The dark side of Telluride: Somber tales dominate intimate Colorado fest

The canyon town of Telluride, Colorado, is one of the most picturesque backdrops one could ask for at a film festival. Surrounded by vertiginous mountains, a gondola lift serves as a major mode of transportation. Along the main street, filmmakers rub shoulders with film fans, and locals weave through the lines of moviegoers with their ever-present pet dogs in tow. With few dedicated cinemas around town, a Masonic lodge and an old vaudeville theatre serve as cozy screening venues. The atmosphere is all charm and casualness. Onscreen, however, the 2012 Telluride Film Festival became a study in contrasts with a lineup of often harrowing, violent and political films at odds with this idyllic setting.

Revisiting a little-known episode of the Iran hostage crisis, Ben Affleck presented his new feature Argo in a surprise screening. As Islamist students and militants storm the United States embassy in Tehran, six American workers slip away and take refuge in the residence of the Canadian ambassador. In order to get this group out of Iran, the CIA’s exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) cooks up a crackpot idea: Enter the country under the pretense of scouting locations for a science-fiction film and then smuggle out the diplomats who will pose as the film’s crew. Remarkably, the U.S. government signs off on the plan and Mendez executes the mission, moving from Hollywood to Istanbul to Tehran under the scrutiny of Iran’s own intelligence agency.

The opening screening was met with rousing applause and a positive first round of reviews, but for this writer, a different film unspooled. Clumsily moving between international intrigue and a satire on Hollywood, Argo wants to be two different films and the result feels tonally muddled. A backstory of Mendez’s estranged wife and son seems like perfunctory characterization for a part played with flat affect. And the last act’s ticking time-clock climax strains under its ham-fisted handling of suspense. Considering the still-lingering U.S.-Iran misunderstandings, do we really need a patriotic take on how America outwitted its enemy, representing Iranians as little more than angry mobs?

With his political bona fides in place, Ben Affleck took his seat on a festival panel entitled “Injustice, Reconciliation and Cinema,” which aimed to shed light on how movies can address issues of terrorism and geopolitical conflict. Though an outspoken Democrat, the Hollywood star acknowledged his outsider position alongside the other politically driven panelists, including director Dror Moreh, whose documentary The Gatekeepers investigates Israel’s covert security agency Shin Bet; filmmaker Ziad Doueiri, whose Attack examines the emotional fallout of a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, and newcomer Joshua Oppenheimer, who discussed his disturbing film, The Act of Killing.

Executive produced by Errol Morris and endorsed by Werner Herzog, Oppenheimer’s documentary is a messy and fascinating work about Indonesian death squads that killed more than a million alleged Communists in the mid-1960s. Never brought to justice, these killers continue to live amongst the communities they once terrorized. But how best to analyze this traumatic past? In a move both bold and troubling, Oppenheimer and his co-director Christine Cynn find a vainglorious killer named Anwar Congo, who is willing to reenact his gruesome methods for a fiction film, playing both executioner and victim. What is essentially a making-of documentary, The Act of Killing captures the unsettling disconnect between the trauma of the mass killings and the way Anwar and his henchmen understand the past, reimagined for the camera using histrionics, cheap production values and absurdist tributes to American cinema. As the film progresses, though, this disconnect diminishes until the horrors of the past seem to overtake Anwar, brought out in a kind of self-exorcism.

The Act of Killing could have been the subtitle of Ariel Vroman’s The Iceman, which recounts the true story of hit man Richard Kuklinski, who carried out over 100 murders for the New Jersey mob for nearly three decades. The film accents what has always been latent in gangster films: the sociopathic tendencies of mobsters. Actor Michael Shannon gives Kuklinski a cold, calculating detachment that hides a seething rage as he navigates murders and a seemingly stable family life. It’s a striking performance to witness, but the rest of the film never quite takes off, too rooted in fussy period detail and a distracting parade of ensemble players (Winona Ryder as Kuklinski’s wife, Ray Liotta as a crime boss, David Schwimmer as a Mob lackey, Captain America’s Chris Evans as a chemical-weapons specialist, and James Franco in an unnecessary bit part). Neither wholly riveting nor bloodless, the film is serviceable.

Ramin Bahrani explores a different kind of American underbelly in At Any Price. After a series of thoughtful, intimate features that portray the life of marginal characters, the director works in a more commercial mode here with a film about an Iowa farming family ruled by a domineering father (a wonderfully crooked Dennis Quaid) whose single-minded determination to grow his corn business fractures his home life and alienates his son (Zac Efron). The film doesn’t always work; the dialogue aims for something honest but can turn into folksy clichés and some of the plot turns are the stuff of outworn melodrama. But overall, Bahrani operates with an assured touch, a lucid style, and taste for intricate character parallels to build a sprawling portrait of an industry fueled by greedy expansion, a community warped by petty rivalry, and a family broken by deceit. The elegant interweaving of these different spheres gives the film its emotional force.

Family dysfunction is also at the heart of Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa, a tale of flowering teenage sexuality in early-1960s British bohemia. Ginger (a ginger-haired Elle Fanning) and best friend Rosa (Alice Englert) race towards womanhood through a healthy flirtation with boys and political formation. That development, however, spins wildly out of control when Rosa initiates an affair with Ginger’s intellectual father (Alessandro Nivola). Set against the Cuban missile crisis, the film takes the end-of-days metaphor to its logical conclusion. While the world never explodes, Ginger’s does, leaving family, girlhood and beatnik nonconformity as casualties. But this psychic death never looked so beautiful, rendered in vibrant colors and graceful cinematography.

Potter’s film was a reminder of the range of work at Telluride that offered intelligent accounts of women and female sexuality, from a lonely Austrian (Margarete Tiesel) looking for lust and intimacy in the Kenyan sex trade in Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love to a double amputee (Marion Cotillard) who must rebuild her life and body in Jacques Audiard’s powerful Rust & Bone. Far less devastating, but no less insightful, was Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, one of the few comedies in the festival. Co-written and starring Greta Gerwig, the movie follows Frances, an aspiring dancer who is pushed out of her best friend’s life when the changing winds of friendship create confusing rifts. Depicting a post-collegiate New York in episodic fashion, the film inevitably evokes the privileged worlds conjured up by Whit Stillman, Woody Allen and “Girls” creator/star Lena Dunham. But Frances Ha holds its own with a light touch and a story about a beautiful loser who doesn’t quite have the social and economic resources to fit in, but she’s the one we root for. In a festival selection full of cruelty and distress, a little levity was most welcome.