MIFF 2011

What is it?

The 60th Melbourne International Film Festival that concluded on Sunday night. We saw four films – Circumstance by Maryam Keshavarz, Super by James Gunn, Bobby Fischer Against The World by Liz Garbus and Another Earth by Mike Cahill.

All four were worth seeing (two in particular, as discussed below) and each was unique: a smart and sexy story about the collision between orthodox and moderate Islam; a darkly humorous Indie film charting the violent revenge of a costumed vigilante; an insightful documentary delving into the life of a great American chess player; and an intimate portrayal of forgiveness in the face of a mirror Earth appearing without warning in our skies.

As always, MIFF 2011 delivered great quality and intrinsic diversity.

What did we think?

Circumstance is a powerful film that reveals the complex struggle between orthodox and moderate values in contemporary Iran. Two 16-year old best friends, Atafeh and Shireen, are coming of age under the strict morality code of an Islamic theocracy. Discovering a burgeoning desire for one another, their dreams of escaping to a less authoritarian life are exposed to the harsh realities of their country.

Deftly exploring themes of sexuality, independence, faith and corruption, the film unravels both the dramatic and subtle effects of religious orthodoxy on a small family living in Tehran. Father, mother, brother and sister are all affected in different ways, influenced by their pasts and by their current outlooks on life. Keshavarz has the confidence to leave much unsaid, relying on body language and fleeting detail to suggest the wider context of the central story. Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy are sexy, endearing and compelling. Reza Sixo Safai, as Atafeh’s born again older brother, is suitably creepy and sinister. Circumstance refreshingly ignores the much-travelled issues of Jihad in favour of painting a frank picture of everyday life in a difficult city struggling to reconcile its past and its future – 5 stars.

Super continues in the vein of recent Indie superhero films, Kick Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) loses his wife (Liv Tyler) to the local druglord (Kevin Bacon) and, encouraged by a vivid vision of the Holy Avenger, decides to seek revenge. Donning the mask of the Crimson Avenger, he takes to the streets, dealing increasingly gory punishment with a monkey wrench.

The camerawork is shaky and screen composition loose, deliberate techniques that evoke an amateur quality typical of Indie films. The Crimson Avenger attacks drug dealers, child molesters and, with shocking hilarity, an obnoxious couple who commit the mortal sin of queue jumping. There are many funny moments in this film – darkly satirical commentary passed on the bland landscape of middle America. But as the film reaches its inevitable climax, the violence becomes truly excessive and the laughs are replaced with shudders. Super is an accomplished small-budget film with a great cast that would be entirely satisfying were it seen on its own. Ultimately however, it cannot compete with the subtle power and more profound content of its company – 3.5 stars.

Bobby Fischer Against The World explores the intriguing life of the great American chess grandmaster whose triumph over Russian Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Championship inspired a worldwide fascination with the game of kings. The key message of the film is a familiar one – that genius is often accompanied by madness, a message no truer than it was with Fischer. After the 1972 championship he went into self-imposed exile and developed a lifelong obsession with nuclear disarmament, the United States government and the Jewish conspiracy (this latter obsession blooming into full-blown antisemitism, an inexplicable paradigm for a man born of two Jewish parents). His life appeared to have been an intensely lonely one, with little evidence of either love or friendship, even amongst those who knew him best.

The film draws on some great footage of Fischer at different stages of his life, together with insightful interviews with relatives, friends, contemporaries and modern chess players. Unfortunately, there are a few significant gaps in the story the film tells – blanks that fail to explain Fischer’s antisemitism or loneliness for instance, along with an unusual lack of chess talk. It left us feeling as though we had learned a great deal of the history surrounding Fischer, but little of the man himself – 3 stars.

Another Earth is a stunning film by first-time director, Mike Cahill. Maintaining exquisite control by also taking on producing, writing, cinematography and editing roles, Cahill has produced a compelling and complex film that, like Circumstance, communicates as much with body language and detail as it does with dialogue.

On the night that an exact mirror of Earth is discovered in the solar system, young astrophysics student, Rhoda (Brit Marling), collides with the car of John (William Mapother) and his family, sending John into a coma and killing his wife and child. When Rhoda is released from prison, she finds herself adrift, every connection with her past life severed – she is a stranger even to her family, and they to her. Her only hope of a life lies in the unlikely possibility of starting afresh on Earth 2.

For centuries, the human species has learnt much from looking outwards to the stars and inwards to the smallest particles that constitute life, but we have perhaps neglected to simply look at ourselves. Though a vast astronomical event, the appearance of Earth 2 provides a mirror to our hopes, intentions and actions at the most familiar of scales. This is an intimately existential movie conveyed powerfully through Marlin’s extraordinary performance and Cahill’s inspired direction – 5 stars.

We would love to hear about other films you may have seen at MIFF 2011 – which ones should we avoid and which should we try to see when they come out on general release?

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