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Auteil's Napoleon Dynamite

Daniel Autiel as the iconic French emperor in Napoleon and Me

By Michelle Orange

There’s a vague Last King of Scotland vibe to Napoleon and Me, Paola Virzì’s fleet-footed costume drama, although no one -- thank Christ -- is strung up by his nipples, and Daniel Auteuil foregoes Whitaker’s frothy flash for a creepy calm as Napoleon. The idealistic counterpart in question is Martino (Elio Germano), a young writer living on the Italian island of Elba in 1814, when Napoleon arrives there in exile. Enraged not just by the presence but the prevalence of the former Emperor (most of the Italians welcome him like a god), Martino decides it is his destiny to assassinate him while he has the chance. That chance gets a lot better when Napoleon enlists Martino to be his “librarian,” which includes following the little man around while he dazzles the dopey locals (who are hoping N. can help bring about their own economic miracle) and writing down each pearl of wisdom that falls from his lips.

Virzì keeps one eye on the ridiculous at all times, and in addition to the spectacular set direction and period detail, that lightness propels the tacitly prickly relationship between Napoleon and Martino toward its darker culmination. Monica Belluci makes a brief, hysterical (literally) appearance as an aging countess who keeps Martino as her concubine, and the supporting cast functions as an able troupe of clowns -- sad, happy and angry. Auteuil and Germano take different tacks on the process of sussing one another out, and the decision to trust never quite gets made.

Crossing the border up to Germany is another European film that seems to have worked visual wonders on a tight budget. Vivere is writer/director Angelina Maccarone’s fourth film, and she plays with narrative and perspective in a way that only superficially resembles that of her countryman Tom Twyker’s calling card, Run Lola Run. Twenty-four-year-old Francesca (Esther Zimmering) became the head of the household when her mother left 10 years ago; driving a taxi by day, she comes home to serve as weirdly surrogate wife to her shambled dad and mother to her snippy teenaged sister Antoinetta (Kim Schnitzer). The first segment of the film is told from Francesca’s perspective as she chases after her sister, who has followed her singer boyfriend to Holland on Christmas Eve, and picks up a spaced out car accident victim named Gerlinde (Hannelore Elsner) on the way. The same events are repeated three times, from each woman’s experience of them, with key pieces of the story being added each time. Christmas has never looked worse (i.e. better) than it does in bleak, beautiful Rotterdam, and the art direction, both on location and inside taxis and hotel rooms, creates a raw, compelling aesthetic that helps its female leads pull off some tricky (sometimes too tricky) material.

Although the Armenian/Russian conflict in 1994 may not be one that has stayed within the consciousness of most Americans, A Story of People in War and Peace , Vardan Hovhannisyan’s document of both the battlefield and the aftermath for some of the fighters could not be more relevant. A journalist covering the battle for a key piece of territory in the mountains of Karabakh, Vardan became disillusioned with the press agencies he was working for and struck out on his own, camera in hand. The footage he shot over five days of foggy, forest warfare is intercut here with that of his present-day attempt to track down the soldiers he met in the field. What is strange about the shaky, dank conflict footage is how movie-like it seems in its representation of combat, right down to the haunting, director’s dream faces of the soldiers; it is an apt reminder of the reality behind what we so often digest as entertainment.

Although we get little sense of the conflict, the pride and determination of the Armenian fighters, many of whom left their civilian lives to fight for their land, has a stirring, quiet ferocity. As Vardan remarks, some of the surviving soldiers turned out to be casualties of peace, as the struggle didn’t end when the guns were laid down. One man named Felo, a fisherman who couldn’t bring himself to kill a chicken before the war, speaks with a devastatingly direct eloquence about the dreams that kept him going during the war, but that he has failed to realize. Those striking Armenian faces in Vardan’s early footage are almost unrecognizable now -- even they can’t find themselves in the pictures they are shown -- but the memories are crystalline. I was surprised by humbling impact of this small, loving documentary and its delicate articulation of the legacy of war.

That legacy is explored in somewhat less delicate, if no less affecting detail in Jerabek, Civia Tamarkin’s portrait of a Wisconsin family dealing with the 2004 death of their son, a Marine in Iraq. The Jerabeks are what I would imagine a solid, Midwestern family would be: three sons, a Vietnam vet dad, soft and supportive mom and a hunting pastime that has resulted in the unnerving presence of stuffed animal corpses around the house. Tamarkin traces the family back to the time leading up to their eldest son Ryan’s enlistment (he watched war movies as part of his “training’) and his subsequent death in Ramadi and then returns to the present, and the youngest son Nick’s burgeoning desire to become a Marine himself -- infantry division, like his brother. The sharply edited reconstruction of the insurgency attack that took Ryan’s life contrasts with the doleful peace of the Jerabek homestead in Hobart. Ryan’s squadmates recall that day (which saw 12 Marines killed) as the turning point -- after that they gave up on helping the Iraqis -- and the Jerabeks do as well; “I think our family has given enough,” the mother says, even while donning the family uniform of a Marines T-shirt. It is as close to a political statement about the war as this film is willing to make.

Leaving all traces of dignity in the dust, we head to the West Coast for a pair of identity crisis documentaries that feature self-recorded on-camera diaries, along with formal psychiatric sessions. Apparently we have reached a point where mere exhibitionism isn’t theraputic enough for its practitioners; we now have to watch exhibitionists actually have therapy. Alexis Arquette: She's My Brother and The Workshop are both bad reality TV shows being fobbed off as documentary fare. The former is the tiresome chronicle of LA transsexual Alexis (brother to Rosanna, Patricia and David) hedging on whether or not to have sex change surgery. Some neat Arquette home movie montages are marred by gross leveraging of family issues in the aforementioned therapy sessions. The Workshop follows Jamie Morgan (apparently an ‘80’s pop obscurity) into white-haired creepo Paul Lowe’s “radical self-help workshop” along with a bunch of California crunchies who may or may not also be members of an alien sex cult. Minds are blown, weird breathing exercises happen, and everyone’s clothes come off within minutes of sign-in. Truly an orgy (I’m sorry, “sensual sharing group”) of obscene self-obsession, there’s nothing even remotely erotic about these boneheads groping lazily at each other under the guise of self-discovery. Blecch.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

Napoleon and Me
Vivere
A Story of People in War and Peace
Jerabek
Alexis Arquette: She's My Brother
The Workshop

Posted at April 27, 2007 5:27 AM

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