Shallow crowd-pleasers like the just-opened Starsky & Hutch earn big bucks while more nourishing small films from other countries get scant attention -- if they ever even open in the United States at all. So events like Montpelier's Green Mountain Film Festival, which runs from March 19 to 28 this year, become an important means of spreading the word about potential art-house gems.
Case in point: Open Hearts, a somewhat generic title for a very specific tale with mesmerizing power. Although the Danish selection is theoretically one of those minimalist Dogma '95 productions, director Susanne Bier seems to break some rules by employing several cinematic tricks of the trade. The camera appears to use color filters during credit sequences, for example, and the soundtrack is full of sad, English-language love songs.
Nonetheless, the requisite spare approach to storytelling keeps the picture from devolving into sentimental mush. It's a harrowing tale of anguish reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, with relationships that unravel as the audience watches helplessly.
In Open Hearts, that process involves Cecelie and Joachim, an attractive young couple devastated when he's hit by a car. The driver is Marie, a middle-aged woman whose own life will never be the same again. Her doctor husband, Niels, befriends the distraught Cecelie just as Joachim learns that he is permanently paralyzed.
Strong performances, particularly by Sonja Richter as Cecelie, give this Dogma drama its bite. She's a natural-born heartbreaker.
The same can be said for Dinara Drukarova, Nino Khumasuridze and 90-year-old Esther Gorintin, the lead actresses in Since Otar Left. Set in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, the contemporary saga by Julie Bertucelli is an intimate family portrait with universal meaning.
In Tblisi, the capital city of a land coping with stagnation since the Iron Curtain crumbled, a college student shares a cramped apartment with her widowed mother and grandmother.
The elderly woman, still nostalgic for Stalin, is obsessed with the intermittent letters and phone calls from her son Otar. After leaving behind his medical training to find work as a common laborer in France, he periodically sends money home. In his absence, the others remain trapped by dysfunction.
Dysfunction Junction might be an appropriate name for the small town in Hungary where Hukkle takes place. This thoroughly bizarre experiment by Gyorgi Palfi defies description, but here goes: Largely dialogue-free, it uses ambient sound as a sort of symphonic commentary on the hamlet's daily routines and extraordinary occurrences. An apparent murder mystery is as tangled up in the forces of nature as the quirky motives of humankind.
On firmer narrative ground, Michel Deville's Almost Peaceful depicts French Holocaust survivors carving out an uncertain future in Paris. It's 1946 and they're all damaged goods. Albert, who spent most of World War II in hiding, operates a tailor shop where the employees grapple with personal sorrows.
His wife Lea is attracted to Charles, a man futilely waiting for loved ones to return from the death camps. Maurice seeks solace in the arms of a prostitute. Madame Andree, the only one in the group who's not Jewish, tries to help a niece now being persecuted for her romantic liaison with a German soldier. Joseph, just 19 and an aspiring writer, joins the Communist Party in his struggle against anti-Semitic collaborators still holding government positions.
The Communist Party in China is at the center of Morning Sun, a documentary by Carma Hinton, Richard Gordon and Geremie Barme that chronicles the traumatic second half of the 20th century there. The filmmakers interviewed people from various sides of the Cultural Revolution, a Lord of the Flies era that witnessed supposedly civilized youngsters turning savage.
Loyal only to Chairman Mao, from 1966 to 1976 the high school and college kids that comprised the Red Guard had a green light to purge society of presumed bourgeois counterrevolutionaries. Children informed on their parents. The denunciations grew increasingly violent. Amazing archival footage brings this bleak history to life on the screen.
All told, the festival will showcase 29 films in two downtown venues, the Savoy Theater and City Hall Arts Center. In addition, there'll be discussions -- including one with noted critic Molly Haskell on the 28th -- and other related activities that make it worth your while to skip Starsky & Hutch. m
For more information, visit www.savoy theater.com/gmff  or call 793-7423.