On March 11, the 39th Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival was introduced at a preview. Two days later, the April event was postponed because of COVID-19. Organizers soon decided to replace the live festival with a virtual one. Today, it starts.
Executive director Susan Smoluchowski always knew the festival — which will stream about 50 features online, instead of the 160 movies it usually shows to about 50,000 patrons in person — would happen. In part, that’s because it never has been canceled.
“The alternative was what? We just go silent? I didn’t feel we wanted to, nor could we afford to, if we wanted to remain in front of the people who love us,” said Smoluchowski, acknowledging a tepid early response to the idea of a virtual version of the festival that gives the MSP Film Society most of its revenue and public profile.
“From the get-go, we figured this would happen,” she added.
“This” is what the film society has dubbed “MSPIFF 39, Redefined.” About 40 countries are represented among the full-length features and short films. There are documentaries (including the poignant “Bridge,” about the collapse on I-35W), narrative works and experimental films. Directors will Zoom in for post-screening chats. Movies can be viewed anytime during the nine-day fest, with the exception of scheduled opening- and closing-night films. Sellouts, a reality of the live festival, remain likely: Only 250 “seats” can be sold per movie.
As always, staffers are excited to share favorites. A few titles that Smoluchowski is pleased made it to the redefined fest: “Influence,” a South African doc about how public relations alters governments; “Song Without a Name,” which follows a Peruvian woman searching for her child, and “Arab Blues,” in which a Tunisian woman finds out if you can go home again.
Based on advance screenings, here are a few other titles from the 39th to consider.
‘The Barefoot Emperor’
Belgian-made “Barefoot” is set in sunny Croatia, where a royal is transported after being shot. The dry, absurdist comedy that follows is a little obvious, politically speaking, but the slow-motion physical humor and easy acceptance of incredible events bring to mind Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster.” Veteran oddballs Udo Kier and Geraldine Chaplin show up in supporting roles.
“Those four jerks potentially saved my life,” says one survivor of the I-35W bridge collapse in Spencer Patzman’s documentary. He’s talking about motorists who cut him off in traffic and ended up in dicier positions on the bridge as a result. The specificity of that observation is typical of this emotional film. It’s mostly talking heads, but the openness of survivors, responders and others (including Star Tribune reporter James Walsh and former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak) is powerful and hopeful. Says another survivor, “I used that accident to move my life forward.”
The superstar associated with this documentary is editor Walter Murch, who worked on the “Godfather” movies, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “American Graffiti.” He edited and wrote a movie that, ironically, could use trimming. The story of interference in the 1953 Iranian coup d’état is compelling and the documentary is visually inventive, but too much time is devoted to director Taghi Amirani, whose detective work distracts from the argument that Middle East politics might have gone much differently (read: better) without Western meddling.
This sweetly weird Bulgarian charmer is about an elderly man and his middle-aged son trying to move on from the death of the wife/mother whose funeral is depicted in the opening scene (the son’s late arrival signals transgressions to come). To heal, they take a bonkers road trip that includes a chase in which the title character drives a horse-drawn buggy while his son staves off pursuers by throwing pumpkins off the back.
‘I Am Not Alone’
If there could be crowds at the fest, this portrait of a revolution would be the crowd-pleaser. Hugely inspiring, it’s one of those documentaries that seems unreal: An Armenian politician walks across his country, protesting a leader who threatens to become a dictator. Stragglers and then thousands of people join him in scenes that resemble Black Lives Matter protests (in one eye-opener, he’s holding a camera in front of his face as he stops traffic by sitting in front of a moving bus). Six weeks later, he is elected the new prime minister.
‘Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream’
French filmmaker Frank Beauvais watched 400 movies during a six-month period as he dealt with grief both personal (a breakup, his dad’s death) and global (the Pulse nightclub shooting, Prince’s death). Believing that “others’ films are mirrors, not windows,” he assembled soundless clips from hundreds of existing movies into this filmed essay. Some clips illustrate his thoughts and some provide counterpoint; some are beautiful, some are shocking. It could be argued “Just Don’t” is the most essential movie in the festival, not because everyone will love it (some may find it ponderous) but because of its subject: why we watch movies.
Another one about grief. Belgian Tim Mielants, whose directing credits include the “Peaky Blinders” series, continues in that vein with a deadpan comedy set at a nudist camp. The title character (played by Belgian hottie Kevin Janssens, not so hot in a heinous bowl cut) is coping with his dad’s death, but what really disturbs him is the theft of a hammer. On the most obvious level, “Patrick” looks at the phenomenon of obsessing over something unimportant because we can’t deal with the thing that really bothers us. But it’s also about falling in love with an object just for itself.
‘A Thief’s Daughter’
Cannes favorites Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne don’t have a movie in this fest, but clearly they have a fan in writer/director Belén Funes. Her Barcelona-set drama follows the Dardenne road map: Working-class protagonist? Check. Moral dilemma? Check. Society seems to be working against her? Check. Camera spends most of its time behind her, scurrying to catch up? Check. What makes “Thief’s Daughter” special is Greta Fernández, a force of nature as a single mother who keeps it together against long odds.
Religious hypocrisy is the theme of an unsettling drama from Croatia. Teenager Goran is dumped at a Catholic boarding school where the teachers and students are as warm as the ultramodern decor (the chapel has a neon cross). When Goran questions the school’s teachings, he is shamed and ostracized. The reserved filmmaking leaves room for multiple interpretations, including the possibility that Goran is himself a savior who, like Jesus, finds his words falling on deaf ears.