Three Rivers Film Festival First-Week Roundup

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The films were certainly there; all they needed were people to watch them.

They showed up in droves.

The opening weekend of Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Film Festival (the oldest and largest of its kind in the region) saw screenings of Oscar contenders, gala events, and presentations from festival circuit darlings and directors alike.

Philomena, starring Judi Dench in a role that is sure to garner another Best Actress nomination for the veteran actress at the upcoming Academy Awards, sold out its first screening over the weekend. Opening night films The Rocket and A Perfect Man drew similar praise and attendance as the festival continued its tradition of showcasing smaller films that the Pittsburgh market might not see during the their respective domestic release dates.  

Unfortunately I was unable to secure a ticket to any of the opening night films, though I’ve heard only good things—especially for Philomena. Seeing as most of the films at the 3RFF are screening only a few months after their respective international festival premieres (many of the 3RFF films opened or played at Venice, Toronto, Telluride, and Cannes), the festival gives Pittsburghers an opportunity that’s rarely afforded; for two weeks we get to see films as they’re traveling the festival circuits and making the awards season rounds.

One of those films, Ingrid Veninger’s The Animal Project, first screened at Toronto in September. Veninger herself was on-hand for a screening at the Harris Theater downtown last night, seeming genuinely excited to bring herself to Pittsburgh on a festival tour.

“We’re on the festival circuit now, and it’s great to be in Pittsburgh,” she told the audience after the film concluded, and I was ecstatic to hear a filmmaker acknowledge that the city was truly a part of the film’s tour and not an obligatory offshoot.

Veninger’s film is an urban ennuist’s (can we make that a word?) dream come true. Her quiet examination of city life begins as observational and restrained, and she allows her characters to come to life with seamless effort by the film’s conclusion. It’s a sublime film that stands as one of the best of the festival (and, frankly, of 2013) so far.

It’s fantastic that a mid-sized market like Pittsburgh can play host to these films (many of which are international submissions in the upcoming Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category), and even more impressive that local audiences will show up to these things. So many people disregard Pittsburgh’s place in the art and film worlds, and 3RFF and its staff work tirelessly to bring quality entertainment to a public who are very much in-tune with the rest of the industry.

Over the weekend, I was also able to take in Claire Denis’ Bastards and Carolina Loyola Garcia’s documentary Sobre las Olas.

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Bastards is a challenging work that’s enjoyable in its earnestness and restless urgency, even if it is a bit opaque. I’ve seen none of Denis’ other films, so I’m not entirely familiar with her style (though I know she’s quite popular). I was a little put off by the unnecessary complication of the plot by mere intentional withholding of information and odd, subversive structuring. A simple story can benefit from such a structure if that structure compliments some other aspect of the film (I think immediately of Memento’s narrative mirroring the protagonist’s short-term memory), but here it seems merely jumbled for jumbledness’ sake.

The first half of the film meanders around a confusing cast of characters with even more confusing (and forced) interconnectivity. The film hits its stride once the pieces start falling into place, and its conclusion is fantastic, wrapping the package up nicely and giving meaning and justification to the film’s earlier disjointed composition.

Without giving too much away, I’ll say that seeing the focal character, Raphaelle, more or less “killing” the part of herself that succumbed to the lustful desires she’s ashamed of is the film’s girthiest moment. She has found a comfortable life for herself and sacrificed her gut feelings to settle into a compromised life for the sake of continuing familiarity. She’s a despicable character, but fabulously painted by Denis.

There are tons of interesting parallels within the film as well, particularly between Raphaelle and her lover’s niece, Justine, who sees no clear path for her life and actively seeks out and indulges in any compulsive desire that crosses her mind. She is bare, free, and harnesses control in her insistence to let go of it.

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Sobre las Olas, on the other hand, is a beautiful love letter to the under-represented art of Flamenco dancing in the United States. While the film paints an aesthetically rich portrait of its subject, Garcia’s direction as a documentary filmmaker could benefit from subtle refinement. She clearly loves her subject and harbors intense admiration for the talking heads that appear in her film, but that love isn’t restrained; she allows her subjects to prattle on and on about the same topic—some cuts with individuals last from 5-10 minutes—boiling down to a bulk of the film showing a dozen different ways to say “I love Flamenco.”

What’s really special about this year’s festival is its representation of female filmmakers. The films I saw this past week were helmed by women from various corners of the world. Veninger, Garcia, and Denis hail from separate corners, bringing their art in a convergence of voices and backgrounds at the 3RFF. Where mainstream studios rarely produce works from female directors, the independent world teems with women filmmakers creating quality product.

The 3RFF continues through November 23rd.

Tickets and screening locations can be found at http://3rff.com/

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