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The Mozart guerilla

Katja Nicodemus reports from the Venice Film Festival, where four films commissioned by Peter Sellars for this year's Vienna Festwochen were invited, three of them for the official competition.

At first sight, it all looks like the purest multicultural kitsch. On a heavy, sultry early afternoon, filmmakers from Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan, South Africa and Chad sit together peaceably at a restaurant on the Lido in Venice. Their host is a small, lively man who runs joyfully from one to the next, looking like a cross between an extra-terrestrial and Homer Simpson. Nothing points to the fact that the little group chatting away happily has just conquered Venice.

"Dry Season." Ali Bacha Barkai and Youssouf Djaoro. All photos courtesy New Crowned Hope festival

The small man is the American opera director Peter Sellars, artistic director of the New Crowned Hope festival, which starts in Vienna in November. For the major event commemorating the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, he had the idea of seeking for Mozart's visions in other areas of art and culture. Jointly with the Wiener Festwochen festival, he ordered seven films from seven emphatically non-Western directors. His hand-picked group comprised the covert avant-garde of world cinema, including Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang and Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Their mission: to make films freely inspired from one of Mozart's last three works: "The Magic Flute", "La Clemenza di Tito" and the "Requiem". When the Venice film biennale selected four of the finished works, entering three of them in its official competition, Sellars, the little man running around on the Lido with a gleeful smile and a long orange chain about his neck, became the festival's guru.

Of course one could ask if the Mozart label wasn't stuck a little wilfully onto the films, some of which were already in production. What does Mozart have to do with a crime and punishment drama in Chad, a country ravaged by civil war, with a love story among illegal construction workers in Malaysia, or day to day life in a provincial hospital in Thailand?

At first the parallels with Mozart seem to be just on the level of content. Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's film "Dry Season" can certainly be compared with Mozart's opera "La Clemenza di Tito," in which the regent breaks through a vicious cycle of terror and revenge. "Dry Season" tells the story of an adolescent in Chad who sets out to kill the man who murdered his father. Haroun follows the troubled Atim through a country where violence has become the only language. His father's killer turns out to be a baker who has lost his voice through a machete blow. He takes Atim in, teaches him his trade, even wants to adopt him. The musical quality of this film lies in its rhythm, and in the long shots where people work, carry flour, mix dough and roll it into baguettes. Bake against the war? Haroun is no dreamer. Violence is ever-present in his film, in the tense looks and hard physical contact, in the baker's cupboard stuffed with machine guns. Perhaps no reconciliation is possible at all, just indirect forgiveness. In the short moment when everything floats in the balance, hate is suspended and for the first time in his life the boy learns something from an adult – la clemenza di Atim.

"I Don't Want to Sleep Alone." Lee Kang-Sheng and Norman Bin Atun

When the coloraturas of the Queen of the Night squeak on the radio as a young man lies in a coma vigil in one scene of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang's "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone," it's almost like an ironic reference to the Mozart commission. In a run-down neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur, a young Chinese man is beaten up by strangers then taken in and cared for by a construction worker. Tsai Ming-liang films the caring, restrained tenderness in great detail. Rwang, the illegal Bangladeshi worker, feeds and washes his guest, helps him to the toilet, cools his bruises and rubs him with cream. Contact seems possible in this film only as caring, helping. Similarly, the young waitress Chyi cares for and satisfies her boss' son as he lies motionless in his hospital bed.

"I Don't Want to Sleep Alone." Chen Shiang-Chyi

There is no private space in Tsai Ming-liang's confined, dark cityscape. His heroes live in corners of rooms, in ramshackle attics, they share their mattresses and meet in the gigantic concrete ruins of the former economic boom. And yet "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" is anything but a social drama about the Malaysian underclass. It's a wonderfully tender film about the longing for contact, and possibly also freely inspired by the love motives in "The Magic Flute." The couples in this film experience their trials by water and fire on the shining, black lakes in abandoned construction sites, or in the smoke of underground garbage fires. They kiss and cough under smoke masks and fish peacefully in dead waters.

"Syndromes and a Century." Nantarat Sawaddikul

With a little hermeneutic fantasy you can find references to Mozart here and there in all the Sellars projects. Apichatpong Weeraserhakul's images of a Thai provincial hospital set in the middle of nature are reminiscent of the garden and forest scenes in "The Magic Flute," while the opera's love scenes are reflected in muted discussions between the doctor and her admirer. And one could certainly read the spirituality of Mozart's last works into "Syndromes and a Century," a film about magic and the transmigration of souls. There is no end to the interpretations, and Mozart could suddenly appear in every hospital, every construction site and bakery between Thailand, Chad and Taiwan.

"Syndromes and a Century"

But perhaps you get closer to the films simply by looking at what makes them stand out amidst today's cinematographic idioms and narrative structures, and so at what distinguishes them from all the other films at this huge festival: their infectious clarity, their silent heroes who express themselves in so many ways and so few words. Their stillness which makes so much audible, from the relentless drone of the streets in Kuala Lumpur to the hum of insects in the Thai rainforest. Their readiness to take a second and third look at every character. And finally the long, lyrical arches of their camera shots, which stretch the conventions of cinematic syntax. Life itself inhabits the frames of the three directors whose films were selected for the competition, Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatopong Weerasethakul and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. Their unorthodox approach, their openness to the world, their willingness to break new ground, and even break with their own style, makes them kindred spirits of Mozart.

If and how these works will engender discussion on Mozart in Vienna will only become clear when all seven films come together with Sellars' other projects. In Venice, "Dry Season", "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" and "Syndromes and a Century" have their rightful place in the competition with or without Mozart. At the 63rd Mostra del Cinema, it's a stroke of luck that Peter Sellars has stormed the festival with his little Mozart guerrilla, giving the festival its stillest, and most courageous, films.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on September 7, 2006.

Katja Nicodemus is film critic for Die Zeit.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european