Screen tests

Usual suspects, small wonders, and the new Bertolucci at the Montreal and Toronto film fests

Another squishy movie that got the respectful treatment from the press was The City, which is about illegal Latino immigrants and sweatshop workers in Manhattan. The film is structured as a series of self-contained vignettes, and some of the stories, such as the one about a homeless father trying to enroll his daughter in school, are touching. But mostly The City, which was directed by NYU film grad David Riker, has all the semi-documentary earnestness of Hollywood social realism circa 1930.

I was happy to get a chance to see The Way We Laughed, the latest film from Gianni Amelio, a director who is vastly unappreciated throughout the world. Anyone who has seen Open Doors (1990), Stolen Children (1992), or Lamerica (1994) knows what I'm talking about. His new film (in Italian) is a lyrical and somber study of two Sicilian brothers who emigrate from Sicily to Turin. It spans the period from 1958 to 1964, and each year is represented by an ordinary day in that year in the lives of the brothers. Amelio has a feeling for the beauty and mystery in the human face that places him in the company of the great neorealist directors--Vittoria De Sica and Roberto Rossellini--who are his spiritual mentors.

The most huzzah'd Italian director in Toronto, however, wasn't Amelio. It was Bernardo Bertolucci, who arrived with his most recent film, Besieged. A new film by Bertolucci is, of course, always an event, but it's been a long time since I've liked anything he's done. (Anyone for 1996's Stealing Beauty?) Besieged was originally shot as a one-hour television movie and then expanded by about 30 minutes for theatrical release. It has an arty, attenuated feel. Thandie Newton plays an African exile who lives in Rome, attends medical school, and tends house for a British emigre pianist played by David Thewlis at his most pouty-mouthed. The relationship between these two is an approach-avoidance extravaganza, but it's difficult to gauge what anyone is doing or thinking because Bertolucci fills the screen with oodles of visual claptrap. He's such a fluent filmmaker that he lets his eyes take him for a ride. There's nothing to connect to in this film--not even the imagery, since it's divorced from human feeling. Bertolucci has become a chic species of rock-video director.

Of such insights are film festivals made.

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