Saturday, May 02, 2009

Ebertfest Report #6: Let the Right Movie In

A one point late in the 11th Annual Roger Ebert Film Festival Roger’s wife Chas address the capacity crowd in the historic Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign, Ill. simply by saying, “Amore!”

“It’s about love,” she continued, speaking of a common theme that seemed to permeate all of the entries in this year’s festival. She described several relationships that had started at Ebertfest throughout its 11-year history and were still going strong. “[Ebertfest] is about people getting together to change the world with the values of peace and understanding,” she said.

Love is certainly a driving force in four of this festival’s most exquisite and mesmerizing pictures.

“Frozen River” is the story of two mothers’ love for their children. A love strong enough to drive these women to do just about anything to ensure their children’s well being. The women are suffering from a desperation to secure this for their children. It is desperation that brings these two women together under just about the only circumstances that would even have them speaking to each other, and desperation that forces them into the illegal activity of smuggling aliens across the Canadian border into the United States.

“Frozen River” is a stark film, but at its center is warmth that emanates from these two mothers. One is a Mohawk woman who has had her one-year-old boy taken from her by her tribal council as retribution for a tragedy in which she was involved. The other is a white woman who has promised her two sons a new mobile home, a dream that is threatened to be dashed when her gambling-addicted husband takes off with all their money. Neither woman is really at fault for their problems, but they take the responsibility for the actions of others for the sake of their children and follow the only solutions they can find.


In “The Fall” a suicidal man enters a friendship with a young girl recovering at the same hospital as him. He tells her stories in order to get her to smuggle him drugs. He tells the stories one way, but she interprets them in her own way, with the innocence of a child who is also unaware that she is being used for darker purposes. This movie comes from the mind of Tarsem, who found early success as a music video director and directed the visually stunning thriller “The Cell”.

The story the man tells to the girl is changed and manipulated by the girl into a love story of sorts, but the real bond of love formed in the movie is between the little girl and the man. There is a heartbreaking scene when the man confesses to the girl what he was using her for. In it he changes the story to reflect his suicidal tendencies and the performances by both actors are heartbreaking. There is a bond of trust formed by love here that is being broken and it hurts in only the ways that love can.

The actress Catinca Untaru revealed in the question and answer period following the screening that during most of the production she thought the man’s injuries were real. Late in the production the filmmakers allowed her to learn that he was only pretending to be paralyzed, and she felt a similar sense of betrayal as her character. But children are forgiving by nature, and she soon admired her costar again.


“Nothing But the Truth” was perhaps my favorite film of the festival. It is one of those political pictures that looks at the rights we think we have in this country and makes you see them from different perspectives and wonder why we do or don’t have them. It centers around three main characters played amazingly well by Kate Beckinsale, Matt Dillon, and Vera Farminga. It is inspired and somewhat based on the real life case of former CIA agent Valerie Plame and New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who refused to reveal her source that outted the undercover agent.

While being an effective drama that makes you think about our right to free press and the national interests of our country to protect its citizens through covert operations and freedom of knowledge, the real strength of this fictionalized version of those recent events is in the motherhood of these two women. There are children and families involved in their struggles to both reveal and conceal the truth. It is those families that are ripped apart both by those trying to cover up the truth and those trying to reveal it. While the women don’t act in each other’s interest throughout the film, they are always acting in the interest of their children. It isn’t the prime focus of the film or each of the women’s character arcs, but always their decisions and actions are motivated at their foundations in the interest of their children. Some of their decisions backfire against their children and they must live with the consequences as mothers. But always they are mothers.


Vampires and love have gone hand in hand since the creation of their mythology. Often the blood lust and the sexual lust get paralleled in their stories, but always there is the sadness of love in their myth. Yes, the sadness of love, and perhaps no vampire is sadder in love than the vampire in “Let the Right One In”. Why is she so sad? Because she is twelve, and she’s been twelve for a very long time.

Regardless as to whether “she” really is a she or not, she sees a kindred spirit in the very mortal boy who lives in the apartment next to her. In fact “Let the Right One In” is really Oskar’s story, not Eli’s, the vampire. But it is unclear whether the title refers to Oskar letting Eli in or Eli letting Oskar in. I suppose the important thing is that they let each other in and in doing so begin to free themselves of the sadness that is each of their existences.

“Let the Right One In” is haunting, not just because it is a horror movie and an effectively scary one at that, but also because of its mood and atmosphere. It’s haunting because it focuses on two people who don’t fit in to the world they inhabit and the silent wintery Scandinavian environment of the movie reflects that. Perhaps there are other lost souls within this story (there certainly are), but since it’s all about love, let’s concentrate on the positive. Whether or not Eli truly loves Oskar or she is just replacing her older servant with a fresh new one, it seems they each let the right one in.


In closing, I couldn’t be happier that I let these movies in with a film festival that is more than just a celebration of love for film, but also a celebration of love for life, community, and the freedom of living in a place where values and compassion are celebrated. Animator and advocate for literally free expression Nina Paley, who attended with her movie “Sita Sings the Blues”, said it best when she said that Ebertfest “was the coolest way to visit Urbana.”


SD said...

Hey dude-- not sure if you saw this. It's a really well-written, heartfelt tribute to Ebert from one of the producers of "Nothing But the Truth."

Andrew D. Wells said...

I hadn't. Thank you, SD. And actually that was written by the writer and director of the film, former movie critic Rod Lurie, director of such films as "The Last Castle" and "The Contender". "Nothing But the Truth" is by far his finest film to date.

Lurie talks about Ebert's current forms of communication now that he has lost the use of his voice. This is a subject I really wanted to talk about in my reports, but never got around to. Even when Ebert wasn't using his Olivier 9000 to talk, the man still had a wonderful faculty for communication with his hand gestures and body language. He was constantly sending the audience into laughter when his wife and guests were introducing films by sticking his hand out from behind the curtain or shrugging his shoulders to let us know the greatness of this film or that was out of his control and he was just calling it as he saw it. It was really wonderful to have his personality back at the festival.