By Andrew James Horton
When the 45th International Thessaloniki Film Festival ran from November 19 through 28, 2004, Kinoeye editor Andrew James Horton, focussing on new films from Europe, sent daily dispatches to GreenCine Daily.
Just what makes the ideal film festival?
Most people probably expect more or less the same things: a wide selection of films, including the most talked-about hits from the world's leading filmmakers, new works from young up-and-coming directors and a smattering of retrospectives that invite you to stretch the boundaries of your film knowledge. On top of all that, the leading lights of the international cinema world should be on hand to discuss their latest works and general trends, with a relaxed, informal atmosphere that is conducive to enjoyable viewing and good conversation in between. And a historic and scenic location, well-served by good restaurants and bars is always a plus.
My nomination? Well, Thessaloniki seems to come close...
The international festival, held annually in the old port complex of Greece's second-largest city, has deliberately shunned the so-called "A-status" ranking that FIAPF (the International Federation of Film Producers' Associations) grants to the largest and most glamorous events, such as Cannes, Berlin and Venice, and has instead preferred to concentrate on preserving its intimate atmosphere and creating an stunningly good film selection, factors appreciated by both viewers and visiting filmmakers.
This year, the schedule includes films by Wong Kar-wai, Theo Angelopoulos, Ingmar Bergman, Peter Greenaway, Amos Gitai, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chantel Akerman, Todd Solondz, Kim Ki-duk, Alejandro Amenábar and Zhang Yimou, and Cool, the last work by the recently assassinated Dutch director Theo van Gogh to whom the festival has dedicated its New Horizons sidebar this year. Retrospectives will highlight the work of Abbas Kiarostami, Victor Erice (The Spirit of the Beehive) and "the new master of fantastic cinema," Kiyoshi Kurosawa. There are three regional selections of new films (which all bear 2004 as a production date), France, Russia and Argentina, as well as festival's perennial survey of Balkan film. For more of the Balkan flavor, the festival also showcases all the previous twelve months' Greek productions and there are two retrospectives of domestic directors, Costas Sfikas and Alexis Damianos.
Present at the festival will be Kiarostami, Erice and Greenaway, who will all be offering master classes, as well as Denis, Gitai and French actress Isabelle Huppert.
And last, but by no stretch of the imagination least, there's the international competition, which is devoted to new directors (eligible films must be one of the maker's first three features), with works from Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America in the line-up for the Golden Alexander, the festival's top prize. Heading the jury will be Hungarian veteran helmer Miklós Jancsó. FIPRESCI also have their own jury at the festival.
The only bad word I can say about the festival is that this is patently too much for any one person to see, a condition made all the more painful by the high quality of the selection. Therefore, to cut things down to a more manageable agenda I'll be concentrating on European cinema (although even with this restriction I'm unlikely to see more than a fraction of what is on offer), and over the coming week I'll be sending along dispatches from the festival with this emphasis. Although, who knows what in the whirlwind of it all I'll end up seeing.
Barely having set foot in the town, I was queueing up for tickets. And with reason. The festival is well-attended and there are many sell-outs. In fact, I was unsucessful on two of my first choices for films to see on my first evening - the world premiere of Alexandra Leclère's Les Soeurs fâchées (part of an homage to its star Isabelle Huppert) and a Macedonian film from the Balkan Survey. I was, though, able to get tickets for Kira Muratova's The Piano Tuner (Russia/Ukraine, 2004) and Shane Meadows's Dead Man's Shoes (UK, 2004).
If Kira Muratova made films in America, she would probably work with actors such as William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi. Her cinema is filled with quirky characters trying to find their place in contemporary Russia and Ukraine (where she now resides as a recluse). She's been making features since the 1960s, but has really made her mark in the glasnost and post-glasnost years. Her latest feature, The Piano Tuner, is a lesson in human weakness, in people allow their expectations to soar too high, all told through a series of hyper-verbal characters who also seem to suffer a form of attention deficit disorder. The plot revolves around Anna Sergeevna and Lyuba, both widows, and the piano tuner of the title, Andrei, who is divorced. All are struggling to find love and a place in life, but are constantly thwarted by the faith they put in other people - Andrei in his love for Lina, Lyuba in her prospective husbands (who invariably run off with her money) and Anna Sergeevna in Andrei himself.
Muratova's previous film was called Chekhov's Motifs (2001), and if anything, this film is even more Chekhovian, with its musical gatherings, aimless parlor conversation and the exaggerated literary delivery of the actors (Chekhov even gets squeezed into the dialogue). It's also a rather more eccentric film and even funnier too. But a running time of 154 minutes? I could be generous and say that the length is a reinforcement of the verbosity of the characters, but even the stellar performances can't mask the discomfort of the cinema seat piercing through the posterior as the film drags on, an extension of Muratova's well-known disregard for her audience.
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