Friday, February 29, 2008

The art-house antidote

The box-office receipts may not show it, but this is an especially good weekend to abandon the multiplex for the more stimulating confines of the art house. In a fairer world, two of this week's new movies -- "4 Months, 3 Week & 2 Days" and "The Band's Visit" -- would have been short-listed for best foreign-language film. For a variety of reasons -- some involving outmoded Academy rules -- neither made Oscar's cut. Both are superior works that demand attention.

Director Christan Mungiu bursts onto the international film scene with"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," an unadorned but absorbing drama about a woman seeking an abortion during the final days of the Ceausescu regime in Romania. At the time, the procedure was illegal.

Winner of the Palm d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, "4 Months" exemplifies the kind of filmmaking that has an unshakeable belief in the audience's power of discernment. Mingiu allows the drama to unfold in front of an unblinking camera, a technique that insists we form our own conclusions.

"4 Months" focuses on two college students. It's 1987, and a steady stream of bartering and underground dealing has corrupted the university atmosphere. But not all problems can be bargained away easily. Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is pregnant, and she asks her roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to help. Gabita doesn't want to have the child, which means she must venture into the perilous waters of the black market.

To obtain an abortion, Gabita must rent a hotel room and deal with the unscrupulous Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), a business-like abortionist who demands more than money. Ivanov creates a villain that -- in his way -- ranks with Javier Bardem's creation in "No Country For Old Men." Bebe's matter-of-fact delivery makes him especially monstrous, a man whose every move is self-serving.

I won't give anything more away, but I will tell you that "4 Months" includes shots that may make you wince or avert your eyes. It's also important to know that "4 Months" is not about abortion. Even after you've seen the film, you may not know exactly where Mungiu stands on the issue. That's because his movie is less interested in moralizing than in depicting the ways in which exploitation and greed become underground commodities in a brutally oppressive society. Bleak and unremitting, "4 Months" chronicles life in the midst of degrading circumstances that force just about everyone into some kind of furtive activity.

Much of the movie takes place in the hotel room where Gabita goes for her abortion, but there's a sequence in which Otilia leaves to attend her boyfriend's mother's birthday party; an atmosphere of cheery denial prevails among the celebrants. Given what we've already seen, the party proves chilling, another bitter pill in a bleak and, I think, terrifying slice of life.

If you need to restore a bit of faith in humanity after "4 Months," you can turn to "The Band's Visit." This Israeli import may be a deadpan comedy about an improbable subject, but it evokes genuine feelings about the possibilities for peaceful co-existence in the Middle East. Well, sort of.

"The Band's Visit" is one of those nothing-much-happens, but-lots-is-suggested movies. Its slender story begins when the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra -- composed of eight Egyptian policemen -- finds itself stranded in a backwater Israeli town. The band is supposed to play at an Arab Cultural Center, but the town doesn't have one. The lost musicians are a long way from the town where they're scheduled to perform.

In their starched, powder blue uniforms, these men couldn't look more out of place, but as director Eran Kolirin's gentle comedy unfolds, stereotypes begin to crumble. The band's trumpet player (Saleh Bakri), who seems to have an uncommon skill with women, admires Chet Baker, particularly Baker's rendition of "My Funny Valentine." And the band's dour leader (Israeli actor Sasson Gabai) shares an unlikely moment of emotional intimacy with the Israeli woman (Ronit Elkabetz) who suggests that the band stay overnight. The band doesn't really have much choice. There's no way out of the town until morning.

Kolirin captures the boredom and isolation of small-town living while setting up scenes that genuinely deserve to be called charming. An example: The band's flirtatious trumpet player takes an awkward Israeli young man under wing and gives him a quick lesson in the seductive arts.

As should already be clear, "The Band's Visit" prefers small human moments to booming plot points. Some of the band members dine with an Israeli family, not all of whose members are happy to see them. A trip to a local restaurant by Elkabetz's character and the band leader provokes stares. It's not so much that the Israelis are hostile; it's more that they're nonplused.

Despite the movie's obvious desire to show that people can be more alike than different, "The Band Visit" never becomes sappy or preachy. The Israelis and Egyptians don't immediately fall into one another's arms, and we're not entirely sure whether this unplanned bit of cultural exchange will have any lasting impact.

Despite the bonding that takes place, the mournful seclusion of small-town living never loses its grip on the movie or us, and by the end, "The Band's Visit" has created its own sad but beautiful music. Sad because the town's isolation can't entirely be broken; beautiful because the characters give it a try.

If you admired Fernando Meirelles' "City of God," a blistering 2002 look at life in the impoverished favelas of Rio, you may want to check out director Paulo Morelli's "City of Men," a similar movie that suffers by way of comparison with is predecessor. Morelli, who has worked with Meirelles, centers on a young man's search for his father. There's plenty of gunplay, macho posturing and gang warfare as the movie accumulates atmosphere and heartbreak en route to a mildly hopeful conclusion.

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