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Half Moon Over Tribeca

Ismail Ghaffari and Hedieh Tehrani in the strange, compelling Half Moon

By Vadim Rizov

A long time ago I caught Bahman Ghobadi's A Time For Drunken Horses, easily one of the most miserable films I've ever seen. Not only were the characters orphaned Kurdish kids (that is, orphans within a society itself orphaned and oppressed by surrounding territories), one of them was a deformed dwarf. Something must've changed since then. I missed the intervening films, but Ghobadi's Half Moon isn't just stranger than most Iranian films dare to be, it's outright bizarre by any standard.

A group of Kurdish musicians set out to perform in newly liberated Kurdish Iraq, having labored for seven months to get the permit. Things predictably go from optimism to worst-case scenario in record time, but for very odd reasons. Lead musician Mamo (Ismail Ghaffari) makes a pit stop along the way to collect his female vocalist Hesho (Hedieh Tehrani). She's no ordinary singer, though, but one of female singers exiled to a city on territory forbidden to civilians where the women apparently spend all day singing in voices which sound like one human singing. Forget even the sheer impossibility of this scenario; the sight of the women standing in what looks like an ancient Mesopotamian village and singing together before breaking out into a spontaneous musical number is indelible.

Half Moon is full of similar weird flights of fancy that justify Fellini comparisons, and eventually the dream sequences become practically incomprehensible. At bottom, though, Ghobadi is still the same miserable bastard I was acquainted with in 2000, and understandably so -- the plight of the Kurds is enough to depress anyone -- but at least he can no longer be accused of beating his audience into emotional submission. Half Moon is by turns alternately rich and strange and, occasionally, didactic and/or indecipherable. The results are uneasy but mostly compelling; Ghobadi might yet become important as more than the world's token Kurdish auteur.

The premise for The Road to St. Diego is almost too cute to tolerate in summary form, let alone contemplate seeing. Young Argentinian "Tati" Benitez (Ignacio Benitez) is so obsessed with soccer star Diego Maradona that, finding a tree root in the forest that resembles Maradona’s face, he makes a statue out of it and sets off on a road trip to deliver it to his ailing idol. Oh, and it's a mockumentary. Yet unbearable whimsy turns out to be in low supply in Carlos Sorin's film, which taps into a low-key vibe reminiscent of the slept-on The World's Fastest Indian. Both films set out to affirm the fundamental goodness of human nature by placing a character on a quest at the mercy of the kindness of strangers without ever getting burned. But it works; even for incorrigible cynics, it would be hard to deny the appeal of star Benitez, whose perpetual goofy smile and open disposition take the edge off of an obsession that's just off the tip of the kind of madness that makes muttering recluses out of people. (Like the entire cast, Benitez is a non-professional actor, and the attendant benevolence surrounding all the characters might have something to do with that.)

Sorin intends some kind of parallel between the modern cult of celebrity worship and the previous power of the church (still a stronger -- and more benign -- influence here than in any American film), but whatever it is doesn't really come off. What's left is a series of low-key-funny but never mawkish encounters delivered briskly and competently. It's a much-needed respite from a festival that -- like all festivals, really -- prides itself upon challenging rather than immediately gratifying audiences.

The Premonition is a very bland, very boring film for 80 minutes before its lead character suddenly starts hallucinating (or maybe not) and takes the film to a whole different level of mediocrity, one where things aren't just boring but completely inexplicable as well. Actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin's directorial debut finds him also essaying the role of a lawyer who, disgusted with his comfortable bourgeois life, moves to a lousy apartment complex and sets up shop. His wife (Anne Canovas) divorces him, his family (including Hippolyte Girardot, also in the festival’s Lady Chatterley) practically disowns him, and he no longer works for the firm, but he seems to be finding some kind of personal satisfaction and absolution. All of this changes when casually giving some free legal advice to a desperate would-be divorcee (Ivan Franek) leads to being deemed his lawyer when the man -- apparently unhappy with the tediousness of the legal system -- takes a shortcut and tries to murder his wife instead. A daughter (Amandine Janin) in severe shock is left behind, and the lawyer decides to take her in.

It might be easier to feel some kind of reaction to or interest in Darroussin's character if he inspired any emotion besides irritation. As it is, how seriously can you take a character who muses to himself, "I should write poems -- poems no one will read"? The last 20 minutes make it impossible to suss out whatever the intended effect is, but that turns out to be less a bold move and more a bigger mistake than what's come before. Well-shot and paced in exactly the kind of middlebrow way that gets films labeled "very French," The Premonition is blandly watchable -- and that's it.

The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez is a kind of unofficial companion piece to Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which used the disgraceful incident analyzed here as a jumping-off point for a much better film. Jones is the dispassionate narrator of this baseline competent video documentary, which is in three basic parts. The first third attempts to give some background on Hernandez and humanize him, then abruptly shifts into a hardcore analysis of the incident. Hernandez –- an 18-year old US student living on the US-Mexico border in Redford, Texas –- was shot to death by Marines on drug patrol duty on May 20, 1997. The Marines claimed Hernandez was firing at them, but pretty much all the reasonable evidence suggests, damningly, that Hernandez was shooting innocently at rocks to divert himself while goat-herding and the Marines panicked, not realizing that no one –- not even a suspected drug-dealer –- can see men in camouflage from 200 yards away. The Marines opened fire, Hernandez died –- and a grand jury exonerated them. The film’s analysis of the incident is painstaking and convincing; the attempts of the final third to get some kind of emotional reaction from the people involved is a mere anticlimax.

Here's the thing: Apparently in some people's minds you can either make a formally well-crafted film, or you can make create a muckracking public-service document that, by virtue of the evidence on display, is “important” and thereby excused for sloppiness of execution. This is frankly a load of crap, most recently disproved by Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke. Passionate anger is not the best reason to make a movie, and the film seems to have been made without any regard for the medium; the result would make an equally convincing book. Even the film’s actual argument is of limited value: The Hernandez incident is important not just because an innocent person died, but because border patrols seem to have learned nothing from it. The film settles for a brief shot of George W. lurking sinisterly in the background of daddy’s inauguration and then a card announcing that #43 has ramped up border patrols to an extent unprecedented since Hernandez’s death. Not good enough; at least Jones’ fictional version had a real sense of place in its location shooting. Aside from the central breakdown, this film is just washed-out video and people crying in the lens, and that’s just not enough. It might essential viewing for scholars of the subject, but that’s hardly the festival’s place to decide.

The festival’s nadir so far arrives in the form of Black Butterfly. Francisco J. Lombardi’s film surely gets some kind of speed record for quickest turn-around time between the collapse of a repressive regime (in this case, the presidency of Peru’s Alberto Fujimori under the guidance of his criminal advisor Vladimiro Montesinos) and the making of movies about it, but otherwise there’s nothing new here. A dreadful feeling of familiarity comes with the opening, where a cynical gum-chewing journalist (Magdyel Ugaz) crosses paths with the fiancé (Melania Urbina) of a recently murdered judge. The journalist, of course, drinks to numb the pain of political disillusionment while the widow weeps and screams “Why?” repeatedly. Eventually, the widow helps the journalist regain her idealism, enlisting her in the quest for revenge.

Every moment is telegraphed with unbearable portentousness, every possible subtext hammered home emphatically. Example: The journalist’s name is Angela, and the drunk widow announces at one point “Angela, you’re my angel.” Yes, she is. Solemn to the point of ridiculousness, the film screams about the cowardice of people who don’t stand up to an evil regime with the confidence of creators who know they are now safe to say such things. The Fujimori regime may indeed have been as awful as the film makes it seem, but what’s on display is virtually identical to every single film ever made about life under similar conditions. Worst of all, the actors are powerless to help, delivering completely predictable conditions seemingly tailor-made for Oscar clip reels. Excruciating.

The only reason The Matrimony isn’t as bad as Black Butterfly is that it’s shorter. Audiences of midnight movies are notoriously unselective (Toronto once offered up Saw as a closing night piece), but The Matrimony is dismally bad in ways that aren’t even funny. It’s a Chinese ghost story, ha ha: Boy (Leon Lai) loves girl (Bingbing Fan), girl gets run over by truck and dies, girl returns to haunt husband and new wife (Rene Liu). Hua-Tao Teng’s film has some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen, and its scares –- arriving every three minutes or so with comforting regularity –- can easily be predicted by whenever bass rumbling enters the soundscape. Loud, sudden noises are the order of the day, and the cheap jolts are barely a cut above the American remake of Pulse. Even the twist ending sucks; it’s not even a full twist, just merely nonsensical, and there’s not a single memorable set piece, even as camp. The only thing holding The Matrimony back from being truly unbearable are its occasional, lush recreations of ‘30s China: a trip to an old movie theater is a rare glimpse for American audiences of a history we have little access to. Still, the price of this set decoration versus the price of actually sitting through the film is way too high.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

Half Moon
The Road to St. Diego
The Premonition
The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez
Black Butterfly
The Matrimony

Posted at April 29, 2007 5:47 AM

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