One of the great things about having the RiverRun International Film Festival in the Triad is the opportunity the festival gives us to see films that otherwise might not be available to us — films that most viewers would be unlikely to hear about on their own.
This year the narrative features in competition are very strong, and eight of the nine originate from other countries including Belguim, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Russia, Norway, Hong Kong, and the UK. Films like these put the “international” in RRIFF.
It’s no secret that I have a predilection for episodic, character-driven stories that unfold in a leisurely way but reel me into the story over time, and my three favorite films in this category are intimate dramas.
My top picks among the narrative features in competition at RiverRun are Elena, Found Memories, and Monsieur Lazhar. In addition to pacing and tone, other things these three films share are superb cinematography, authentic performances that are understated but stirring, and a strong sense of place.
Elena is set in a Russian city, Found Memories is set in a remote Brazilian village, and Monsieur Lazhar takes place in a French-speaking province of Canada. Despite the diverse locations, each of these films features characters in transition who face death by making choices framed by their situation as well as location.
Elena is an engrossing story about a woman whose wealthy husband of several years makes plans to limit her inheritance and cut her son from his will while holding his daughter from a previous relationship to a different standard. Like the other two films on my list, every moment of Elena feels true and full of meaning.
Found Memories is less about what happens than how characters are revealed through image and word. A young photographer shows up in a remote Brazilian village and her presence shakes things up a little. The story develops slowly, and the images are beautiful. This film may require some patience for viewers who want a strong plot and want the sequence of events to move along at a brisk clip, but I like the film very much.
Monsieur Lazhar was a nominee this year for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and I think it will gain wide popularity with audiences. An Algerian immigrant gets a job at a French Canadian elementary school following the death of a popular teacher. Although he has problems of his own, or perhaps because of them, Bachir Lazhar is able to help the students with the grieving process in this lovely and ultimately life-affirming film.