What is reality?
Uh ... could we start with something simpler? No, we can't -- thanks to Carnegie Mellon University's third annual International Film Festival, whose theme this year is "Faces of Realism," as rendered in nine extraordinary new feature and documentary films from six different countries.
One thing we can say is that reality and film realism aren't necessarily the same.
Another thing we can tell you is that the CMU film fest -- one of the region's very best -- brilliantly illuminates the shades of realistic difference in these nine motion pictures that would never find their way to the mainstream screens at your local cineplex.
"Cinema is not the reflection of reality," said Jean-Luc Godard, "but the reality of the reflection." Clever enough. On another occasion he said, "Cinema is truth, 24 times a second." But he also declared, "Every edit is a lie."
Even in documentaries, reality competes with the selective contrivances and manipulations of editing and with the natural human tendency to perform for a camera lens, says Jolanta Lion, the festival's gifted midwife (and assistant director of CMU's Humanities Center). Her superb selections this year explore the often blurred lines between feature and documentary films -- and between directors, subjects and audiences.
The Pittsburgh premiere screenings begin tonight (continuing through March 8) at Pittsburgh Filmmakers' Melwood Screening Room, North Oakland, with "Il Divo," director Paolo Sorrentino's chilling character study of Italy's controversial seven-time Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, perhaps the most cunning political criminal in Italian history. In virtuosic fashion, Toni Servillo plays the sly, corrupt man who survived terrorist attacks, scandals and multiple Mafia turncoats. It's a political biography with wit, spectacular stylistics, a complicated elliptic structure -- playfully and technically audacious.
In "It's a Free World," social-realist director Ken Loach uses sexy, fictional Angela (beautifully played by Keirston Wareing) to explore the hardships of immigrant workers in England. Angie's "Recruitment Agency" -- with its Polish illegals -- rises and falls, along with her family troubles in this gem of a film, noteworthy for its tough (if hard to understand) dialogue.
Director Helena Trestikova's camera rolled for an amazing 20-year period as she chronicled the life of Marcela, a Czech woman with more hardships than any American could imagine. This is REAL "reality TV" about REAL struggles -- not a Discovery Channel piece with "professional" director-subject relationship. Trestikova not only filmed Marcela but also became a fixture in her life, tracking her from her doomed marriage and cramped life in an overcrowded flat with her in-laws, through the birth (and tragic death) of her daughter and arrival of her brain-disordered son, Tomas, 12 years later. Trestikova "collects time" with Marcela, who at 22 looks 35 and makes the rounds of Czech singles clubs, getting into country music (with her ubiquitous cavalry hat) before getting into a psychiatric hospital -- but carrying on. It is shattering but mesmerizing.
Included in the international fares are several fascinating American entries, highlighted by "Bomb It!" to be screened this Sunday at the Future Tenant Gallery in Downtown Pittsburgh. This Jon Reiss documentary on the history and culture of graffiti is a fine overview of that urban-outlaw art form, from its genesis in Philadelphia to its dubious conquest of New York, London, Paris, Barcelona, Sao Paulo and Tokyo.
"I was in love with my own name, and, as young educated people commonly do, I wrote it everywhere," wrote Goethe in 1811. If only he'd known how that compulsion would manifest itself in the 20th and 2lst centuries -- taggers climbing walls at huge risk and expense for ego gratification and the rush of danger and rebellion. Is it "art"? You don't think so if you're the property owner who has to pay to remove the defacements. Urban decay and Reaganism's twisted sociology of poverty come in for deserved lumps. And some of the wall paintings (in Barcelona particularly) are truly gorgeous. But most of the anarchist graffiti lacks redeeming social value, and one man's self-expression is another's "typographical terrorism." (Audiences can test their own "tagging" skills on gallery walls and learn more about local graffiti culture while enjoying goodies from local restaurants after the screenings.)
Audience feedback is also solicited through Q&A workshops with directors Antonio Campos, Azazel Jacobs and cinematographer Arthur Reinhart during the festival, including two at Chatham University. Jacobs' workshop is 7:30 p.m. March 5 in the Mellon Board Room at Chatham's Shadyside campus. In his film "Momma's Man," Jacobs cast both his father, a celebrated avant-garde filmmaker, and mother, a painter, in the story of a prodigal son who comes home -- and stays there.
The workshop with Polish cinematographer Arthur Reinhart is this Friday at 5 p.m., also in Mellon Hall Board Room. Reinhart is the producer of many of wife Dorota Kedzierzawksa's films, including "Time to Die" in this festival. It deals with Aniela, now in her 90s and living alone in her equally ancient country house, with her only loyal listener -- a dog. The world and her property-hungry neighbors are ready for her to depart, but Aniela doesn't oblige.
Festival venues include the SouthSide Works Cinema and CMU's McConomy Auditorium (check schedule below). General admission tickets are $7 ($3 for students) per film. Tickets for the opening-night reception and screening are $10 ($7 for students). Full-access festival pass is $35 ($15 for students). For more detailed film descriptions and ticket reservations, visit www.cmu.edu/faces.
Melwood Screening Room, 477 Melwood Ave., Oakland
-- 7:30 p.m., opening night reception and "Il Divo" (Italy 2008), 110 min. Pittsburgh favorite son Tony Bubba will introduce the film.
-- 7:30 p.m., "Afterschool" (USA 2008), 120 min. 25-year-old Antonio Campos' first feature is set at an elite New England boarding school, where athletics, beauty and drugs are the currencies. Hero Robert opts for the video reality of the Internet instead. Director Campos to appear.
-- 5 p.m. "Forbidden Lie$" (Australia 2007), 106 min. Is director Anna Broinowski's subject, Norma Khouri, a crusader or a con artist? Khouri's Syrian friend suffered a violent death for being involved with a Christian man. Khouri wrote a "true" account and began a personal mission against honor killings. Her best-selling book propelled her to fame and fortune -- then was exposed as fiction.
-- 7:30 p.m. "Time to Die" (Poland 2007), 104 min.Cinematographer Arthur Reinhart to appear.
McConomy Auditorium, CMU's University Center, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland
-- 4 p.m., "It's a Free World" (England 2008), 96 min.
-- Also Sunday, at Future Tenant Gallery, 819 Penn Ave., Downtown: 5 p.m., "Bomb It!" (USA 2007), 93 min.
-- 8 p.m., "The Mother" (Switzerland/Russia 2007), 80 min. Directed by Antoine Cattin and Pavel Kostomarov, it features a Russian woman Liubov (the name means "love") in a rural farming community who tries to put food on the table and a roof over her nine children's heads -- alone.
SouthSide Works Cinema, 425 Cinema Drive, South Side
-- 7:30 p.m., "It's a Free World" (England 2008), 96 min.
-- 7:30 p.m., "Momma's Man" (USA 2008), 94 min. Director Azazel Jacobs to appear.
-- 5 p.m., "Il Divo" (Italy 2008), 110 min.
-- 3 p.m., "Marcela" (Czech Republic 2007), 80 min.
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris can be reached at email@example.com .