BEIRUT — Daytime temperatures may be aestival these days, but September is conventionally harvest time. For film-goers yearning for air conditioning as much as cinema that’s a bit more thoughtful than what Marvel’s touting, the European Film Festival and Metropolis Cinema are serving up a bumper crop of diversion.
As has become EFF custom, the event will have a mixed bag of activities. The festival’s mission, of course, is to showcase European cinema and the program will include 27 recent European features that have taken treasure at major international festivals, as well as the critically acclaimed works of emerging directors from the continent. Parents will be pleased to find that a couple of kid-friendly animated features have also been programmed.
This festival of European film speaks with a pronounced Lebanese accent, providing several opportunities to enjoy the work of this country’s artists. Indeed, its Beirut run will close with what is perhaps the most-neglected well-made Lebanese film to be released since 2019. After ten days in the capital, the program will go on the road to entertain movie-lovers around the country.
Opening night in Madrid
EFF opens Monday, Sept. 25 with an open-air projection of “Ramona,” by Madrid-born Andrea Bagney, at Sursock Museum's esplanade — a by-invitation-only show to be followed a few days later by a general screening at Galaxy cinemas. The film has won a number of festival awards, including the best screenplay prize at the 2022 Rome Film Fest.
Featuring an energetic performance by Lourdes Hernández — better known in Spain’s indie-music circles as Russian Red — “Ramona” is a light but intelligent romantic comedy. Ona, as the titular protagonist calls herself, has just moved to Madrid, where she aspires to be an actor. In a cafe the day before her first audition she meets an older dude named Bruno. The conversation soon moves from coffee to comic exchanges over brandy and beer. Before long, he drunkenly professes his love. Ona tells him she has a long-term boyfriend, Nico (which may amuse some Arabic speakers in the audience), and promptly flees the scene.
At the casting call, Ona discovers Bruno is the film’s director. Before she utters a line of her monologue, he wants to hire her for the lead role, baffling his colleagues and pissing-off Ona, who has good reason to question his motives. When she tells Nico the story, he informs her she’s an idiot for turning down the role, allowing the narrative to unfold.
The best thing about the story is its defiance of convention. The narrative never really enters the dreary suburb of carnal indiscretion-slash-betrayal and none of its characters is that villainous — not even Bruno, the old man out in this love triangle — but neither are they cartoon depictions of sainthood.
Bagney’s work is most interesting as a love note to cinema itself. She shot the film in 16mm film, and for most of its running time the characters appear in black-and-white. It’s only during her filmed audition monologues and a clip from the film itself that Ramona appears in color, to palpable effect. Film history is festooned with renderings of casting calls and auditions, and Bagney can be credited with making a memorable contribution to the montage.
European film with a Lebanese accent
There are many watchable films among the program’s 27 films, and several of these are highlights.
For those who missed its sole Beirut projection during last year’s Maskoon film festival, “Triangle of Sadness,” may be at the top of the must-see pile. Ruben Östlund’s monumental piss-take of the global fashion trade, and late-capitalism generally, won the director Cannes’ Palme d’Or for the second year in a row, a happy eccentricity for the Swede.
Another title that will intrigue film-lovers is Jerzy Skolimowski’s 2022 feature “E.O.” — a scalding critique of human disregard for living things, disguised as the sweet tale of a donkey (E.O.) taken against its will from the down-at-heel circus where it performed and hauled garbage. The film’s roomful of accolades includes Cannes’ 2022 jury prize.
Much critical and audience adoration has been lavished upon quite a different type of film, Colm Bairéad’s 2022 “The Quiet Girl,” which won a bushel of awards at international festivals before the Academy Awards shortlisted it for its Best International Feature prize. Set in Ireland in 1981, Claire Keegan’s story centers on the pensive 9-year-old Cáit. One of many youngsters in a rural household, she is sent off to summer with her mother’s cousin, where she tentatively begins to bloom.
Continuing on a European theme, EFF will project “Cría Cuervos” (Breeding Crows), Carlos Saura’s classic coming-of-age story set during Franco’s fascist dictatorship. Another European classic, Jean Renoir’s 1928 film “The Little Match Girl,” its image fully restored in 4K, will be presented as a cine-concert.
For some years now, Metropolis and Irtijal, Lebanon’s international festival for experimental music, have collaborated to commission performers from the unconventional edge of Beirut’s music community to score iconic silent films. This show will feature June As, Renata and HWCA — three players from the sound and visual artist collective Frequent Defect. The evening promises a unique hybrid of silent film and contemporary sound.
This country’s filmmakers play an equally strong role in the EFF program. EFF’s short film competition provides a platform for 12 short films by emerging Lebanese filmmakers. The festival is partnering with the Goethe-Institut Libanon, l’Institut français du Liban and the Embassy of Poland in Lebanon in awarding three prizes, with winning titles invited to attend a leading international film festival in Europe in 2024.
EFF will also provide a launchpad for Bassem Breche’s startling feature film debut “Riverbed.”
It tells the story of Salma, a self-reliant woman nearing middle age who operates the switchboard of an antiquated phone network in a remote mountain village. During working hours, she’s visited by ladies of a certain age, who slurp maté and swap gossip about sinful neighbors. Indifferent to the recreational hearsay, Salma herself manages a furtive indiscretion in her off hours. Her routine of managed isolation is disrupted when her daughter comes to visit — or rather to isolate herself — with a problem of her own in hand.
The film’s most striking features are its cinematography and locations, a counterpoint of nondescript settings (whether interior rooms or the village’s frayed scenery) juxtaposed with spectacular mountain exteriors. “Riverbed” also departs dramatically from the filmmaker’s chatty work on web and television series. It is striking how much this quiet film is able to convey — both dramatically and comically — with relatively little dialogue.
The theatrical release of “Riverbed” will begin after the festival winds up in Beirut.
The European Film Festival will run Sept. 25-Oct. 4 at Galaxy Grand Cinemas, Theatre Caracalla, Beirut Art Center and the Italian Embassy Garden. Festival films are scheduled to screen in locations across Lebanon throughout October.