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Film Review: Cinematic gems from Telluride's 50th

A black and white image shows a woman in a dress smiling at an older man in a suit with a wall of pictures behind them.
Telluride Film Festival
Actress Ninon Sevilla is a 'unique phenomenon' in the 1951 Mexican film 'Victims of Sin,' shown at the Telluride Film Festival this year.

The Telluride Film Festival wrapped up its 50th anniversary over Labor Day weekend. Some of the films shown during this year's festival simply knocked my socks off.

Telluride is one of the world’s great festivals because it casts a singular focus on significant movies, with far less celebrity distraction than other festivals. And this year, the actors’ strike made that concentration on just the movies even better.

By design, Telluride forces viewers to make choices over which films to view during the festival. From what I saw, which is maybe a third of the festival lineup, at least two new pictures had stunning power.

English filmmaker Jonathan Glazer’s Zone of Interest leaves you shuddering. It’s about the banal daily life of the family of the commander of Auschwitz. These people do what average families do. They have meals together, talk with the kids, tend a garden. The husband’s mother visits. They sit by the pool. The mom thinks their life is ideal. Dad has a good job and he’s rising in the bureaucracy.

A woman in a green dress holding a baby in front of her leans over a tall white flower in a green garden with a tall white wall in the background.
Telluride Film Festival
In the Holocaust film 'Zone of Interest,' a family of the commander of Auschwitz is pathologically unaware of what happens on the other side of a wall that stands just outside their window.

But it’s the bureaucracy of organized genocide, of course. The family is pathologically unaware of what happens on the other side of the wall that stands just outside the window. They seem not to notice the occasional screams coming from beyond that wall, or hear the gunshots. And they pay little mind to the maid who could be killed anytime the mom or dad get tired of her.

Zone of Interest expands the Holocaust film beyond its time and place – it’s about anyone who ignores horrors and terrors that are just barely out of sight. The ease with which these characters avoid disturbing events or thoughts boggles the mind – and the film brings home the notion that deep responsibilities come with life as a human being.

A man in a white shirt and black tie is seen through a black gate smoking a cigarette at dusk with a large beige house in the background.
Telluride Film Festival
The ease with which the characters in the film 'Zone of Interest' avoid disturbing events or thoughts boggles the mind. The film brings home the notion that deep responsibilities come with life as a human being.

Another festival film, Baltimore, by the Irish team of Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, forces a different kind of moral question from Zone of Interest. The title refers to a town in Ireland, not the American city in Maryland. The story is about the actual Rose Dugdale, a young upper class Englishwoman who joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA). At the age of 33 in 1974, Dugdale led a raid on a home in Ireland and stole 19 paintings by such artists as Rubens, Goya and Vermeer. The goal was to get several IRA prisoners in England returned to Ireland.

A woman with long blonde hair points a black gun with a dark background.
Telluride Film Festival
The plot of the film 'Baltimore' follows the actual Rose Dugdale, a young upper class Englishwoman who joined the Irish Republican Army. At the age of 33 in 1974, Dugdale led a raid on a home in Ireland and stole 19 paintings by such artists as Rubens, Goya and Vermeer.

No one was killed in the raid. The paintings were recovered. The ransom attempt failed, and Dugdale went to prison. What’s urgent in the movie is the equation of paintings for people, and the picture of a young woman of privilege who took such a drastic turn in the course of her life.

In a completely different spirit came a rowdy Mexican film from 1951. Victims of Sin doesn’t behave like other movies. Compared to American pop films, it’s exuberant and shameless. It’s both thoroughly sexist and, in its own way, feminist.

The soul of the movie is Ninon Sevilla, a Cuban-born dancer and actress. Her character, Violeta, dances and sings in a club where she works as a prostitute alongside other women. The owner is an abusive pimp, a robber and a murderer, but he goes too far and Violeta goes after him.

A black and white photo shows a woman wearing a bikini-like performer's outfit with a ruffled skirt flowing behind her holds her arms up grinning with a crowd of male musicians with instruments watching and smiling from behind her.
Telluride Film Festival
The soul of the 1951 Mexican movie 'Victim of Sin' is Ninon Sevilla, a Cuban-born dancer and actress. Her character, Violeta, dances and sings in a club where she works as a prostitute.

Sevilla’s dancing is lewd and fabulously energetic; she’s a unique phenomenon. And like most older films at Telluride, Victims of Sin has a rich context. Legendary director Emilio Fernández and cinematographer Gabriel Figureroa made Mexican cinema famous and influential. Fernández was known as a tyrannical, macho director, but here he was apparently dominated by Sevilla. The film became a lurid mix of women who stand for fairness and decency against men who mostly stand for criminality and domination.

Violeta ultimately shoots all the villains and winds up in prison, only to be rescued—against all rational probabilities—by the undying love of the little boy she’d saved from a garbage can. At a film festival like Telluride, it’s always a thrill to have an unalloyed 'wow' experience. Victims of Sin is just that.

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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