GAUTAMAN BHASKARAN detours from the major festival circuit, finding the pace at the 7th Marrakech International Film Festival refreshing leisured, and the films mostly gripping.

SOMETIMES, I feel that having covered major international film festivals across the globe and for two long decades, including really flashy ones such as Cannes, Venice and Berlin, I must now look at smaller, more intimate festivals. Like cinema, where big-budget blockbusters can be addictively attractive, personal, low-key, cherished movies made on shoestring money can also be so darn appealing. Provided, provided, you turn your attention to them.

I went to the 7th Marrakech International Film Festival this December again, having been introduced to it by a lovely French publicity group earlier in 2006, and found myself thoroughly enjoying it. For one, there is not the usual rush of a Cannes or a Berlin, where the snow and the freezing temperatures make it all the more difficult to catch the first show of the day at eight. The first screening at Cannes begins at 8.30.

At Marrakech, midway between Casablanca and Rabat in Morocco, ruled by a very modern Muslim king who even allows his female subjects to dress as provocatively as they please, the first competition film begins leisurely at 11 in the morning. The next competition screening is at 3 in the afternoon, which you may watch after a hearty meal. The evening is for parties and fun, and there were plenty of them, including a great Egyptian gala.

The Festival kicked off with a tribute to Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who was presented with the Golden Star by veteran American director Martin Scorsese, who even held an engaging master class, where he showed several clips from his body of work, explaining the highlights of each. DiCaprio has starred in three Scorsese movies: Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004) and The Departed (2006). “I never failed to be amazed by his clear and complete commitment to his work,” the helmer said while awarding the trophy.

“The only thing I can say is since I was a young man I had always the ambition to be an actor," DiCaprio said, adding that he had never imagined he would one day have the chance to work with “a legend of the cinema like Martin Scorsese.”

Some 110 films from 23 countries were screened at the Festival that had a very strong competition section. Most entries here were gripping.

The Estonian movie, Autumn Ball – which won the top Golden Star – opens with a powerful shot of a man standing on the balcony of a high-rise building, the strong winds almost pushing him off the edge. He is angry and bitter, because his wife is leaving him. He is young writer Mati (Rain Tolk), who moments later almost rapes and kills his wife, Jaana (Mirtel Pohla), as she bids him goodbye. Shot in a huge Estonian apartment complex just before the Soviet Union collapsed, “Autumn Ball” sets the mood with these disturbing visuals. It portrays the depression of the era in all its stark cruelty through the lives of seven people who share not just the housing block but also a deep sense of despair and worthlessness.

Sure to travel from festival to festival, the movie scores with its tight plot, which ultimately connects the stories of each of these unhappy souls. Mati is so desperately lonely that he tries peeping into the bedroom of his former wife and makes a fool of himself by getting drunk in clubs. Friendless barber Augusti Kaski (Sulevi Peltola) is mistaken for a paedophile when he tries getting close to a little girl (Iris Persson), and her single mother, Laura (Maarja Jakobson), watches mush soaps and runs away from men in her bid to find true love. Stylish architect Maurer (Juhan Ulfsak) is so brutally honest with his unhappy wife, Ulvi (Tiina Tauraite), that she seeks the bed of nightclub doorman Theo (Taavi Eelmaa). Theo prides on his sexual prowess and counts his conquests, but feels low and deprived when women ignore him outside the bedroom because of his poor social standing.

Grandhotel is a quirky tale about a hotel in Czechoslovakia whose workers create strange drama. Who needs guests then? In any case, one does not see the guests at all, and the script focuses primarily on the hotel’s handyman, Fleischman (Marek Taclik), who is also an amateur meteorologist desperate to get close to the skies. He is sewing a hot air balloon to take him up, up and away, but if does not vanish into the clouds, it because the chambermaid, Ilja (Klara Issova), loves him and drags him down to terra firma. But she has a problem in her jealous boyfriend and arrogant waiter, Patka (Jaroslav Plesl).

An apt movie that is sure to endear it to a discerning festival crowd, but too experimental for others, Grandhotel is set in the northern Czech city of Liberec and among the nearby Jizerske mountains. Though Fleischman believes that a person belongs to the place he is born, he dreams of running away from European boredom. One cannot really blame him, for he has sex-starved receptionist Jegr (Jaromir Dulava), clumsy hotel help Zuzana (Dita Zabranska) and bitter German World War II veteran Franz (Ladislav Mrkvicka) for company. It is only when beautiful Ilja comes into Fleischman’s life that things begin to brigten up for him.

Arguably one of the most engaging entries in the competition section, Srdan Golubovic’s The Trap (Klopka) will certainly find an audience outside arthouse circles, because of its riveting style and moving performances by the lead actors. The movie is set in post-Milosevic Belgrade where the divide between the rich and the poor is painfully apparent. This is visualised through pathetic looking car-cleaning boys at traffic lights begging for a few coins, and, on the other side of the spectrum, rich kids driving fancy cars blowing up their fathers’ money. Caught between the two extremes is the film’s protagonist, architect Mladen (Nebojsa Glogovac), perfectly happy in his government company, which is going bankrupt and desperately seeking funds to stay afloat. It is in this graphically portrayed city, thanks to an intelligent screenplay based on a novel by Nenad Teofilovic, that we find Mladen facing the greatest dilemma of his life.

His 10-year-old son, Nemanja (Marko Durovic), develops a serious cardiac problem and needs to be immediately operated on if he is to live, but the surgery can be done only in Berlin and would cost 26,000 euros, a tab the insurance firm would not pick. Mladen and his schoolteacher wife, Marija (Natasa Ninkovic), can by no stretch of imgination afford that, and in desperation they place an advertisement in newspapers seeking financial help. Days later, there is one caller, but he wants Mladen to murder a man in exchange for the money. With the boy’s condition deteriorating by the hour, Mladen faces a terrifying dilemma, which gets even more torturous when he finds out that the man he has been asked to kill has a small loving family. His daughter is Nemanja’s playmate in the local park, and his wife, Jelena (Anica Dobra), has met Mladen. He keeps the murder deal a secret, not even confiding in his wife, and suffers.

In Whatever Lola Wants, director Nabil Ayouch gives not just what Lola wants but also what audiences might love: a liberal dose of feet-tapping music and Egyptian belly dance, which sometimes appears like a heady mix of Western and Oriental. Interestingly choreographed by Morocco and Tony Stevens and set to the lilting music of Krishna Levy, the dance numbers of American actress Laura Ramsey, who plays Lola in the movie, are a sure crowd puller. But beyond that, Ayouch’s work, part of the Marrakech Film Festival’s Outside Competition section, makes little impact, certainly not arthouse.

Admittedly high on feel-good factor, though its climax is not quite what viewers would have hoped for, perhaps not even what Lola might have wished, the film seems like a modern-day fairy tale. A mail delivery worker in New York, Lola is passionate about dancing and bored with her job. Her best friend, Yussef (Achmed Akkabi), lifts her spirits by telling her about the legendary Egyptian belly dancer, Ismahan (Carmen Lebbos), living a life of disgrace in Cairo after an extra-marital affair. When Lola meets a dashing Egyptian millionaire in New York, Zack (Assaad Bouab), she falls in love with him and has an affair so intense that she blows up all her savings to follow him to Cairo. But Zack is terribly traditional, not one to marry someone dreaming of a career in dance, and an angry and disappointed Lola turns to her first love. Determined to learn only from Ismahan – who is reclusive and refuses to have anything to do with Lola, let alone teach her belly dancing – the young American soon befriends the dancer’s little girl and worms her way into the mother’s heart. Lola becomes a sensation under Ismahan’s guidance taking Cairo by storm.

Japanese cinema has often dealt with black comedies about dysfunctional families, Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers is yet another one on this theme. Competing at the Marrakech International Film Festival, this work, based on a novel by Yukiko Motoya, has a talented cast moulded into inspiring characters, but still looks like a television soap. Maybe that is what director Yoshida wanted in order to attract younger audiences, women in particular. The movie has a good box-office potential, though it appears out of place in a festival.

Yoshida packs dark humour in his narrative, and much of it comes from Sumika (Eriko Sato), a failed actress who returns from Tokyo to her rural home when her parents die in a accident trying to save a black cat sitting in the middle of a road. At home, her hardworking woodcutter stepbrother, Shinji (Masatochi Nagase), and his new wife, Machiko (Hiromi Nagasaku), are not happy when Sumika asks for an allowance to live in Tokyo. Four years ago, Sumika quarrelled and almost killed her father for refusing her money to pursue stardom. But Sumika was not one to be stopped: she prostituted, made money and left home, but not before getting into an incestuous relationship with Shinji, a handle she uses again after her return to get favours out of him. Their little sister, Kiyomi (Aimi Satsukawa), is inspired by her family mess to draw manga comic strips, winning huge prize money and ruining Sumika’s reputation. Naturally Sumika holds Kiyomi responsible for her failure as an actress.

The film is in a way a commentary on Japanese society, where schoolgirl prostitution, uneasy father-daughter relationships, domestic violence and suicides are not uncommon. Machiko bears the brunt of her husband’s ill temper, and yet she keeps smiling and laughing. Kiyomi stoically bears Sumika’s bullying, but continues to draw and ridicule her family. Sumika crosses hurdles with her cunning ways. But Shinji crumbles.

Basing his screenplay on the novel he wrote, Shinji Aoyama directs Sad Vacation (Saddo Bake – Shon), falling back on his favourite theme. Which is dysfunctional humans. His characters are often heinous criminals or hapless victims of terrible crimes. We saw this in his last work, Lakeside Murder Case (2004). In Aoyama, we see a trace of Hitchcock and a trace of Kubrick, but the Japanese helmer, who was honoured with a homage at the Marrakech International Film Festival and his Sad Vacation screened outside competition, has the great ability to vary his style. His 2000 Eureka, which won an Ecumenical Jury Prize at Cannes is a sombre, black and white study of a bus hijacking, the story narrated through long scenes, often deeply meditative, sometimes distractively so. Sad Vacation is closer to his first work, Helpless (1996), clearly impressionistic. However, thematically the three movies form a trilogy where the protagonists are grappling with traumatic pasts.

Sad Vacation begins with Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) helping out a smuggler of Chinese workers. When one of them is found dead on a ship bringing them in, Kenji takes charge of the victim’s young son. Kenji’s sympathy for the boy arises from his own harrowing past, where his mother, Chiyoko (Eri Ishida) abandoned him when he was barely five, and his mentally unstable father committed suicide. It is never clear why she did that.

Years later, Kenji, now working for a trucking company after leaving the smuggler, finds that his long lost mother is his boss’ wife. This is where the narrative starts to falter with Aoyama playing down the melodramatic angle to such a level that the interplay of emotions between the mother and the son look superficial. Chiyoko urges Kenji to forget the past while offering no explanation for her cruel deed. Nor does she express remorse or guilt. The movie switches tracks at this point, focussing on Kenji as he fights his urge to take revenge on his mother, while his girlfriend, an attractive club hostess, Saeko (Yuka Itaya), tries pulling him away from negative thoughts.