Set in Flanders a century ago, “The Van Paemel Family” is a gratifying, full-blooded family saga filled with noble oppressed peasants and cruel, decadent aristocrats and centering on the differing fates of the offspring of a downtrodden farmer. Like Jan Troell’s “The Emigrants,” “The Van Paemel Family” dramatizes the plight of countless impoverished and disenfranchised Europeans who looked to America as the land of freedom and opportunity.
In clips from interviews and from performances Mesnil captures the excitement and passion of the late singer-composer Jacques Brel, yet leaves us wanting to know more about what made him the outspoken social critic he was.
The Luxembourg offering, “Gwyncilla, Legend of the Dark Ages” (screening today at 1 and 3), was not available for review.
Tassos Psarras’ “Caravan Serai” (Tuesday at 3:30 and 9 p.m.) has a harsh look to it and a stunning sense of composition but is otherwise an overly ponderous account of the disintegration of a farmer’s family relocated from its village to a crowded Thessaloniki tenement during the Greek civil war. The film’s strong, one-sided pro-leftist and anti-American sentiments are not nearly as offensive as its sheer heavy-handedness. Also screening Tuesday is Spain’s “Long Strider,” also unavailable for review.
Jose Nascimento’s “Reporter X” (Wednesday at 1 and 7 p.m.) is an elegant, heady tale of intrigue set in Lisbon just before the outbreak of World War II, in which Joaquim de Almeida (one of the stars in the Taviani brothers’ upcoming “Good Morning, Babylon”) plays a Bogart-like reporter caught up in the schemes of a dazzling African nationalist and the desperate attempts of a mother and daughter, Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany who escaped with the formula for a deadly virus bomb, to get to America. “Reporter X” has much of the shadowy look of “Chinatown” and “Hammett,” but it’s too self-conscious and languid a period piece for its own good. Nascimento goes for romanticized film noir mood and atmosphere to the point of artiness, but what “Reporter X” really could have used was the punch and irony John Huston brought to “The Maltese Falcon.” Still, it’s not without interest and De Almeida has star presence.
Denmark’s “Elise” (Wednesday at 3:30 and 9 p.m.) is one of the festival’s finest offerings, inviting yet ambiguous. Spanning 1928-’47 and framed by a prologue and epilogue set in the present, “Elise” follows six couples living in a small, idyllic Danish town. On the surface all seems normal, although one of the wives, a Jew, must endure a Nazi concentration camp during the war. The crucial fact is that before, during and even after her ordeal, her husband has been involved with one of her friends, Elise (Ann-Mari Max Hansen), wife of the town doctor. During its 12-year span, the liaison is known apparently only by the film’s narrator, the local vicar. Director Claus Ploug and writer Mogens Rukov refuse to judge Elise and let us figure out who at last blows the whistle on her with such painful and devastating results. Ploug sees his film as “a story about the insanity of love, the madness of jealousy, the sweetness of deceiving and the innocence of treachery”; “Elise” is all that and more. Hansen, who so beautifully illuminates the complex and beguiling Elise, will be present.
Screen storytelling in the classically direct and simple style is so much a thing of the past that it’s a pleasure to watch veteran Italian director Luigi Comencini in “History” (Thursday at 3:30 and 9 p.m.) tell of a mother (Claudia Cardinale) with two sons struggling to survive during World War II and its aftermath. At first “History” seems too familiar, too loaded in its sentiments, but so eloquent are Comencini and Cardinale (in perhaps the finest, most demanding role of her career) that we are caught up in it. The film’s concluding portion is so unexpected and so powerful that it gives a whole new meaning to all that has gone before. Festival phone: (213) 856-7707.