There’s a certain symmetry in the fact that the G-20 summit ended Friday in Cannes, France, home of the world’s most famous film festival, just as the European Union Film Showcase arrived at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring.
While Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, George Papandreou and President Obama wrestled with the debt crisis and the future of the euro zone, filmgoers here began to enjoy an upside-down universe on screen, where looming financial and political disasters promise to recede and the balance of power can be at least temporarily tipped.
Take Greece, for example: As the country most painfully over the economic barrel these days, it didn’t have much leverage at the Group of 20 confab. But its films are highlights at this year’s showcase, which runs until Nov. 21. Both potently capture the psychic mood of that embattled country.
“Wasted Youth,” Argyris Papadimitropoulos’s drama about slacker teens and a depressive police officer, is woven through with Greece’s economic woes: Its 16-year-old protagonist won’t or can’t get a job and spends his days skateboarding, while a middle-aged cop decides it’s too risky a time to open a pizza shop with a friend. “Attenberg,” Greece’s official submission to next year’s Oscars, is more elliptical but more stylishly effective in conveying the mood of the country. Writer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari combines narrative drama, dance and an experimental approach to turn the conventional coming-of-age story on its sentimental head. Her heroine, the daughter of an architect, lives in a depressed seaside town where the real estate boom has stalled. “We built an industrial colony on top of sheep pens and thought we were making a revolution,” her father says resignedly. (Although the E.U. showcase primarily serves as a forum for otherwise obscure films, this year’s program features its share of high-profile movies coming soon to theaters, including David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” and Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”)
Both “Wasted Youth” and “Attenberg” give the lie to Greece’s touristy image of white stucco and sun-kissed escapism. Italy, meanwhile, brought forth at least two films that live up to the country’s lively and sensuous reputation. Nanni Moretti’s “Habemus Papem (We Have a Pope)” takes a gently satirical look at a reluctant cardinal contemplating a career change; in “The Salt of Life,” Gianni Di Gregorio plays a middle-aged man grappling with the ebb and flow of physical desire in Rome, the world capital of amorous pursuit. (Lest realists in the audience be disappointed, another film from Italy, “The Jewel,” is a thinly veiled retelling of the corporate and family drama surrounding the demise of the Parmalat milk company.)
It might strike some observers as curious that the only showcase contribution from Germany — currently holding sway over its more profligate E.U. neighbors — is a tender valentine to Turkish immigrant workers. Then again, as “Almanya — Welcome to Germany” notes, Turks and southern Europeans were invited to that country in the 1960s to effect its “economic miracle.” Devoid of anything more polemical than that gentle reminder, Yasemin Samdereli’s impressive debut feature makes for a lyrical, affecting contribution to the cinematic genre of migration stories, addressing such thorny issues as identity, assimilation and generational tensions with whimsy and affection.
“Almanya” has been a big hit in its home country, so presumably Chancellor Merkel has seen it. But she’ll definitely want to Netflix “The Conquest,” French filmmaker Xavier Durringer’s alternately dry and lurid biopic about Sarkozy — French president, G-20 host and frequent Merkel foil. A speculative melodrama about Sarkozy’s determined rise to power and the dissolution of his first marriage, “The Conquest” lacks the sharp focus and dramatic pulse of Peter Morgan’s Tony Blair trilogy, and it too often gets tangled in the weeds of French party politics and Elysee intrigue. But for political junkies of cosmopolitan taste, it hits a sweet spot between wonkery and catty gossip.
If “The Conquest” is all too eager to dish the dirt on its subject, at least two French-language films make the gratifying choice to take the high road: “The Kid With a Bike,” from Belgium, and “Le Havre,” from Finland but set in that French port city. What’s more, they share a similar humanistic sensibility. That warmth is all the more surprising in the case of “The Kid With a Bike,” by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, brothers best known for an austere, downbeat style. The film stars Cecile de France as a woman whose encounter with a troubled boy reaps unexpected results; similarly in “Le Havre,” by Aki Kaurismaki, Andre Wilms plays a man who crosses paths with an African refugee, and the experience reverberates throughout his family and community.
Both films won prizes at Cannes this year, at the very Palais des Festivals where the G-20 leaders just met. It’s too bad they couldn’t avail themselves of a screening; amid the squabbling, gamesmanship and deal-making, it wouldn’t have hurt to be reminded of the place that simple compassion has in every human interaction, large and small.
The showcase features more than 40 films from 26 countries and runs through Nov. 21 at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. General admission is $12 ($10 for AFI members). Tickets to the closing night film, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” are $20 ($15 for AFI members). For more information, visit www.afi.com/silver or call 301-495-6700.