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Filmfest’s latest run is all about the characters

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Aspen Filmfest `03 was short on films with big stars, big budgets and big hype.

It was, however, long on quality, with film after film of surprising depth, especially in the area of character development.

Perhaps the best example was the Surprise Film, screened to a sold-out crowd on Friday evening. As promised by Filmfest executive director Laura Thielen, the film was a true surprise, and not one for which audiences had seen repeated trailers or heard media buzz. The film, the French product “Mr. Ibrahim,” was a crowd-pleaser nonetheless.

For most of its duration, “Mr. Ibrahim” barely leaves the block of gritty, early ’60s Paris that serves as its setting. It doesn’t need to.

Writer-director François Dupeyron finds such richness in the relationship between an elderly Muslim grocery owner – played charmingly by Omar Sharif – and the troubled Jewish teenager Momo (Pierre Boulanger) that there is little need to turn the camera away from them. In fact, when the film does leave its neighborhood, for a road trip to Ibrahim’s native Turkey, it feels like a false step, perhaps the only one in an otherwise exceptional film.

Apart from the central relationship and despite the setting, “Mr. Ibrahim” is a timely story. Sharif’s Ibrahim repeatedly states that what provides him sustenance is the Koran and the fact that he knows what is in it. Unlike current times, when the Koran so often is used to justify violence and other nefarious deeds, Ibrahim’s knowledge of the Koran is the underpinning for a life of generosity, compassion and enthusiasm – even, and especially, regarding a young Jewish stranger.

“The Station Agent” was another shining demonstration of little more than quiet, steady character development. Like “Mr. Ibrahim,” it is a story of disparate individuals forming an unlikely relationship.

After being bequeathed an abandoned rail depot in rural New Jersey, Fin (Peter Dinklage) retreats to the shack, hoping to escape a world rudely fascinated by his being a dwarf. But even as he aims to disconnect, Fin finds himself welcoming the company of a motor-mouth hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale) and a grieving artist (Patricia Clarkson).

At times, “The Station Agent,” the first film by writer-director Tom McCarthy, plays with sitcom predictability. But the performances by all three principals, and the quality of the humor, make it broadly satisfying. Look for “The Station Agent,” made for a half-million dollars and to be released this week, to find a large audience, one which it deserves.

“Pipe Dreams,” director Enzo Mileti’s portrait of two athletes aiming to compete in the 2002 Winter Olympics in their Park City, Utah, hometown, is filled with mostly familiar elements. There are the competitive and personal ups and downs, the breathtaking downhill sequences, the hardcore music and the lump-in-the-throat drama of the Olympics themselves.

But “Pipe Dreams” distinguishes itself with its comprehensiveness: Halfpipe snowboarder Ricky Bowers and aerial freestyle skier Joe Pack are followed from well over a year before the Olympics to the aftermath of their Olympic triumphs and travails. We get an intimate look at the competition, the disappointments, the travel – and even a grisly glimpse of ACL surgery.

As if proving a point, when Filmfest `03 did venture into the bigger names, it came up short on quality. “Casa de los Babys,” by independent film icon John Sayles, featured such recognizable actors as Mary Steenburgen, Marcia Gay Harden, Daryl Hannah and Rita Moreno.

But the group portrait of American women in a Latin American country for the purpose of adopting infants lacks all sense of purpose. The film (which I saw only on video) is too short, and there are too many characters for any of them to come across as anything but one-dimensional. It is the weakest work in years from Sayles, whose recent filmography includes “Sunshine State,” “Men with Guns” and “Lone Star.”

Another delight was “Some Secrets” (which I also saw only on video) by Czech writer-director Alice Nellis. Another ensemble, character-oriented story, “Some Secrets” examines an extended family as they reveal their pasts and reconcile with one another on a road trip across the Czech Republic.

[Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com]


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