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Scenes From the BIFF

by Jeremy D. Goodwin on June 8, 2011

Our favorite old-media bigmouth: David Carr in Page One: Inside The New York Times


Though there was pleasure to be had in the buzz emanating from certain films at the sixth annual Berkshire International Film Festival, held June 2-5—the painstakingly arranged screening of Terrence Malick’s newly Palme D’Or-winning opus Tree of Life, the sold out, closing-night New England premiere of docu-noir Chasing Madoff—the more lasting pleasures in my own film safari came from the utter surprises.

Two foreign-language narrative features, each screening at the non-movie-like hour of 9:15 AM and circled on my personal calendar for reasons quite forgotten by the time the day arrived, turned out to be the highlights of the dozen or so films I caught. To summarize the plot points of Matias Bize’s The Life of Fish is to minimize its pitch-perfect power. Taking place over the course of a few hours at a house party where a group of childhood friends, now roughly in their early 30s, reunite, the exceedingly patient, handheld-shot picture manages to earn its tough-love anti-climax. The metaphorical subtext—that grungily sexy travel writer Andres, returning home after ten years at a Berlin-based magazine, is a mere tourist in his own life—is layered in with quiet insistence that never becomes off-putting. Quiet, insightful, and real, the film is a bittersweet delight.

And then there’s La Prima Cosa Bella, already much-decorated from its trip around the European festival circuit last year. Director Paolo Virzì uncorks a wide-swinging tearjerker that manages to blend dark and light humor in a family saga that could easily sink to sentimentality, but doesn’t. It cross-cuts between the experiences of a not-necessarily-single mom and her two children over the course of many years, through the context of the mother’s present-day illness. Valerio Mastandrea gives a particularly charismatic performance as the son, who battles his emotional unavailability (plus a lingering heroin addiction) to emerge as a halfway-decent sibling.

The strength of the Great Barrington-based festival, which has expanded over the past two years to Pittsfield, Mass., as well, has traditionally been documentaries. Page One: Inside The New York Times opened the proceedings and proved a generally satisfying love letter to print journalism. Director Andrew Rossi (present for a Q&A) maintains a veneer of humoring the critics, but it seems clear this picture comes from a love for the time-honed processes of professional journalism. For all their trendy, tossed-off barbs at traditional journalists’ supposed arrogance and potential irrelevance, new-media proselytizers depicted here come off as charlatans glibly denigrating the shoe-leather journalism upon which they depend.

Less successful was the interminable L’Amour Fou, essentially a bio doc presenting French-Algerian couturier Yves Saint Laurent as troubled but not necessarily that interesting, cloaked in the fig leaf of an interesting angle—the posthumous sale of the art collection he assembled with romantic partner Pierre Bergé. Fewer lingering shots of Bergé appearing thoughtful and wounded would help the lumbering pace.

My own docket of films yielded more hits than misses: though desperately in need of some judicious editing, the British road comedy The Trip succeeded upon the competitive banter between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, depicting stylized versions of themselves; We Still Live Here is a fascinating look at the burgeoning revival of the once-extinct Wampanoag language among that native tribe’s current-day inheritors; and the densely packed Tree of Life is sure to launch a thousand dissertations with its non-linear tale, perhaps suggesting the subjectively crucial, existential importance of a common life’s defining moments (or maybe the exact opposite.) Think post-war Faulkner but with dinosaurs and a supernova.

It’s all in a festival, and this year’s BIFF proved once again to be a satisfying feast.