Philly Fest Report: The Voyage Home, Niceland, Lonesome Jim

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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Well, only one day left to my time in Philadelphia. Today was the second last day of screenings and I caught three very different films: an Italian period drama set shortly after the fall of Rome, an meditative Icelandic fable, and the latest directorial effort from indie icon Steve Buscemi - a dark absurdist comedy. The first was solid viewing, the latter two both excellent. Having Buscemi present to introduce his film and follow it up with a Q&A certainly didn't hurt things, either ...

Up first was the North American premiere of Claudio Bondi's The Voyage Home, screened with the director in attendance. Based on the discovered writings of Roman prefect Claudio Rutilio Namaziano The Voyage Home tells the story of a pagan Roman prefect in the time just following the sack of Rome by the Goths. The ancient religions of Rome have been largely supplanted by Christians, the emperor has retreated to his far off private estate and the city and countryside are over run by the barbarians. Believing that the dominant Christian faction has abandoned Rome to ruination Namaziano sets off for his native Gaul where he hopes to build the support of like minded men to seize control and rebuild the glory of ancient Rome.

Primarily interestedin the politics of the time The Voyage Home is filled with a longing for a time long past. Namaziano is clearly fighting a losing battle - a fact that even he seems to recognize though he refuses to accept it. Those looking for a violent toga epic a la Gladiator are looking in the wrong place - this film is far more concerned with politics and frame of mind - but history buffs will find a lot to love. The film was shot in and around Rome and takes full advantage of the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape as well as the plentiful period ruins and, as a consequence, rings absolutely authentic. I found that I wasn't quite given enough of Namaziano to really buy into his struggle on a personal level but, as someone with a good bit of classical studies under my belt, I foundquite a lot to hold my attention throughout. Not a superlative film but a perfectly solid one and one that is going to be rolling out in limited release quite soon. Definitely worth a look for history buffs.

Up next was Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's Niceland. Back when this played at the Toronto Film Festival in September I know it was one of the most anticipated films for Opus and, since he was camping out at my house for the festival, I know he left it feeling fairly disappointed. I need to sit him down and talk over where exactly he felt let down with this, because I loved it.

Niceland revolves around Jed - a simple, innocent young man who very likely has some sort of developmental disorder. Jed works in a plastics factory with a young woman named Chloe, a woman he clearly loves, and the beginning of the film revolves lightly around their building relationship. We follow them as they play house in Ikea, we see the exchange of glances across the work floor, the small gifts, the films. There is one complication, however: Chloe's cat Catey. Chloe loves Catey beyond words and takes her everywhere, including on her dates with Jed. After a film one night Jed proposes and when Chloe accepts he is so excited that he begins dancing with Catey until the cat claws its way free of his grip and runs into the street where it is struck and killed by a car. Chloe is despondent. So much so that she is hospitalized and Jed believes that unless he can find Chloe the purpose of life - a purpose that does not involve cats - she will eventually die of her despair. His search for purpose leads him to Max, a solitary man who lives in a junkyard and who Jed believes holds the key to all his questions.

Granted, if you take the film literally it is pretty ridiculous. Take it as a fable, however, and it has a lot to offer. Jed is a compelling leading man, one it is dead easy to believe in and root for. His relationship with the emotionally closed Max plays true and easy and, while it comes to a predictable end it takes an interesting and often surprising road to get there. The supporting characters are all strong - particularly Jed's father - and I'm fairly impressed that Fridriksson actually attempts to answer the big questions he sets for himself. The film is beautifully shot, well performed, obeys an alternate-reality logic all its own, and features a mighty fine soundtrack courtesy of Iceland's Mugison. If I must point to a flaw in the film it lies with Alex, Jed's friend who has Down's Syndrome. Alex has a few key lines through the film but the Down's combined with the fact that he is not speaking in his first language makes him very difficult to understand at times and it is easy to miss some plot points as a result.

And finally Steve Buscemi's Lonesome Jim. Casey Affleck and Liv Tyler star in Buscemi's third directorial effort about a wildly depressed and self absorbed young man - Affleck as the title character - forced to move back home to small town Indiana after failing as a writer in New York. Buscemi presents here the American family gone wrong. Jim wants nothing more than to wallow in despair. Following a rousing pep talk from Jim his brother Tim attempts suicide by driving into a tree. Jim's mother forces herself to a ridiculous level of cheerfulness in an attempt to mask her own depression and bolster the spirits of the family while his father - played by Seymour Cassel - is quietly exasperated by his sons' failure to make anything of their lives. Throw in a white trash dope dealing uncle, and you've got yourself a happy family.

Oh ... did I mention that this was a romantic comedy? And a very, very funny one? Buscemi has to manage a difficult balancing act here. On the one hand the humor of the film rises directly out of Jim's self-absorption and flat denial of pretty much everything. The film functions as a darkly absurd critique of the 'tormented artist', right down to Jim's bedroom wall covered with pictures of famous authors who have committed suicide. On the other hand you have to actually like this guy enough and empathise with him enough to care about what happens to him in his relationship with young single mother Annika, played by Liv Tyler. The the film manages the difficult balancing act is a huge testament both to Buscemi's growing skills behind the camera and Affleck's skill in front of it. It would be very easy to just hate this character or slide from black humor to bitterness but neither is the case. This will likely prove to be one of those hard to classify films that slips through the cracks - it will be a bear to properly promote in our classification crazy world - but most definitely seek it out if it happens to play near you.

Following the screenign Buscemi came out for a Q&A session that, although light on any sort of new news - though I did learn that he is trying to find funding for an adaptation of William Burroughs' Queer - served to confirm that Buscemi is one of the genuinely good people in the industry - smart, funny, humble and generous with his time.

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TriflicApril 19, 2005 8:24 PM

Thanks for the reviews Todd...I loved Tree's Lounge (possibly the only good performance from Daniel Baldwin ever). I'm not quite looking forward to the DVD of Lonesome Jim.

opusApril 19, 2005 10:09 PM

I think the primary reason Niceland was a letdown for me is because it's nowhere near as strong as his previous films, especially Children Of Nature (which, admittedly, is one of my favorite films of all time). I suppose Children Of Nature left such a huge impact on me that I had very high expectations.

That being said, Niceland felt way too saccharine and sweet to me, as if Fridriksson was simply trying too hard to make me love and root for his characters - as if he was saying "See, look how sweet and innocent they are" or "Look how fairy tale-ish everything is." It got to the point where it rubbed me the wrong way, especially considering he did it so much better and much more powerfully with Children.

Todd BrownApril 19, 2005 11:48 PM

Yeah, I thought I remembered that being the case ... this was the first Fridriksson film I'd seen, so I'm definitely looking forward to tracking down some more ... is his other stuff easily available?