In This World



March 23 and 24

Like too many African films, and paradoxically so, given the continent’s sociopolitical tragedies and unresolved dramas, Zézé Gamboa’s debut is a tepid, earnest mediocrity, portraying a post-civil-war Angola with all the zest and eloquence of an after-school special. Tracking the parallel struggles of a one-legged soldier fresh from 20 years of fighting and of a young teen slipping into crime, the movie has social trauma to spare but opts for clichés and received wisdom instead. Even the central gag-issue of a stolen prosthetic leg is treated without wit or imagination. Gamboa admits to creating simplified, well-meaning propaganda to effect “social change” in a devastated region, and here’s hoping it does some good in that sense at least. A California Newsreel release. MICHAEL ATKINSON


March 24 and 26

French director Eléonore Faucher’s first feature concerns the uneasy bond between a pregnant teen and her employer, a grieving seamstress whose son has died in a motorbike crash. Art direction trumps plot as we watch the two pore over elaborate embroidery. In this retro milieu, everything is predicated on the color wheel—witness the way young Claire’s coronal red frizz sets off her pea green and cornflower sweaters. A late scene involving the swollen girl’s fervent riverside fuck with a neighbor provides the only appreciable frisson, but it’s a jolting reminder of the film world’s dearth of sexualized moms-to-be. A New Yorker release. LAURA SINAGRA


March 24 and 26

In Sophia Zornitsa’s mawkishly miserabilist debut feature, the titular 16-year-old orphaned heroine experiences the kindness of strangers and the power of love. Turned out like a Bulgarian Siouxsie Sioux, Mila flees her abusive boyfriend and takes refuge in a bombed-out burg where nine dotty elders minister to her. She gives birth, suffers postpartum depression, and meets a hunky hermit who teaches her the Four Great Vows. “I want my soul to fly away and breathe some fresh air,” the young mother says to her Zen master. The crazy-making score and schematic road to recovery will also leave you gasping for breath. MELISSA ANDERSON


March 24 and 25

Reeling with guilt and shame after she’s caught jumping into bed with her mother’s boyfriend, Australian teenager Heidi (Abbie Cornish) flees to a dying mountain town, where she jumps into bed with lots of other people. As a semi-vérité sexual odyssey of a young woman in (figurative) mourning for her mother, Cate Shortland’s debut recalls Under the Skin, but it pulls too many punches and suffers from what might be diagnosed as the internalized male gaze, especially when Heidi does a provocative dance in her skivvies. A Magnolia release.JESSICA WINTER


March 24 and 26

Director Rachel Boynton gets intimate access to the would-be Neoliberal World Order, filming James Carville and Co. as they take their War Room tactics global. Their services have been retained by Bolivia’s Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada, the American-educated former president looking to get back in the game. With reality show gusto, political adman Tad Devine proclaims, “Our brand is ‘Crisis.’ We must own ‘Crisis.’ ” But after Goni’s eked victory, when racial and class upheaval leave scores dead, it’s much less clear who owns the responsibility. Boynton includes lots of reflection from Carville associate Jeremy Rosner, whose careful elocutions reveal even more poignantly the thin line between candor and spin. SINAGRA


March 25 and 26

An elderly French-Moroccan patriarch, determined to make the obligatory hajj to Mecca, commands his teenage son, Reda, to drive him from France to Saudi Arabia. The ensuing cross-continental journey, a more single-minded version of the one in A Talking Picture, contains plenty of educational asides, all directed at poor, callow Reda—every squabble results in the Westernized lad learning that his pious dad is maybe not just a religious nut job. Ismaël Ferroukhi’s fest favorite is predictable and cozily feel-good, but the final scenes, shot amid a throng of Mecca pilgrims, have a near hallucinatory charge. A Film Movement release. DENNIS LIM


March 25 and 27

When a peasant couple in rural China inherit a pair of prized sheep, their simple lives devolve into a series of nonstop crises brought on by the high-maintenance beasts. Liu Hao’s neorealist allegory is a slim but potent disquisition on ownership and (appropriately for China) capitalist anxiety. The director frequently films his characters scurrying ant-like across the barren, wind-scarred landscape—a possible nod to Abbas Kiarostami, and a coup for cinematographer Li Bingquiang. DAVID NG


March 25 and 27

An estranged son (Alessandro Nivola) returns to his North Carolina family with his gallery owner wife (Embeth Davidtz), who not only has to endure her kooky in-laws but also close a deal with a local outsider artist. The culture clash fault lines are obvious, but director Phil Morrison exercises a strategic restraint and makes the most of a dependable ensemble: Amy Adams won a Sundance prize for portraying a blabbermouthed and very pregnant young wife, while The OC‘s Ben McKenzie transitions respectably to dysfunctional indie brooding, but it’s the least showy performances (Nivola and, as the mom, Celia Weston) that provide the most resonant ambiguities. A Sony Pictures Classics release. LIM


March 25 and 26

This comedy of hanging out by first-time Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke is a kind of Cat in the Hat without the cat. The action is confined to a high-rise apartment where a couple of teenage boys have been left to spend their Saturday alone. They drink Coke, play Slayer, and send out for pizza. The delivery guy stays and a neighbor girl, left alone on her birthday, drops by to bake hash brownies. Like the power that flickers on and off, this slight conceit is intermittent in its humor—but it’s consistently well acted, especially by the kids. J. HOBERMAN


March 26 and 27

Set against Argentina’s financial meltdown, first-timer Jorge Gaggero’s delicate dissection of a mistress-maid dynamic recalls the push-pull between Lana Turner and Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life. Beba, a boozy middle-aged failed entrepreneur, owes Dora, her employee of 30 years, seven months of back pay. Stoic but not masochistic, Dora terminates the dysfunctional relationship. Like the aftermath of all breakups, this one is filled with anger, remorse, and a wistful longing for the other’s presence. Norma Aleandro as la señora and Norma Argentina as the hired help ensure that the film never becomes an apologia for bourgie bad behavior. ANDERSON


March 26 and 27

Stunned to have ceded their long-held championship title to Team Canada, the wounded men of the U.S. Paralympics rugby squad vow to “reclaim what’s ours”—sans helmets, yet. One of the gung ho murderballers even becomes a recruiter for the payback mission, though the obvious allegory seems to escape the two documentarians, who strap cameras to the wheelchairs, sync up raucous speed metal for the head-on collisions, and keep the blood pumping all the way to the climactic “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chant. An able-bodied female lover is acknowledged for her “mothering instinct”; box office victory appears assured. A THINKFilm release. ROB NELSON


March 26 and 27

The dead return to life, drifting dazed down Main Street, in Robin Campillo’s avant zombie flick, set in a part of France that suggests a well-manicured industrial park. The premise may be extreme but the movie is purposefully dry and even feels slightly sedated. Campillo, who co-wrote Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, introduces all manner of emotional content, as well as social and economic problems. Still, They Came Back suffers from long-winded earnestness and, despite some poetic conceits, its allegory ultimately doesn’t parse. HOBERMAN


March 27 and 28

Hubert Sauper’s staggering documentary is essential viewing on the survival of two ruthlessly fittest species: the Nile perch, which quickly annihilated almost all other fish life in Tanzania’s Lake Victoria after its artificial introduction in the ’60s, and the omnivorous beast known as winner-take-all global capitalism. Cargo planes descend on the region with weaponry—apparently to restock nearby civil wars—and leave for Europe with loads of Nile perch while the AIDS-racked local population hovers on the brink of starvation. Sauper’s stoically despondent film leaves little doubt that globalization’s losers are slaves by any other name. WINTER


March 27 and 28

Andrea and Antonio Frazzi are hardly new directors—they’ve been making Italian TV for more than 20 years. In any case, this nasty but unoriginal entry in the inner-city-kids-slide-into-crime subgenre is flashy, stereotype-crazy, and full of cheapjack ideas—the opening scene in which Neapolitan slum kids dare each other to run across a busy highway might be harrowingly shot but is still a screenwriter’s slack inspiration. Los Olvidados or Pixote or City of God this is not, despite the junkyards, child prostitution, and kids-with-guns confrontationalism. Still, the Frazzis are good at finding unorthodox intimacies—a silent moment around a shared cigarette lingers after the rest is forgotten. ATKINSON


March 28 and 29

Produced by Polish veteran Krzysztof Zanussi, Magdalena Piekorz’s melodrama opens with a convincing thumbnail sketch of child abuse: In a bleak, nearly monochrome ’80s Poland, young Wojciech lives with a father who vacillates between abrupt physical violence and awkward compensatory bonding. Marred by shaky performances and reductive psychology, the second half reveals that Wojciech, now a thirtyish journalist and avid spelunker, has to some extent become the man he ran away from—and is finally ready to be saved by the redemptive love of an inexplicably adoring woman. LIM


March 28 and April 2

Anybody expecting a blast of the reggaetón that’s blowing up the I-95 corridor won’t find it here. But this look at a group of Cuban underground rappers nicely complements the 2003 raft refugee chronicle Balseros. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s doc tells a story of black musicians struggling with a racial gap that, as one commentator notes, is wider now than at any time since the revolution. These conscious lyricists long to join a global artistic (and anti-Bush) community but are stymied by a bureaucratized Culture Ministry that views rap as a domestic threat. SINAGRA


March 29 and 30

Norwegian director Mona J. Hoel treats us to full-immersion Euro-misery in this determinedly bleak comedy. Set in a suburban hellhole of garish strip malls and fugly high-rises, the movie is structured around a daisy chain of family dysfunction that includes a pregnant housewife, her drug-peddling monster-in-law, the teen junkie who can’t kick the habit, and the in-denial mother who obsessively scrubs her apartment with the titular cleaning agents. The caffeinated performances keep things brisk and unhinged until the atrocious finale douses it all in syrup. NG


March 29 and 31

An often effective vérité slash of agitprop, Saverio Costanzo’s DV suspenser is set in a West Bank Palestinian house (shot in Italy), where a contentious family of seven (led by a proud patriarch) get their usual daily turmoil ripped to shreds by an occupying force of no-nonsense Israeli soldiers. The handheld vibe is frequently contrived (the hairiest sequences involve the lights going out), and the script runs out of raw material, but this Desperate Hours-style standoff is acted with fierce conviction, and the pseudo-home-movie syntax is congenitally tense. The Israeli soldiers are given vulnerabilities and ambivalences, but make no mistake: It’s a passionate critique of Israel’s systematic human rights abuses. ATKINSON


This year’s ND/NF offers a few spirited defenses of the ever beleaguered short format, none better than Chris Landreth’s Oscar-winning Ryan (screening with Agnes and His Brothers, April 2 and 3, and also in the Oscar-nominated shorts program at Cinema Village this week). Another highlight is John Harden’s deadpan La Jetée parody, La Vie d’un Chien (with Mila From Mars), in which a scientist develops a chromosome-altering drug that transforms humans into dogs, a breakthrough possibly motivated by the desire to consummate his forbidden love for pet canine Sylvie. Also of interest: Keith Bearden’s The Raftman’s Razor (with Duck Season), about two teenagers’ obsession with an enigmatic anti-superhero comic book, and Michelange Quay’s The Gospel of the Creole Pig (with Young Rebels), a powerfully associative meditation on the legacy of slavery in Haiti that encompasses religious rituals, stock market reports, and live pig slaughters, before culminating in a majestic three-minute crane shot of the Queensboro Bridge. JOSHUA LAND

ND/NF coverage continues next week.