May 3, 2009

TRIBECA '09 REVIEWS: Here and There, Seven Minutes in Heaven

[Andrew Grant, a man beyond the limits of control, closes out this year's Tribeca Film Festival with a spotlight on two narrative debuts that screened at the fest. –AH]

Here and There (Tamo i Ovde) The forced financial belt-tightening that's occurring in nearly every sector has, unsurprisingly, begun to trickle down to arts programs that relied heavily on corporate sponsorship; the Tribeca Film Festival was no exception. Yet the consensus amongst many critics is that this year's leaner lineup has been more of a blessing than a curse, and the hit-to-miss ratio was higher than ever before. Sure, there were the usual red-carpet, star-studded draws, but nothing on the preposterous scale of, say, 2006's RV premiere. For 2009, the most noticeable and welcome change to the program was the overall strength of the debut narrative features, many of which had a style, confidence, and maturity that's uncommon in first films.

Serbian-born NYC resident Darko Lungulov's Here and There (Tamo i Ovde) has a distinct 1980s Amer-indie feel to it, which is hardly surprising given that legendary indie producer Jim Stark (Down by Law, Night on Earth) had a hand in getting the film off the ground. Set in both New York and Belgrade, Lungulov's dramedy is built upon a dangerously-close-to-formulaic premise that quickly blazes a unique path. Archetypal New Yorker Robert (David Thornton) is a down-on-his-luck, cynical and jaded 52-year-old sax player with Ratso Rizzo bravado (replete with "I'm walkin' here!" moment) and a permanently unkempt mane of black hair and three-day stubble (imagine a cross between Ted Kaczynski and a Baldwin brother). Kicked out of his apartment, he meets Serbian man-with-van Branko, who soon offers our disheveled hero a chance to earn $5000 by marrying his fiancée in Belgrade, and bringing her back to America. It's an ideal setup for a screwball comedy that fortunately shifts gears as the action moves to Belgrade, where Robert finds himself smitten with Branko's mother Olga, played by Grbavica lead Mirjana Karanovic.

Given Stark's involvement and Lungulov's admitted idolization of Jim Jarmusch, the film feels surprisingly more reminiscent of early Hal Hartley, particularly in such quirky minor characters as an America-hating cab driver and a dubious New York Samaritan. Even the shambling, apathetic Robert comes off as a latter-day Henry Fool. There's only a hint of political ideology or commentary on recent events in this tale of two cities, with discourse limited to lines such as "you don't live in Belgrade, you survive in Belgrade." At times, the film leans toward the sentimental, but Lungulov adroitly steers it away from some cliché-riddled cliffside disaster called How Robert Got his Groove Back. With its near sprightly pace and remarkably strong performances, Here and There is a rom-com for the love-is-dead crowd, a subversive and clandestine example of an overly familiar genre.

Seven Minutes in Heaven (Sheva Dakot Be Gan Eden)Similarly couching its narrative intentions is Seven Minutes in Heaven (Sheva Dakot Be Gan Eden), a psychological neo-thriller from Israeli newcomer Omri Givon. Though more overtly political than Here and There, Givon wisely avoids any grand statements, opting instead to focus on an individual tale of grief and loss. Something of a showcase for incredibly gifted lead actress Raymonde Amsalem,Seven Minutes in Heaven deals with the post-traumatic effects of a terrorist attack. Shortly before their wedding, Galia (Amsalem) and her fiancé Oren are severely injured during a bus suicide bombing. Though clinically dead for seven minutes, Galia manages to survive, but is left with third-degree burns over most of her back and arms. Oren, however, has been left in a coma, and the film opens with his passing, leaving Galia with a brooding sense of survivor's guilt, and a need to piece her life back together. The arrival of an unrecognizable necklace in the mail and the repeated appearance of Boaz, a handsome and helpful stranger, only strengthens her resolve to learn what happened on that tragic day.

In one of the film's most revealing scenes, Galia visits a hospital administrator in hopes of learning the identity of the paramedic that saved her life. There's a lengthy back-and-forth required to determine exactly which bus attack she's a victim of—year, month, and location are barely enough information. It's the film's most political moment, yet doesn't point fingers or make condemnations, instead subtly capturing the reality of just how commonplace such attacks have become. As Galia's quest for catharsis continues, the film ventures into the metaphysical, and there's a significant twist, though it's far more cerebral and meaningful than a Shyamalan third-act gotcha. Seven Minutes in Heaven is a powerful, quiet but rather intense psychological portrait, often as uncomfortably claustrophobic as the rehabilitative synthetic skin suit that Galia is forced to wear. At the center of attention in nearly every scene, this is a challenging, demanding role for Amsalem, who pulls it off with tremendous skill and grace.

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Posted by ahillis at May 3, 2009 12:28 PM