Cate Blanchett in "Carol." Photo courtesy ZFF.
Progressives will find a lot to love among the 161 movies from 33 countries shown at the 11th annual Zürich Film Festival, which ran from September 24 to October 4. Among ZFF’s gala premieres was Todd Haynes’ Carol, adapted by screenwriter Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt. (Since Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 Strangers on a Train there have been many screen versions of Highsmith’s books, including René Clément’s 1960 Purple Noon with Alain Delon and 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Matt Damon.) Ed Lachman’s stylish cinematography captures the ambiance of the early days of the conservative Eisenhower era, when conformity was the repressive norm amidst postwar America’s economic boom.
This is a slow moving, deliberately paced character study of lovers whose sexual preference threatens the status quo. The attraction between upper class, married Carol (Cate Blanchett) and shop girl Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara of 2011’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) is sparked by a chance encounter at the department store where Therese works. Their subsequent affair leads to underhanded, homophobic tactics from Carol’s bullying husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), desperate to save their marriage. Carol also explores photography as an art form, as Therese - opened up by her affair - evolves from shop girl to photographer. At a ZFF “Master Class” Haynes said what attracts him to shooting movies about women is their conflicts with patriarchal society’s “normalcy, and expectations that they succumb to limits of the culture.” He noted that Carol’s actresses wore true-to-the-era girdles, both symbolically and physically restricting the women’s movement. According to IMDB.com Carol will be released Nov. 20.
At a ZFF press conference actress Ellen Page noted: “Gay women really haven’t had the opportunity to have a movie [featuring male homosexuals] like Philadelphia or Milk” - that is, not until now. Page produced and co-stars in Freeheld, which is arguably closer in sensibility to the 1939 Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Although Freeheld starts off like a run-of-the-mill police pic, this well-acted, well-directed drama by Peter Sollett is anything but routine.
Inspired by a true story, the movie features Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a closeted lesbian detective for the Ocean City, N.J. police department. She falls in love and moves in with Stacie Andree (Page), but after years of dedicated service, when she is stricken with cancer, Laurel’s domestic partner is denied her pension on budgetary and religious grounds by the Ocean City councilmen, known as “freeholders.” This leads to a battle royale largely played out in city hall between the freeloading freeholders and a dying Laurel, Stacie and their supporters.
The latter includes Laurel’s other partner, detective Dane Wells (depicted by the intense Michael Shannon, Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor for 2008’s Revolutionary Road), who rallies the reluctant, conservative police force behind Laurel, complaining to the press that after fighting for justice her entire life, now the city government is trying to deny Laurel justice. As Laurel’s cancer worsens the exuberant gay rights advocate Steven Goldstein (Daily Show alum Steven Carell) provides much needed comic relief, as he rallies activists to fight for equality. This stand-up-and-cheer movie celebrates how individual people can unite to force the powers-that-be to change unjust policies. The precedent struck by Laurel and Stacie’s struggle played a major role in the same sex marriage movement.
One of the ZFFs themes was women and cinema, and it included a panel called “Nouvelle Vague au Féminin” (the Female New Wave). At the press conference I asked Ellen Page about women and lesbians in the U.S. motion picture industry. “Statistically there are less women behind the camera, composing music, writing scripts and acting,” replied Page. “There are less African-American and First Nations women [in Hollywood]. It’s shifting towards more diversity. And audiences want more diversity and hope that films move in that direction.”
The 28-year-old actress/producer, who first burst upon the scene playing the title character in the 2007 indie Juno, for which Page was Oscar-nommed, went on to say, “As a gay woman in Hollywood, there are not many out gay women in Hollywood. I’m very fortunate; I have great opportunities I’m feeling very grateful for.” Freeheld was released Oct. 2 in the U.S.
Diversity is the overriding theme of the three-hour directorial tour de force In Jackson Heights by Frederick Wiseman, the dean of documentary filmmakers. In Jackson Heights is an absorbing nonfiction, fly-on-the-wall look at this unique, multi-culti community in Queens, New York City, where 167 languages are spoken. But the diversity in this melting pot-on-steroids extends far beyond the linguistic - Wiseman’s behind the scenes camera reveals religions (Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews); ethnicities (Bangladeshis, Arabs, Indians, Blacks, Mexicans, Caucasians, Chinese, etc.); ages (from children to seniors ruminating on old age); classes (small businessmen, proletarians, etc.); and there’s an emphasis on the LGBT community - in particular on transgender people.
Much of In Jackson Heights is devoted to activists fighting for social justice. Gays debate whether or not to continue to meet in a local synagogue, and the annual gay pride parade is shown, including NYC’s liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio, the first Hizzoner to join the annual march. Transsexuals organize against what they contend is biased treatment at a Jackson Heights restaurant and police harassment. A Hispanic shop owner grouses about the alleged corruption of city/state/federal politicians, but onscreen Jackson Heights’ City Councilman appears to be very proactive and in touch with the grass roots. His office workers are shown fielding incessant complaint calls while the councilman is out and about the community, marching in the gay pride parade, etc.
In Jackson Heights captures the flavor of this startlingly diverse community composed largely of newly arrived immigrants trying to find their path toward the “American Dream.” As is Wiseman’s wont since his first documentary - 1967’s Titicut Follies, shot at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts - there is no narration. Sometimes Wiseman’s technique falls short, such as during a confrontation between Colombians and NYPD. Is this a case of rowdy soccer hooligans getting out of hand or of police brutality against Latinos? But this is a minor quibble: The venerable octogenarian 40th film may well be his magnum opus, revealing to us a community’s cosmos, rooted in an underlying sense of faith in the American traditions of tolerance, brotherhood, sisterhood and yes, now, trans-hood in the ’hood. According to IMDB.com In Jackson Heights was released Oct. 4 in the U.S.
Writer/director Matt Brown’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, which kicked ZFF off, is an anti-racist, anti-colonial, anti-war biopic about Indian math genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire) that also portrays the great lefty philosopher Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam). This well-acted, stylish movie, shot in India and England, depicts what Infinity co-star Stephen Fry (as Sir Francis Spring) described at a press conference as an “intellectual, spiritual love affair between two people of different castes.”
Those two people are self-taught Indian mathematician Ramanujan and academician G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who brought Ramanujan to Cambridge circa 1914. Madras-born Ramanujan, who has what he describes as a god-given numerical gift, has to overcome British colonial dismissal, local taboos, and the racism and elitism of English academia. Ramanujan and his mathematical prowess offend the “master race” sensibility of some of the veddy British Cambridge dons, who refer to him as “Gunga Din.” Even his champions, Hardy and Littlewood (Toby Jones,), question his intuitive creative process when it clashes with their proofs-based Western logic.
Bertrand Russell’s outspoken opposition to WWI is depicted and he is sacked from Cambridge. During the press conference I asked Cambridge graduate Stephen Fry about the figure who plays a small role onscreen but is arguably the most famous person Infinity depicts. “Bertrand Russell was an aristocrat, whose first great achievement was in mathematics,” explained Fry. “He rescued math. Russell paradoxically turned to philosophy. He was extraordinarily brilliant, a deeply moral atheist. He was implacably opposed to World War I and said something very theological to critics” who took him to task for questioning that their “‘sons lay their lives down for their country in sacrifice.’ Russell replied in the newspapers: ‘We’re doing something far worse: Asking them to kill for their country.’”
German director Florian Gallenberger’s Colonia is arguably ZFF’s most hard-hitting film. Lena (Emma Watson) and Daniel (Daniel Brühl) are Westerners ensnared in the U.S.-backed 1973 coup d’etat in Chile. The horrific events are chillingly depicted in news clips of democratically elected leftist Pres. Salvador Allende, etc., and harrowing dramatizations based on actual events. Lena and Daniel end up in Colonia, a remote, supposedly devout Christian compound run by fanatic Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist), a Germans who ended up in South America after World War II. Colonia puts the “mental” into fundamentalist, as the gender-separated flock performs slave labor, suffer beatings and subsist in prison-like conditions.
[Plot Spoiler Alert!] It turns out that Colonia actually fronts for General Pinochet’s repressive regime. Beneath the “Christian” colony are a series of tunnels and torture chambers for political prisoners. Colonia is reminiscent of Costa-Gavras’ 1982 Chile coup classic Missing and the 2015 Bolivia and Chile-set Olvidados - although it is arguably more terrifying, as the demented Schäfer was convicted of serial sexual abuse of children. However, as Colonia notes, nobody was ever convicted of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Pinochet’s torturers underground at Colonia. Ironically, this expose of Pinochet’s reactionary regime is a production of 20th Century Fox - Rupert Murdoch’s studio.
Director/co-writer Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight, co-made by Participant Media (the Oscar-winning documentaries Al Gore’s 2006 An Inconvenient Truth and 2014’s Edward Snowden film Citizenfour), also deals with the heavy subject matter of child abuse perpetrated by those posturing as Christians. This tautly paced, excellently directed and acted drama based on actual events also shows the news media at its best. The feature’s title refers to the Boston Globe’s investigative unit and dramatizes how the daily’s first high level Jewish editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber of Showtime’s outstanding series Ray Donovan, in which Schreiber's title character and his brother are survivors of sexual abuse by a Boston priest), unleashes Spotlight’s investigative journalists - all lapsed Catholics - on the church in Boston, that Irish-Catholic stronghold. Michael Keaton plays the Spotlighters’ editor, who rises to the occasion and takes on the odds by exposing the religious hierarchy’s powers that be, including Cardinal Law (a crafty Len Cariou). Rachel McAdams delivers a convincing performance as a reporter on the trail of truth.
The stellar cast includes Billy Crudup as a lawyer of a different stripe, profiteering off the massive molestation of children by priests, and John Slattery (Mad Men’s Roger) as a reluctant editor who eventually backs the expose. The film discloses the church’s coverup of systemic child abuse, and also shines a light on the media for not doing more, earlier. Nevertheless, in the tradition of 1976’s All the President’s Men, this stand up and cheer progressive picture shows what investigative journalism is capable of when acting as society’s watchdog. According to IMDB.com, Spotlight will be released Nov. 6 - don’t miss it!
British director Stephen Frears’ (2006’s The Queen) The Program also features a media expose, as real life Aussie sports reporter David Walsh (portrayed by Irish actor David O’Dowd) refuses to buy into cyclist Lance Armstrong’s (Ben Foster) hype and self-aggrandizing mythology as the seven time Tour de France champion. Despite resistance from his colleagues and editor, the suspicious Walsh probes Armstrong and his team for taking performance enhancing drugs. Dustin Hoffman portrays a risk insurance expert who also suspects foul play. The Program indicates that Armstrong didn’t exhibit signs of cancer until after he took EPO, perhaps suggesting, irony of ironies, that doping might have actually brought on his testicular cancer. “What price winning?” asks this trenchant, no-holds-barred drama.
For more ZFF information see: http://zff.com/en/home/. Located in Zürich’s historic Old Town, the Widder Hotel is a great place to stay within walking distance of most ZFF venues. See: www.widderhotel.ch/.
L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is The Progressive Magazine’s “Man In Hollywood.”He has interviewed many talents such as Costa-Gavras and Oliver Stone (twice) for this magazine, which features his interview with Tim Robbins in the October 2015 issue. Rampell’s Progressive interview with America’s former Poet Laureate is in the new book “Conversations With W.S. Merwin.” Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).