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Three Films To Watch At The 43rd Annual Denver Film Festival

Ten to the Six Pictures
Still from "Materna," which is playing at the Denver Film Festival this year.

The Denver Film Festival opens next week for the 43rd time, but, of course, in an unusual pandemic way. Some films will show at drive-ins; others will be streamed, along with filmmaker conversations and discussions. There are lots of films to watch. And KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film and television at CU-Denver, has three he’d like to recommend.

Materna opens on a New York subway car. Passengers avoid eye contact. The camera picks out four women, three probably in their twenties, one maybe 40-ish. Like everyone else, they’re blank-eyed and inside themselves. One of the women is Black, one Asian, two white. A man rants on the car, yelling out his anger and frustration at the world. He makes plenty of eye contact, which the other passengers avoid, and as he turns his rant on each of these four women, the movie shows what’s going on with them one by one.

In some ways, Materna is about isolation. Three have conflict with their mothers. One — wealthy and white and a mother herself — carries a load of resentment at what she sees as her loss of privilege in the world, and she’s just had a major argument with her brother who calls her a bigot.

Materna is beautifully shot. One of the young women is just back from visiting her mother and grandmother in a rural village in Kyrgyzstan. An uncle has killed himself, and it turns out that he’s the third man in the family to suicide. The three women stare at the three graves — outside the fence of the cemetery of course — a dry brown landscape separates them from mountains in the distance. It’s an extraordinary picture of despair.

The young Black woman is an actor working with her coach who prods and provokes her for being distant from the material — until the young woman finds her character.

A still from "Lara."
Frank Griebe / Schiwago Film
A still from "Lara."

Lara, by German filmmaker Jan-Ole Gerster, takes place in one day. A woman turns 60, and her son, a pianist and composer, is about to have his first solo concert playing an original work. But she’s alone, divorced, restless and somewhat estranged from everyone. Her mother and ex-husband bark at her to leave the young man alone, that she’s the cause of all his unhappiness and should not ruin this day for him

She meets with the son’s girlfriend. She finds her old music teacher — and slowly her situation in life begins to take shape. She loves music; she’d wanted a career as a pianist. It all comes together at the concert, as you expect, but what happens is not what you expect.

The film Lara has great depth. The character Lara is profoundly unsettled and just about every interaction she has with other people is awkward and compromised by her angers, her disappointments, her desires, her needs. Yet the movie is also about discovery and possibility. You wind up rooting for this woman in spite of herself. Early in the film, before she appears, someone calls Lara an old bag. But what the movie shows is a stylish, attractive, energetic person, trying to find herself. She's beautifully acted by Corinna Harfouch, a major actor in Germany, barely known in the US.

It’s no revelation that our world is struggling. We can’t go out to see films in The Denver Film Festival and mingle with the crowds, hug our friends, or have a conversation with an actor or director after a movie. But putting on the festival is an act of courage and persistence, and even though we have to watch films at home, or in a car, participating in the festival says that art still matters, and we still matter.

So, a very quick mention of Nasrin, a documentary largely made undercover in Iran about Nasrin Sotoudeh, a woman human rights attorney. Director Jeff Kaufman was not even allowed into the country. Sotoudeh is now in prison; her health is deteriorating. Such courage.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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