Highlights From Cleveland International Film Festival: Midwestern Sundance Features Just As Much Talent, More Snow

Abby Hawkins and Lizzie Conner

From March 24-April 3, the 35th Cleveland International Film Festival screened a diverse array of 150 features and 130 short films from about 60 different countries, featuring the works of first-time directors and world-renowned filmmakers alike. Hundreds of filmmakers and other guests from around the world flocked to the Cleve for the annual festival, cementing Cleveland’s reputation as a major cultural powerhouse. Although the Review unfortunately lacked the time and funds to send our writers to all 280 of the films on display, the following is a review of some of the festival’s highlights.

Abby Hawkins

Olivier Masset-Depasse’s drama Illégal takes a gritty look at the life of Tania, a Russian immigrant who has been living undetected in Belgium with her son for eight years –– until a run-in with the police strips her of her assumed identity and sends her into a detention center for illegal women and children. Tania goes to desperate lengths to flee the center, and the ploys she invents to keep her family safe from harm and her various escapes afloat are mesmerizing.

However, despite superb acting highlighted by hyper-closeups of the actors’ faces, a severe lack of character development alienates the audience from the characters’ plight. Our understanding of what is at stake for Tania is limited by the film’s lack of personal details about her life, and the most compelling character in the film, a female guard who sympathizes with her charges, is dismissed as minor by the greater plot. Additionally, lazy plot points, such as Tania’s son appearing right outside of the hospital from which she has just escaped, pull viewers out of the documentary-style realism.

These fundamental flaws render Illégal uncomfortable and a bit alienating, detracting from moments of real tenderness and humanity: for instance, a scene depicting a food fight in the detention-center cafeteria. The fascinating and politically charged subject of integrated immigrants fleeing deportation should be explored in film, but through a more psychologically nuanced lens, one that allows the audience to become better acquainted with the characters’ motives and more sympathetic to their fears, aspirations and hopes.

Abby Hawkins

Welcome to a sleek, aesthetically intoxicating 21st-century Berlin, an enticing canvas upon which Tom Tykwer’s (_Paris, Je T’aime_) romantic thriller 3 unfolds. As Adam, the man with whom both art critic Hanna and her husband Simon carry out affairs, says when he encounters Hanna for the second time, “all good things come in threes” — a motif that ties the many disparate goals and themes of the film together.

3 tells the story of Adam, a fertility researcher involved in an ethics hearing on stem cells who has affairs with both art critic Hanna and her huband Simon. The film imposes a strong statement on the use of stem cells from the beginning, when Simon is diagnosed with testicular cancer as his mother announces her impending death due to pancreatic cancer.

Animations, glowing supernatural figures and the film-noir dream sequence that comes to Simon in the hospital crop up throughout the narrative film, isolated yet completely integrated into the action. This tendency toward devices normally reserved for shorter art house pieces — from sudden glimpses of rural German scenery to bizarre and seemingly inappropriate sound effects —casts 3 out in even more cinematic directions.

3 attempts to accomplish many goals: What appears to be a romance is also a political manifesto, a contemporary drama and a supernatural yet quotidian thriller, with moments of pure art-house confection and others that are lost in translation altogether. While the largely cohesive structure of this jam-packed movie is impressive, 3 could have benefited from some plot-pruning and strategic editing. The beauty of 3, however, is that Tykwer knows his film is not perfect, making it an ideal piece for a film festival: Plot lines are flung aside and left undercooked for the sake of convenience, but the final shot — Tykwer zooming out on the three characters curled side-by-side in a bed until they appear as just cells in a petri dish — ties a bow around this bursting-at-the-seams package of a film, and it’s a bow that the audience cannot wait to untie.

Lizzie Conner

Directed by Marcos Carnevale, Anita tells the heart-wrenching and heartwarming story of a young girl with Down’s Syndrome trying to survive alone on the streets of Buenos Aires. In the chaos following the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, Anita is separated from her family. As they frantically search for her, Anita wanders around the city, unable to explain to anyone where she lives or why she is currently homeless. Through the people she meets on her journey, we see every level of the human capacity for sympathy — from the storeowners who shoo her away, to the strangers who take her into their homes and treat her like family.

Although Carnevale tugs on the viewer’s heartstrings by emphasizing the debilitating effects of Down’s Syndrome, the film defines the character of Anita not by her disability, but by her absolute innocence of spirit: Despite the turmoil that surrounds her, she remains angelically calm and blissfully ignorant throughout the film. Her sudden entrance into the lives of strangers initiates change in their lives: meeting someone who requires an enormous amount of time and attention, but who is nonetheless thoroughly good, evokes profound conflict in the characters by forcing them to confront their own morals and priorities.

While we are always on Anita’s side, hoping that she will make it back to her family against all odds, what chokes the audience up over and over is that we understand this conflict. As human beings, we wish more than anything that we could erase our selfishness, and Carnevale taps into this desire beautifully: Anita leaves us distraught over our inability to achieve a total lack of selfishness, but also relieved to know that we can at least try.