A Look at Telluride Film Festival #48

The Hand of God movie clip

The third and final installment of Paul O’Rourke’s three-part review of this year’s films.

By Paul O’Rourke

“What happened in Brigadoon was a miracle, and most folks dinna believe in miracles. Miracles require faith…” (from the movie Brigadoon (1954), directed by Vincente Minnelli, and starring Van Johnson, Gene Kelly, and Cyd Charisse).

The mystical place known as Brigadoon appeared, as out of the Scottish mist, during the last days of August 2021, and just as magically, Telluride will be returned to its former self by the second week of September. Such is way with the Telluride Film Festival, where the festival, once a year, becomes the town, and the town becomes the festival.

Considering what the filmmaking community did to create what they did in 2020 and 2021 and recognizing the faith and herculean effort the festival directors, staff, and volunteers marshaled to make possible the 48th rendition of the TFF, the phenomenon that is Brigadoon and Telluride was rendered something beyond miraculous this year. Thank you to all of you who made it happen.

Co-founder and Director Emeritus, Bill Pence, often cautioned festivalgoers: “None of you will see every film you want to see.” Even with an extra day this year, I found myself in that unenviable position on Monday evening after seeing my last film—a good one, of course. There are no bad films at the TFF.

                                                                           ***

There was a full complement of documentaries at TFF #48, several with featuring musicians: Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, Becoming Led Zeppelin, and The Velvet Underground. I heard only good things about the first two. I chose the latter of the three, due to my appreciation for Lou Reed’s music, but mostly because of Director Todd Haynes (Carol and I’m Not There), who received a TFF Silver Medallion in 2015. It was, for both reasons, a good choice.

The Velvet Underground, Haynes first feature-length documentary, explores not only the group’s music, which was great improvisational rock and roll, but also its genesis in physics and harmonics and its connection to the 1960s New York City “underground” art scene and Andy Warhol. As Warhol put it, “They always sounded raw and crude. Raw and crude was the way I liked our movies to look.” And as Reed’s collaborator, John Cale, saw it, the Velvet Underground was, “R&B meets Wagner.” Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman, who worked with him on Carol and I’m Not There, shape a cinematic story that, at once, resonates with and then confronts the viewer, just like the Velvet Underground—and Andy Warhol—would have wanted it.

                                                                            ***

Julia, from Oscar-winning directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen (RBG), is, sorry, a delicious cinematic feast. We all know who Julia Child was, and the groundbreaking impact her 1960s TV show had on an American public, starving, so to speak, for a palatable meal, absent spam and Jell-o molds.

What West and Cohen provide us are insights into the life of a fearless and pioneering woman who broke barriers, not only in the kitchen, but in the larger society, as well. Child was, after a change of perspective and heart, an ardent activist for gay rights and a patron of several AIDS benefits. Julia put her reputation and perhaps her livelihood on the line in her support of Planned Parenthood. Both advocacies were advanced at large food-oriented gatherings, of course.

We are reminded—or learn for the first time—of Julia’s relationships, with her husband, Paul Child, and with her principal kitchen collaborators, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, with whom she composed, after a dozen years of recipe research, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Go see Julia, but don’t go hungry. Your stomach will be grumbling before the first mouth-watering recipe is prepared on screen.

                                                                           ***

Red Rocket received quite a bit of buzz at TFF #48, some good, some not so good. That doesn’t necessarily set it apart from others, however. That’s what is so refreshing about Telluride; every moviegoer has an opinion and enjoys letting everyone know what it is. We are all film critics at the TFF.

Director Sean Baker’s film is about Mikey (Simon Rex), a delusional, non-stop talking and hyperbole-spewing ex-porn star (or so we’re led to believe) who returns to his former home, an intensely industrial Texas town, after a stint behind bars. Red Rocket wants us to take a look, by way of comedy (of errors) and a cast of remarkably unhinged but colorful characters, at the “undergroundeconomy,” those highly lucrative industries engaged in dispensing adult films and marijuana.

How Mikey ends up where he does is what Red Rocket is all about. Where he and the story go from there is left to our imagination. Perhaps that’s where it belongs.

                                                                           ***

Petite Maman—little mom when translated—is a fascinating and highly enjoyable tale about two young girls. Nelly and Marion meet by chance in the woods near Nelly’s deceased grandmother’s house. Strangely enough, the girls look just like one another (they’re actually real-life twins, Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz), and they live, as we also find out, in homes that are near duplicates. This rather bizarre set of circumstances begs an answer, of course. And that’s what director Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) sets out do with her wonderful—and petit (it runs for just 72 minutes) film. Petite Maman is as satisfying as it is cerebral and creative; it requires or perhaps it inspires a perceptive imagination. If you get the chance to see this film, do not hesitate.

                                                                             ***

Bergman Island, a wonderfully creative film by writer-director Mia Hansen-Love, is, as you might suppose, set on Faro Island, off the coast of Sweden, the location for many of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest films. The island has become a destination for film buffs, and fans of Bergman. And that, in and of itself, sets up a psychological substructure for the film and its protagonists, two American filmmakers—Tony (Tim Roth), an established director and Chris (Vicky Krieps), an aspiring screenwriter. Arriving at their destination—a beautiful cottage and remodeled windmill—they’re informed the bed they’ll sleep in was used in Scenes from a Marriage, a not-so-comforting, let alone romantic, proposition.

Hansen-Love makes great use of the seaside and natural landscapes—the wind seems to be always blowing—but it’s in the realm of filmmaking, not surprisingly considering the name of the place, where the film’s narrative unfolds. Chris’s writing has stalled; she’s stuck, in Bergman-like anguish. She outlines what she’s accomplished to Tony as they walk the island, only to be interrupted by several of his intermittent cell phone calls, thus adding a bit to the mounting tension between the two. It’s as though Bergman is following (or propelling) them, and, we have to imagine, the great director will have a role in determining the story’s outcome.

There are two stories told in Bergman Island, a film within a film if you will. The ending for one is, perhaps, the resolution for the other. See this very fine film and find out for yourself.

                                                                              ***

It would be way too easy to describe The Hand of God as an autobiographical coming-of-age story, which it is. Writer-director Paulo Sorrentino crafts a very funny, heartwarming, sad, and transformative story about Fabietto (Filipo Scotti in his first movie), a teenaged boy assaulted on all sides by his longings for sex (with his aunt, Patrizia, no less, played by Luisa Ranieri), for cinema (he wants to make movies like Fellini), and for soccer (superstar Diego Maradona has just joined the local team).

The backdrop for this tale is Naples, Sorrention’s home. The city plays a larger-than-life character in the drama; its role, more than just the place in which Fabietto strives to find his voice, is one of mentor. The city informs and instructs its citizens and the films’ characters. Sorrentino and cinematographer, Daria D’Antonio, tell us by way of some pretty wonderful images of stunningly beautiful architecture and breathtaking panoramas in The Hand of God that Fabietto and his family would not be who they were without Naples.

The Hand of God, like many of the films at TFF #48, is about family and the love of family with all its function and dysfunction; it’s where Sorrentino finds traction and his inspiration. From there it’s a meaningful and fun and emotional (a wet masker) and a rewarding experience for all who view this film. SEE IT!

                                                                              ***

TOP FIVE FILMS AT TFF #48 (of the 14 films I saw and reviewed)

5. The Power of the Dog

4. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

3. The Hand of God

2. Cyrano

1. Belfast

BEST DIRECTOR

Kenneth Branagh

BEST ACTRESS

Olivia Colman

BEST ACTOR

Benedict Cumberbatch (for either film; I can’t decide which role was stronger)

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