Film Scouts Diaries

1995 Montreal Film Festival Diaries
Montreal Diary #2

by David Sterritt

August 26, 1995

"Family values" are all the rage in politics these days, and they're all over the screen in the early days of the Montreal filmfest, too. I've already reported on the opening-night picture, "Feast of July," which features the spectacle of red-blooded English brothers feuding over the slightly mysterious young woman who's moved into their modest late-19th-century home; parallels with "Legends of the Fall," a film even more shallow and tedious than this one, will surely not be overlooked when Disney starts marketing its new commodity in American theaters.

Yesterday two more movies with family-centered stories crossed my path, and the better of them was a delightful discovery, although not quite the dazzler it might have been if it pushed its slyly subversive narrative a little farther than it does. "King of the River," directed by Manuel Gutierrez Aragon, takes place in a bosky portion of the Spanish countryside where a somewhat addle-headed physician is helping his wife raise their two lively children and a young nephew who's been cheerfully dumped on them by a relative who'd rather trot the globe than preside over a bourgeois household. As they enter their teenage years, all three kids are pleased to discover that the doctor and his wife are not only indulgent parents but fairly oblivious ones, as well - hardly bothering to take notice, for example, when their daughter starts bestowing gleeful spankings on her slightly younger cousin as a sort of after-hours hobby. Warned by a psychologist friend that there's a hint of S&M wafting through his respectable middle-class home, the doctor shrugs it off as clean kiddie fun, and anyway, the youngsters aren't really siblings, so why not let them horse around?

It's not the daughter but the nephew who emerges as the main character - literally a golden-haired boy, handsome as all get-out and therefore treated with affection by just about everyone despite the fact that he's a liar, a cheat, a tormentor of the village idiot who skulks around the countryside, and even a killer who watches instead of helping when a family friend drowns in the local river. The movie shows his progress from infancy through young adulthood, thoroughly enjoying the rampant hypocrisies and stupidities that boost him to social, academic, and romantic success. If the great Luis Bunuel had directed "A River Runs Through It," the result might have looked like this mischievous drama, although Bunuel would probably have taken the yarn a surrealistic step beyond the limit that Gutierrez Aragon ultimately places on the picture, perhaps for commercial reasons. Be that as it may, "King of the River" is an enjoyable romp in the tradition of pitch-dark comedy that such fellow Spanish-speaking filmmakers as Bigas Luna and Tomas Gutierrez Alea have pioneered.

Israeli film is a special focus of Montreal's lineup this year, and I was eager to see "An Imagined Autobiography" because Michal Bat-Adam impressed me years ago with her early work as both filmmaker and star. She's still an actress of uncommon beauty, and the new picture finds her still an ambitious and adventurous writer-director. She plays a filmmaker named Aya who's directing a movie about her own life with a difficult mother and father who still present her with challenges, distracting her with present demands even as she tries to complete her film about the past demands that complicated her childhood and adolescence.

Its constant reflexivity and scrambled time-structure notwithstanding, "An Imagined Autobiography" isn't complex or sophisticated enough to be called a probing deconstruction of family life. But it nods in that direction while telling a reasonably interesting and engagingly generous story that treats all its characters, including the far-from-ideal parents, with affection and respect. While she's not a major auteur, Bat-Adam deserves more attention than she's received from the international film community.

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