Friday, October 29, 2004

The American Film Institute has resumed its annual updates of new features from European Union countries.

The 17th annual survey, 17 titles from 15 nations, rates a two-pronged exposure this weekend. Showings are scheduled for today and tomorrow at the AFI’s Kennedy Center site — which will soon be retired as a movie auditorium — and the Silver Theatre triplex. All subsequent programs will be presented at the Silver.

The showcase concludes Nov. 7.

Italy and the Netherlands are the countries with two entries apiece. I don’t know if anything should be made of the fact that the British Isles are a missing bloc. The recent announcement of preliminary selections for the Academy Awards’ best-foreign-language-film category also raises the question of whether it might be clever to coordinate AFI’s international festivals with the first round of Oscar candidates, 49 imports that will be narrowed to five when nominations are announced in late January. Washington might be an ideal place to give all the semifinalists a coming-out party before the polls begin to close.

The official Italian entry, Gianni Amelio’s “The House Keys,” was shown as part of the recent “Washington, Italia” film festival.

The AFI series has two of the titles on the advance Academy Awards list: “The Alzheimer Case,” a police thriller from Belgium, and “Kontroll,” an allegorical caprice from Hungary. Both have their problems trying to sustain unsavory pretexts.

The veteran character actor Jan Decleir dominates “Alzheimer” in the role of an elderly hit man who resolves to make a clean sweep of treacherous associates while balking at a murder contract in Antwerp — in part because he realizes that his mental faculties have begun to misfire. Not that the police or the other felons ever threaten to outwit him. The script runs out of ingenuity long before it runs out of chases and gunfights, but the idea of an aging avenger going out in a blaze of glory, as Alzheimer’s symptoms creep up on him, has some hard-boiled allure.

“Kontroll,” a first feature by Nimrod Antal, opens with what appears to be a bogus disclaimer on behalf of the subway system in Budapest. Mr. Antal was permitted to use the city’s subway stations as a sardonically infernal environment, where teams of ticket inspectors get abused and mocked while approaching passengers who may be scofflaws traveling without passes or tickets. It’s a little bewildering to think the system might require this low-tech sort of monitoring. Evidently, the automated fare card remains a faraway innovation in Budapest.

While patrolling, the crews seem to be reliving episodes from “The Warriors,” “Dressed to Kill” and “Fight Club.” Obviously, the nocturnal and subterranean attributes of the surroundings are meant to be thematically suggestive, in a morale-sapping or soul-killing vein. However, it’s not clear what prevents any of the inspectors, mostly young louts and grizzled pensioners, from going topside and seeking healthier employment or loafing quarters. It would be more challenging to go the Jacques Demy route: Present the subway system as such a gleaming, beguiling environment that wistful types, such as the hero and his potential sweetheart, a young woman in a baggy bear costume, found it irresistibly seductive and comforting.

As a rule, festival selections make the soundest case for themselves as fleeting impressions of what a given national or Continental film industry considers representative. Very few titles are likely to achieve sustained exhibition or popularity in American art houses. In many cases, festival exposure will amount to the whole shooting match.

Italy’s Ermanno Olmi and France’s Eric Rohmer, the most esteemed and senior directors in this year’s Euro showcase, seem to have shifted to unfamiliar ground. Mr. Olmi, who began in the early 1960s as a low-key realist in Milan, has ventured to China for a costume romance, “Singing Behind Screens,” which alludes to a woman’s place in a serene social scheme.

The filmmakers aspire to glorify the legend of a female pirate, Cai Wen Li, widow of a buccaneer betrayed by imperial patrons. When her beloved consort, Admiral Ching, is lured to his death, the spouse becomes captain of his crew and raids coastal outposts until being pacified by a royal fleet.

Set toward the end of the 18th century, this chronicle sounds extravagantly adventurous and arouses considerable false hope. The movie is sumptuously mounted, with elegant compositions by the director’s son, cinematographer Fabio Olmi. Early intimations of Fellini-esque fancy — for example, a brothel setting that discloses an improbable, spacious private theater and then acquires an outdoor, shipboard dimension — give way to picturesque inertia. The prospect of lyrical interplay between a vintage theater stage filled with a pirate crew and a vintage ship carrying the same desperadoes is dashed by a shortage of indoor or outdoor dynamism.

Eric Rohmer’s “Triple Agent” recalls a case of political-marital betrayal during the Popular Front regime in 1930s France. So many clips from vintage French newsreels are inserted that the movie belatedly fills in scattered historical gaps for last week’s fiasco, “Head in the Clouds,” which pretended to transport Charlize Theron to Paris during the same period. Mr. Rohmer’s assurance with conversational cinema also secures a persuasive tone of social intercourse for better than an hour; the characters discuss French politics as if they were accustomed to doing so in an everyday 1936-37 context.

Unfortunately, Mr. Rohmer neglects to create a suspenseful framework for painfully intimate deceit and treachery. He could use a little “Gaslight” in his tank. The principal characters, Fiodor (Serge Renko) and Arsinoe (Katerina Didaskalu), are exiles in Paris: a former White Russian general and his Greek wife, who paints without serious professional aspirations. Disarming and diffident, the husband is keeping his wife delicately in the dark. His manner masks an appalling double-cross.

WHAT: 2004 European Union Film Showcase

WHEN: Today through Nov. 7

WHERE: AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, and the AFI National Theater at the Kennedy Center, F Street at New Hampshire Avenue NW

TICKETS: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and over)

PHONE: 202/785-4600 at Kennedy Center; 301/495-6700 in Silver Spring

Schedule of screenings:


• At the Kennedy Center: “In Orange” (Netherlands), 2 p.m.; “South From Granada” (Spain), 3:45 p.m.; “Portugal & Co.” (Portugal), 6 p.m.; “The Alzheimer Case” (Belgium), 8 p.m.

• At the Silver Theatre: “Symmetry” (Poland), 2 p.m.; “Grimm” (Netherlands), 4 p.m.; “Singing Behind the Screen” (Italy), 7 p.m.; “Head-On” (Germany), 9 p.m.


• At the Kennedy Center: “Portugal & Co.,” 2 p.m.; “In Orange,” 4:30 p.m.; “Christmas Rematch” (Italy), 6:30 p.m.

• At the Silver Theatre: “Cheese and Jam” (Slovenia), 2 p.m.; “Faithless Games” (Czech Republic), 4 p.m.; “Head-On,” 6 p.m.; “Slim Susie” (Sweden), 8:30 p.m.

All remaining programs are at the AFI Silver. Times and titles are:

Monday: “Faithless Games,” 7 p.m.; “Grimm,” 9 p.m.

Tuesday: “Step by Step” (Luxembourg), 7 p.m.; “Move!” (Austria), 9 p.m.

Wednesday: “Cheese and Jam,” 7 p.m.; “Symmetry,” 9 p.m.

Thursday: “Slim Susie,” 7 p.m.; “Move!” 9 p.m.

Friday: “Christmas Rematch,” 7 p.m.; “Kontroll” (Hungary), 9 p.m.

Nov. 6: “South From Granada,” 2 p.m.; “Upswing” (Finland), 4:30 p.m.; “Christmas Rematch,” 7 p.m.; “Triple Agent” (France), 9 p.m.

Nov. 7: “Kontroll,” 1:45 p.m.; “Triple Agent,” 6:25 p.m.; “Upswing,” 9:45 p.m.

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