Three Rivers Film Festival offers film nirvana

Credit: Rachel Cohen/Pillbox Editor Credit: Rachel Cohen/Pillbox Editor Credit: Rachel Cohen/Pillbox Editor Credit: Rachel Cohen/Pillbox Editor

You could blink and miss the Three Rivers Film Festival. It blows through Pittsburgh just as a flash of creativity strikes the mind, illuminating the city with the glow of celluloid off a screen. Operating out of three independent theaters, Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Dollar Bank sponsor two weeks of nirvana for film fans of all stripes.

Casual viewers can expand their boundaries with new foreign releases, and veterans can find dated rarities, resurrected for the weekend. Children can be introduced to the magic of silent comedy with live musical accompaniment. As they say, there’s something for everyone.

But most of all, there’s a lot for college students. With a few bucks for discount tickets, students have access to film history. The newest releases — successes and failures alike — are set against their predecessors. So many moviegoers bemoan the recent Hollywood surge of sequels, knock-offs, and gimmicks; the Three Rivers Film Festival is the remedy, featuring gems from the shifting world of cinema.

The festival opened Nov. 2 with an enthusiastic burst by showing three of the year’s most celebrated releases: Silver Linings Playbook, Rust and Bone, and Beware of Mr. Baker. Playbook is the newest release from director David O. Russell (The Fighter) and features an Oscar-worthy performance from Jennifer Lawrence, famed for her role as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Rust and Bone as a whole works as a stylish twist on human melodrama, and Marion Cotillard’s performance is sure to compete with Lawrence’s come awards season.

Two highlights of the first week came as a Tuesday double-bill: Neighboring Sounds, a quiet Brazilian epic, and Compliance, an unspeakably disastrous American indie.

These two pictures couldn’t have been more different. Neighboring Sounds is a sprawling story, vaguely connecting the lives of a dozen inhabitants of a middle-class Brazilian city block. Compliance retells the famous, true tale of the sexual assault of a McDonalds employee when a prank caller claims to be a police officer. While Sounds explores the relationship between architectural space and psychological space, Compliance only chases cheap, based-on-a-true-story chills.

But both of these films directly address what a good film festival can do. Neighboring Sounds, the first film from director Kleber Mendonça Filho, features actors that are not recognizable to an American audience, even one with some film literacy. It may never even be released on DVD in the U.S.

There is a certain thrill to knowing that we may never see something again. Neighboring Sounds allows us to see into every corner of its character’s lives — even their dreams. We spend more than two hours wondering if a dog is dead, watching awkward condominium meetings, experiencing a mother’s crushing boredom — and then one of the 10 best films of the year is gone. This feeling — that the images will bounce off the screen and vanish forever — is one that escapes this generation. But something like the Three Rivers Film Festival is capable of addressing that urgency.

Compliance, on the other hand, represents all that can go wrong with indie filmmaking. It begins with a loud font announcing that the events of the movie really happened. Instead of using the true story as a way to explore nuance and character psychology, director Craig Zobel hides behind the banner of realism.

The film asks the viewer if they would stop sexual assault if they saw it, or if they would blindly follow authority all the way to committing a felony. It’s a great conundrum that is played beautifully by the cast, but it’s cheapened by a script with an incredibly embarrassing disdain for working-class intelligence. All of it hides behind that giant font, screaming “based on a true story.” None of this takes into account the disastrous structural decision to reveal the prank caller halfway through the film, destroying the movie’s solid point of view.

Despite Compliance being a less-than-enjoyable movie, the Three Rivers Film Festival allows audiences to see uncommon releases on actual projected film. The world of cinema is changing. In most contemporary film festivals, less than half of the exhibitions are shown on celluloid. Hearing the chugging rhythm of the projector and seeing weird jumps and objects on the screen is a small price to pay for the crisp, thick technicolor of film stock. We’re lucky to still have a few venues in Pittsburgh that are willing to show works with film stock.

The last week of the festival is dense with exciting, rare opportunities. On Monday, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s horror masterpiece Vampyr will be screened at 8 p.m. at the Regent Square Theater (only a short 61A or B ride away). Vampyr is a touchstone of fringe, avant-garde filmmaking, seemingly immune to age. Not only is this a chance to see a great film rarely available for projection, but it will be accompanied live by English musician Steven Severin of Souxsie and the Banshees, playing a new score he composed specifically for the movie.

Wednesday marks one of the most exciting screenings in the entire festival. Leos Carax’s Holy Motors will have its Pittsburgh premiere at 7:30 p.m. at the Harris Theater in Downtown. Holy Motors has been almost unanimously hailed as a genius achievement, charming festival audiences around the world.

The movie stars French favorite Denis Lavant, as well as Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes. From the bits and pieces released online, it’s clear that Holy Motors is energized by the electricity of insanity. Halls full of accordion players, movies inside of movies, and charismatic schizophrenics line the edges of the film, obviously so steeped in vitriol and disdain that this hatred becomes charming.

The festival finishes next weekend with a few big events. The Competitive Shorts Program takes place at 7 p.m. Friday night in the Melwood Screening Room. Eleven short films representing a diverse range of filmmaking styles and regions will be presented in competition and awards will be distributed.

On Saturday, the brilliant Alloy Orchestra — famed for its specialty in accompanying silent films — will play for a series of Buster Keaton shorts in the afternoon. Keaton was a bombshell of the silent era, the ultimate stunt man. That evening, Alloy will accompany a screening of The Overcoat, a realization of the literary masterwork by 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol.

You can blink and miss the festival, or you can keep your eyes open and catch a wealth of international releases that would otherwise be impossible to see.