Monday, June 8, 2009

Open Roads: sublime art/sublime feel-good -- LECTURE 21 and WE CAN DO THAT

I would never have imagined that my favorite films from this year's FSLC Open Roads fest would be so different, one that approaches art, the other an utterly mainstream movie that yet provides so much more than what American mainstream movies generally offer.

Alessandro Baricco's LECTURE 21 whirls all over the place -- from the university classroom to a weirdly enchanted land of the imagination, from a bowling alley that houses the homeless to Beethoven's Ninth. The great composer's symphony, in fact, plays a major part in the proceedings, particularly its choral section. Not to worry, Signore Baricco (shown at top, right) is not copying Copying Beethoven (another movie I quite liked, though its concerns and style were different). Instead, this first-time director, who is also a novelist and screenwriter, probes the essence of creativity in a tale that moves from present to past to future and back, from the real world to an imagined one, and from the mind to the heart.

Though the trip is sometimes confusing, so rich in imagination and feeling is it that the confusion almost seems welcome. (Really: If it's art, it's going to require repeated viewings, right?) To make matters more confusing, about an hour into things, the "screener" I was watching began to pixilate and then halted entirely so that I had to move to the next segment and missed around ten minutes of film. So entranced was I that this proved only a minor annoyance, but I'll go back to see the film again at its final showing, in any case.

Lecture 21, by the way, is spoken entirely in English -- the first time I have seen this at Open Roads -- with an international cast that includes England's John Hurt (above right), Noah Taylor (below, right) and Phyllida Law (below, left) Spain's Leonor Watling (above left) and Italy's Franco Pistoni (also in this series' We Can Do That). I'd love to have been a fly on the wall as Baricco was explaining to his cast what it is they were doing -- and why. Very game they all are and so manage to communicate -- particularly Mr. Hurt and Ms Watling -- with keen intelligence and strong emotion.

In my experience a movie as unusual as this one comes along very rarely. It's challenging, god knows, but for me, the payoff was extraordinary. It's ephemeral, too. Much of it may rise above you and hang tantalizingly, just out of reach. But so packed is it with ideas that, even if you retain half of what you see and hear, you'll probably glide out of the auditorium, as I did, on air. Lecture 21 screens at the Walter Reade for the last time on Wednesday, June 10, at 4:15pm.


How often do you encounter a movie that presses all your "progressive" buttons while, in the process, engrossing and entertaining the hell out of you? (If you possess those buttons, that is. I would advise the NY Post's Kyle Smith to stay away or risk apoplexy.) The wonderful movie WE CAN DO THAT (Si può fare), from co-writer (with Fabio Bonifacci) and director Giulio Manfredonia, shown below, takes us back to the Italy of the late 70s/early 80s, when, in a move somewhat similar in intent and time-frame to that pulled by NYC, when its psychiatric hospitals were closed and their mental patients released.

The story begins when a former businessman, now out of a job, takes over a "cooperative" of these patients and tries to find a way to put them to work. The importance of work as a force for good in society and as a help to the individual's reach toward autonomy and positive self-image generally gets short shrift from American independent film, let alone the mainstream variety. Yet this fine Italian movie provides a sterling example of how to incorporate an important social issue into a movie that is also enormously entertaining and full of life.

Stories about the mentally impaired inevitably run the double risk of producing cheap laughs and even cheaper tears. We Can Do That doesn't -- due to its insistence on getting so many specific details right. From the way in which the businessman Nello (a fine performance by Claudio Bisio) notices the creativity of some of his group and finds a way to use this in the workplace to the inclusion of romance and even sex into the menu, the movie consistently surprises and delights. Even the proclivity of one patient toward violence is handled with intelligence and skill.

Each of the patients is brought to life via the script and the individual performance, and how each finds his or her path to and usefulness in the workforce is given ample thought. (The use of the autistic, non-speaker as the group's CEO seems particularly inspired.) As in life, not every attempt at progress works, and one move toward increased freedom proves fatal. I wish the moviemakers had not climaxed their film in the way they chose, for they suddenly pile-it-on a little too thickly for comfort. Yet so much has been so right throughout that perhaps you will forgive this scene -- which in any case, offers its own pleasant surprise.

The end credits dedicate the film to the many cooperatives which sprang up and flourished during these bygone days, proving how viable a concept this actually was. As one of the characters, a doctor who had initially pooh-poohed the whole idea but now has the grace to admit his mistake, tells our hero during one of his "down" moments: Learn your lesson then roll up your sleeves. Talk about words to live by!

We Can Do That screens at the Walter Reade once more only: Tuesday, June 9, at 9pm.

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