Long live the small art film, which arrives with little fanfare

The Baltimore Sun

Critics are a small movie's best friends - and vice-versa. Films that arrive in a city without TV commercials or print ads, often months or years after their international premieres, rely on reviewers to get out the word that they've landed at a local art house. If the movie is good, a positive notice from a local critic can help it win another week of life. If the movie is bad, a hometown slam may rouse more attention than a review picked up from another city, which can give a film the odor of something canned and left too long on the shelf.

Yet sometimes, an outside review is the only way to go - and not just because of the weekly glut of six or seven new releases. Independent theaters such as the Charles, the Senator and the Rotunda operate on tiny profit margins; if a movie doesn't perform well, it will be yanked. Sometimes, films drop into a schedule before anyone has arranged for critics to see it. The new film suffers as much as the yanked one: Without a local review, chances are it will flop, too. It's a vicious circle.

In any event, it's the rare art house hit, such as The Lives of Others, or, last summer, Tell No One, that pays the bills, not the films that eke out a following or break even. And the shrewd commercial hits like Juno - box-office wolves that come into the city wearing art house threads - are what underwrite art theaters for an entire year. George Mansour, the respected booker for the Charles (he programs seven art screens across New England, including the Avon in Providence, R.I., and consults for the Angelika in New York), believes specialized movie houses must play films such as Juno. (In Baltimore, it played at Landmark's Harbor East.)

"We can't survive on a complete diet of hors d'oeuvres," Mansour says. "You have to have a main course, but lately we've served nothing but hors d'oeuvres and dessert."

Even if a review is a rave, there's no guarantee a small film will have legs. I gave my top rating to The Edge of Heaven, the masterly and moving new film from Fatih Akin, the creator of Head-On; it lasted only seven days at the Charles. Mansour says the art house audience these days is no longer a high school or college crowd. They're older people who grew up in more civilized times and still expect films of quality to stick around for months, as in the days of Bergman, Kurosawa and Fellini. They're shocked when a film like Killer of Sheep doesn't play for months.

Mansour says when an Edge of Heaven closes abruptly, it's simply because "nobody comes. Unfortunately, the art market is down all over." And the smaller distributors that release these movies "often don't have the infrastructure to support their films." They lack enough money to buy ads or to hire local publicists to make sure the press sees them before they open.

But there are exceptions to the rule. Tell No One, this year's highest-grossing subtitled film, owes its long theatrical life to a practically unknown distributor in Chicago, Music Box Films, which did everything right. And there's an upside for dedicated moviegoers in this dire situation. After the demise of studio specialty divisions like Warner Independent and Paramount Vantage, bookers like Mansour want to support smaller distributors and find ways of showcasing their wares. A steady stream of movies in and out of the Charles the past six months has provided novelties that in other seasons might not have found their way to the big screen.

Today, for example, the Charles is opening on a single screen The Grocer's Son, a Local Hero-like French sleeper made by Eric Guirado, and Elsa and Fred, a Spanish romance (also a hit in its native land) about the fractious bond between a 77-year-old widower and a live-wire octogenarian. The Grocer's Son follows a Parisian waiter as he moves back to Provence and lets the fresh air and fresher personalities work on him. He takes his ailing father's place at the wheel of a grocery van that roams the countryside, delivering items from the family general store to an increasingly aging clientele.

It's not a great movie, but it is a beguiling one: a Gallic version of American films such as Doc Hollywood or Cars, in which a city-dweller opens up to life when he succumbs to the languid pace and the specific and intense one-on-one relationships of the country. The movie's view of a dysfunctional provincial family proves to be both frank and funny. And there's a prickly unpredictability to the on-and-off affair between the dunderheaded hero (played by Nicolas Cazale, who's like a poor man's Antonio Banderas) and a creative woman (the seductively smart and frolicsome Clotilde Hesme). Humor and the pull of Provence's summery climes hold sway over their amorous duet, even more than animal attraction.

In a way, the sun-quenched hilly landscape is the star of The Grocer's Son. A classic movie image is the star of Elsa and Fred. Elsa has always wanted to relive Anita Ekberg's great scene from Fellini's La Dolce Vita, splashing through Rome's Trevi Fountain. She says she looked like Ekberg when she was young. The point of her character is that inside she's younger than ever, willing to use the deference paid to the aged to get away with murder - or, at least, a fancy meal. And the director and co-writer, Marcos Carnevale, views her seize-the-moment attitude as infinitely preferable to Fred's wan resignation and runaway hypochondria. Fred and Elsa live in the same apartment building (they can see through each other's windows); at times the movie plays like a heterosexual odd-couple farce. But its view of love and family life is quirky and unsentimental. And China Zorrilla's Elsa is a one-of-a-kind creation. She's an unapologetic liar, but also a fantasist so rich and persuasive she inspires Fred to cling to life.

Neither of these movies has the scale or the energy to become a crossover hit: Mansour hopes "the two combined will make a decent one-week gross, and if enough people see one or the other, we can hold it a little while longer." But Mansour feels he may have another Tell No One in the same distributor's Shall We Kiss, "a cross between Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen." And next week marks the arrival of Mike Leigh's glorious Happy-Go-Lucky, a paean to a cockeyed optimist played by Sally Hawkins. She's a figure many audiences, exhibitors, critics and film-industry workers will find inspirational. She never says die.

The Grocer's Son

(The Film Movement) Starring Nicolas Cazale. Directed by Eric Guirado. Rated G. Time 96 minutes. ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 Stars)

Elsa and Fred

(Distrimax) Starring Manuel Alexandre and China Zorrilla. Directed by Marcos Carnevale. Unrated. Time 108 minutes. ** 1/2 ( 2 1/2 Stars)

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