On day 3 of the 2011 London Film Festival I woke up feeling like death. The festival was taking its toll on me and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could survive… this feeling subsided after a coffee with breakfast, which I bought in Leicester Square upon arriving very early for the morning’s first screening, Fernando Meirelles’ 360. Today, the 12th of October, the 55th London Film Festival actually begins. While press screenings have been ticking over for a couple of weeks already, the first proper event is tonight, and the opening ‘gala’ is 360. The gala screenings are the highlights of the LFF; others throughout this particular festival include: the much-lauded The Artist, Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut Coriolanus, Cronenberg’s new film A Dangerous Method and the new film from Sideways director Alexander Payne, The Descendants, starring George Clooney. Because these particular films are so popular, the press screenings are reserved until the morning of the day on which they will first be shown at the festival — and they are usually packed. 360 began at 9.15am, and while there was plenty of space to accomodate everyone, the queue began to form at least half an hour beforehand. Upon entering the Odeon Leicester Square, I settled into my leopard print seat, completely bemused at the interior design. Once the film got underway it became apparent that the screen was tilted, giving the impression of a concave shape — at this moment I decided that, despite the attempt at multiplex glamour, I did not like the OLS. Anyway, on with the review…

360 (dir. Fernando Meirelles)

360 is sequence of individual stories, woven together with zero aptitude. It attempts to be a dynamic and sprawling narrative, covering a host of different characters and events — unfortunately, while some of the plot lines are interesting and well-acted, when the whole piece comes together it quickly descends into a mess.

The film showcases a host of stars: Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law, Rachel Weisz etc. A-list may be an understatement. In particular, Hopkins’ story arc, intertwined with Ben Foster and Maria Flor, works well on its own. That fact becomes rather redundant however, when after the next chapter begins, you immediately forget about the significance of the previous one, only remembering it when the characters resurface at the end. The film closes with all of the main characters patched into one shot, having lived out their story lines — this moment represents the interlinked nature of the narrative, except that it doesn’t; I was too busy going “I forgot he was in it… and her!” to notice the overriding themes.

As alluded to above, however, it is worth noting that while it falls flat as an overall piece, some of the plot threads are enjoyable and well-crafted in their own right. Weisz stands out in her role, as does Hopkins, but it is apparent that none of the significance attached to their plights comes through strongly enough. The film is about making choices, as the narrator says, picking a ‘fork in the road’ — isn’t that what life is all about anyway? I’m not sure any member of the audience needed screenwriter Peter Morgan to tell them that.

360 is a perplexing film; it never feels achingly bad, and its runtime of 115mins goes by without verging on strenuous, but once you leave the cinema you’re instantly hit by a sense of being utterly underwhelmed. I will restrain myself from the temptation to completely rip into it though; it would be a lie to say that I didn’t enjoy it at all. There is some particularly nice camerawork, including some very inventive transitions, and some of the characters have plots that you can associate and empathise with, even if they do feel rather lightweight. Not a great film, but not a complete disaster either.

A sprint from OLS to the BFI Southbank ensued. I had 50 minutes but considering I am still far from familiar with London it seemed perfectly possible that I might get lost along the way. Thankfully, the route is very straightforward, so I arrived with plenty of time for the next film…

The Kid with a Bike (French, dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)

Frankly putting it, The Kid with a Bike is an excellent film from start to almost-finish. It is a completely believable and immersive social drama, filled with pitch-perfectly acted characters and a superb script. The one gripe, however, is that the ending feels unsure of itself, failing to sit well with the rest of the film. This is particularly unfortunate when everything leading up to it feels methodically crafted; the tone of the conclusion comes across as different to the preceding film. It is less grounded in reality, with more of an air of ambiguity and a failed attempt at depth surrounding it, a pretence that does a disservice to the rest of the film.

The lead, Thomas Doret, is superlative as the 11-year old Cyril, an abandoned child who enjoys riding his bike around the local estate more than anything else. Cécile de France, previously of Hereafter, is also excellent as Samantha, a local hairdresser who adopts Cyril on weekends. Together they form a relationship that is at the emotional core of the film — a believable pairing whose bond often shifts from love to hate, and visa versa, in the blink of an eye.

A thoroughly engaging story and an almost flawless production (ignoring the end of the film and the occasional bits of orchestral music that make brief and unnecessary appearances at a variety of moments), The Kid with a Bike is one of the festival highlights so far and a must-see for fans of French cinema.

Continuing the jam-packed day, I made my way out of NFT2, turned around 180 degrees, and went back in for our next film…

We Have a Pope (Italian, dir. Nanni Moretti)

We Have a Pope is a very Italian comedy and will most likely receive a mixed reaction when it is shown to the public audience. The premise is clever and unique — upon the death of the Pope, the various inhabitants of the vatican begin a conclave to find the next leader of the Catholic Church. As they make their way into the Sistine Chapel, the power cuts and the red robe-clad religious leaders are plunged into chaos, with one bishop taking an unfortunate tumble to the floor. After order is restored, they begin the selection process. To a man, all of those present begin praying that they will not be picked for the position — after a few attempts it becomes clear that a verdict is going to be difficult to achieve. Therefore, a plan is hatched to make everyone vote for one man, Michel Piccoli’s character. Once he is reluctantly elected, he makes his way to greet the thousands of adoring worshippers gathered to get a glimpse of their new holy leader. However, upon beginning his speech, he suffers a crippling crisis of confidence, an event that results in him being consulted by a non-believing psychiatrist and eventually his escape into the world outside of the Vatican.

If it seems like I have detailed a strange amount of the plot, it is because that’s the easiest way to describe the absurdist nature of the film. It may seem like an ultimately cynical view of the Vatican and religion in general, but in actuality it is so surreal that you rarely pause to think of those facts, instead revelling in the brilliantly thought-up nature of this comedy. Admittedly, it is far funnier in the first half than the second, and some of the humour (perhaps much) is lost on an English crowd. There’s also a lack of depth to the ideas presented onscreen: faith, the nature of life, the possibility of God’s existence, but I’d rather view it as a comedy than an incisive commentary on any of the above. Not a classic, but regardless, We Have a Pope makes a nice change to many of the far more serious films at the festival.

After We Have a Pope I walked to the Soho Screening Rooms for the last film of the day, Louise Wimmer. Unfortunately, that particular film wasn’t on at the Soho Screening Rooms; it was at the Soho House — that’ll teach me for not reading the schedule PDFs properly. After 20 minutes of laboriously searching for the aforementioned House — which is incredibly difficult to find — I arrived, pretty much bang on the time it started. Unfortunatley, the screening was at full capacity, meaning I couldn’t get in. An initial pang of disappointment quickly gave way to a melancholy feeling. Nevermind, I figured, three films was my fill for the day.

So, we’re a review short today, but three intersting films covered nevertheless. Tomorrow I am at the Nottingham Beer Festival, but my London Film Festival blog will recommence on Friday. I’ll see you then!

Tom Grater

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