Viennale ’09: Notes and Reviews



This is the third Viennale that I have attended, and it’s exciting to see its increasing popularity and appeal. Aside from the surge in ticket sales (apparently 25,000 were sold on the opening day, and I had to queue up for 3 hours to get mine), it is also apparent in the excellent mix of mainstream movies and world cinema that the Viennale brings every year. The festival gives out no awards, hence sparing it the rush of celebrity, media and studio-execs and focusing distinctly on the movies. I am also a big fan of the Gartenbaukino, as its one of the biggest screens in Vienna, making refreshing change from Artis or Haydn. Here are a few reviews:

Films that I watched:

Un Prophéte: Easily the most exciting movie that I have seen at the Viennale. The movie begins as realist prison-drama, but soon grows bigger than its setting into faiytale bildungsroman, stuff of myths and legends. However, the core of the movie is the thrill of watching it’s protagonist-a young French-Arab named Mallik-el-Tjebna-perilous rise to power, with all the odds stacked up against him. Malliks world looks dire as he enters the prison as a small time crook to serve a six year jail sentence, and is soon blackmailed by the Corsican mafia that controls the jail into murdering their rival-another French-Arab named Reyeb. Before he’s killed, Reyeb tells Mallik that the whole point of prison life is to learn something here (Reyeb is present throughout the movie, a sort of Gabriel to Mallik’s prophet) . And learn Mallik does, from reading and writing to negotiating the ,power relations and racial tensions of the prison yard.  He has a treacherous mentor in César, the leader of the Corsicans, and their relationship forms the emotional center of the film as we watch Mallik growing stronger and mature, while César grows more insecure and irrelevant.

The brilliance of the movie lies in its direction and how Audiard manages to imbibe poetry and mysticism in an essentially grim and gritty prison drama. In this he is aided by the serious eye that he keeps on French racial relations that form the undercurrent of the film.  In the bargain, it glorifies the path of crime and cut-throat opportunism that it’s protagonist Mallik-el-Tjebna leads. However, the films seems to be having a positive impact as it re-ignites debate on the prison conditions in France.

Whatever Works: Woody Allen returns to NYC in this film about Boris, misanthropic, suicidal, retired university professor-cum-chess teacher, and his relationship with Melodie, a young, naive and bubbly Mississippi girl who has come to New York to escape the conservatism of her home town. In this it is throwback to Annie Hall territory, but Larry David adds charm to the obsessive protagonist as he talks directly to the audience, ranting about life and the world. The dialogues, like all Woody Allen movies are fabulously snappy. My favourite one being when Boris tells his wife during ‘botanically speaking you are a Venus fly-trap’, before jumping out of his window in failed suicide bid (he lands on the tarp, hence only breaking a leg).

Black Dynamite: Watched this back-to-back with Whatever Works, and it ended up being a great night of hilarious dialogues and self-referential film-making. This is one of the most brilliant and hear-felt spoofs I have ever seen. It takes on Blackxpolitation films of the 70s (think: Shaft), duplicating not only their saturated look but also playing on the bad production value of these films (cue: tear drop that is obviously glycerine smudged onto the actors face, boom mic intruding in the frame). Black Dynamite is a smooth talking, ass kicking, lady-killer of a brother who takes on the drugs, malt whiskey and a conspiracy of such heinous proportions that only “the Man” could be behind it (little ‘johnsons’ are a central line in the plot, and I am not saying more). Watch out for a Kung-Fu fight involving Nixon, Lincoln and Dynamite in the end. Terrific entertainment.

A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers sense of humour is very subjective: either you love it or you hate it. My flatmate, who accompanied me in all the films, said that the movie was so frustrating that she could not sit still during the screening. I also noticed some people leaving the hall midway.  I, needless to say, loved the film. It is about a middle aged Jewish professor Larry Gopnik, who is behest on all sides and is having a terrible time dealing with it. He has not done anything to invite these troubles unto him, yet he is responsible for them and has to pay the price. Larry undertakes a quest to seek understanding and redemption (he ironically teaches Heisenburgs Uncertainty Principle in his Physics lectures) , talking to lawyers and Rabbis, only to get further confused and frustrated. No-one else realizes the mental suffering of Larry, only adding to his miseries. In the middle of a divorce, wifes dead-lover, loss of home and possibly his career, Larry’s son insists that he fix the F-troop on the TV- antenna.

The Coens seem to be mining childhood memories of growing up in a Jewsih family in a Minnesota suburb to populate the film with caricatures. And they seem to be having a terribly good time doing this. The film is heavy with Jewish references. It excellently depicts the insularity of Jewish life in American suburbs (the non-Jews are always referred to as ‘gois’). On the other hand it also plays on Jewish philosophy/mindset, which, if we are to believe the Coens is to be a passive acceptors to lifes troubles. This is established by a short opening sketch which sets the tone of the film. The treatment of Larry’s character is hilarious as the Coens deny him any understanding to his troubles, or any escape from them, and any humanity from other characters. This is a bleak prospect, and one may or may not see the fun in that.

Films that I missed out on:

Antichrist: Despite wanting to see the film, I backed out last minute-my state of mind at that time not being very conducive to violence and cringe on screen.

Politist, Adjektive (Police, Adjective): I bought tickets for this film, but overslept and missed the screening. Second time this has happened to me at the Viennale, last time I missed ‘My Winnipeg’. Looking forward to seeing this film which seems to be putting Romanian cinema and its surrealistic themes back on the map.

No One Knows About Persian Cats: Couldn’t find tickets to this one. The film was a success at Cannes. It depicts a bunch of Iranian youngsters, fresh out of jail and their attempts to form an underground rock band. If anybody finds a copy anywhere, please let me know.

Cycling the Frame: Part of the Tilda Swinton tribute, which documents Swintons experiences of the Berlin Wall.

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