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Published March 20, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

click to enlarge ICE JOLIES Prehistoric pals make a special delivery in the laugh-packed latest from Chris Wedge
  • ICE JOLIES Prehistoric pals make a special delivery in the laugh-packed latest from Chris Wedge

A cultural touchstone of the 1960s, The King of Hearts ran for something like five consecutive years at one Boston-area theater. With an antiwar message that resonated in the Vietnam era, the quirky cult film also entranced a populace just emerging from the previous decade’s stultifying conformity. Although the zeitgeist has changed to rah-rah conformity of another kind, The Big Animal is a new movie that fosters a similarly gentle rage against the machine of social convention.
The black-and-white comic fable, opening the 10-day Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier this Friday, observes what happens when a camel abandoned by a circus wanders into the front yard of a middle-aged Polish couple, the Sawickis. Savoy Theater owner Rick Winston spent almost two years tracking down the picture after seeing a North American premiere at the Montréal World Film Festival in August 2000. Despite its stellar credentials, The Big Animal still hasn’t found a distributor.
The 75-minute film is a cross-species love affair with the purest of intentions. It comes from an unfinished screenplay by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski, responsible for masterpieces such as The Decalogue. An actor in many of his productions, Jerzy Stuhr, completed the script, then went on to serve as director. He also portrays the mild-mannered Mr. Sawicki.
Only the most cynical viewer could resist a story about a clarinet-playing banker who puts his unnamed camel on a leash for walks in the village. Sawicki’s schoolteacher wife, played by Anna Dymna, sews a patchwork quilt with two hump-sized holes to keep the critter warm in cold weather. The couple even builds a gigantic enclosure suggestive of Middle Eastern architecture, hoping to make their exotic pet feel more at home. Pawel Edelman’s gorgeous cinematography frames the deadpan Sawickis as they eat dinner in front of a large open window, putting treats on the sill for the large ruminant mammal to munch — a transcendent image. Who knew camels were such wondrous beasts?
But no offbeat individualism shall go unpunished. Initially curious about this oddity in their midst, the townspeople soon grow resentful. Their failure to appreciate the camel as a charming companion for the childless Sawickis is poignant. The Big Animal could become a true classic — if an otherwise subtitle-challenged nation were given the opportunity to discover a King of Hearts for the 21st century.
The festival, which spans two weekends, boasts more than 30 selections offering vicarious visits to at least a dozen countries, including Sweden, Norway, Serbia, Iran, Egypt, Israel and the Republic of Congo. Whether fact or fiction, the films — at the Savoy and in Montpelier’s City Hall — tend to be thought-provoking. Here are a few highlights:
• From Swastika to Jim Crow, a U.S. documentary on the schedule this Sunday, chronicles a little-known phenomenon. Jewish intellectuals, fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s, settled at all-black colleges in the segregated American South.
• Interconnectedness is the issue in Code Unknown, when a Parisian actress (Juliette Binoche) and her war-photographer boyfriend unwittingly change the lives of a Romanian beggar, an African music teacher and his cabdriver father. The French film unspools on March 24, 25 and 28.
• A Chilean drama screening Saturday and again on March 29, Te Amo is about troubled teens who create an alternative family for themselves at an abandoned house in the foothills of the Andes.

short takes: Vermont Public Television will profile the late Japanese director Akira Kurosawa at 9 on Thursday night. His brilliant legacy, which encompasses Rashomon and The Seven Samurai, inspired generations of people enthralled by the cinematic arts. A Fistful of Dollars, the 1964 “spaghetti Western” that catapulted Clint Eastwood to stardom, was a Hollywood remake of the master’s Yojimbo, released in 1961. The visionary Kurosawa, in turn, was adapting Shakespeare with Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and Ran (King Lear) . . . Amelie is a romantic French fairy tale with saccharine sentiments that’s up for an Oscar in the foreign-language category. But Danis Tanovic’s riveting No Man’s Land, a nominated film about the bloody conflict that ravaged Bosnia, deserves to win. By bringing it to Burlington last week, Hoyts made good on its promise to deliver the taut tragicomedy before the Academy Awards, so Amelie fans can compare for themselves.

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Susan Green


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