Viennale ‘11: Popcorn & Acquired Tastes

Cinephiles’ heaven: Vienna brings Clooney, the Pope and much more to the silver screen

On The Town | Philip Ellison | November 2011

Clockwise from left: Beckermann’s American Passages, Clooney’s The Ides of March and Kaurismäki’s Le Havre (Photos: Ruth Beckermann, Tobis, Upi)

Now in its final days, the Vienna International Film Festival – the Viennale – has been host to some of the biggest names in The Business and a good showing of the movers and shakers of the independent film scene.

This year, the organizers have pulled out all the stops for this 49th edition of the Viennale, offering a program of enormous scope, with scores of experimental films, documentaries, a number of silent films – including early works by Michael Kertész and Alexander Korda, among the true masters of the silent era and two of the Old Empire’s gifts to Hollywood – charting the evolution of the art, accompanied by the expected crowd-pleasing features.

Highlights thus far have included the Festival’s opening film, Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, his first non-Finnish-language film and Finland’s official submission to the 2012 Academy Awards. Subtitles notwithstanding, Kaurismäki is loved for his wit and painter’s eye, and doesn’t disappoint here. Another notable Vienna debut was Habemus Papam by Nanni Moretti, a comedy of Catholicism that looks into the very human soul of a reluctant Cardinal, "elected by God" to become the new Pope, examining the dilemmas of leadership and great expectations.

As expected, another highlight was A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg, which arrived as part of the retrospective "Apart from the Deal", a tribute to star producer Jeremy Thomas who was in residence at the Festival. Cronenberg’s highly atmospheric period picture about the Freud-Jung dynamic was shot in part on location in Vienna. Melancholia by Lars von Trier, a visually stunning When Worlds Collide riff, takes a philosophic look at the apocalypse, screened this year at Cannes.

The festival closes with the Austrian premiere of The Ides of March on 2 Nov. The film is actor-director George Clooney’s latest drama with a political theme. The story is of a present-day U.S. presidential campaign and a related intrigue, It has even set off a minor "Clooney for President" boomlet among some who are unfulfilled by America’s current leadership. Already this generation’s leading leading man, Clooney may re-invent the serious political film, following in the footsteps of Henry Fonda and Austrians Otto Preminger and Fritz Lang.

Politics serve as something more than a backdrop in Lotte Schreiber’s Tlatelolco, the story of the massacre of student and civilian protesters and bystanders in a barrio of Mexico City on 2 Oct. 1968, 10 days ahead of the Mexico City Olympics, a high stakes gamble for the first "third world" Olympic games.

From popcorn to more acquired tastes, the Viennale and the Austrian Film Museum joined forces this year to co-host a month-long retrospective dedicated to Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. Thirty of her works are included, joining the Viennale with the museum’s monthly cycle. As a sidebar, through 3 Nov. stands Akerman’s carte blanche selection of 14 works that influenced her – a wonderful list including films by Bresson, Demy, Fassbinder, Godard, Hitchcock, Murnau, Pasolini, Rossellini, Sirk, Snow, Straub/Huillet, Varda, Van Sant and Wong Kar-wai.

Documentary films play an important role again this year, including portraits such as The Survival of Ruth Wiser by Renata Schmidtkunz and The Last Jew of Drohobych by Paul Rosdy. Also notable were Guenter Schwaiger’s look behind the scenes of the leisure industry in Ibiza Occident, and the debut of Boxeo Constitucion of Jacob Weingartner. Andrew Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times examines the ever-changing profession once known as journalism through the eyes of an old-school reporter in a new-school operation. Austrian Ruth Beckermann, inspired by photographer Robert Frank, explores diverse American Passages, looking for the "real" America, Kerouac style.

This year’s 49th Viennale was itself honoured by a visit from another legend, Harry Belafonte, who delivered an enduring dose of Hollywood glamour to the proceedings from 21 to 25 October. At 84 years old, Belafonte, coming off a media dust-up with conservative Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, carries his enormous legacy with dignity and humour. Known early on as a singer in Charlie Parker’s band, he found fame with pop versions of songs of the Caribbean Islands. As an actor, he worked with directors like Robert Wise, Robert Altman and Otto Preminger. Importantly, Belafonte has never taken the role of the citizen for granted, nor shied from political activism. His half-century of social engagement was showcased by a screening of Susanne Rostock’s documentary feature Sing Your Song, illuminating Belafonte’s contribution to the American Civil Rights movement and his activism in global human rights causes.

With the festival now in its closing days, but with some tickets still to be had, dear readers, get thee to the cinema!

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