Sunday, April 13, 2008

At the movies

In thrall to ideology, formula, and powerful special effects, Hollywood has had a difficult time producing really memorable movies recently, although the situation is slowly improving. The independent and semi-independent scenes are livelier than ever. Movies made in and about the Middle East are especially rich these days, with Iran and Israel leading the pack.

The Band's Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret, 2007) is the first feature of Israeli director Eran Kolirin, with some Hebrew and Arabic, but mostly in English (which is why it didn't qualify for the Oscars as a foreign film). The story is a bit of a fairy tale, the plot set in motion by one of those subtle Middle Eastern misunderstandings. In striking sky-blue uniforms, the Ceremonial Police Band of Alexandria, Egypt, is sent on a cross-cultural visit to the Arab cultural center of the Israeli city of Petah Tikvah (Door of Hope, founded in 1878 and the oldest modern Jewish settlement in Israel). But in Arabic, there's no "p," only "b," so the visiting musicians accidentally take a much longer bus ride to Beit Tikvah, the House of Hope, an ironic name for one of those dreary Israeli development towns in the Negev desert (or so it seemed to me).* And the movie sets off from there, in a probing story both realistic and surrealistic. See it if you have a chance.

Another must-see recent foreign film is The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006), a powerful first work from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and an Oscar winner (German, with English subtitles). Set in the mid-80s, a few years before the end of Cold War, the story centers around an agent of the East German secret police (Stasi) assigned to spy on a couple, becoming absorbed into their lives beyond even the obvious potential for voyeurism. Over East Germany's 45-year history, the Stasi became the most efficient and cunning secret police ever known. Many millions of people, often themselves blackmailed by information from existing informants, became in turn informants themselves, turning the whole country into a giant snitching exercise twisting all institutions and relationships. Precisely the social and cooperative virtues supposedly prized in a communist utopia were relentlessly undermined by the destruction of trust and the isolation of individuals from one another by an all-powerful state.

The legacy was and still is painful, since the full truth about this system became known after the Berlin Wall came down and shocked the disintegrating country, accelerating its fall. The Lives of Others is a powerful piece of Cold War history and joins the ranks of other anti-collectivist classics such as 1984 and Darkness at Noon. Hollywood's ideological bent and historical ignorance make such movies difficult to produce here. Don't miss it.

POSTSCRIPT: Another recent offering from the former Soviet bloc, set in late Cold War Romania, is 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamini si 2 zile, Romanian with English subtitles). I have not seen it, but have heard nothing but very positive things about it.
* That's how the ancient Neapolis ("New City") in northern Palestine became the modern Arabic Nablus. Thus Arabic-speakers argue about "bolitics," not about politics.

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