The diversity of this year's selection at the Rome Film Festival is very evident in this ICS report of the second and third days of the fest, which treated the audience to movies that go from Japanese horror to vintage French romantic comedy.
A scene from Lesson of Evil directed by Takashi Miike
Lesson of Evil is the new thriller by controversial Japanese director Takashi Miike. The story will make more than one moralist shiver, as it follows the complete psychotic breakdown of a teacher whose students become victims of his folly, a folly that is even more disturbing as the character's actions result from a sense of twisted morality that leads him to think he's doing what he's doing because it's his duty against the corruption of what surrounds him.
Miike's use of darkness is flawless here. In the best tradition of acclaimed thrillers from the past, the tension is brought by the sapient use of sound and color rather than by the story. The movie's twist is revealed early and the viewer is allowed to fall into a downward spiral of evil together with the main character, never having to second-guess his intentions but becoming, just like the killer's victims, a defenseless witness to his descent into utter depravity.
The movie's only shortcoming is that Miike feels the need to give a lot of backstory to his protagonist. While well done in a way that is surely inspired by the best of David Cronenberg's mind-monsters, this also takes away a little from the sense of dread that surrounds the character, giving too much information when the clever use of mythological symbolism and music (the movie features the best use of "Mack the Knife" since Brecht) would have been more than enough.
A scene from Mental directed by P.J. Hogan
Mental is the new movie by P.J. Hogan and was presented out of competition, honoring the presence of the Australian director in this year's international jury. The movie is inspired by the real story of a woman who deals with an emotional breakdown as each of her five daughters also struggles with the possibility of mental illness. In the end they're all saved by the most extreme and politically incorrect version of Mary Poppins ever seen on film, a burnt-out hippie with problems of her own played with the perfect mix of humor and tragedy by an incredible Toni Collette.
A movie about mental disorders, real or otherwise, Mental is first and foremost one of the festival's main displays of great female characters, who own the movie in a way no other woman character has done this year at the festival. All the women of Mental are dealt with in detail, even the smallest role is explored with wit, and each of them has her own voice. While the movie as a whole lacks coherence and the final act feels contrived (if still very, very funny), the portrayals of all the characters, the excellent acting and the solid comedic writing are more than enough to make an enjoyable movie that is funny, over-the-top and colorful.
A scene from Marfa Girl directed by Larry Clark
Marfa Girl is the first American movie in competition. As director Larry Clark explained during the press conference, the movie is an experiment in terms of production and distribution as it was funded privately and, after the festival, will only be available online through the director's website. Set in the border town of Marfa, the movie explores the sexual awakening of a Mexican-American teenager (played convincingly by first-timer Adam Mediano) as he also has to deal with a racist cop whose mental issues will result in an unexpected and tragic crescendo of violence.
As Clark himself said, this is a film that doesn't want to follow any kind of storytelling rules, but rather tries to capture moments of everyday, mundane life that, when added together, can lead to something traumatic and exceptional. The final result is pretty much true to Clark's intentions, and the first half of the movie offers a collection of moments from each character's life that, while feeling disconnected at first, still give a glimpse of what's to come. The film's strength is mainly in the dialogue, especially between the protagonist and all the women who surround him, including his peculiar mother and a beautiful, sexually liberated young artist (brilliantly played by another first-timer, Drake Burnette) who indoctrinates him on many sexual secrets. In those scenes the movie feels truly real, perfectly capturing the casual indifference of adolescence, while some of the more traditionally structured parts of the last act, though well done, feel a little overdone. While the violence is not problematic, the escalation of it feels rushed.
Populaire is the French comedy everyone is talking about at the festival. It's the story of the fastest typist in the world, set in the 1960s, and well put together by director Régis Roinsard. The film is pleasant enough, the story is original and fun, and the leads are charming (superstar Romain Duris and Déborah François, the mother from the Dardennes' L'Enfant, here chosen for her remarkable resemblance to Audrey Hepburn). But if the goal was to pay homage to the romantic comedies of 50 years ago, then the movie is a misfire. The script is painfully predictable and tame, and the movie never even attempts to reach the satire and biting irony of Doris Day and Rock Hudson or Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn tearing each other apart in the golden days of the battle of the sexes.