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Return to Homs

Must-Sees at Sundance

The truism about Sundance is that it has grown — in all sorts of directions. During the festival, sitting in endless traffic jams, you wish that Park City had grown as gracefully, instead of simply cashing in on an annual infusion of big spenders who have nowhere else to go.

That said, bear in mind that Sundance is a filter as well as a spotlight and a megaphone for lots of new things.

Some of the closely-watched films will have played elsewhere before. No reason why Sundance shouldn’t bring movies to premiere in the US that have stood the test of other audiences.

Leading the way is Ida, a spare, stunning drama in black and white by Polish-born Pawel Pawlikowski. Its look calls to mind the early films of Andrzej Wajda and the quiet anguish of Robert Bresson’s characters. That’s good company, and rare for anything made today.

Contemplative and deliberate, this is a film that should win over those whose attention spans have been reduced to nothing by the immediacy of their cell phones and twitter accounts. If it doesn’t, we should be worried.

Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young novice in the convent where she was raised. It is the early 1960s and she is preparing to take her vows as a nun in the austere convent. An orphan who knows nothing of her parents, she reconnects with her chain-smoking and heavy-drinking aunt (Agata Kulesza), who now goes by a Spanish name, and memory is unleashed.

It turns out that Ida is Jewish, and that her parents and brother were killed by Christian neighbors, who first hid them but then decided that they wanted the Jewish family’s shabby house. No ideological anti-Semitism, just opportunism and greed, the kind of petty exploitation that official Polish accounts of the Holocaust have suppressed.

Those thefts — it turns out that there were many — are now a matter of debate in Poland. This film no doubt threw salt on the wounds. At a time when the news is focusing on the theft of art from wealthy Jews during the Nazi Era, Ida reminds us that most Jews didn’t own art, but their property was seized, often before they were exterminated. The two women illustrate separate exercises in futility as each learns how memory brings new suffering.

Cinematography in monochrome by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski has the austerity of a convent or a prison, in part because the exterior shots capture images of postwar Poland, where the destruction remained longer than elsewhere, since funds to rebuild the country weren’t available. As a result, we get that emptiness and ruin in vivid black and white. Ida is a chilling achievement.

Another pleasure that I sampled before the festival is The Lunchbox by Ritesh Batra, which showed at the Cannes, Telluride and Toronto festivals. The only thing it shares with Ida is magical cinematography, and that’s a lot to share.

It’s a story that could easily have devolved into sentimentality. Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a wife frustrated by the absence of excitement in her marriage, seeks to liven things up by appealing to her husband’s palette. She fixes him a special lunch every day, sent to his office (or so she thinks) via dabbawallahs, lunch deliverymen who rarely make a mistake in vast Mumbai. This time a mistake is made, and the lunches go to Sajaan (Irrfan Khan), an insurance clerk who is about to retire. The food is a new breath of life for him, and Sajaan begins corresponding with the woman who is making it in a back-and-forth of reflections, confessions, and revelations.

If this all sounds like You’ve Got Mail, The Lunchbox doesn’t feel or look like that Hollywood zeitgeist-meter. The look of Mumbai is part of what makes The Lunchbox special. In a city full of beauty shots, Batra lets his camera travel with characters — in the noisy din of crowded trains, in dusty offices and cramped apartments, on streets with unruly kids singing or playing cricket. The settings aren’t the garbage dumps of Slumdog Millionaire, and they aren’t the high-rise Shangri-la of today’s real estate moguls. This doesn’t make the film any less irresistible to the eye.

Batra seems to be taking a cue from the best of recent Iranian film directors (Farhadi, Kiarostami) in his mix of subtle close-ups, everyday scenes, and the overbearing humdrum of city life. It helps that he has great faces to shoot, and his lean script builds toward the pain and joy of characters witnessing a bond that could have happened as they look back on lives that might have been. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is perfect as Irrfan’s replacement in the insurance office, smilingly deferential to his exiting mentor as he embarks on a life that promises deadly dullness and hierarchy at work. No Bollywood music spectacle, no Muslim suicide bombers, but plenty of visual poetry from unlikely ingredients.

Anything but beguiling, Return to Homs by Talal Derki was the opening night film at IDFA, the annual documentary festival in Amsterdam which showed a range of docs from the Middle East. Syria being a hot point of the moment, with Iraq now erupting into civil war, it seems timely for Sundance to show a film about a conflict that seems to have snuffed out the hopes of the Arab Spring.

The cameras follow rebels in a city where fighting erodes structures into rubble as we watch. Insurgents race through holes in building walls that enable them to cover distance inside without being visible to snipers, who seem to have the area covered from above. The snipers, in case you haven’t guessed, work for the Syrian government.

The leitmotifs here are those holes, apertures which can resemble endless caves (Ali Baba?) or an eternally-reflecting mirror, with the frames shrinking as they head toward infinity. We used to see that in spy movies.

As expected, the logistics of filming rebels in a Syrian city are near-impossible, yet the technical risks seem to be taken for granted by fighters filmed by their friends for whom the far greater logistical challenge is remaining alive. One does that by staying out of the crosshairs of Syrian troops whose job is to shoot and kill them.

Another leitmotif of the Syrian civil war is the rubble of urban warfare. We saw that in the former Yugoslavia, especially in cities like Vukovar, and in Sundance films on Chechnya. Now we see the Syrian version of a state-sponsored urban destruction machine that spares nothing in its way. Think of a government that shells and bombs its own citizens. Is the Assad regime seeking to make Homs a place that isn’t worth fighting for? If that’s the strategy, it isn’t working, but what are the fighters on either side trying to save?

No doubt the situation in Homs could change by late January, most likely in the body count, but Return to Homs approaches the standoff there as constant fighting, for which there is no beginning and no end.

Another film that has been out (that term seems right) for a while —released in Canada — is My Prairie Home, Chelsea McMullan’s portrait of the transgender singer Rae Spoon. Sundance almost always has a musical bio-doc — at last count it was at least four — and My Prairie Home has whimsical imagination driving it. Maybe there’s something in the water or the alfalfa north of the border with North Dakota and Minnesota, the origin point of the well-meaning but dull A Prairie Home Companion. Spoon has a wit that fits with her quirky, animated and live-action surroundings that borrow a thing or two from Peewee Herman between shots of the long highways that cross Canada.

Don’t be surprised if Spoon and those empty highways bring remembrance of James Rosenquist’s elegiac memories of his youth in the windswept North Country or of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (Sundance 1999). Spoon may have fled an evangelical household and provincial circumstances in Canada, yet things look more discouraging in the uncivilized territory south of the border (i.e., in the US). Get ready for another snub of the extremes of heartland religious culture, albeit a gentle, affectionate one.

For something more assertive, there is The Case Against 8, the HBO doc chronicle by Ben Cotner and Ryan White of the campaign before the Supreme Court to overturn the effects of California’s Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that ended legal same-sex marriage in that state. The film does not hide its intentions. Two couples — one male, one female — are represented by two super-lawyers — David Boies and Ted Olson — who return to the Supreme Court from opposing sides of the bitter Bush v. Gore fight over the Florida ballots in the disputed election of 2000.

The Boies-Olson odd-coupling partnership (legal alliance, that is, not domestic partnership) is a clear indication that gay marriage as a cause may have found its way past partisan enclosures. Olson was attacked on his Right flank by all the usual talk show suspects — a badge of honor. Watch this film, and you’ll see an eloquent conservative argument for gay marriage.

But you’ll note the absence of the Mormon Church, whose members put up vast sums of money to support Proposition 8 in California. (Conservative Catholics played a similar role in Maine in support of that state’s referendum which ended gay marriage in 2009 and was overturned in 2012.) Are things changing? Not so fast, given the current battle over gay marriage in Utah, which makes Sundance the perfect place to showcase The Case Against 8.

Another HBO doc to watch in its world premiere is Last Days in Vietnam by Rory Kennedy, daughter of RFK and niece of the assassinated president who was wary of deepening the US involvement in Southeast Asia. Eerie is the word for this unsettling look at the last months of the war there from the US point of view. It is a skeptical revisit to the sour end of an American involvement that began with grand rhetoric and ended with abandonment.

Abandonment may be too soft a term. You see it all when US personnel push away Vietnamese from the door of an airplane that has already taken to the air.

There’s an unsettling serenity to the archival images and emotionless “musak” as the months before the North Vietnamese push toward the south seem part of a phony war that isn’t felt in Saigon. It’s as if the Americans were cauterized in a cocktail lounge — but not for long. In 1975, the war had already been Vietnamized, as Richard Nixon liked to say, yet the US had given assurances — we see them in writing — that any North Vietnamese aggression would be met with American force.

That never happened, especially after Nixon resigned in disgrace following Watergate. The US ambassador in Saigon, the laconically pompous Graham Martin, refused to plan for an orderly withdrawal, and congress rejected Gerald Ford’s request for additional funds to bolster the South Vietnamese government. What happened was mass chaos. We see it onscreen, as Vietnamese who worked for the Americans take refuge in the embassy compound. Many of them never get on the helicopters that took US personnel to ships offshore.

As fighting surges through Iraq, you can’t help but see déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra put it so eloquently.

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