Belfast opened the 2021 SCAD Savannah Film Festival, which returned to in-person screenings this year.
During the opening night of the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, Kenneth Branagh accepted SCAD’s Lifetime Achievement Award to a standing ovation. In his acceptance speech, he acknowledged that he’d been in Savannah 25 years prior to film the Robert Altman film The Gingerbread Man, which of course produced applause.
“So you were the ones that saw that film,” he quipped.
Branagh’s award kicked off a great night for the writer/director/actor, whose film Belfast premiered at the Trustees Theater.
The film follows the personal account of a year in the life of a fictional version of Branagh, played by the exceptional Jude Hill, and the conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants that caused turmoil within his family and community. In a red carpet chat with Branagh (or in SCAD’s case, blue carpet), he revealed that he had cast himself as the older version of Buddy, but scrapped it early in the filming process.
“So the actor, Kenneth Branagh, I had to cut him out,” Branagh joked. “But I didn’t have to write that note that you have to write to say, ‘I’m sorry. You were fine, but it didn’t work.'”
While personal writer/director stories brought to the big screen have been trending in recent years (see: Roma, Marriage Story), Belfast still feels nuanced and completely fresh. The 98 minutes fly by thanks to a tightly written script, and the Van Morrison soundtrack, complete with its jazzy saxophones, comes as a complete surprise, making the film all the more moving and distinctive.
Branagh also wisely utilizes production design to his advantage, as the humble family abode folds and bends to allow Buddy to listen in on his parents’ conversations without them being privy to his whereabouts. At times, it almost simulates a split screen, the parents talking in one section and Buddy hunched beneath a window eavesdropping in the other.
While Belfast started off the festival, it also set the tone for Day 2 of the fest, which included more films that have one writer/director pulling double duty.
Flee, Parallel Mothers, & The French Dispatch
The innovative documentary Flee makes for an interesting double feature with Belfast, as both tell the real-life tales of families forced to leave their homes due to political unrest. Writer/director Jonas Poher Rasmussen blends animation with real-life voiceover of Amin’s coming of age, as he tries to escape Afghanistan, Moscow, and homosexuality (as a teenager, he asks a counselor for medicine to cure him of his attraction to men). While the blending of multiple genres is interesting, since it never feels like a documentary, the real trick is that the animation also never feels sappy or makes the story less devastating. It will be interesting to see how this film will figure into the Best Animated Film category at the Oscars.
Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers has all of the hallmarks of a Almodovar film: Bold colors, female-centric storylines, and returning players (Rossy de Palma immediately made me smile when she came on screen!). Without too many spoilers, this one has a storyline fit for Days of Our Lives, about two single mothers (Penelope Cruz, Milena Smit) who meet at the hospital while giving birth and then stay in each other’s lives. There is also a backstory for Cruz’s Janis, where she is trying to excavate the bodies of her ancestors who went missing during the Spanish Civil War. The final shot of the film is very moving, even if it doesn’t necessarily feel connected with many of the events of the main storyline (although it is not lost on me that Janis is trying to unearth family secrets while attempting to bury others).
Capping off this writer/director run was Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch playing at the Trustees Theater on Sunday night. The long-delayed film, which was shot before the pandemic, is an anthology of stories in the last French Dispatch publication, due to the untimely death of its managing editor (played by Bill Murray). Of all the vignettes in it, the best one is the first one, which stars Benecio Del Toro as an incarcerated artist and Adrien Brody as an art promoter who wants to capitalize on his talent.
In a Q&A following the film, Brody, who accepted the SCAD Vanguard award, said that when Anderson calls, he answers, and that he already has shot another film with him which will be due out next year. In Brody’s interesting post-Oscar career, he’s taken on a lot of different types of roles, with no part being like the last one, which he talked about on the red carpet.
“I strive to find things that are new to me so that I can learn that process in becoming that character and that’s the beauty of acting, that you get to transform and become someone other than yourself and learn about things and hardships. The through line is that I look for flawed human beings to represent rather than a perfect, likable character. That’s not what I yearn to play. I want you to like the character in spite of his flaws. That’s more true to life and more complex.”
Coming up at SCAD Savannah Film Festival, The Power of the Dog, Red Rocket, & More!