MOVIE REVIEW- OFFBeat: Film Society and OFFScreen offer reel gems

Charlottesville may not be New York, but this town does better than many in snagging the most talked about independent and cutting-edge films... even if they sometimes arrive a few months after they've been judged by the national press. In addition to the yeoman work of Charlottesville's movie theaters, we've got the Virginia Film Festival in October and the Festival's year-round Film Society, plus the independent University of Virginia-based OFFScreen program. And for the first few months of this year, both the Film Society and OFFScreen are in top form.

The Film Society's first major event ran January 27-29— a three-night residency by Jonathan Nossiter, who brought his documentary Losing The Thread/Perdere Il Filo along with his 1997 Sundance hit Sunday and last year's acclaimed Signs And Wonders (the latter co-sponsored by OFFScreen). 

If you missed those screenings, make up for it by catching the next Film Society program on February 26 (again co-sponsored by OFFScreen). Writer-director Richard Kelly will show and discuss his 2001 cult sensation Donnie Darko, a true original starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a troubled suburban Virginia high school student who has conversations about time travel with a sinister man-sized rabbit. The willful weirdness of Donnie Darko sounds kookier than it actually is; really the film is a half-loving, half-satirical look at American adolescence circa 1988, with the best use of Echo And The Bunnymen, Tears For Fears, and Duran Duran songs in the history of motion pictures. Don't miss it— along with visionary pictures like Mulholland Drive, Waking Life, Moulin Rouge, Memento, and A.I., Donnie Darko is part of what made 2001 such an interesting year at the movies.

The spring schedule of the Film Society continues with the Black Maria Film and Video Festival on March 20 and then concludes WHEN?? with In The Bathtub Of The World, the latest film by mind-expander Caveh Zahedi (perhaps best known now for the "holy moment" scene in Waking Life). Zahedi will attend the screening.

OFFScreen complements the Film Society with another slate of world cinema classics sprinkled among recent indie and foreign faves. This year, the "older" films are kept to a relative minimum; only the 1930 Josef Von Sternberg-directed, Marlene Dietrich-starring showbiz melodrama The Blue Angel (screened February 5), Todd Solondz's recent scabrous middle class satires Welcome To the Dollhouse and Happiness (screening April 17 and 25, respectively, perhaps around the time that Solondz's latest, Storytelling, will hit town) and Gillo Pontecorvo's 1957 Italian post-neorealism classic Wide Blue Road (April 9) qualify as repertory-like. 

But the Pontecorvo film actually made the art house rounds last year with a restored print that emphasized the colorful seascapes and the rugged lead performance of Yves Montand, playing a rogue fisherman who'd rather not join a union. Unlike Pontecorvo's later revolutionary masterpieces Battle Of Algiers and Burn!, The Wide Blue Road has a more conventional subjective ethnographic narrative, laden with nail-biting plot twists and symbolic import.

Also on the political front, OFFScreen will be bringing Raoul Peck's African epic Lumumba on February 19 and Barbet Schroeder's Central American thriller Our Lady Of The Assassins on March 19. The former film tells the story of Patrice Lumumba's socialist liberation of the Congo and his subsequent defeat by neo-imperialist Joseph Mobuto (and it features what has been called one of the best performances of 2001 by Eriq Ebouaney in the title role). The latter film inserts homosexual romance amid the violence and drug trafficking of Colombia and has been praised for its absurdist take on the lives of desperate thugs.

Desperation, violence, and sexually charged situations thread through most of the remainder of the OFFScreen schedule. At press time, it was up in the air whether March 26 will be reserved for François Ozon's haunting missing persons suspenser Under The Sand or his cannibalistic fairy tale revision Criminal Lovers; either one would be suitably gripping and unsettling. 

Speaking of unsettling, Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl is, like most of her films, provocative, titillating, occasionally tedious, and ultimately shocking. Its tale of two bickering sisters who share their resentment over their respective surfeit and lack of sexual experience builds deliberately to a shocking climax that recasts everything that went before in a different light. It screens on February 12; bring a friend to argue with afterward.

The two biggest treats of the spring OFFScreen, though, come on March 5 and April 2. The April date brings Trembling Before G-d, an artful and poignant documentary about gay men and women who strive to be Orthodox Jews despite their religion's formal condemnation of their sexual practices. (They're allowed to be gay, but not to act on their urges.) It's an insightful examination of the limits of faith. 

Finally, the March date brings one of 2001's best films, festival favorite Together. Written and directed by Lukas Moodyson (auteur of Show Me Love, aka Fucking Amal), Together details the dissolution and reconstitution of a Swedish commune in the ‘70s, as the residents, political idealists all, realize that there are other bonds besides common causes. The film is funny, melancholy, and moving, with marvelous deployment of songs by Nazareth and ABBA.

All OFFScreen shows are at 7 and 9:30 on Tuesday evenings in UVA's Newcomb Hall Theater. The complete schedule is as follows:

2/12 Fat Girl

2/19 Lumumba

2/26 Donnie Darko (with Film Society)

3/5 Together

3/19 Our Lady of the Assassins

3/26 Under the Sand (or Criminal Lovers)

4/2 Trembling Before G-d

4/9 Wide Blue Road

4/17 Welcome to the Dollhouse

4/25 Happiness