The 42nd Thessaloniki Film Festival strove for topicality with a workshop on digital cinema and a competition entry on anthrax (the U.K.’s blasé Gas Attack). Yet apropos for an event in the city named for Alexander the Great’s sister, where the Balkans meet the Mediterranean, more entries touched on history and myth. With an uninspiring Greek presence—only Constantine Giannaris’s One Day in August, a Steadicam-heavy Short Cuts rip-off , drew faint praise—the notable work flew other Balkan flags. The Golden Alexander, the richest festival prize in Christendom (12.5 million drachmas; next year, 36,700 euros), was awarded by the John Boorman-led jury to Fatmir Koçi’s Tirana Year Zero, a work of energetic Albanian nationalism that’s more Kusturica than Rossellini.
Tirana‘s surrealism is sweetly confrontational: Everyone’s got a Kalashnikov, though nobody would ever actually use one. The hero supports his family by driving a rundown truck; his girlfriend aspires to international modeling success while he waits for the phoenix to rise from the rubble. The country may be in anarchic shambles, but its denizens’ gusto will help Albania prevail. More palatable is Slogans, a light satire of Enver Hoxha’s repressive Stalinism that could easily fit alongside Czech New Wave comedies of the ’60s.
Partly hailing from Macedonia, Milcho Manchevski’s Dust had been anti-hyped by everyone from Variety to Film Comment as just about the worst film ever made. With such promise, it’s disappointing that most of this pulpy Freudian “Eastern western” is watchable. Dust and Goran Paskaljevic’s How Harry Became a Tree both fail by ripping myths from their national contexts (U.S.A., Ireland) to comment on recent events in the former Yugoslavia, a rupture that spawns an ugly, abusive filmmaking in which the characters’ ceaseless drive to vengeance is ultimately rewarded.
More humane in their approach to violence were two Romanian films. Lucian Pintilie’s carefully constructed The Afternoon With a Torturer sees a former Ceausescu prison functionary turned beekeeper take responsibility for his egregious actions in an interview with a journalist. After some bumbling, the source of his need to talk becomes confused, and Pintilie suggests that, lacking a spiritual context, the act of confession loses meaning. Cristi Puiu’s peculiar Stuff and Dough is a gangster road movie as stripped down as Two Lane Blacktop. Two guys, a girl, a truck, and a bag are the elements, as a delivery to Bucharest is punctuated by crappy Romanian radio, meaningless chatter about gravel, and angry thugs in a red Jeep. Fluidly shot in handheld 35mm, mostly from the backseat, Puiu’s film comes alive as a genre picture of the mind.
Catherine Breillat unfurled another work of verbal dexterity and sexual identity construction: Brève Traversée (Brief Crossing), set on a ferry passage, features the verisimilar seduction of 15-year-old virgin Thomas by the more mature stranger Alice, whose age is about the only thing left unrevealed. As old-fashioned in conception as Brief Encounter, Breillat’s layered, entirely manipulative film is a brother to Fat Girl, and possibly more accomplished. Breillat seems concerned with creating a sympathetic male, yet fucks over her audience with a super conclusion you’d have seen coming from across the channel were Brève Traversée not so damned absorbing.
Breillat’s year, though, may be eclipsed by Manoel de Oliveira’s. Another film about another European port, Oporto of My Childhood finds the maestro going home again in Proustian fashion. A primer of Portuguese cultural history, a picturesque view of his birthplace, and a personal journey with reconstructed scenes from his bohemian days, this is a work where every shot is in its place. Especially the final, a rhyming re-creation of the initial image from de Oliveira’s debut, in which a flickering lighthouse becomes a metaphor for his art, one capable of illuminating the souls of a Europe darkened in the 20th century.