The Los Angeles Film Festival, like many of its kind that are heavier on gathering highlights from previous fests than securing enviable premieres, is more valuable to locals than it is to international observers — which is largely why I didn’t realize it had been going on until it wrapped yesterday, with an unveiling of Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike.” I’d been distracted by the overlapping event in Edinburgh, after all. I doubt there’s a day on the calendar when a film festival isn’t unfurling somewhere.
Anyway, the LAFF largely came to my attention when I read a report on the festival’s award winners, announced yesterday. Some of the choices were to be expected: having already taken multiple prizes at Cannes and Sundance, Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” scored yet again, picking up the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature, a further indication of the film’s broad reach. Wherever it goes, it’s not just critics singing the post-Katrina film’s praises: regular moviegoers are knocked sideways by it too. That’s a powerful combination, and one that has to be considered when weighing up the film’s Oscar chances: early bird or otherwise, we have a genuine contender here.
For the most part, however, LAFF programmers stay away from high-profile festival hits that hardly require the extra exposure. Glancing through the programme, it’s pleasing to see how many titles are new to me — though it’s also gratifying to see that one of my Berlinale highlights from February, and one of my favorite films of the year so far, Ursula Meier’s “Sister,” got another airing there. Word of mouth should start spreading about this very special Swiss youth tale — it has justifiably invited comparisons to the Dardennes’ work, though it’s actually stronger than their last couple of features — which is being released Stateside by Adopt Films.
“Sister,” however, is a practically a blockbuster compared to the winner of the festival’s top prize for Best Narrative Feature — a Portuguese immigrant drama that doesn’t have US distribution yet. As luck would have it, however, I’m already familiar with Pocas Pascoal’s “All is Well,” having caught it in April on its home turf at the IndieLisboa Film Festival. I made a note at the time that the film, a low-key, slightly over-tidy but honestly affecting story of two Angolan sisters (Cheila Lima and Ciomara Morais, both ingenuous performers whose technical imprecision works as both a virtue and a debit) surviving on a shoestring in Lisbon after fleeing their wartorn homeland, could travel well. This win suggests it might.
The legacy of Angola’s civil war has been little explored on film, and much the same goes for Portuguese Angolans as a people — Portuguese cinema, which is seemingly on the rise but still very much a cottage industry, hasn’t much occupied itself with the immigrant experience, while Angola has no film industry to speak of. The politics of “All is Well,” subtle as they are in what principally amounts to a universal family-crisis drama, consequently feel fresh and not overly medicinal. The Angolan-born Pascoal drew largely on her personal history in writing the script, which makes some pointed observations about the relative lack of community in this exiled society.
Throughout the narrative, it’s not administrative authority figures that pose as great a threat to the girls’ security as their fellow refugees, whether it’s a thieving apartment squatter or the superficially kindly but coolly exploitative seamstress who offers them work in her studio. Glancing over sun-baked but decrepit outer-city ghettos, Pascoal’s ochre-dusted camera captures both the protective allure and alien barrenness of this unlovely corner of Lisbon. The production, down to the protagonists’ neatly laundered streetwear, lacks a wear and tear — audiences unfamiliar with the history may be surprised to learn that it’s a 1980 period piece — but the simple drama nonetheless grazes the skin in its wrenching yet matter-of-fact finale, in which paths are split with quiet, knowing finality.
One hopes its LAFF triumph, which comes with a $15,000 cash prize, will help secure a US backer for a modest film that will likely continue to find fans on the festival trail. I’m interested to see what Portugal, not a country that often has a wealth of choices for its annual Academy submission, winds up putting forward for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar: Fernando Gomes’s Berlin hit “Tabu” has the critical profile, and is an infinitely richer and more imaginative achievement, but the less dazzling “All is Well” could well please more Academy voters.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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