I'm now in the thriving metropolis of Indianapolis. So far it looks like one of those work complexes where everyone drives to to go to work and nothing else happens (?) Big buildings in the middle of invisible suburbs. I can see for miles from my hotel room which just aint right. Shouldn’t there be like another building blocking my view, says the New Yorker. In point of fact I am a Midwestern boy so if this sounds snobbish --apologies. Went to a party last night and found the Indianans (?) very friendly and, this being a festival, mostly movie mad. Which is, I'm sure you'll agree, always a sign of good character. And anyway I'm hear for movies not the architecture.
Milk and Opium (Doodh Aur Apheem) takes place in India but it’s no Bollywood feature. There are no spectacularly staged musical setpieces or throngs of characters and it's not 4 hours long. It shows a side of India I haven't seen much of in features (I freely admit that this is possibly my fault and not the cinemas). It starts in the desert village of Keliyah where a young boy Swaroop from a caste of musicians longs for more from his life. He claims in voiceover to be bored with only sitting around or singing. But despite lipservice to the contrary he does seem to come alive when clicking away on his handheld instrument (the name escapes me) or singing. This is the only thing he knows of the world but he wants to know more. It's agreed rather suddenly that he will accompany his frequently absent and not altogether pleasant uncle on his next trip: these musicians lead semi-nomadic lives, the village is home base but they spend a lot of time on the road searching for work. Once out on the open road on buses or on foot Swaroop learns more of the hard realities of their lives and sees the world he wanted to: although it's not quite the one he expected to see. New Delhi is the first city he's ever been to. At the mall he observes 'Everything is in English. It's like we're in a different country'
Debuting writer/director Joel Palombo is mostly content to paint a portrait of this monotonous vanishing wisp of a life: all buses, dusty roads, and no use for street musicians. The spice is the easy lived-in bursts of music (I assume the cast here is professional musicians) which were beautiful and sometimes moving: in large part because the actors were actually singing and playing. Gone was that cold distance that's so common to big budget prerecorded musicals these days (or maybe this is because I recently sat through the echo chamber studio sound of From Justin to Kelly. Oy) Swaroop and family's way of life, Milk and Opium suggests, are going the way of the dinosaur. In the film's last act in New Delhi, the themes become crystal clear: die out or be assimilated. If that sounds totally dramatic, I apologize. To the movies credit this message is not handled in a mournful or exclamatory way but with a practical observational quality that deepens the modest impact. There are a few obvious exchanges but the awkward moments feel like a byproduct of the novice quality of the acting. Professional actors can sell thesis lines without underlining them. The last musical number, set in a country and western club in New Delhi, is curiously funny and sad. It manages to say both a farewell to Swaroops past and a cool hello to his future. How you feel about the resolution, which I saw as a matter-of-fact acknowledgement of the inevitable more than a mournful requiem, may depend on how you feel about progress and/or globalization -- or, more tellingly for this movie's intimate scale, whether it’s better to stay on the farm after you’ve seen Paris or pack your bags.
L’Heritage (The Legacy) is directed by Géla Babluani (13) and Temur Babluaniis. Like Milk & Opium, it's a tale of a cultural clash between city and country folk but this time the stakes are upped with a cross country language barrier. The production is from France and The Republic of Georgia. Three friends from France (filmmakers/reporters… it’s not clear. At any rate they like to film things) are traveling to Georgia on personal business. One of them, played by the fine Gallic actress Sylvie Testud, has inherited land there. Because they don't speak the language they bring along a translator. During their long bus ride through the mountains they become distracted by a perplexing local mountain folk story involving a young man (George Babluani, the directors brother) and his grandfather who are traveling on their bus with an empty casket. The French trio begin asking questions. The answer do not satisfy but merely serve to amplify their curiousity. They begin to take intrusive action to prevent what they see as an avoidable tragedy. The strength of this curious and shifting movie is that you’re never really quite sure who the story is about, what the best course of action is, or even whose side to be on. This puts the moviegoer right on the bus with its almost comically odd assortment of characters. There's even a mute salesman, a stranger to most of them, who gets plenty of camera time.
Though the movie begins with the translator, years of traditional narrative structures in my head misled me into believing that L'Heritage (The Legacy) was about the French cast. Still, I felt the film pulling away from there subtly during the running time, perhaps in judgment of their actions? Is the story actually about the grandson on his morbid journey? He’s shot in close-ups so tight I wondered if it was a conscious choice to pull you into his largely unexplored life and make it his movie or because he looks like this. The camera loves him. Eventually I came to grips with the realization that all of the lives within L'Heritage are unexplored. The story is in the gaps and the frisson between them. Gradually the film circles back to the French translator on whom it began and makes its statement, somewhat the opposite of Milk and Opium’s I think: stay where you are. The translator stays right where he is, but true to the movies quirky textures, that's right where the story was: in the gaps.
So what have I learned so far on this off-hollywood adventure? I’ve learned that though I follow all types of cinema as best I can, I need a larger dose of non-mainstream films than I’ve been giving myself. Time to readjust my movie diet. Even when these foreign language entries have rather obvious thesis or rather unfortunate budgets there’s still a certain ambiguity of feeling in them that Hollywood can’t ever approximate. A little ambiguity can be sweet salve for the jaded moviegoer.
If you missed the previous festival installment just click the label below