Who would have predicted that out  of a festival of 250 new features from across the world, the single film that reinvigorates faith in the cinema as a force in our lives in the chaotic world of the 21st century should be a one-hour zombie horror from a 12-episode American television series “Masters of Horror”?  Joe Dante’s HOMECOMING, (written by Sam Hamm from Tim Burton’s BATMAN films) faithfully follows all the genre conventions of the zombie movie. Here are the haunted, decaying relics from the grave, agonised in their indestructibility;  here are the fearful anxious, chattering living, rallying to combat the other-worldly threat…

The difference is that the living are a right-wing political commentator and a presidential speech-writer.  Cornered on a tv talk-show by the mother of a GI killed in Iraq, the White House man declares his wish that her son could come back to testify to his pride in sacrifice for his country.  The President himself takes up the refrain, “If these boys could only come back to tell us ….”

And they do.  In their numbers. They stumble from their coffins, poor putrefying maimed things, casting aside the flags draped over them. They do indeed want to testify and can only die when they have cast their votes against the administration that has sent them to their deaths.  The White House reluctantly let them vote - after all, they can rig the count as they have done before.  But when the zombie army sees they are yet again being deceived, they call in reinforcements – the dead of Vietnam and the Second World War.

Dante handles this unique and risky combination of tawdry genre and passionate human indignation faultlessly.  He exploits all the banalities of the genre, the conventional combination of shivers and giggles, at the same time as he ferociously assaults the deceptions of politics and politicians. Even more brilliant is his achievement of creating these very contemporary and present zombies without disrespect or loss of dignity to the young dead men whose fate he protests in this extraordinary and unprecedented manner.  He permits himself a small joke:  stones on two of the military graves that open commemorate the late Jacques Tourneur and the living George A.Romero, two great masters of the zombie genre.

To see the cinema engaged and embattled in this new way is heartening for our messy and misguided century; and a further striking example was VIVA ZAPATERO! in which the charismatic and unsparing Italian satirist Sabina Guzzanti exposes the rise of oppressive censorship in Italy, through her experiences following the banning of her satirical show “RAIot”.  When her devastating impersonation of Premier Berlusconi – aided by the British Rory Bremner as Tony Blair – proved too effective, she was (along with other over-frank commentators) taken off RAI screens.  Undeterred she has taken her show on live tours, which, together with this vivid and lively documentary, make her a much more dangerous opponent of Italy’s blithe march to a new fascism.  (Even during Rotterdam, the birth pill was newly banned to ensure the fundamentalist Catholic vote for the Berlusconi regime).

Taking Father Home
Other Rotterdam entries, without such upfront political intent, made strong impressions.  Without doubt the outstanding film of the festival, introducing a new director for whom one can with total confidence predict a major future career, was Ying Liang’s TAKING FATHER HOME.  This perfectly composed feature is said to have been made on a minimal budget, with a borrowed camera and unpaid friends as actors.  If so, it is proof that money is irrelevant when there is talent, a natural genius for expression through film, and an inspired eye. 

The hero of the story is a stubborn, unsmiling village lad of 17, who determines to go to the city to bring back the father who has left the family home, though he has sent back 1000 yuan to help them out.  Stumping on his way, a pair of ducks in a basket on his back as his only capital, he cannot be diverted from his purpose either by the unexpected friends or the unwished enemies he meets on the way.  27-year-old Ying Luang has the great film-maker’s gift ot being able to establish a character or a mood through a glance or gesture; to convey all the content of an altercation unheard but merely viewed from far off.  Every shot, through its composition or its dynamism, is  compelling.  This is film-making at its best, and a rare reward for any festival.

Frozen Land
Mastery of the story-teller’s craft also distinguishes the fourth feature by Finnish director Aku Louhimies, FROZEN LAND (PAHA MAA), based on the same Tolstoy story, “The Forged Coupon”, that inspired Robert Bresson’s  L’ARGENT.  A fake 500-Euro note made on a laser printer by a half-stoned layabout, sets off a chain of disasters and fatalities.  The fascination of the film is the opposition of its schematic (Tolstoyan) structure and the essentially realistic and critical setting in a very contemporary society.

Vendredi ou un Autre Jour
An equally unforeseen highlight of the festival was Yvan Le Moine’s VENDREDI OU UN AUTRE JOUR, a Belgian-French-Italian-Slovak co-production, based on Michel Tournier’s book, “Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique”, in its turn inspired by Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”.  Tournier’s hero is a star of the Comédie française, shipwrecked with his stage costumes; and the action is shifted forward half a century so that he is stranded in 1771. Twenty years later, in 1791, he declines to be rescued by the representatives of a Revolution already slid into corruption.  Philippe Nahon is at once a majestic, vulnerable and faulted hero, who slowly recognises his human equality and affection for his black Friday (Alain Moraida). ).  Apart from all else the film is distinguished by Danny Elsen’s wonderfully atmospheric, sepia-toned cinematography

Made in USA
Claudia Llosa’s feature debut, MADEINUSA (Spain/Peru) is an unexpected and startling work that recalls Bunuel’s LOS OLVIDADOS in its unsparing picture of life in a remote and inaccessible mountain village, where ignorance, poverty and incest coexist with opulent religious superstition.  The oddly-named heroine is chosen to play the Virgin in the holy week celebrations, in which the period between Good Friday and Easter morning is a hiatus in which any sin is allowed.  . Madeinusa sins appropriately with a gringo from the city, who has had the misfortune to fall into this human fly-trap – and must pay the grim price.

Two slight comedies were worth note.  In the German-Swiss EDEN, Michael Hofmann shows an exceptional dexterity in black comedy.  An entry in the “food-comedy” genre, it is the story of a very fat master-chef who, having brought cuisine to a high erotic art, develops a platonic love for a café waitress.  Their friendship enrages the waitress’s dim husband and the small-town petit-bourgeoisie.  Indignation escalates to violence against the unfortunate chef; but the couple finally arrive at a wryly happy outcome.  The climactic moment of black slapstick comedy makes the whole film worth while.  EDEN took Rotterdam’s audience award.

India is an unlikely provenance for a romantic comedy about wife-swapping, but in MIXED DOUBLES, Rajat Kapoor (the third generation in the famous Indian film dynasty) acts and directs, combining some broad comedy with delicate observations of domestic sentiments.

In the permanently proliferating genre of growing-pains films, the most appealing was the Argentinian Alexis Dos Santos’ GLUE (HISTORIA ADOLESCENTE EN MEDIO DE LA NADA), a shoe-string, semi-autobiographical account of an appealing and ordinarily naughty 15-year-old growing up in the back of beyond of the Patagonian desert. The film was unanimously awarded the prize of Rotterdam’s Young Jury, formed of people between 16 and 20.  (Like many films in the festival its production was made possible by a grant from Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund).  More conventional films in the tormented teenager genre were the French Franck Guérin’s UN JOUR D’ÉTÉ, about the crisis in a small town when a boy is killed by a falling goal post and the Dutch David Lammers’ LANGER LICHT, in which a son has to cope with a traumatised and disturbed widowed father.  A very different view of adolescence appeared in the former documentarist Gahite Fofana’s UN MATIN BONNE HEURE. Based on a true story, this Franco-Guinean co-production, was a touching, speculative recreation of the motives of two young boys who died while trying to reach Europe, hidden in the landing gear of an air liner.

Another very different view of the problems of adolescence was the Chinese WALKING ON THE WILD SIDE (director Jan Jie) which unsparingly related the social breakdown of a town suddenly transformed by the rise of the market economy and independent coal mining enterprises in the early 1990s

There was the expected repertory of star films that have already been widely reviewed from previous festivals and elsewhere – Ang Lee’s much nominated BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN,  Amat Escalante’s SANGRE (Mexico), Carlos Reygadas’ controversial BATALLA EN EL CIELA (Mexico), Roland Vranik’s BLACK BRUSH (Hungary), Steve Buscemi’s LONESOME JIM, Cristi Puiu’s THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU, Steven Soderbergh’s BUBBLE, S.Pierre Yameogo’s DELWENDE, LEVE-TOI ET MARCHE, Michael Haneke’s CACHÉ, Patrice Chereau’s GABRIELLE,, Manoel de Olivera’s MAGIC MIRROR,

Walking on the Wild Side
The somewhat unexpected prize-winners in Rotterdam were WALKING ON THE WILD SIDE (LIA XIAO ZI), THE DOG POUND (LA PERRERA) by Manuel Nieto Zas (Uruguay/Argentina/Canada/Spain) and OLD JOY by Kelly Reichardt (United States).. LA PERREIRA is quite a brave and carefully directed film, with atmosphere and good performances;  but the lethargy that is the subject of the story (the hero, a failed student, endeavours to brace himself to building his house, with the help of his friends) perilously infects the film.  OLD JOY is a meditative account of two thirtyish men meeting again to recall their earlier lives in the course of a walking expedition in the mountains.