Amid much fanfare, the Montreal World Film Festival (FFM) began Aug. 29 with the showing of the delightful coming of age film 1981 by Quebecois director Ricardo Trogi.
As with other such gala events, there was the preliminary gathering of a large crowd outside the Palace des Arts’ Theatre Maisonneuve to watch the celebrities arrive and stride up the red carpet.
But Hollywood was not represented. The emphasis of this festival, as its name indicates, is on world cinema. Celebrities there were, but most would be unrecognizable to Americans — even Trogi, the director of the opening film.
The United States is represented by just a handful of avant-garde filmmakers, but the rest of the world is well represented; films were shown from Australia, Belgium, China, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Japan, India, Iran, Iraq, Russia, Spain, Turkey, several Latin American countries and of course, Canada — especially French Canada.
Inside the lavish theater, filled to capacity by an audience decked out in its finest for the reception to follow, the festival director welcomed the crowd. The Cirque Eloise then gave an energetic and spectacular performance using ropes and a highly flexible board held by two members that lifted or sprung the dancer/acrobats high into the air, all without any movie special effects.
Trogi introduced his film, apparently very amusingly. I say “apparently” because he spoke only in French, as had the festival director, making those of us who did not speak the language uncomfortably aware that the “World” in the FFM is not centered on the English-speaking portion of the planet.
The 105 minute-long 1981, written by Trogi, is an autobiographical story, the title referring to the year in which he was 11 years old and in the sixth grade. His family had just moved into a new home they could barely afford, even with both parents working. The director narrates the story, often taking us back to his father Benito’s experience as a boy in Nazi-occupied Italy.
Like most of the boys in his remote village, the father was named for the infamous Fascist dictator. These episodes, highly filtered through the boy’s wild imagination, are shot in black and white like most of the movies of the 1940s, with the Germans as mean and nasty as they are in all such WWII films — but as seen by an Italian-Canadian boy, far funnier in their actions.
The father’s boyhood experiences cause him to be frugal with his money, and this in turn apparently has led Ricardo to incessantly beg his parents for boyish gadgets the family can ill afford. The boy’s favorite reading is a large illustrated catalogue rather than the assigned book, The Little Prince.
The film reveals how the boy tries to fit into his new school, where a classmate jokes about his name, and he cannot possess the jackets and gadgets taken for granted by the other children. Ricardo lies about his ability to write in cursive letters, and about a lot of other matters — and worst of all, he becomes ashamed of his working father.
There are many poignant moments that follow, especially when the self-centered child learns of the far graver problems of the boy who had made the joke about his name. Indeed, the film climaxes with an amusing orgy of truth telling by the three boys with whom Ricardo had been hanging out, some of them centered upon a girl that Ricardo and one of them had been obsessed with.
Thus the year 1981 is seen by the director as an amusing but painful year, one in which he at last, because of the economic downturn and high inflation of that time drastically affected his family, moved from thinking he was the center of everything to a degree of maturity.
The audience enthusiastically applauded the film, and as Trogi emerged again to speak and introduce the members of the cast, the applause arose again.
At the formal reception following, several hundred guests ate and drank of the sumptuous offerings, but only a few ventured over to greet the director. Trogi was mostly surrounded by those he knew, engaging them in animated conversation.
While I awaited my opportunity to congratulate him, three boys from his cast came up to him. It was obvious from their talk and the way they laughed that he had great rapport with them.
During the brief time that I spoke with him I asked if the film would be shown in the United States, and he replied almost nonchalantly that he did not know. It was just opening in Quebec and would then be released in Canada, but as far as the United States, that remained to be seen.
As for this American, I can only hope that a marketing deal will soon be made. 1981 is one of the funniest and most realistic coming-of-age films that I have seen in years. Although it contains some profanity (which somehow seems muted by subtitles), there are no fart jokes and other such vulgarism that obsess so many American filmmakers when focusing upon childhood or adolescence.
1981 is a film to be anticipated with great relish by those who love film. It proved to be just right for getting the FFM off to a rousing start.
The Rev. Edward McNulty is a free-lance film critic and frequent contributor to Presbyterians Today magazine. He has been selected to serve on the Ecumenical Jury for the Montreal World Film Festival.