Washington is no stranger to foreign films. Art houses, repertory programs and film festivals abound, offering a vast array of international cinematic fare.
It might be easy, then, to dismiss the American Film Institute's European Union Film Showcase, launching Friday, as just more of the same.
But everything in the showcase -- 17 recent films from 15 countries -- is a Washington premiere, points out AFI's Michael Jeck, who selected the films for the 17th annual event in consultation with EU cultural officials and embassy representatives. And while some films are bound to be seen again in local theatrical runs or festival engagements, many are unlikely to return.
"There are a lot of fine films out there that no one will ever pick up for distribution," Jeck says. "You could have the world's greatest thriller, but it's made in Bulgaria and it just doesn't appeal to a wide enough audience."
This year's showcase also boasts a high number of award winners and popular hits -- always an intriguing glimpse into a country's culture, says Jeck. "It's fascinating to find out that [Slovenia's] 'Cheese and Jam' was only beat out by two American blockbusters," "Jurassic Park" and "Titanic," for the country's all-time box office record.
So, what can you expect if the EU Film Showcase sounds like your cup of espresso? A sampling of five films reveals an eclectic mix of cinematic experiences.
The Finnish film "Upswing" easily stands out with its funny and frightening tale of an overachieving yuppie couple (Petteri Summanen and Tiina Lymi) who try to impress their trend-seeking friends by booking an extreme "self-discovery" vacation that involves giving up their worldly possessions and living in a Helsinki slum for a month. The experience goes awry when the couple discover the travel agent (Antti Virmavirta) has stolen their identities, sold their house and emptied their bank accounts.
Alternating humor with dread, the film follows the couple as they navigate their new low-rent world, and it's touching to see them build relationships with their motley neighbors -- who prove to be generous and supportive to a fault. This is also the kind of movie that would lose much if given the Hollywood treatment: The climactic chase scene, with the husband pursuing the ne'er-do-well travel agent, takes place on bicycles. No, it's far better to enjoy something like "Upswing" on its quirky native terms.
"Singing Behind Screens" -- one of the showcase's opening night offerings -- is a visually striking work by Italian director Ermanno Olmi that combines a contemporary stage performance in a surreal Asian pleasure palace with the tale of an early 19th-century female Chinese pirate (Jun Ichikawa). It's not a spoiler to say that the film's climax involves a mass flight of ornate kites in the midst of a naval standoff because, well, the fantastical realm Olmi creates is better experienced than explained.
"Triple Agent," a French spy thriller written and directed by Eric Rohmer, never really ignites as it spins the tale of an exiled Russian army general (Serge Renko) who lives in mid-1930s Paris with his Greek artist wife (Katerina Didaskalu) and engages in a host of espionage tasks for unknown masters. The story -- inspired by true events -- remains interesting throughout, but it's told through static, lecturelike scenes that belie its "thriller" billing.
"Kontroll" is a brooding, intense and enjoyable film from Hungary that follows the exploits of a ragtag team of ticket inspectors in the Budapest subway system. Comedy, drama and mystery combine as the inspectors deal with surly, often-bizarre customers, struggle with their own aspirations and failings, and face the threat of a serial killer who's shoving passengers in front of trains.
The family audience can find refuge with "In Orange," a hit from the Netherlands about a young boy (Yannick van de Velde) who dreams of playing soccer on the Dutch national youth team. He loses his biggest fan, his father (Thomas Acda), to a heart attack. But wait, what if the father appears to the boy in mysterious visions and cheers him on to victory? That would be . . . entirely predictable and formulaic.
The slick "In Orange" isn't without its superficial charms, and hey, they love it in the Netherlands; remakes are reportedly in the works in no fewer than four countries. Go team.
The EU Film Showcase opens Friday and continues through Nov. 7 at the AFI Silver Theatre and Kennedy Center Film Theater. For schedule and ticket information, call 301-495-6720 or visit www.afi.com/silver.