Film Reviews
Image courtesy of the Telluride Film Festival

Over Labor Day weekend, the 49th Telluride Film Festival enjoyed its full complement of attendees, a nice rebound from the all-mask 2021 event. As always, no one can come close to seeing all the enticing films on offer, so tough choices and constant second guessing rules. This year women directed and dominated exceptionally strong selections of quite different time periods and subjects.

Telluride presents three Silver Medallion tributes each year, along with a screening of that honoree’s latest film. Leading off the first evening, Sarah Polley received this well-deserved recognition from Frances McDormand who first humorously knighted her before the medallion was awarded. After an interview with Polley, she presented her splendid adaptation of Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel “Women Talking.” Screenplay writer/director Polley dramatically stages a profound debate among eight Mennonite women who have endured repeated drugging with cow tranquilizer and rapes by the men in their religious commune.

Set in 2010 in an isolated, backwards prairie location, the women must decide among three options: do nothing, fight, or leave, with pros and cons thoroughly explored with arguments for each by different women. The all-star cast includes Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Claire Foy, and McDormand (a producer as well), among others. As August who takes notes on the meeting, Ben Whishaw is the only man involved in a superb, memorable, and poignant encounter with philosophical and spiritual consequences. Who decides? Who speaks and for whom? Who has the ability to determine submission or freedom, and at what cost? This film, announced in the opening title card as “an act of wild female imagination,” is one I’m eager to see again for its exploration of weighty ideas and difficult decisions.

Director Sebastián Lelio’s “The Wonder” dramatizes another woman-driven story set in an isolated religious community in famine-ravaged 1862 Ireland. English nurse Lib Wright (a magnificent Florence Pugh) arrives to investigate reports that young Anna has survived four months without eating. Pitting rationalism against unquestioned religious belief, Lelio illuminates the inflexible, uncontested position of a panel of men wielding power versus Wright’s careful analysis. Sexual guilt, supernatural elements, and intimidating control all factor in.

A determined woman investigator anchors Iranian director Ali Abbasi’s unnerving “Holy Spider,” based on horrifying, real events, the murders of sixteen women in Iran’s holy city of Mashhad. Believing in his religious duty, pious family man Saeed picks up and strangles several prostitutes, the crimes violently depicted. In a parallel plot line, journalist Rahimi refuses to let pervasive misogynist comments and oppressive treatment dissuade her from pursuit of the man who taunts the press. As Rahimi, Zar Amir Ebrahimi won the Cannes Best Actress Award for her focused calm inflected with her outrage over sexist attitudes and abuse leading to this monumental tragedy. To his credit, as he described his intent in a post-screening Q&A, Abbasi presents his female victims as three-dimensional individuals, not just targeted prey. Rahimi’s unwavering resolve combines courage with frightening, what feels at times like foolhardy, personal risk. Her awareness of the sexist oppression is reinforced by the male protestors chanting their support of Saeed. The final scenes achieve a crescendo of emotion with the concluding, haunting image beyond utterly disturbing.

Another exceptionally steadfast young woman commands our attention in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “Tori and Lokita,” set in Belgium where, as refuges from Cameroon, the two main characters lack legal immigration documents. Lying that they’re siblings, teenage Lokita and younger Tori fiercely protect each other against a bureaucratic system and drug dealers who exploit them. Suspenseful and heartwarming in the loyalty between Tori and Lokita (a perfect title since they unconditionally stick together), the Dardennes communicate their characteristic empathy for disenfranchised individuals.

Equally gripping in a quite different way is “TÁR,” showcasing Cate Blanchett’s riveting, tour-de-force performance as Lydia Tar, a celebrated symphony conductor now head of the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic, preparing to record Mahler’s fifth symphony. She teaches master classes at Juilliard, is married to the orchestra’s concertmaster (a wonderful Nina Hoss) and has an adopted daughter. Above all, however, writer/director Todd Field immerses us in Lydia’s self-indulgent, egotistical control of her personal as well as her professional life, until it all begins to slip away.
Also a Silver Medallion recipient, Blanchett embraces and embodies Lydia’s strength and fragility. She’s forceful, accomplished, and extremely manipulative, as discussed by Blanchett after “TÁR’s” screening. Probing all these attributes, Blanchett’s Tar rules her world with unflinching confidence and abusive, unscrupulous bravado. Over two and a half hours (and I didn’t want the film to end), the character arc Blanchett navigates from self-assured power to nightmare fears to intractable complications provides a thrilling, mind-bending ride with a great actress conquering an exquisite role.

And yet another dynamic, but in this iteration deeply flawed, woman steers the personal and political world of 1980s Britain in Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light.” As Hilary Small, the always remarkable Olivia Colman, anchors the Empire cinema, selling tickets and concessions. Mendes’ love letter to films and old-fashioned, gorgeous cinemas engages with Britain’s racism when Hilary and cinema’s Black hire Stephen bond. Complicated by Hilary’s mental challenges and her boss’ sexual abuse, the story incorporates a spectrum of issues presented in an entertaining package that makes its points without overstating them.

Two more female-driven films relying on complicated love affairs manage to escape stereotypical pitfalls. Mia Hansen-Love’s “One Fine Morning” stars Léa Seydoux as Sandra balancing a torrid affair and, at the same time, her father’s declining health. Similarly, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s reinterpretation of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” gives D.H. Lawrence’s Constance Reid a feminist assertiveness. Both of these women exercise a decisive agency in their affairs, a welcome involvement by the more active woman.

In a totally different vein, an additional film succeeds because of the brilliant screenwriter Dorothy Yost, all-too-often ignored in film history. “Kentucky Pride” is the year’s best of Pordenone choice, directed by John Ford. This 1925 silent film was accompanied with live music by the accomplished Donald Sosin performing his original score. It follows the fate of racehorse Virginia’s Future, narrated from her point of view, as humans exploit, abuse, and eventually, not surprisingly, rescue her.

The most emotional, heartbreaking film was Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s “Close,” which left some viewers literally sobbing though the story unfolds with quiet, stylistic restraint. It traces the relationship between two thirteen-year-old boys whose friendship invites some sexual innuendo questioning by their peers. What follows, no spoilers here, holds up a mirror to contemporary issues and suggests quite delicately the attention and support young boys and girls need and deserve.

Japanese Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Broker” merits inclusion among the Fest’s masterful films. South Korea’s Song Kang-ho, winner of Cannes’ Best Actor award, runs a baby broker operation, he and his partner selling abandoned newborns to wealthy couples. As with Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters,” he manages a scathing commentary on bureaucracy and social ills with a deft touch incorporating unpredictably humorous moments. In “Godland,” without the humor, Icelandic director Hlynur Pálmason follows a Danish priest in the late nineteenth century who travels to remote Iceland to build a church, photograph the local people, and convert them. The arc of his character evolves in opposition to that of the initially brutish local guide. Their spiritual conflicts inform a revealing, poignant study of religion and misguided colonial attitudes.

“Bones and All,” the only film I can not wholeheartedly recommend, presents, with some reserve, cannibals, those who in fact are the living eating the living. At a post-screening discussion, director Luca Guadagnino joked that with so many zombie films, the walking dead consuming the living, he thought the living eating the living was a step forward. On a more serious and heartfelt note, he argued that, at the story’s core, characters try to make a terrible situation into something good, grappling with the impossibility of that struggle while accepting uncompromising love. He also notes the importance of setting the story in Reagan’s America with the disenfranchisement of all the characters amidst beauty, hope, generosity, and poverty. Along with these lofty ideas, he feels that the magic of the horror/road movie is the compassion we feel for all the characters. That emotion derives from and depends on Taylor Russell as the central character Maren Yearly, abandoned by her father and eventually joining forces with Timothée Chalamet as Lee. The arch, ingenious performance by Mark Rylance as cannibal Sully makes it almost worth the two hours plus indulgence.

In the three and a half days of screenings, I couldn’t fit in several often-praised documentaries. I hope they appear in cinemas or streaming soon. And despite the serious subject matter, the formidable presence of women directors and actors left me eager to see all the films again as they open over the next few months. Intelligently and insightfully observing internal and external struggles, revealing the specificity of contemporary and historical pressures (so remarkably relevant today), the fest’s films reach out and inspire as they inform. We are, indeed, a global community.

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