for TRIBUNE: report from the 18th Palic Film Festival


For obvious climatic reasons, the concept of outdoor cinema has never really caught on in the British Isles – but on the continent, film-festivals taking place during the warmest months routinely feature al fresco projections. The biggest and most famous example is the ‘Piazza Grande’ marketplace in the Swiss lakeside resort of Locarno, while those attending the festivals of Taormina (Sicily) and Pula (Croatia) savour moviegoing under the stars amid spectacular Roman remains.

On a much smaller scale, but in its own way just as memorable in terms of location, architecture and atmosphere, is the Summer Stage at Palić in northern Serbia, only a few kilometres from the Hungarian border. Palić is a large village adjoining an even larger lake, its (currently algae-clogged) waters a magnet for the wealthy and ailing in the final decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the 1870s construction of a rail link from Budapest. Fancy hotels and bathing-facilities were constructed in a landscaped, forested park, creating a kind of Habsburg-era sanatorium – and the buildings endure in conditions of slightly faded grandeur a century later.

The jewel in the Palić crown, however, is of more recent vintage. The Summer Stage was constructed in 1950 during the earliest years of Tito’s Yugoslavia – the leader himself being a noted, avid film-buff who allowed numerous international productions to take advantage of his country’s striking diversity.

Hidden among tall trees and seating several hundred, the Summer Stage now has an appealingly bygone, almost medieval aspect – it’s a thing of mossy stonework, hefty pillars, castellated towers – that makes it look like something from Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. And it’s now, along with several more conventional venues in the nearby city of Subotica, one of the main venues for the Palić Film Festival (PFF).

A lively survey of contemporary European cinema, PFF adopts a UEFA-style broad definition of the continent that spans Turkey, Russia and the rest of the USSR’s Asian-fringe republics (as far-flung as Kyrgyzstan, origin of PFF selection The Light Thief, currently enjoying arthouse exposure over here).

PFF has been running since 1992 (only weeks after the formal dissolution of Tito’s Yugoslavian confederation) and prides itself on the lavish hospitality lavished on its guests and delegates – amply rewarding those ‘intrepid’ souls willing to stray a little beyond the EU’s frontiers (and finding a warmer reception than that accorded to the late Amy Winehouse during her last fateful expedition to Novak Djokovic’s homeland.)

Among the highlights on offer during the latest PFF – the 18th, running between July 16-22 – were several pictures that have already found praise on these pages: Sergio Caballero’s irresistibly loco Catalan oddity Finisterrae; Polish enfant terrible Norman Leto’s conceptual-art provocation SAILOR; and, best of all, Aleksandr Mindadze’s stunningly kinetic Ukrainian-German-Russian masterpiece Innocent Saturday – an overwhelmingly immersive evocation of the Chernobyl disaster that ranks among the new century’s finest cinematic achievements.

Though a co-production with Ukraine and Germany, Innocent Saturday is also unmistakably Russian – part of a flurry of outstanding movies from that country (specifically, from directors over 50) during the past year or so, along with Svetlana Proskurina’s Truce and Alexei Balabanov’s A Stoker. Though somewhat less accomplished overall, Aleksei Popogrebsky’s Berlin-awarded How I Ended This Summer has also won plenty of admirers – nabbing UK distribution a couple of months back, a rarity for Russian productions.

One Russian cineaste whose work has been made available here is 47-year-old Muscovite ex-theatre-director Andrei Zvyagintsev, whose 2003 debut The Return took the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and garnered lofty comparisons with Russia’s greatest auteur Andrei Tarkovsky. His 2007 followup The Banishment won Best Actor at Cannes but was generally regarded as a dud – it’s a sprawlingly overlong, strenuously enigmatic affair which emphasises atmosphere and symbolism over character and story-development.

His third film Elena is a welcome retreat from such dead-end territory: a measured, quiet, utterly absorbing parable of dysfunctional modern Russia, presented as a place where financial considerations are paramount. Middle-aged Elena supports her feckless adult son and his ever-expanding family, with the help of her wealthy second husband Vladimir. But when Elena’s tearaway teenage grandson Sasha needs money to bribe his passage into university – the alternative being the army, and likely hazardous service in the volatile Caucasus – Vladimir closes his wallet, prompting his carer-cum-wife to consider drastic action.

Featuring a superb, sparingly-deployed, thriller-inflected score by Philip Glass, precise widescreen cinematography by Mikhail Krichmann and several excellent performances (Nadezhda Markina is Oscar-worthy as the eponymous hausfrau), Elena – co-written by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin – navigates thorny moral terrain with clear-eyed incisiveness. A masterful, resonant but accessible example of high-calibre art-cinema, the film (a quiet affair whose outdoor showing was marred by loud pop-music wafting through the Summer Stage’s noise-permeable arboreal ‘curtain’) appears a safe bet for October’s London Film Festival.

World-premiering at Cannes in May, Elena was one of the Croisette’s successes d’estime – indeed, many wondered why it wasn’t selected for the main Competition rather than the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Zvyagintsev did end up winning a Special Jury Prize, the top award being shared by Korean maverick Kim Ki-Duk’s experimental-autobiographical Arirang and Andreas Dresen’s Stopped On Track from Germany. And in the PFF competition, Dresen’ once again found more jury-favour than Zvyagintsev, taking the ‘Golden Tower’ while Elena obtained a consolating ‘Special Mention’.

Stopped On Track tackles off-putting, painful subject-matter – the physical and mental decline of a family-man after he’s diagnosed with a malignant, inoperable brain-tumour – with admirable directness and sensitivity, along with some surprising flourishes of audacious inventiveness. Rubber-faced leading man Milan Peschel, long one of Germany’s most outstanding actors, has perhaps never been better – indeed, the whole cast is terrific, working sans script as part of Dresen’s improvisational approach.

Often described (lazily) as a “Germany’s Mike Leigh,” 48-year-old, DDR-born Dresen is a consistent, prolific and versatile director with a keen social awareness and an impeccably humanist interest in those people and subjects that other film-makers often shy away from: he had a sizeable domestic hit with his study of pensioners’ sex lives, Cloud 9. But, like so many prominent exponents of contemporary German cinema – Christian Petzold, Maren Ade, Angela Schanalec, Romuald Karmakar, Thomas Arslan, Christoph Hochhäusler, Valeska Grisebach, Ulrich Köhler (to name just a few) – he nevertheless remains largely unknown here beyond the festival-circuit.

Perhaps Stopped On Track‘s already-impressive awards haul might eventually compel a UK distributor to take a chance on his latest offering – though if our arthouses properly reflected the current vibrancy of European cinema as showcased at festivals like Palić, movies like Stopped On Track and Elena would be picked up as a matter of course, rather than as a matter of seemingly haphazard, frustratingly unpredictable chance.

Neil Young

July 2011

written for Tribune magazine

Screening diary

17th July
THE LIGHT THIEF : [6/10] : Svet-Ake : Kyrgyzstan/Fr/Ger/Neth 2010 : Aktan Arym KUBAT : 80m : {15/28}
TARGET : [5/10] : Mishen : Russia 2011 : Alexander ZELDOVICH : 154m : {12/28}
MADE IN POLAND : [3/10] : Poland 2010 : Przemyslaw WOJCIESZEK : 90m : {8/28}
ELENA : [8?/10] : Russia 2011 : Andrei ZVYAGINTSEV : 109m : {22?/28}
ELENA : [8/10] : {23/28} — 2nd viewing
GENERATION P : [4/10] : Russia 2011 : Victor GINZBURG :  112m : {11/28}
IF THE SEED DOESN’T DIE : [3/10] : Dacă bobul nu moare : Romania/Serbia/Austria 2010 : Sinişa DRAGIN : 118m : {8/28}
STOPPED ON TRACK : [7/10] : Halt auf freier Strecke : Germany 2011 : Andreas DRESEN : 95m : {19/28}
INNOCENT SATURDAY : [9/10] : V Subbotu : Ukraine/Germany/Russia 2011 : Aleksandr MINDADZE : 99m : {26/28}

all films seen at Jadran theatre, Subotica, apart from Free Radicals (Grand Terrace, Palić) and the first screening of Elena (Summer Stage, Palić)