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A woman who charms men while she lives can still work her spell after she dies. In this delicate, mysterious road movie from director Aleksei Fedorchenko, the widower Miron resolves to bury his late wife Tanya in a sacred lake in West Russia, according to the strictures of the Merya culture. His companion is his friend Aist, who, we suspect, also loved Tanya. Along the way, in the Merya tradition, Miron shares intimate details of his life with Tanya. Fedorchenko doesn't clear up all of the secrets of this marriage; that is part of the film's subtle, folkloric power. It reminds us that our world still has many unexplored regions and rituals that at first may seem alien, but which speak to the essential human need to find a resting place for tortured souls and undying love. M.C.
According to a statement at the beginning of Ben Affleck's solid, standard heist drama, the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston boasts the world's highest concentration of thieves and bank robbers. In The Town, some are smooth like Doug (Affleck), some are salty like Jem (The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner), but all speak in a patois so cryptic that, for clarity, even the Americans here were reading the Italian subtitles. The two intelligible souls: an FBI agent (Jon Hamm from Mad Men) and Claire (Rebecca Hall, who was Vicky in Vicky Cristina Barcelona), the manager of a bank Doug's gang has robbed and whom Doug lures into a semi-love affair, for no other reason than that, without it, there wouldn't be a plot. These characters don't range too far from stereotypes, but it's a likable variation of the familiar theme, with a tangy Boston atmosphere that, as one character says, is "authentitious." R.C.
In the early 19th century, Saartije Baartman, a Khoi tribeswoman from South Africa, was brought to Europe and exhibited, naked, among the medical establishment and salon society as the "Hottentot Venus" an exotic, one-woman freak show. This true parable of racial and sexual exploitation is the subject of the searing, if overlong, biographical drama by Abdellatif Kechiche, whose The Secret of the Grain won Cesar Awards (the French Oscars) for film, direction and screenplay. In her forced tour of degradation, Saartije (Yahima Torres) finds two main enslavers: her lover and master Caesar (Andre Jacobs), who introduces her to doctors eager to prove that black people are more like apes than civilized men; and Reaux (Olivier Gourmet), a sort of P.T. Barnum of prurience, who pushes her into sexual slavery in the Paris bordellos of the day. Some scenes of Reaux's manipulation of Saartije before an audience of giggling ladies and gentlemen are among the most painful in recent cinema; to watch them is to acknowledge complicity in four centuries of white men's subjugation of black women (and men). But it all happened. After Saartije's death at 26, in 1817, plaster molds fashioned from her corpse, and jars containing her genitals and brain were on display in a Paris museum until 1994. In 2002 her remains were returned to South Africa. M.C.
Quentin Tarantino's Impromptu Film Studies Class
He's not just an auteur, an actor and the President of this year's Venice jury, he's also one of the most passionate and provocative of film educators. A graduate of Video Store U., Tarantino has seemingly seen every B movie made over the last 50 years in the U.S., Hong Kong, South Korea, South America, the Philippines and, of course, Italy. In conjunction with a Venice retrospective of Spaghetti Western director Sergio Corbucci, Tarantino showed up at a midnight screening of Minnesota Clay to give a lively, detailed, 12-min. lecture on Corbucci. Declaring that his remarks were "just for the people in this room, not for YouTube," he advised everyone to shut off recording equipment and ejected one fellow who kept filming him. An education and a confrontation: that's what Tarantino gives you at Venice.R.C.