There was a moment of decision early Saturday morning. I was working on less than five hours of sleep, and I had heard the night before that my 9:45am film had been shown Thursday night without subtitles. The Australian movie has an English voiceover which explains much of the action, but the dialogue is in an Aboriginal language. Friends who saw the Thursday screening didn’t realize they were missing the subtitles until the director discovered it during the Q&A. They assumed the lack of translation was a directorial decision, and they still enjoyed the movie a lot. The problem was that I was supposed to cover this for Time Out Chicago. So my dilemma was, do I trek down to the Paramount theater and catch a movie that might not be what the director intended, or do I sleep in? And if I do see the film and it doesn’t have subtitles, do I review it anyway? My over-developed sense of responsibility told me to get myself out of bed and at least see if the festival was able to get the right print. Joy of joys, they did.

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Ten Canoes is, as I mentioned, an Australian film and directed by Rolf de Heer, and it focuses on a Aboriginal village and, in particular, a folk tale from their culture. The story actually uses a double framing device. The narrator (David Gulpilil from Rabbit Proof Fence and The Tracker) tells a story about an older man with three wives and his younger brother who takes a fancy to one of his wives. Then as we watch that story unfold, the older brother tells an ancient story about a man with three wives and a younger brother who covets one of his wives. That might seem confusing, but de Heer makes things beautifully clear by using color for the ancient tale and slightly over-exposed black-and-white photography for the more contemporary one.

What follows is a lovely film about storytelling and Aboriginal life. From the opening gorgeous helicopter shot over the plains and swamps to the way each character is introduced with a head-on closeup, de Heer obviously wants to introduce the audience to this land and culture and let them speak for themselves. As Gulpilil comments early on, “It’s not your story, it’s my story,” and he pokes fun at the Western fairy tale tradition. The stories here are relatively simple, and as Gulpilil himself points out, they take a while to get to their destination. My suspicion is that in a less exotic setting, most moviegoers would find themselves bored, but their culture is so different from ours that there’s always something to notice. The cinematography is stunning, and the dialogue is comically earthy with jokes about farting and penis size, a reminder that certain movie conventions cross any cultural boundary.

I only have a few minutes to book across to the Elgin theater, so I grab a cab. Funny thing, I still beat Victor Morton who joins me in line for The Wind that Shakes the Barley. This Ken Loach film won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but the reviews have been lukewarm. Maybe it was those lowered expectations, but I found a lot to like. It’s an historical drama set in Ireland in the early ‘20s. The main character is Damien (a fine Cillian Murphy) who, spurred by a vicious British attack on his village, gives up his dream of being a doctor to fight in the fledgling Irish Republican Army.

wind-that-shakes-the-barley.jpgThe first third of the film is a bit much, as the Black and Tans (British soldiers enforcing British rule in Ireland) run roughshod over everything, beating men to death and taking others prisoner to torture and execute them. I don’t doubt that there were situations like that at the time, but they don’t work in a narrative context. It feels like Loach is stacking the deck. The movie gets much more interesting, though, when the IRA starts achieving some success, as the theme shifts from ragtag army versus British oppressor to how this revolutionary force will transform itself into a governing body. The conflicts within the group over whether and how to compromise are still timely today, not only in Northern Ireland but around the world, and the difficulty of finding an end to violence is explored with aplomb. Some of the discussions are a bit schematic, with characters talking like they’re in a history book rather than a movie, but I found the arguments compelling, though that may say more about my own interest in politics and especially leftist politics.

Loach also knows how to tell a compelling story, as Damien has to confront various people he used to know as friends. That builds to scenes of great emotional power. Ignore the romance, though, as Loach clearly has no use for it but to broaden his audience. Finally, I found the outdoor cinematography to be particularly fine, and the production is, to use an old-fashioned word, handsome, though be forewarned that the torture sequences are short but brutal.

After that, I have the rest of the afternoon off (woo hoo!–I need a break). So I head back to the apartment and watch the first half of the Notre Dame-Penn State game. I have trouble staying awake though, which says just as much about the football game as my own stamina. However, I’m able to rouse myself for the last movie of the day.

Half Moon, by Kurdish Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi, returns to familiar ground. A group of musicians are gathering to cross from Iran into Iraq and perform for the first time in almost 30 years. That passage was a key element in Ghobadi’s first two features (Time of Drunken Horses and Marooned in Iraq), and one of the main actors in Marooned shows up here as the bus driver. The theme of Kurdish music finding its voice once more is obviously a personal one for Ghobadi, and he uses the visual motif of rising from the grave throughout Half Moon.

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The first half (we’ll call it the light side of the moon) is mesmerizing and delightful. We’re introduced to the musicians, all sons of a charismatic older gentleman named Mamo (Ismail Ghaffari), and their interactions as they travel are both touching and humorous. Ghobadi also deploys his brilliant command for landscape composition, with gorgeous long shots capturing valleys and mountains. The film introduces the theme of death, but it’s done in such a way as to be both foreboding and yet light, the other side of life so to speak. One of Mamo’s sons urges him not to undertake the trip because of a dream he had, but Mamo replies, “Even dying isn’t bad luck.” This amplifies a Kierkegaard quote that’s invoked in the very first scene: “I’m not afraid of death, for if I am here, he is not. And if he is here, I am not.” This celebration of life reaches its apex when Mamo journeys to a village filled with 1,334 exiled female singers. He’s there to take one with him to the concert, a fact that frightens his sons who fear being arrested if the woman is discovered. But the sequence as Mamo journeys into the village as the women sing as one is extraordinarily gorgeous. At that moment, I thought I might be seeing the film of the festival.

Unfortunately, the dark half of the moon isn’t as compelling. It’s not because it’s depressing, and long-time readers would know that wouldn’t bother me anyway. No, the problem is that the film becomes repetitive and loses its forward momentum. The bus is stopped at various checkpoints, and we watch as the men fret over the woman. And then we watch it again. And again. Slowly, the bus starts losing its musicians, sometimes mysteriously. It soon becomes apparent that we’ve entered the land of allegory, and that Mamo is on his own journey into darkness (the coffin being closed over him is a recurring dream). Fans of The Seventh Seal (to which this has some affinity) might enjoy this much more than I did, and I have to admit that Ghobadi’s use of light and color is breathtaking at times. But I found myself losing interest as the end turned into the End. When the conclusion is inevitable, it’s usually best for the story to get there as quickly as possible, while Half Moon wants to linger over its images and allegory. The film is definitely worthwhile, but disappointing as light turns into dark.

Well, tomorrow is another five-movie day, and one filled with a few near-great movies. I should be able to post those blurbs on Tuesday.

Ten Canoes: 3.5 stars (out of five)
The Wind that Shakes the Barley: 3.5 stars
Half Moon: 3.5 stars