Reel World

“The arts are thriving” is a password at a crucial moment in The Farewell, a German film from director Jan Schutte that is one of the entries in FilmFest Kansas City. In the movie, set in a divided Germany in 1956, the phrase prompts a political arrest. Regarding the thirty-plus films screened this weekend, though, it’s an understatement.

Festival organizers say they find it increasingly difficult to represent all the countries that make movies — which now means every country on the map. This year, the festival scans the globe but also marks the local debut of such American fare as White Oleander, with an incarcerated Michelle Pfeiffer, and Michael Moore’s much-lauded documentary Bowling for Columbine. Also scheduled are the Sundance favorite Personal Velocity, with the always watchable Parker Posey; A Matter of Taste, the “twisted” tale of a personal taster for a rich man; and, from Go Fish director Rose Troche, The Safety of Objects, with Glenn Close and Dermot Mulroney.

Also on the bill are edgy American independents that didn’t make it to a local screen during their limited releases or didn’t stay long, such as D.J. Caruso’s bleak but skilled The Salton Sea. Starring Val Kilmer as a double double-crosser, its milieu is the world of crank and the tweakers who love it. Though one scene involving a gun dealer is directly stolen from Taxi Driver, the movie has a hallucinogenic quality all its own thanks to Amir Mokri’s stunning cinematography. Kilmer is good, as are Peter Sarsgaard as his best pal and Deborah Kara Unger as an abused neighbor. It is Vincent D’Onofrio, though, who would win an Oscar if the movie were more widely distributed. His terrifying performance as Pooh Bear, a fat drug baron who has a plastic nose and uses a hungry badger as a torture device, makes your skin crawl.

The Farewell supposes that it’s eavesdropping on the last week of playwright Bertolt Brecht’s life. His drama The Caucasian Chalk Circle is in rehearsal in Berlin while he’s spending a short vacation at the Brecht compound in West Germany. Though he is surrounded by a wife, daughter, mistress and ex-girlfriend, he’s a man in pain. The movie’s a bit talky and static, but fans of the writer will enjoy watching the power he wields over his acolytes.

From Iran comes Djomeh, written and directed by Hassan Yektapanah. The story tracks a nineteen-year-old Afghani milk boy who has come to an Iranian village to escape a culturally frowned-upon affair at home. The film addresses the discrimination of a man without a country in a land without much tolerance for outsiders. It won the Golden Camera award at the Cannes Film Festival.

The countries of origin for director Roger Gnoan M’Bala’s wonderfully shot and scored Adanggaman read like a United Nations hearing: France, Switzerland, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Italy. The film exposes the confines of an arranged marriage and the brutality of slavery in the late seventeenth century. Mohammed Soudani’s photography is hauntingly beautiful — especially the scenes shot at night, when black skin against the black sky creates heretofore undiscovered colors.

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