A Look at Telluride Film Festival #48

scene from "Belfast"

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

By Paul O’Rourke

The Telluride Film Festival was bound to be quirky and unpredictable this year, and I’m not just talking about the films to be screened. The pandemic and its nightmare domino effect played a role at #48—fortunately not a leading nor even a supporting one—but it was behind the scenes in various respects, from those who couldn’t attend (some sets and locations where this year’s filmmakers are currently working are essentially in lockdown status) to this year’s program where many of the films were shot under the shadow of the virus. Two of the festival’s stalwarts—Ken Burns and Werner Herzog —were unable to attend this year.

The festival’s directors and volunteer cast of hundreds persevered under remarkably unfamiliar circumstances. The fact that they pulled it off at all, is, in Co-Director Julie Huntsinger’s words, “a true miracle.” Pandemic protocol (vaccinations, masks, and recent tests) converged with what the Telluride Film Festival has always been: a festival for people who love film.

The first program curveball was thrown on opening day, a day filled with a bit of rain and a bit of sunshine, cinematically speaking. Riz Ahmed (The Sound of Metal) was to have been honored at #48, but unfortunately his schedule (see above) would not permit travel. Ahmed’s latest effort, Encounter, was chosen for the Patron-Press opening day film, its first-ever large audience screening. What a way to get things going.

What starts off as a sci-fi tale about a long-absent ex-Marine dad spiriting away (kidnapping) his two boys from their home as a consequence of what he imagines as an alien infestation that has, in his mind, taken hold of their mother and her new husband, takes a decided turn when we learn a bit more about dad, Malik Kahn (Ahmed). We’re not sure where to put our faith and trust until we get to know the two boys, Jay (Lucien-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada). While Riz is center stage, the boys really give the story its depth and soul; they’re wonderful actors.

Per Ahmed, in an interview with Isabel Pinner, “Tender and fierce are really good words to describe this story.” And just when we think one will predominate the other appears, and then back and forth, until the end when we’re reminded that love expresses itself in ways we can’t always appreciate or anticipate, but does, in the end, prevail.

The direction (Michael Pearce) and the cinematography (Benjamin Kracun) are worthy of special note; the suspenseful—often frenetic—pacing and the sometimes  uncomfortable imagery keep the audience focused, always a bit on edge, and happy to have taken the ride. See Encounter, please.

                                                                           ***

If “love” was a theme central to Encounter, Director Joe Wright (Darkest Hour) made it very clear in an interview with Isabel Pinner that Cyrano was always meant to be, “a love letter to love.” Filmed in Sicily under pandemic protocol, Wright intended that his film raise the spirits of all who viewed it. Thursday night’s screening was the film’s world premiere and without doubt, sprits were raised and a good many tears fell. (I wet my mask.)

Of course, we are familiar with the story of Cyrano de Bergerac: Christian (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is a man in love, but made insecure by his inability to express his affection for Roxanne (played wonderfully by Haley Bennett) recruits an intermediary, Cyrano (played heartbreakingly and outstandingly well by Peter Dinklage) to do his wooing. Where the Cyrano we know from past adaptations has an overly large, and in his mind, repulsive nose, Dinklage’s and his Cyrano’s perceived shortcoming is, well, his height. But his deep and abiding love for Roxanne has us, of course, rooting for Cyrano to win the day and Roxanne’s hand.

Cyrano is a musical, with singing and dancing. The format doesn’t just work; it works quite well. The score, the lyrics, the costume design, the choreography, the cinematography, not to mention the superb writing by Erica Schmidt, had me marveling at all the talent on the screen. Peter Dinklage is a star. As he put it, “with talent and perseverance comes luck.” Put it another way: the harder you work the luckier you get. We’re lucky to have Peter Dinklage and we are all very lucky to have Cyrano.

                                                                             ***

I’m Irish, as if my surname didn’t give this away. And like most Irish people, I enjoy seeing, hearing, and reading about things Irish. So, of course, I was naturally drawn to Belfast, a semi-autobiographical working class family drama, set in a mixed (Protestant and Catholic) neighborhood block in the city during turbulent times in the 1960s.

Belfast is a story about family—all of the facets, emotional as well as everyday—and the power of love during times that stretched the human capacity to get through (unemployment in Northern Ireland at the time was extremely high). Belfast was shot during the pandemic when the set was in lockdown. According to Director Kenneth Branagh, the atmosphere that attended the filming had many elements in common with the lockdown experienced in 1969 in his Belfast neighborhood, when it wasn’t safe to venture out. The image of paving stones being dug up and removed (so they couldn’t be used as weapons) was like the foundation of your life being literally pulled out from under you; a sense many of us felt (and feel still) during this pandemic.

Filmed mostly in black and white, Belfast—especially the wonderful street scenes—reminds one of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. Branagh, who also wrote the screenplay, assembled a marvelous family cast for this film. There’s the father, played by Jamie Dornan, also from Belfast, and the mom (Caitrona Balfe), the grandparents, including the grandmother played by Judi Dench, the neighbors, an older brother and nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill). It’s through Buddy’s eyes that we experience Branagh’s remembrances, both tragic and joyous, of life in his Belfast at the time. Perhaps, too, we are drawn into this Belfast family and neighborhood by way of Van Morrison (from Belfast) and his music that runs throughout film.

What’s engaging and so heartwarming about this film is that the characters—what they each mean and what they mean to each other—are so familiar. We feel for them, we laugh with them (there are some really good jokes in this film), and we cry with them (I wet my mask again). Belfast should not be missed.

                                                                                ***

From the perspective of one nine-year-old boy in Northern Ireland to another nine-year-old boy who moves around (from SoCal to NYC to New Orleans), the concept of love and love of family and all that goes along for the ride, links, in a way, Belfast and C’mon C’mon.

C’mon C’mon is about finding out who we are and what we want to be in the eyes of someone else. In the case of this wonderful film directed by Mike Mills (20th Century Women), the two someones are Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), a radio journalist who travels the country asking young people what they think the future holds, and his young nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman). Jesse is overly intelligent, preoccupied, and precocious to the point of being at times obnoxious, a condition having perhaps something to do with other issues. Jesse’s father is having issues of his own, which prompts his mother, Viv (Gaby Hoffman), to ask Johnny to take care of Jesse while she tends to business. The dynamic between Jesse and Johnny is intriguing, heartwarming, mildly combative and thus uncomfortable, and in several instances humorous and loving.

The film was shot in black and white, and the contrast provided an interesting and stark way to shape the characters, the cityscapes in which they found themselves, and the emotional back-and-forth they experienced. Per Director Mills, in an interview with Alexander Payne, “black and white gives you more tonal elbow room.”

It’s Jesse’s soliloquy, taped on Johnny’s voice recording machine when Johnny wasn’t in earshot but heard after the two have parted company, that helps us understand where the two have moved and what they’ve learned about themselves and each other since they first met. And this crossing—it does feel like a successful voyage—is ample reason to see C’mon C’mon. After all, it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s important.

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