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Cinema Variete 

What's up (on the screen) at the Montreal World Film Festival

Published August 27, 2003 at 4:34 p.m.

While others in Quebec enjoy August vacations, writer-editor Maurice Elia is always scrambling to finish the Montreal World Film Festival's bilingual program guide. He's the wordsmith behind the French descriptions for all movies -- this year, 439 selections from 68 countries. They're detailed in a 416-page book with a print run of 10,000 copies.

The 2003 event, which takes place from August 27 to September 7, marks almost a quarter-century since Elia, now 58, began working for the annual fest. And for 15 years he's been creating some of its promotional pieces.

All those bon mots ought to give him an inside scoop. So which of the festival's entries appeal most to Elia? Elephant, he says without hesitation, referring to the drama about Columbine-like violence in an Oregon high school that won the top prize at Cannes in May.

The Gus Van Sant picture is quite a coup for Montreal, which came under international fire this spring after announcing a later start-date than usual. It normally precedes competing festivals in Venice and Toronto that have instead become concurrent.

And the Montreal Gazette, an English-language daily newspaper, slammed the local extravaganza for failing to attract many "marquee names." Only director Martin Scorsese, who'll be honored for lifetime achievement, has so far been mentioned as a probable guest. He's already in the city shooting The Aviator, in which Leonardo DiCaprio portrays the reclusive Howard Hughes.

The numerous Vermonters who trek north, however, generally seem less interested in celebrities than in the plethora of films from around the globe that are unlikely to ever reach the Green Mountain State. Above all, the Montreal festival offers endless and often dizzying opportunities for discovery.

There's a certain thrill in being among the first North Americans to see, say, Disobedience. This Mozambique-Portugal co-production by Licinio Azevedo focuses on the nature of justice in an African peasant society. When a woman is accused of causing her husband's suicide simply by disobeying him, she defends herself in court and before a traditional healer.

Or consider the lure of Amir Karakulov's Don't Cry, about an opera singer in a remote Kazakhstan village trying to raise money for the medical needs of her sick young niece.

And as the dog days of summer wind down, who can resist checking out August Sun? Prasanna Vithanage's film is no holiday at the beach, though. It's a depiction of three ordinary people plagued by 20 years of civil war in Sri Lanka: a soldier shocked by what he witnesses at a brothel, a wife hoping to find her missing-in-action military husband and an adolescent boy whose Muslim family is persecuted by rebel forces.

Paradise Somewhere Else, a title that aptly suggests the yearnings of the poor and oppressed, is the directorial debut of Abdolrasoul Golbon. Set near the Afghan border in his native Iran, the story centers on a teenage boy who herds sheep and goats but dreams of finding true prosperity in the United Arab Emirates.

Although Third World efforts tend to have more rough edges than slick blockbusters like Charlie's Angels 2: Full Throttle, do generally there's something of greater consequence at stake than the sexiness and star power of their performers.

Of course, the films screening in Montreal don't need to hail from developing countries to explore universal themes.

The Canadian Gaz Bar Blues is about a father who cannot count on any of his three sons to take over the family business -- a filling station and neighborhood cafe. Director Louis Belanger's generational saga is billed as an outcry against globalization.

The Soul's Heaven, by Riccardo Milani, examines a similar issue from an Italian perspective. The 500 workers at a factory that manufactures tires for an American multinational company decide to protest when they hear the plant will be shut down.

Josef Fares' Kops takes a more comic approach to downsizing. It imagines the anarchy in a rural Swedish town when local police stage a make-believe crime wave for the benefit of big-city bureaucrats. The fuzz want to prove that their little station should not be eliminated.

Although lighter fare isn't plentiful at the festival, the French and Belgians have joined forces on a fable with a delicious premise: The Living World, directed by Eugene Green, concerns an ogre with a vegetarian wife who refuses to saute two captive children for dinner.

The Night We Called It a Day, by Australia's Gaylene Preston, sounds like fun. Dennis Hopper plays Frank Sinatra, who visited Sydney in 1974. It's not easy to fathom Ol' Bloodshot Eyes, as Hopper might have been dubbed in his Apocalypse Now days, impersonating Ol' Blue Eyes. Melanie Griffith -- currently impersonating Roxy Hart in the Broadway version of Chicago -- is also in the Down Under cast.

Another stellar lineup awaits anyone in the audience for 21 Grams, crafted by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu of Amores Perros fame. For his first U.S. endeavor, the Mexican director recruited Sean Penn to play a terminally ill mathematics professor, Benicio Del Toro a spiritual ex-con and Naomi Watts a single mother who kicks her drug addiction. They are brought together by a car accident.

Salma Hayek's The Maldonado Miracle is also a high-profile American feature with Hispanic roots. Fresh from her Oscar-nominated role in Frida, Hayek makes her directorial debut with a film about a California town besieged by religious pilgrims, fanatics and the media when blood appears to flow from a statue of Jesus. In the midst of it all, an illegal immigrant searches for his father.

Hayek isn't the only contemporary filmmaker whose characters seek what may well prove to be unattainable. This Very Moment (Germany), The Encounter (Turkey), In the Forest...Again (India), When Ruoma Was Seventeen (China), Cat's Kisses (Spain), The Wild Guys (Canada) and Room to Let (Malaysia), among others, explore a similar theme.

In the same vein, The Searchers might have been a good conceptual choice for the festival. John Ford's mournful 1956 epic would surely please Elia. Born in Egypt and raised primarily in Lebanon, as a kid he was dazzled by cinematic tales of the Wild West. "I loved the open spaces," the Canadian emigre says.

With a background as a film critic in Beirut, Caracas and Paris, Elia came to Montreal just in time for the 1967 premiere of Bonnie and Clyde, about 1930s outlaws who mirror an even older frontier sensibility.

As a translator for the festival, Elia encountered luminaries of the silver screen, including the quintessential High Plains Drifter himself in 1984.

"At the press conference for Clint Eastwood, I was happy but a little nervous to be sitting next to a hero of mine," Elia recalls. "He suggested a way to keep cool by taking out his pocketknife, cutting open an apple from a bowl on the table and offering me a piece. It worked."

Two years earlier, musician and sometime thespian Sting had another type of refreshment in mind while promoting Brimstone and Treacle in Montreal, according to Elia. "He asked me where we could get a drink in the afternoon."

The duo spent a few hours over beers at a bar in the hotel where the festival was headquartered. The pub-weaned Sting then "tickled the ivories" at the piano, Elia remembers. "Much later, when I heard 'Every Breath You Take' for the first time on one of his records, I realized that was what he'd been playing."

He gave up schmoozing with the glitterati to tackle the program guide in 1989. "Translation was not my thing; I am a writer," says Elia, a former French teacher at Dawson College who has penned five novels.

He kept his festival scribe chores interesting that first year. In a description of a biographical documentary about John Huston, Elia incorporated several titles from the master's body of work. The Unforgiven, Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Man Who Would Be King and A Walk with Love and Death all found their way -- lower case and en francais -- into the text.

Other legends pop up in the 2003 publication, which includes details about The Magic of Fellini by Carmen Piccini and Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin by critic Richard Schickel. Legendary inanimate objects are on display in Laurie Kahn-Leavitt's Tupperware!, a look at the history and cultural significance of the ubiquitous plastic food containers.

Go West, Young Man! is a Dutch doc marking the 100th anniversary of The Great Train Robbery, a silent 1903 short that blazed a trail for all future Hollywood gunslinger adventures. In this nonfiction road movie, directors Peter Delpeut and Mart Dominicus are the designated searchers tracking down the legacy of a fading genre. It's the sort of subject matter that must be very close to Maurice Elia's cowboy heart.

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