In 2006, the best film of the year premiered at the European Union Film Showcase months before it saw commercial distribution in the District.
If you saw the German film “The Lives of Others” early last year, you’ve probably already scooped up tickets for this year’s festival. With a dozen official foreign language Oscar selections and this year’s Cannes Jury Prize, best director and Palme d’Or winners, you could hardly go wrong.
The EU Film Showcase, running now through Nov. 20, is celebrating its 20th anniversary with more than 30 films from 25 countries. Produced and hosted by the AFI Silver Theatre in cooperation with the Cultural Counselors of European Union Member States Embassies and the European Commission Delegation here, the festival features not only films that will be shown in theaters this fall and winter, but films you might not get a chance to see on the big screen otherwise.
The EU may be a union, but the films coming out of the member countries wildly vary in style and mood. More and more, it seems, European filmmakers are looking to their respective countries’ pasts and trying to come to terms with them. “The Lives of Others,” about an East German Stasi officer spying on two artists, was certainly one of these. So are two standout films from this year’s festival, although on the surface they seem nothing alike.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won both the Palme d’Or and the Fipresci Prize at Cannes this year. It’s easy to see why: It’s powerful filmmaking — difficult to watch but so compelling you can’t turn away.
Like “The Lives of Others,” it takes place in the last years of a communist regime, this time Romania in 1987. The film opens in a dorm room, as Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu) seems to be packing for some sort of trip with the help of her roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca).
It soon becomes clear that Gabita is simply going to a hotel across town and that the purpose of the “journey” is to get an illegal abortion. This could easily be a melodramatic tale, but in the hands of writer-director Cristian Mungiu, it’s not, mostly for two reasons: He is unsparing and realistic in telling the story and he tells it not from the perspective of Gabita, but from that of her roommate, Otilia.
As the flighty, nervous Gabita says, “I can’t even bribe ticket inspectors.” But life under Ceausescu requires constant negotiation, so Otilia takes charge of the monstrous task, even as the chilling abortionist Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) asks more of the girls than they’d bargained for: “What did you think, I’d risk 10 years for 3,000 lei?”
Day-to-day life under communism is shown subtly through Otilia’s movements. We see the student trying multiple black-market “retailers” for her favorite brand of cigarettes, and even soap is purchased through those channels, not at the corner store.
Czechoslovakia also spent time under communist rule, but it’s another dark time in the country’s history that’s illuminated in the Czech Republic’s official Oscar selection, “I Served the King of England.” Writer-director Jiri Menzel’s first film, “Closely Watched Trains,” won that award 40 years ago; like this latest, it was based on a novel by Bohumil Hrabal.
I Served the King of England is as cutting about naivete and the way politics affects people as “4 Months,” but it tells its story in a very different way. Where the Romanian film is committed to a gritty realism, the Czech film has a lighter sensibility. It’s like a ballet, with movements gracefully choreographed to the classical music the city of Prague loves so much.
Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser) has just gotten out of prison on Vaclav Havel’s amnesty. As he struggles to make a new life for himself, he reflects on his youth and how a bright young blond with so many prospects ended up a balding old man with few. Ivan Barnev plays Jan the younger, barely speaking through most of the film, as the story is told through the older Jan’s words and the younger Jan’s face.
“Money can lay the world at your feet,” a mentor tells Jan, who’s working as a waiter. The young man heeds the advice as he makes his way up through a series of ever better paying gigs. It’s not so much hard work that ensures Jan’s rise as it is charm, luck and the ability to make friends.
“I Served the King of England” is a farce — a delightfully visual one — but it has a serious point to make. We’re not too bothered by Jan’s cluelessness until the end of the 1930s. When Hitler comes on the radio talking about the Sudentenland, the cheerful Jan turns it off. Neither does his stride break when his pretty German girlfriend Lise keeps calling Prague a “beautiful Reich city” and lectures him on the importance of “pure blood.” But Jan can’t ignore the wider world around him forever. As the older Jan now knows, “A person becomes most human when he begins to founder.”
The directors of both of these films, as well as many other filmmakers and actors, will be in town for the festival. Mr. Mungiu will attend Wednesday’s 7 p.m. screening of his film, while Mr. Menzel will be at both Nov. 12 screenings of his.
Other festival highlights include:
• Persepolis — The Cannes Jury Prize winner and France’s official Oscar submission is an adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed graphic memoir about life before and after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Voice talent includes Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni.
• Christopher Columbus, The Enigma — The opening-night film centers on a Portuguese scholar’s determination to prove that the famous Italian was actually born in Portugal.
• “The Orphanage — “Pan’s Labyrinth” director Guillermo del Toro mentored the Spanish team behind this creepy tale set at an abandoned orphanage.
• Taxidermia — This original and odd film based on short stories by Hungarian author Lajos Parti Nagy about some rather vulgar characters has been getting raves around the world.
• Summer ‘04 — Martina Gedeck, the German star of “Mostly Martha” and “The Lives of Others,” puts in another great performance in this dramatic thriller that has been described as “equal parts Rohmer and Chabrol.”
To purchase tickets and see the full slate, visit www.afi.com/silver.