As I mention here, when tweeting about the movies I was seeing at MIFF 2017 I often found myself reaching for heartwarming as the shorthand descriptor. Here are 8 films that fit that, perhaps maligned, category. I gave five stars to the first two films below, and four stars to the following two, but I only gave three stars to the final three; demonstrating that allocating stars is a tricky business. I loved all of these films.
I loved Ali’s Wedding and have been recommending it to all and sundry. Just like Strictly Ballroom, I’ve been saying, to try and convey the tone of this humourous family focussed drama. Directed by Jeffrey Walker and jointly written by Osamah Sami and Andrew Knight, we start smiling right from the opening credits which tell us that it’s a True Story – Unfortunately. It’s Osamah’s story in fact and he performs, magnificently, in the title role. There are lots of laugh out loud moments throughout. But the humour is balanced by sharp observations about what its like to be a muslim immigrant in Australia; difficult memories of the past, the desperate need to succeed, the pressure to comply with community expectations, the clash between modern Australian life and cultural traditions and the tensions within the community. Its all here. Most of the action takes place in or around the Preston Mosque. Ali’s father, the Iman is a beautiful character and, like Ali, we don’t like to see him disappointed. It’s a roller coaster ride, even if it starts on a tractor. Do get to see it if you can. Here’s the trailer.
Another heartwarming tale is told in On Body and Soul a film by Hungarian writer director Ildiko Enyedi. The story of two lost souls who make an unlikely connection is set in an abattoir, familiar territory for me and I was quite interested in the detail but not a lot of the process is shown – stunning, removal of the hear, hanging the carcass, washing the blood. I’m not sure that situating our jaded, burnt out manager and slightly autistic hygiene inspector in these surrounds mattered much. Its quite rare to see a workplace play a central role in a film, and this one was authentic. The careful choices about where to sit and who to talk to in the cafeteria, the jostling around new entrants to the workforce. It’s all here. But there is a touch of surrealism as well. The film opens with beautiful footage of deer in the forest, in the snow. A stag with an impressive set of antlers and a hind. Throughout the film we come back to these animals. Breathtakingly beautiful. Finally we discover these scenes are images from the dreams of our our two protagonists. The toing and froing of the deer reflects the toing and froing of human souls. I found it all engrossing and was barracking for a happy resolution. Here’s the trailer.
The Indian film Hotel Salvation could easily have been mawkish. It’s the tale of a Grandfather and father announcing to his family that he is ready to die and demanding to be taken to the hotel of the title, beside the River Ganges, to undertake the necessary ceremonies for his leave taking. But happily crass sentimentality is avoided. We feel for the Son who has to accompany his father on this strange, in his view grotesque, pilgrimage. He’s cranky with the old man, anxious about meeting the demands of his increasingly demanding employer as well as dealing with his wife and daughter’s responses to this new situation. We see life in India in the raw; the modest home and lifestyle of the family, the religious ceremonies and rituals associated with the Ganges and, of course, burial rites. The proprietor of the Hotel Salvation is a weird fellow and there are plenty of whacky residents, a couple of whom we get to know a bit. There are no schmaltzy reconciliations, just some heartfelt personal moments where the characters try to express deeply felt feelings, and do so very humanly; that is, inadequately. A heart warming film indeed. Here’s the trailer.
There’s an Australian connection to the rollicking Patti Cake$ which has been garnering strong reviews around the world, courtesy of the actress playing the title role; Danielle Macdonald. Her performance is what makes the film. She’s a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who’s a wanna be rapper. Struggling to make ends meet, working as a barmaid and an events waiter, looking after her elderly and ailing grandmother and trying to ignore the derogatory put downs from her boozy, ex singer mother. She’s the wrong sex, the wrong colour and the wrong shape (she’s large) for the rap world. But she’s determined and with a couple of unlikely allies she follows her dream. There’s a great scene where she takes on the local, male, street rappers. I’m not into hip hop or rap or whatever this music is, but you don’t need to be to enjoy this film. Here’s the trailer.
Stonehead was a late addition to my programme. I like to see something from every part of the programme, including, in this case the schools screenings. This film by Chinese director, Xiang Zhao was part of that. It tells the story of two Chinese boys, school friends, who come to grief thanks to a soccer ball. Stonehead has won an award for being a model student. At the regional school where he gets his certificate, he is given a soccer ball. This and the certificate are given places of honour in the spartan home he shares with his grandmother. Throughout the film we see him trying to connect with his father who is away in the city working for the money needed to support him. There is no mention of a mother. The soccer ball becomes a bone of contention with the rowdy gang of boys in the class. Its produced in the school ground but then ruined. How did this come about. That’s the question. There’s bullying, betrayal and a desperate struggle for money to buy a replacement. Stonehead engages in less than model behaviour. He tears up his certificate. And loses a friend. Great performances from the two boys. Growing up in rural China is tough. Here’s the trailer.
I saw two documentaries that were really heartwarming. Spettacolowas indeed, as the programme promised, full of gorgeous Tuscan scenery, but it told a sad story of vanishing traditions. Spettacolo is the Italian word for performance, or play. The residents of the Tuscan village of Monticciello have staged an annual play for 50 years. Currently there are only 136 residents. This film follows the story of the development of the script, rehearsals and finally the enactment of the play performed in 2012. It looks as though this may be the last as fewer people are interested in contributing to the annual play. In addition, increasingly properties in the area are being bought by wealthy citizens from the city, who use them as holiday homes. The village is in danger of becoming a holiday resort. Lots of interesting characters. An interesting process, seeing residents contribute ideas. The theme they choose this time is the end of the world. This comes after a lot of ideas are put forward, but many have been done before. Then there is the exhausting business of rehearsals, with the director, a charismatic fellow, Andrea Cresti, getting increasingly frustrated. We see footage, much of it black and white and blurry, of earlier plays. Its a way of life, not just an annual play, that is disappearing. And the scenery around the place is spectacular! Here’s the trailer.
The other heartwarming documentary was Step which follows a group of young African American women as they pursue their academic studies and their Step performances. I was not familiar with Step at all but it is a type of vigorous dance performance. All very physical and muscular. The girls are all in an academy for future leaders in Baltimore which has the stated aim of getting them all into college. For most, if not all, they will be the first in their families to attend college. Shocking pressure on them; and on the teachers and families. There’s lots of footage of rehearsals interspersed with sessions with teachers explaining college entry requirements, form filling and what have you. Along with interviews with some family members. tough lives. Great dancing. Here’s the trailer.