To Nov. 27 at the Royal.
What with the many woes that plague the continent, you can hardly blame Europe’s filmmakers for seeming a little downbeat these days. Indeed, matters of mortality (and sometimes immortality) are a major focus at the eighth annual edition of the European Union Film Festival, a showcase of 30 movies from 27 different countries that runs at the Royal until Nov. 27.
The fact that they’re all screening for free is happy news for moviegoers, even if the dark subject matter in many selections may not exactly leave them smiling. That’s especially true of a series of supernatural-themed films screening on Nov. 17. A recent marvel by the 103-year-old Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira, The Strange Case of Angelica (6 p.m.) tells the Poe-like story of a photographer who develops a romantic obsession with a beautiful young bride who just happens to be dead. From the U.K. comes Byzantium (8:30 p.m.), a neo-gothic melodrama about a pair of lady vampires that was acclaimed as a return to form for director Neil Jordan when it debuted at TIFF in September. It’s followed by one of the horror genre’s first masterpieces: Vampyr (11 p.m.), an eerie and ethereal tale by the Danish great Carl Theodor Dreyer that has been haunting the dreams of viewers since it first escaped its crypt in 1932.
Far more naturalistic in style but equally affecting is Stopped on Track (Nov. 15, 8:30 p.m.), the winner of four major prizes at this year’s German Film Awards, including best picture. Milan Peschel also won best-actor honours for his wrenching performance as an ordinary family man coping with the merciless progress of an inoperable brain tumour. Just as he did in his senior-citizen romance, Cloud 9, director Andreas Dresen largely avoids the usual pitfalls of sentimentality while still managing to alleviate the sadness with moments of humour, like when our stricken protagonist dithers over his musical choices for his funeral (Neil Young’s soundtrack for Dead Man is the frontrunner).
Services for the departed are also much debated in Granny’s Funeral (Nov. 23, 9 p.m.), a sardonic effort by France’s Bruno Podalyès. The director’s brother, Denis (who also co-wrote the script), plays a suburban pharmacist whose busy life is thrown into further disorder by his attempts to arrange a burial for his grandmother. Though the ensuing farce is more mild than wild, the Podalyès brothers still fire some worthy satirical shots at the mortuary business when not making light of the narcissistic and neurotic tendencies of those still living.
Given that death doesn’t seem like much of a reprieve from life’s complications in any of these films, the quest for some peace and quiet in the festival’s loveliest entry seems especially noble. Silence (Nov. 21, 6 p.m.) is a modest but immensely moving Irish feature whose beauty and serenity evokes the best of Abbas Kiarostami (fittingly enough, the Iranian director was the subject of an earlier documentary by Silence’s maker, Pat Collins). It tells the story of a sound recordist who returns from Germany to his Irish homeland to find spaces free of manmade sound. And while he does discover the solitude he seeks, just as significant are the people he meets on the way, as are the memories and feelings they evoke in him (and us). The result is life-affirming in the fullest sense of the term.