A familiar refrain at the Telluride Film Festival is that it’s about the movies, not glamor, but not everyone can resist the desire to be near famous people. A woman I rode with on the gondola on Friday told me that there were fewer actors and more directors at the festival this year than in years past. She sounded a little disappointed.
One of the actors in town was Penelope Cruz, who was honored at the festival. In hopes of seeing her latest film Volver, I tried to get into the tribute show, thinking that the lines would be shorter due to the early-morning start time. I was mistaken. Apparently it is never too early for Penelope. I caught the movie the next day instead. She had left town by then, but the movie was just as good without her physical presence.
Cruz has plenty of screen charisma in Volver, the latest film from Pedro Almodóvar. The word means “to return” in Spanish. The past of Raimunda (Cruz) and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) returns to them in many ways, as they discover that it is not as dead as they thought it was. As in other Almodóvar films, there are shocking events, though they happen off-screen this time. Instead, the movie focuses on women taking charge of their lives and helping each other out. This may be as close to feel-good as an Almodóvar film gets.
The Last King of Scotland
This movie belongs to a genre of films that show Third-World repression through the eyes of a naive outsider (Beyond Rangoon, Cry Freedom). This time, the protagonist is Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a young Scottish doctor who goes to Uganda looking for adventure in the early 1970s. After a chance meeting with dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker, who I did glimpse up close at the festival), Garrigan is invited, and then coerced, into becoming Amin’s personal physician.
Although Garrigan (whose character is entirely fictional) is technically the main character, the true center of the film is Amin, played well by Whitaker as a frightening bully with just enough charisma to appeal to the common people. The movie loses some of its power in inserting a white European into the story of Amin’s reign of terror. It’s difficult to care greatly about Garrigan when 1) his predicament is caused in part by his own poor choices, 2) hundreds of thousands of Ugandans are being murdered by death squads, and 3) Garrigan is able to escape in 1976, while Ugandans were stuck with Amin for another three years.
The Italian of the title is six-year-old Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov), who lives in a Russian orphanage. Although the place seems clean and the residents well-fed, the adults have clearly given up on their responsibilities toward the children. They are more interested in making money off of foreigners, like the kind Italian couple who want to adopt Vanya. The orphanage is actually run by the teenage boys, who have set up a system taken straight from Oliver Twist.
Vanya knows that he should be happy, but he can’t help but wonder about his mother. Is she alive? Did she abandon him due to poverty, or were there other circumstances? He sets off on an epic journey through Russia, determined to find the answers. His travels are harrowing, and young Spiridonov is up to the acting task. (And no, I didn’t see him in Telluride.) Though the subject is depressing, the film manages to find some good in the world.