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More picks for the Denver Film Festival from our critic

American composer, conductor and pianist Leonard Bernstein at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank in Feb. 1970.
Fox Photos / Hulton Archive
Getty Images
American composer, conductor and pianist Leonard Bernstein at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank in Feb. 1970.

America’s leading voice of cinema, Martin Scorsese, has said that a great thing about movies from around the world is that the Japanese story is different from the Polish story or the Iranian story or the American story. That range is what the Denver Film Festival celebrates each year, and why the festival is important. We need these stories. A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned two films from the festival that matter and here are two more suggestions.

Bernstein’s Wall, by Douglas Tirola, shows one of the remarkable careers in classical music. Bernstein was the first American-born composer to lead the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He was music director from 1958 to1969 and then the Laureate Conductor for another 21 years. He composed the music for West Side Story and many other major works. He was a phenomenon.

Bernstein was a difficult man in many ways, but he was a kind of figure this country no longer respects — he was a public artist. He didn’t hide away in an art considered obscure; Bernstein was a major personality in America. He was known, respected — and criticized — before the snobbishness of pop culture forced classical music, painting, dance, or serious writing into the background.

He put on what he called “Young People’s Concerts” and taught music over television. And Bernstein was a political person who stood up for the rights of the dispossessed. He took plenty of blowback for his stands in support of the Black Panthers and against the war in Vietnam. But he stood his ground.

As the film shows, Leonard Bernstein may not have been wonderful to live with; He married, had kids, and struggled with his homosexuality. But such a beautifully furious talent.

Two weeks ago, I recommended an unsettling British documentary called Cow, about what people do to domestic animals. This week, I suggest a film called Ballad of a White Cow, from Iran filmmakers Behtash Sanaeeha and Maryam Moqadam , and it too is about ethical breaches, but here it’s human beings committing outrages on other human beings.

As with many other films from Iran, Ballad of a White Cow starts with one horror, and then others follow. A man is executed for a murder he did not commit. The truth comes out quickly; the wife wants apology, explanation and restitution, but while some money is promised, it’s not much, it won’t come soon and nobody is apologizing.

Iran, of course, is a religious society, and while a number of people, by way of apology, say maybe too sincerely that it’s all been God’s will, the more the phrase is spoken, the more it sounds like a hollow cop-out — which is fully intentional on the part of the filmmakers.

Maryam Moghadam and Avin Poor Raoufi in Ballad of a White Cow.
Amin Jafar
Maryam Moghadam and Avin Poor Raoufi in Ballad of a White Cow.

Ballad of a White Cow shows a society in serious moral trouble. The woman’s hypocritical father-in-law sues for custody of her child because Nina is a single mother by virtue of the execution, and because an unrelated man was seen to enter her apartment. There’s also a strike at Nina’s factory and all of the strikers are either arrested or fired. Her brother-in-law harasses her in person and with threatening phone calls.

Meanwhile, one of the judges quits because of his shame and without saying who he is, shows great kindness to Nina and her daughter. For quitting, he is called up before an investigating board and accused of being some kind of human rights activist — perhaps an actual crime.

Nina’s young daughter is deaf, but by the end of Ballad of a White Cow, it feels like a blessing. At least she can’t hear the baloney spouted by the adults in this place. In the highly metaphorical world of Iranian cinema, it may also indicate that the young now refuse to listen to their elders.

The Denver Film Festival opens this Wednesday, Nov. 3.

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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