Vienna decided to celebrate Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 250th birthday in high style last year with a big-ol' festival of new music, opera, cinema, architecture, and visual arts presentations. The event was called New Crowned Hope — named after a venue co-founded by Mozart. It ended up being the place where he made his last public appearance (shortly before his death in 1791) and was the city's only Masonic lodge permitted to reopen in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
For the film portion of New Crowned Hope, legendary theater director Peter Sellars commissioned seven international filmmakers and gave them creative carte blanche to develop new projects responding to three themes of Mozart's last works — magic and transformation, truth and reconciliation, and ceremonies for the dead — all of which, says Sellars, make Mozart's work crucially relevant to our moment in history. The resulting films are anything but music history lessons, and aside from a snippet of "The Magic Flute" in one of the films (I Don't Want to Sleep Alone), Mozart's music is not heard.
SIFF Cinema presents four of the New Crowned Hope films through August 2 — a perfect chance to see some of the world's boldest and brightest filmmakers' all-new takes on those age-old themes:
Syndromes and a Century (thru 7/26)
Thailand; directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
The director of Tropical Malady, still my favorite film so far this century, returns with another seductively mysterious film of self-reflecting (and sometimes contradictory) halves. Each follows a different doctor in a different hospital, both separately speaking very similar dialogue; the fluid narrative also involves a might-be-crooked Buddhist monk and a might-be-gay dentist, plus an extended music scene that seems to bridge the two pieces while taking place outside of conscious apprehension. It's unusual, enchanting stuff, and even though Weerasethakul (who based the film on memories of his doctor parents) didn't quite inflict me with any malady this time, the film's warmth overshadows its dense, confounding nature.
Half Moon (thru 7/26)
Iran; directed by Bahman Ghobadi
The only film in this series that wasn't on the SIFF 2007 schedule, and if I were to pick the most missable of the bunch this would probably be it. But as road movies go, it's a very good one: a famous Iranian musician in failing health gathers a dozen musicians and heads to Iraqi Kurdistan for a freedom concert to celebrate the fall of Saddam Hussein (and, therefore, the end of the repression of Kurdish music). Not everyone endures the brutal journey, but the sublime visions encountered along the way (I'll never forget the beautiful sounds and images from a village of exiled woman singers) foreshadow the sadness and delicacy of the vaguely metaphysical final act.
Dry Season (7/27 – 8/2)
Chad/France; directed by Mahamat Saleh Haroun
In the wake of a post-civil war Chad, where government amnesty allowed war criminals off scot-free, the grandfather of 16-year-old country boy Atim sends him to the city to avenge the murder of Atim's father (who was killed before Atim was even born). But grandpa doesn't count on Atim becoming drawn into the home life of the alleged murderer, now a wizened baker, and his young pregnant wife. The storytelling style may be simple, but the film's effective contemplations of justice, revenge, and forgiveness are anything but. And the emblematic ending would seem preachy and trite if it weren't so close to perfect.
I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (7/27 – 8/2)
Malaysia/Taiwan; directed by Tsai Ming-liang
One of my favorites of SIFF 2007, by one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, and I loved it even more after a second viewing. The compelling, well-conceived parallel stories (a comatose patient is cared for by friends and family; a beaten-down homeless Kuala Lumpur man is taken in and nursed to health by an immigrant worker) and staggeringly beautiful images make for a gorgeously meditative, humane, occasionally very funny study of longing. Tsai's films typically take place in Tapiei; here he moves his setting to his native Malaysia. And his trademark lengthy silences are still everywhere, always speaking louder than words.