Friday, August 30, 2013

Nicolas Philibert's LA MAISON DE LA RADIO Who knew French radio was so much fun?

The name Nicolas Philibert rang a small bell with me, but until I looked him up I didn't realize he was the filmmaker who gave us one of the best-ever explorations of children and education, To Be and To Have, along with other worthwhile documentaries such as Nénette. He's back this coming week with a new film that is so different from those other two that all I could find in common was an extraordinarily talented documentarian behind the camera.

LA MAISON DE LA RADIO, which translates roughly to Radio House, takes us into Radio France (that huge, oval building, above), a cultural institution much loved by French men and women and something like, according to the press materials for the film, that nation's equivalent our own NPR or the Brits' BBC. But how do you make a visual film about radio, particularly when the language here is French, and which, if you do not speak and understand it, you will have to be reading sub-titles throughout?

Damned if M. Philibert, shown at left, hasn't done it. And interestingly enough, the film I thought of almost immediately as I was watching this one is the current indie hit In a World..., in which another very talented filmmaker, Lake Bell, gets us enormously interested in the importance of the aural: sound, speech, projection and pronunciation. Almost at the start of Philibert's film, an older female Radio France employee offer a very good critiques on a cub reporter's news story -- from all sorts of angles -- and we come back again to more of this critique as the movie progresses.

Of course, if we spoke and understood French, we could better appreciate other critiques throughout the movie, yet this is the least of it. What shines through is Philibert's own appreciation of the many employees of the company and how they do their various jobs and handle the many "guests" -- singers, musicians (wait till you see the xylophone players!), authors -- as well as everything from news reports to quiz shows and a late-night radio call-in program, France Bleu.

You'll find yourself chuckling often and occasionally laughing aloud at some of what goes on here. It's the most horrifying new reports -- more bodies found in a local river, one million dead sardines off the coast of California (or is it actually anchovies?) -- that brings out the biggest laughs from the employees like the woman pictured above. Clearly, black humor reigns where daily news in concerned. It would have to.

All along the way, the filmmaker includes charming visuals whenever possible: from cars in the garage to umbrellas opened up on a rainy day; deserted hallways to cubby holes for mail. Musicians range from rap singers to a gorgeous sounding choral ensemble, news of the day covers everything from those bodies in that river to traffic and shipping news to Egyptians protesting in Tahrir Square.

We only get bits and pieces of any of the cultural programs, yet the little we hear indicates a fine intelligence and intellectual curiosity at work. The movie appears to include but 24 hours in the life of this fabled radio house, but I suspect the filmmaker spent many more days to get all that he's garnered, then trimmed it down to its just-about-right, 100-minute running time. Whatever: The people you'll meet here (that's the fellow in charge of all the music, below, and another who handle books and culture at bottom) and the things you'll see and learn will surprise you and probably stay with you longer than you'd imagine.

La Maison de la Radio -- from Kino Lorber -- opens its U.S. theatrical premiere with a two-week run at New York City's Film Forum beginning this Wednesday, September 4. October and November will see the film reach at least four more cities. You can check all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters by clicking here and then scrolling down.

Personal appearances: Filmmaker Nicolas Philibert will appear in person on Wednesday, September 4, at the 7:50 pm screening, while critic and author Phillip Lopate will appear in person on Friday, September 6, at the 7:45 pm show.

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