Sometimes the world of cinema, like the world at large, gives us something extraordinary that is also a painful reminder of lost opportunities. One such example is "September 11," an often brilliant, always revelatory, deeply interesting omnibus film. In it, 11 major world filmmakers create cinematic vignettes: portraits of their reactions after the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center massacre.
The result is mesmerizing. Co-produced by Jacques Perrin (who made both "Microcosmos" and this year's brilliant documentary sleeper "Winged Migration"), the film keeps shifting from country to country, viewpoint to viewpoint. Some of the 11 shorts are brilliant, but even the flawed ones are provocative and revealing. And in general, the vignettes' perspectives -- even among directors who are deeply critical of U.S. foreign policy -- are humanistic and anti-war, full of anger at the massacre and empathy for its victims.
What took it so long to reach our theaters? After the North American premiere at last year's Toronto Film Festival, where "September 11" received a mixed critical reception, some of the vignettes were called anti-American in the press, and release of the film was delayed.
"September 11" is a fine film. It's also historically essential. Though the episodes have a cumulative impact, I've decided to review and rate them separately, by directors.
1. Samira Makhmalbaf (Iran) 3 stars. The reactions in an Afghan refugee camp in Iran. Young children, wrongly and fearfully anticipating an American nuclear attack, are confronted with the horror of the WTC massacre when their Iranian teacher gathers them around a huge brick tower and asks them to contemplate destruction more vast. Like all Makhmalbaf's films to date, it's a poetic evocation of the plight of outsiders, here expanded to a more common grief around the world.
2. Claude Lelouch (France) 3-1/2 stars. Here is another of Lelouch's trademark lyrical love stories, this time between a deaf French photographer and the Manhattan tour guide for the deaf with whom she is having an affair. Oblivious to the WTC attack unfolding on her TV, she composes what she fears may be a farewell letter, then is suddenly confronted with terror's reality when her lover appears at the door, covered in ashes. As in Lelouch' best work, the images gain an almost tactile force.
3. Youssef Chahine (Egypt) 2-1/2 stars. One of the two vignettes that most upset detractors. Chahine grapples with his own mixed emotions -- horror at the attack, strong opposition to U.S. foreign policy and a longtime love of America's movies -- to compose a confused and tortured allegory in which an actor playing Chahine (Nour Elsherif) communes with the ghost of an American Marine, killed in Beirut, to watch the region's torment.
4. Danis Tanovic (Bosnia) 3 stars. A coolly shot but passionate anti-war statement in which Bosnian demonstrators on Sept. 11 suddenly see their plight in an international perspective.
5. Idrissa Ouedraogo (West Africa) 3-1/2 stars. An exuberant dark comedy in which five young Burkina Faso city boys become convinced they have sighted Osama Bin Laden in their city and begin trailing and photographing him so that they can capture him and turn him in for the huge reward. The movie's sheer impudence is at first unsettling, yet it becomes finally a warmly humanist statement.
6. Ken Loach (Britain) 4 stars. A searing political polemic -- and one of the anthology's two most controversial episodes. Loach, a radical, composes it as an open letter from the Chilean exile, activist and folk musician Vladimir Vega to the victims and bereaved of Sept. 11, 2001, expressing sympathy but also asking them to remember the victims of another September: the Chilean people who lost their elected government in an American-backed coup on Sept. 11, 1973.
7. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Mexico) 4 stars. Inarritu's is a technical virtuoso piece that will bewilder some audiences. It's a collage of radio and TV noise and authentic cell phone calls of the tragedy played against a black screen, occasionally interrupted by horrifying split-second views of WTC victims jumping to their deaths and a final vision of conflagration. Once you get over its strangeness, the vignette becomes an astonishing evocation of fear and horror, with a jolting, blinding resolution.
8. Amos Gitai (Israel) 4 stars. Gitai contrasts the WTC massacre with everyday terrorism in Israel, as a Jaffa TV correspondent is frustrated from covering a Sept. 11 car bombing by the more pressing news from New York. Shot in one crowded take, it forges a scary link between tragedy and terrorism worldwide.
9. Mira Nair (India) 3 stars. A moving, true-life tale of the fate of a vanished Indian-American man, a Sept. 11 paramedic hero falsely accused of terrorist complicity after the attack.
10. Sean Penn (United States) 3 stars. A touching little tale of a bereaved Manhattan widower (Ernest Borgnine) so obsessed with memories of his late wife that he misses the ultimate tragedy outside his window.
11. Shohei Imamura (Japan) 4 stars. The Japanese master tells a story that seems totally unrelated to Sept. 11 until its last second and words. This is a darkly comic, quietly tragic portrayal of WWII's aftermath and a Japanese veteran who becomes convinced that he is a snake. The final stark moral, obviously addressed to the WTC attackers and apologists: "There is no such thing as a holy war." Amen.
Directed and written by Samira Makhmalbaf (1), Claude Lelouch (2), Youssef Chahine (3), Danis Tanovic (4), Idrissa Ouedraogo (5), Ken Loach (6), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (7), Amos Gitai (8), Mira Nair (9), Sean Penn (10), Shohei Imamura (11); co-written by Paul Laverty, Vladimir Vega (6), Marejos Sanselme (8), Sabrina Shawan (9), Daisuke Tengan (11); photographed by Ebrahim Ghafori (1), Pierre Uytterhoven (2), Mohsen Nasr (3), Mustafa Mustafic (4), Luc Drion (5), Nigel Willoughby, Peter Hellmich, Jorge Muller Silva (6), Yoav Kosh (8), Declan Quinn (9), Samuel Bayer (10), Masakazu Oka, Toshihiro Seino (11); edited by Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1), Pierre-William Glenn (2), Rashida Abd Elsalam (3), Monique Rysselinck (4), Julia Gregory (5), Jonathan Morris (6), Robert Duffy, Kim Bica (7), Kobi Netanel (8), Allyson C. Johnson (9), Jay Cassidy (10), Hajime Okayasu (11); produced by Jacques Perrin and Nicolas Mauvernay (1-11). In Parsi, French, English, Egyptian, Bosnian, Burkina Faso, Spanish, Israeli, Indian and Japanese, with English subtitles. An Empire Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:08. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for intense and upsetting material and themes).
Afghan teacher (1) -- Maryam Karimi
Deaf French photographer (2) -- Emmanuelle Laborit
Youssef Chahine (3) -- Nour Elsherif
Bosnian woman (4) -- Dzana Pinjo
Burkina Faso boy (5) -- Lionel Zir El Guirre
Vladimir Vega (6) -- Himself
Israeli newscaster (8) -- Karen Mor
Indian mother (9) -- Tanvi Azmi
Old Manhattan widower (10) -- Ernest Borgnine
"The Snake" (11) -- Tomorrow Taguchi