The 24th Annual Baltimore Film Festival gets under way April 1, for a month of screenings of those hard-to-find, out-of-the-way films that somehow never seem to reach Baltimore any other way. But the festival seems to have made an effort to go a bit mainstream this year, with fewer of those Uzbek folk operas -- you know, about the eternal triangle between the Mongol, the girl and the pony, set on the endless steppes -- and commit to an itinerary that might be considered just a tiny bit more mainstream.
Over its month-long run, the festival will show 26 features from 17 countries -- yes, fans of the Golden Horde, Mongolia is represented -- including two Oscar nominees, the winner of the Grand Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and, most important, a big violent Japanese cartoon. Can this be heaven or is it only Baltimore?
The festival, which nestles into the four weekends of April, opens at the Senator with the prize-winning Italian entry, "Il Ladro Di Bambini" ("The Stolen Children"), which won the grand prize at Cannes last year and has been nominated this year for an Academy Award for foreign film. Directed by Gianni Amelio, it's the story of a young policeman who is assigned to take two children to an orphanage in Southern Italy. Of course he can't bring himself to do that, and instead begins a trek across Italy with the kids. The stars are Enrico Lo Verso, Valentina Scalici and Guiseppe Ieracitano. The evening begins at 7:30 with a champagne and dessert gala, with the movie beginning at 8 p.m.
On Friday, April 2, the festival moves to its permanent headquarters, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and falls into its normal rhythm, with one screening at 7 p.m. and another at 9 p.m.
The early screening is a Dutch film set in the Caribbean, called "Ava & Gabriel, A Love Story From the Caribbean." It follows as a love affair between a Dutch painter and his mixed-blood model exposes the intrigue and hypocrisies of colonialism. The late show is "Alberto Express," directed by Arthur Joffe, an American film in French and Italian with subtitles. It's about a young man who, upon reaching 21, is presented with a bill for each and every cost his parents have incurred in raising him.
On Saturday, April 3, the 7 p.m. show is from Mongolia, and it's been nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film, too. It's called "Close to Eden," and it's about a young shepherd who is taken to a city by a friendly Russian truck driver, with dire consequences. The director is Nikita Mikhalkov.
Hal Hartley, the superb independent American film director, is represented in the late show by "Simple Men," starring his long-time favorite, Robert Burke. In this one, Burke plays a younger brother trying to confront the meaning of his father's life. Hartley is one of the best American independents, so this is a title that shouldn't be missed.
On Sunday, April 4, the early show brings a little-seen documentary from the great Jonathan Demme -- yes, "The Silence of the Lambs" guy -- called "Cousin Bobby." It's the story of Demme's own blood relative, a fiery activist Episcopal minister in Harlem.
The next weekend of screenings begins Thursday, April 8, with "Rock Hudson's Home Movies," another in the recent surge of in-your-face gay movies like "Swoon." This one is a retrospective of the late hunk actor's life, considered from the gay perspective. Mark Rappaport directed. The 9 p.m. show is also gay-themed: "Together Alone," directed by P. J. Castelleneta, is about two young men who, after a sexual encounter, talk for nearly 90 minutes about a number of provocative topics.
On Friday, April 9, the 7 p.m. show is "La Discrete," a French film directed by Christian Vincent. Set in the 17th century, it's about a "Discreet," that is, a woman with a taffeta beauty spot on her chin who is seduced by a Casanova type. Or is she doing the seducing? The film won three French Oscars (called Cesars) in 1990 -- best actor, best script and best new actress. The late show is from that spooky Canadian, Atom Egoyan, and it's called "The Adjuster." Egoyan is a sort of David Cronenberg who hasn't gone Hollywood; this film, his latest, is about an insurance adjuster (Elias Koteas, a De Niro look-alike) who takes over his client's lives.
On Saturday, April 10, thank God, the early show is "Macross II: Lovers Again," a 2 1/2 -hour-long Japanese feature cartoon. It's about alien invaders identified as renegade Zentradi -- yes, more of those -- who assault the Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross. The director is Kenichi Yatazai. It's dubbed into English. Then, at 9:45 p.m., it will be shown again! You could buy two tickets and see it twice!
The Sunday, April 11, screening is "Get Thee Out!" a Russian-Jewish film set in turn-of-the-century Ukraine, which should be called the Russian "Fiddler on the Roof." It's
about difficult events in a quiet rural shtetl that follow upon the introduction of anti-Semitism as an official state policy. Otar Mengvinetukutsesy, who plays the hero, Motl Rabinowitz, is supposedly brilliant in the role. It was directed by Dimitry Astrakhan.
On April 15, the early Thursday screening is "Black to the Promised Land," a documentary that follows as 11 African-American children in a high school for "problem kids" in New York are sent to Israel, where they spend 10 weeks on a kibbutz. It was directed by Madeleine Ali.
The late screening is "In Search of Our Fathers," directed by Marco Williams, who will appear at the screening. It's about Williams' own quest for his roots in African-American culture, and the techniques include cinema verite footage, interviews and stills.
Friday, April 16, is a night of gaudy visions. The 7 p.m. screening is a documentary called "Visions of Light: The Art of
Cinematography," which is built around interviews with the world's great cinematographers, including Gordon Willis, Haskell Wexler and Nestor Almendros. At 9 p.m., the great Sven Nykvist, who was the cinematographer on all the great Ingmar Bergman masterpieces, is represented in his one directing assignment, "The Ox," with Bergman favorites Max Von Sydow, Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman. It's about a poverty-stricken farm worker who slays his employer's ox for food for his starving family, and must then face the consequences.
The 8 p.m. show on Saturday, April 17, is "Cage/Cunningham," a documentary by Elliot Caplan on the 45-year collaboration between composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. A reception follows the screening. Then, at 11 p.m., when the hour is late and the atmosphere can turn safely steamy, "Marquis," chronicling the adventures of one Marquis de Sade, is screened. The French film was directed by Henri Xhonneux, and features actors in animal masks working from the marquis' texts. It has been called a "one-of-a-kind" film experience, and it almost certainly will be.
On Sunday, April 18, George Sluizer's "Utz" gets screened at 7 p.m. Sluizer directed "The Vanishing," the Dutch masterpiece, and "The Vanishing," the American travesty; here, he tackles a novel by Bruce Chatwin, about a German nobleman who is obsessed with Meissen porcelain. The great German actor Armi Mueller-Stahl stars, and the cast is zanily cosmopolitan: the Irishwoman Brenda Fricker, the Yank Peter Rieger and the Scot Paul Scofield.
On Thursday, April 22, at the early screening the subject is cars. The movie is "Wild Wheels," a documentary of high repute that penetrates an American sub-cult of people who turn their cars into "art" by, among other eccentricities, gluing 10,000 marbles to them or covering them with artificial turf. Very strange, indeed. The director is Harrod Blank. Then at 8:30 p.m. (note the earlier start), "The Oak," a strange Romanian-French thriller directed by Lucian Pintilie, takes up the screen. It's about the bond between two women living in Bucharest in 1988. The film will be introduced by Peter Rado, a Romanian film historian.
On Friday, April 23, at 7:30 p.m. (note the late start), "The Elementary School," a Czech film, will be shown. Director Jan Sverak will be there. The story is based on the bittersweet memories of Zdenek Sverak (the director's father, I presume); it's about life in a classroom noted for its naughty students in postwar Prague.
On Saturday, April 24, there will be two screenings (at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.) of Federico Fellini's latest movie, the little-seen "Intervista." Though made in 1987, the movie has only crossed the Atlantic recently. It's a phantasmagorical artifice, in which Fellini, who is being interviewed for a "documentary," keeps
spinning off in other directions. Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, those two lovebirds from "La Dolce Vita" all those years back, also appear.
On Sunday, April 25, at 7 p.m. selections will be shown from the 24th Baltimore Independent Film and Video Makers' Competition.
The last weekend of the festival kicks off Thursday, April 29, at 7 p.m., with "The Match Factory Girl," a Finnish film directed by Aki Kaurismaki, which plays with the famous Hans Christian Andersen tale but gives it a macabre edge. One critic manages, in his summary of the film, to include references to Bergman, Andersen, and "Fatal Attraction"! This must be some movie! The late show is "The Actress," at 8:30 p.m., from Hong Kong. It's a fictionalized biography of Ruan Ling-yu, a beloved Chinese silent film actress who committed suicide at age 25 60 years ago. The director Stanley Kwan combines documentary and drama in his exploration of the doomed actress' last five years.
The festival closes Friday, April 30, at 8 p.m., with "High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music," a spirited documentary by Rachel Liebling, featuring musicians Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and a group called the Seldom Scene. A party follows the screening, with music by the Chesapeake Retrievers.
Tickets for regular screenings are $6 for the general public and $5 for BFF and BMA members, seniors and students. Tickets for opening night at the Senator are $15 and $14. Closing night tickets are $10 and $9. Tickets may be purchased by mail from the Baltimore Film Forum office or at the Baltimore Museum of Art's Visitor Information Center. Opening night tickets may be purchased at the Senator. Also, the festival's box office (at the BMA) will be open two hours before show times for all screenings at the museum.