Almost Heroes

This synopsis scarcely does the movie justice. Marker has a genius for poetic aphorism and the documentary equivalent of the bon mot. It's typical that he would create a classification of footage shot with "shaking hands," or zero in on Fidel Castro's struggle with an immovable Soviet microphone. A Grin can also be willfully eccentric. Apropos of nothing, unless it's an inversion of his movie's English title, Marker interpolates footage of an impressively pagan Belgian cat festival—full of giant floats, puppets, and masques—into a series of public events marking the end of the left.

More impressionistic than analytical, A Grin Without a Cat is a grand immersion. Is it a tract without a thesis? Perhaps this Belgian digression, like the movie, celebrates memory itself—along with the cunning of history, a force that, Marker notes, "always seems to have more imagination than we do."

2002-model Spidey, a sensitive type
photo: Columbia
2002-model Spidey, a sensitive type


Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by David Koepp, from the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Opens May 3

A Grin Without a Cat
Directed by Chris Marker
First Run/Icarus
Film Forum
Through May 14

ABC Africa
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
New Yorker
Cinema Village
Opens May 3

ABC Africa, Abbas Kiarostami's digital-video field report, is not unlike Chris Marker's earliest documentaries—a personal, self-reflexive travelogue that ruminates as much on the circumstances of its making as its ostensible subject. The first image shows a fax crawl across the screen: a UN agency inviting the Iranian filmmaker to make a movie on Uganda's 1.6 million AIDS orphans.

ABC Africa, which was filmed over 10 days, began as Kiarostami's visual jottings, but it has the conceptual heft of his finished films. The atmosphere of crisis recalls Life and Nothing More; the long shots from moving cars, as well as the interest in children, are present in his previous work. As in The Wind Will Carry Us, the urban intellectual arrives in a backward village characterized by its stubborn adherence to a shared mentality. Uganda's enlightened attitude toward AIDS prevention is established by prominent posters encouraging the use of condoms and government social workers who explain a strategy designed to care for the orphans. But what may be disturbing about ABC Africa is that it doesn't seem disturbing enough.

The emphasis in this surprisingly cheerful film is on the resilience of the living. The kindergarten atmosphere of kids staring into the camera, making faces, and jumping around is only somewhat mitigated by a trip to a hospital where a dead child is packed for burial in a cardboard box and bicycled off to oblivion. Kiarostami is most engaged by the long, seemingly spontaneous group performances his presence occasions. There's a Gauguin-esque aspect to these colorful spectacles. Although it's debatable whether they represent a utopian form of social organization, the numbers are well suited to the filmmaker's confident—at times brilliant—use of DV.

Fulfilling his mandate to make useful publicity, Kiarostami unavoidably expressed himself. In the most impressive sequence, the electricity goes out, and the movie continues in the dark. After five or six minutes the landscape is dramatically illuminated by lightning—a found metaphor that suggests the sudden flashes by which the artist learned his African alphabet.

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