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Viennale Dispatch 1: Elephants, jaguars, and other creatures

Above: Swetlana Geier in Vadim Jendreyko's The Woman with the 5 Elephants.

Mittwoch in Vienna, and mittfestival (if there is such a word) also for the city's—indeed the country's—biggest and most important cinema-related event. The Viennale kicked off on Thursday 22nd with a screening of La Pivellina at the 1960s Gartenbaukino, the film (a fairly well-received Italian/Austrian drama about an abandoned two-year-old, directed by Rainer Frimmel and Tizza Covi) being somewhat overshadowed by the presence at the opening of the festival's headline guest, Tilda Swinton. One over-enthusiastic paparazzo (from Austria's most scandal-hungry tabloid) was reportedly ejected for overstepping the mark, amid scenes that would hardly be regarded as chaotic or frenetic at Cannes or Berlin, but which here at the rather more austere, genteel and rarefied Viennale caused quite a stir.

Personally speaking I'm "over the hump" in terms of my attendance, having completed five full days of screenings with four more to come—including today. My highlights of the 22 features I've seen (a total that includes just a single walkout—Rudolf Thome's Pink) have both been "archival" screenings, appropriately enough given that the Viennale's strength lies in its well-stocked, finely-curated sidebars dedicated to older material. This year two sidebars in particular caught my attention when the programme went online—a tribute to legendary American B-movie heavy, and sometime underground auteur, Timothy Carey (1929-1994) and a nine-film mini-retro for the Filipino writer-director Lino Brocka (1939-1991).

Unfortunately the Carey screenings are all scheduled for the days after my departure, but I have managed to take in a quartet of the Brockas—including the one-two knockout punches of 1974's Weighed But Found Wanting (Tinimbang ka ngunit kulang, a.k.a. You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting) and 1979's Jaguar. The former was Brocka's eighth feature but was his artistic and box-office breakthrough and was referred to by the director himself as his "first novel."

Indeed, I kept thinking of the sprawling nineteenth century fictions of George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell when watching this humanistic exploration of small-town prejudice, one which covers pretty much every stratum of society while relating a melodramatic, almost soap-opera-like story of sexual hypocrisy, abortion, jealousy and young love. As usual with Brocka, happiness is elusive and short-lived, and to be a sensitive or sympathetic individual is to be doomed to misery and/or death. But while the ending is typically downbeat, Brocka does offer a glint or two of optimism—for which, given the starkly grim finales of most of his oeuvre, we must be grateful.

Even better was Jaguar, a more focussed, straightforward affair—a character-study of a tough-but-sympathetic young security guard who strays into the fringes of the big-city underworld. At once timeless (with only a couple of tweaks, this could be a John Garfield vehicle of the 40s or a Lucas Black remake for 2011) and utterly of its time (the sound, feel, decor and costumes of disco-era Manila are superbly captured), Jaguar really does pretty much leap off the screen, punctuated by set-pieces of crunching violence yet always attuned to nuances of character development as well as penetrating social critique.

In addition to this pair, I also caught Bayan Ko - My Own Country (1985) and Brocka's supposed masterpiece, Manila in the Claws of Light (1975), and, contrary to prevailing critical opinion, preferred the former (in which an apolitical chap finds himself embroiled in a torrid labour dispute) to the latter (in which a lovelorn teenager seeks his former sweetheart in the concrete jungle of the capital). Both pictures are pungently strong on evoking the milieu of place and time, but Claws of Light takes rather a long time to relate a somewhat flimsy plot: Brocka is at his impressive best when he has a strong narrative spine to work from.

Alongside these potent dishes from the 1970s-80s Philippines, many of the newer titles have seemed pallid, even inspid fare. But I was much taken by The Woman with the 5 Elephants (Die Frau mit den 5 elefanten), a Swiss-German co-production from director Vadim Jendreyko. Quite conventional in form but fascinating in content, it's a portrait of Swetlana Geier, an octogenarian Ukrainian-born lady who has devoted most of her life to translating Dostoevsky (among others) from Russian into German. Geier's painstaking, surprisingly collaborative professional methods would make for a lively and informative movie in their own right, but the crux of the film lies in how she has dealt with her activities during World War 2, when she worked for the occupying German authorities. A sensitive and intelligent exploration of highly complex moral issues, 5 Elephants has been, surprisingly and gratifyingly, a surprise word-of-mouth success of this year's Viennale. Indeed, I found a friend waiting in the "returns" queue outside Stadtkino with a voucher indicating that he was the 54th person in line...

Fiction-wise, I was taken with a pair of French features featuring sometime co-stars Guillaume Depardieu and Beatrice Dalle (they shared the screen in C.S. Leigh's 2003 Process.) A Real Life (Au voleur) by Sarah Leonor is apparently the final screen appearance from Depardieu, who died in 2008 but who has popped up in numerous posthumous releases. He plays a feral small-time criminal who becomes romantically involved with a peripatetic supply-teacher, the story subtly nodding to numerous cinematic forebears stretching all the way back to L'atalante. The Dalle vehicle Domain (Domaine), by Austrian-French-Lebanese writer-director Patric Chiha, is more of a slow-burning, enigmatic affair about a 17-year-old's unorthodox relationship with his mother's sister. Travels avec ma tante, if you like, and I did like—though Chiha's evasive, elliptical methods and "restrained" storytelling methods may struggle among audiences less adventurous and patient than the Viennale's.

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