Few screenings at festivals are more sublime than compilation pieces that shed new light on a director or series of films you genuinely admire; few are more disappointing than such pieces that don’t accomplish that feat.
By Sidney Lumet (★★½) opens (and closes) with a chilling, telling biographical anecdote that Lumet, at least thinks may be the key to understanding his films. Sandwiched in between the beginning and ending of that anecdote is an extensive interview in which Lumet discusses his life and films.
Its hubris to call any artist of Lumet’s quality a less than stellar interpreter of his own work, but the director’s knowledge of his own work may be part of the problem. His memories and interpretations are direct–and the clips from his films that Nancy Buirski uses to illustrate them are so on-the-nose–that I felt a bit like I was at an undergraduate lecture. Everything was explained for me, with the most obvious examples given to recall for the test. Nowhere did I feel as though I was drawn into Lumet’s inner life. The film is an effective bit of summary and synthesis, but (the auteur’s confessional shocker notwithstanding) it never seems to probe.
Dog Day Afternoon was about “the humanity of these two men.” Serpico was about a guy who questioned authority who happened to be a cop. Unlike Kazan, Lumet treated actors like “human beings” and did not try to “manipulate” them. “Is it fair?” was a bedrock question that formed the foundation of much of his work. Having Lumet and Lumet alone be the commentator works only to the extent the director is a charismatic personality. And while he lived and full and fascinating life, there isn’t much variety in his delivery nor the film’s structure. By Sidney Lumet is a valuable archival piece of history, and I’m certainly glad Lumet did the interview before he died, but it is the sort of film I’ll only ever go back to in order to look up the quotes about a particular film if I happen to be thinking about it.
A pair of smaller, less heralded films also offered some ups and downs on the festival’s first day. Starless Dreams (★★½) is as sobering and depressing as its summary makes it sound: girls in an Iranian prison reflect on what brought them there. Mehrdad Oskouei’s film is not afraid to let the girls questions linger as an indictment of the repressive culture that helps forge them. The best scene may well be when they receive religious instruction and bombard the visiting teacher with precise questions about the way their gender is devalued and dehumanized in the nation’s religious instruction. Even when asked to imagine how they might have had a better life, they can only think in terms of patriarchal structures. “If society had just given my father a job…” one of the girls says. The idea that life could be better for her, directly, is literally unthinkable.
The big winner in Day 1 might have been a sneak preview of Kedi (★★★). An endearing portrait of Istanbul is painted through interviewing its citizens about their relationships with cats. Their reflections run the gamut from the New Agey (cats “give off good energy” and “absorb negative energy”) to the profoundly theological. “Cats,” one interviewee opines, ” know that people act as middlemen to God’s will.”
“Do justice to one’s love,” says a restaurateur who sees in the adopted cat’s mousing not simply a solution to a business problem but a living parable about our own relationship to work.