into the students who barely pause to give it some thought. Studies matter less than winning the championship (how could one not see the parallel with universities today?).Albrecht increasingly finds himself in conflict with his father's ideology and methods, ultimately deciding to take his fate in his own hands, be it at the price of self-destruction. Tightly written, although directed in a rather classical fashion, Napola is mostly remarkable for its casting. There are innumerable speaking parts in this film, yet every single actor, young, old, male, female, does more than justice to his or her character.

As do the young actors in Christophe Barratier's Les Choristes (''The Choirboys'', France, in competition). Here, everybody is an outsider, one of those kids that society doesn't want to hear about, therefore locks up in some sort of reform school, run by a tyrannical headmaster.. But for the new music teacher, there is no such thing as an ''outsider'', and he coaxes, cajoles, persuades every single boy in the borstal into becoming part of a choir... The story of Clément Mathieu and his choir is told in flashback, as one of the former pupils brings Mathieu's diary to his old borstal-mate, now legendary conductor Pierre Morhange (Jacques Perrin, who doubles up as the film's producer). Based on an old French film, La Cage aux rossignols (''A Cage of Nightingales''), Les Choristes, co written and directed with enormous empathy by newcomer Barratier, is beyond feel-good. Don't miss it when Miramax releases it this coming fall.

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