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A Strong Sample

This year’s Berkshire International Film Festival offered a rewarding mix of documentaries and fiction films

by Jeremy D. Goodwin on June 7, 2012

If one person is able to gain a representative view of a film festival containing 70 films, spanning parts of four days and happening in two municipalities, it’s purely by accident. But for what it’s worth, I managed to see 16 movies, split almost evenly between narratives and documentaries, and can say it was probably the best bunch of film I’ve personally seen in the seven years of the Berkshire International Film Festival.

One of BIFF's best: Marina Abramovic in The Artist Is Present.

The BIFF has an excellent eye for documentaries that are likely to emerge as hits, such as it is for that genre, and First Position is surely the latest. A crowd-pleasing depiction of young ballet dancers competing for scholarships and jobs, it manages to show drama, sacrifice and ambition without romanticizing or sentimentalizing. The many character sketches it draws with just a few deft strokes are memorable and winning.

Matthew Akers’ excellent The Artist is Present captures performance artist Marina Abramovic as she prepared for her historic retrospective at the MoMA in 2010, a show including a new piece that proved one of her toughest tests of endurance, and was seen by three quarters of a million museumgoers. The film skillfully blends bio points with surprisingly gripping scenes of Abramovic at work.

Under African Skies is included as a bonus disc with a deluxe version of Paul Simon’s Graceland, so don’t expect an even-handed look at the political controversy surrounding the creation of that album. (Simon broke a United Nations cultural boycott of South Africa to record parts of it on location.) But director Joe Berlinger (Some Kind of Monster) gives Simon’s critics a chance to make their case, even if the viewer is clearly meant to side with the hero-artist. (In a mind-numbing misfire, otherwise-cogent New York Times music critic Jon Pareles falls just short of anointing Simon the godfather of sampling and thus hip-hop—for an album released in 1986, by the way.) The archival footage of the album’s creation is thrilling, as are 2011 scenes of Simon revisiting South Africa to reunite the Graceland band and sit face to face with one of his more articulate critics for a long-overdue reconciliation.

Opening night film Ethel, directed by Rory Kennedy (the youngest of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s 11 children) proved less successful. It promises the untold story of an American heroine, but instead is an inessential rehash of all the same Jack-and-Bobby beats we’ve seen many times before (right down to the most obvious possible sound bytes), with the added caveat that, hey, Ethel was there too. In the film’s closing minutes we’re given a glimpse of her humanitarian and activist efforts in the years since her husband’s assassination in 1968; a much more vital film would have probed this period in depth and relegated the Kennedy “greatest hits” to a prelude.

There’s an unexpected Kennedy theme in Nobody Else But You, a French film with a familiar premise—mystery writer launches his own investigation of a mysterious death and triggers unexpected consequences—but succeeds on its light mood and the quirky insularity of its hinterland milieu, where a “regional president” stands in for JFK and a gorgeous cheese spokeswoman is the contemporary Marilyn Monroe.

German-Austrian-Estonian feature Poll Diaries is a wonderfully articulated period drama of life on the Baltic coast on the eve of World War I. Director and co-writer Chris Kraus provides many memorable images evoking the onset of destruction and the precariousness of domestic warmth. Another film about society in transition, Farewell, My Queen, is a close reading of four days at court in Versailles in 1789, as news of the storming of the Bastille circulates and the confusion of nobles grows acute. It takes a fresh upstairs/downstairs view and offers sumptuous costumes and brisk pacing, but suffers from the choice to follow a central character (Lea Seydoux’s royal reader) who never propels the action, and goes undeveloped beyond a few tossed-off hints.

Director Jean Marc Vallee’s Café de Flore is an unexpected hybrid of two stories: a mother/child drama set in late-1960’s Montreal and a contemporary tale of infidelity and abiding passion. In its attempt to merge the two storylines, it morphs into a supernatural thriller in its final act and doesn’t quite stick the landing; still, it offers much to recommend, and the expert use of an evocative pop music soundtrack and rhythmic, almost orchestral editing makes it feel weightier than it is.