Two strikingly ambitious films


American indie movies specialize in character-driven intimacy. Most of the fiction films you see at the Sundance Film Festival in a given year, good or bad, are insular by design, focused on personal conflicts and private moods, sealed off from the outside world. It’s always a pleasant surprise then to encounter a dramatic movie here that grapples with larger historical forces, that blends the personal and the political. That’s precisely what THE IMPERIALISTS ARE STILL ALIVE! and NIGHT CATCHES US — two of this year’s most interesting dramatic-competition titles — set out to do. Neither is wholly successful — IMPERIALISTS indulges in a few too many art-film affectations; NIGHT is serious and somber, almost to a fault — but both are strikingly ambitious debuts (by women writer-directors, as it happens).

Set in 1976 Philadelphia, and featuring a score by local band the Roots, Tanya Hamilton’s NIGHT CATCHES US observes the reunion of two old friends. Marcus (Anthony Mackie) is back in town after a mysterious absence; Patricia (Kerry Washington), now with an 8-year-old daughter, used to be married to his best friend. There is an obvious attraction, as well as a complicated history — they were both involved with the Black Panthers in the late ’60s — and it only gradually emerges.

The climactic lurch into tragic melodrama is predictable and perfunctory, but the film has a powerful sense of time and place, and it effectively conjures the hangover of a failed revolution. Washington and Mackie (who had breakthrough films at Sundance: OUR SONG and HALF NELSON respectively) are both first-rate, delivering controlled, suggestive performances. Given the unfortunate tradition of neglect when it comes to mold-breaking work by and about African-Americans (see my list of Top 10 overlooked Sundance films), it was disheartening to hear that the film has been playing to less-than-full houses (even with stars of this caliber).


Directed by Zeina Durra, THE IMPERIALISTS ARE STILL ALIVE! is a thoroughly Euro-inflected oddity, one that’s not afraid to flaunt its influences. The arresting title is lifted from Jean-Luc Godard’s LA CHINOISE, about the Maoist youth movement in late-’60s France. And the film is heavily indebted to Jacques Rivette’s first feature, PARIS BELONGS TO US, which evokes an atmosphere of free-floating dread and anxiety among a group of young bohemians.

Elodie Bouchez plays a French-Arab conceptual artist in Manhattan, who becomes increasingly paranoid after she learns of the disappearance of an old flame (possibly at the hands of the CIA). The stabs at humor are hit and miss, but the film is evocatively shot in tactile super-16mm. It vividly brings to life a privileged Middle Eastern diaspora that has rarely been depicted and a New York that is both subcultural and multicultural: pretentious art venues, outer-borough apartments, Chinatown markets and cafes. As in a Rivette film, the big picture seems perpetually out of reach. For some, this may prove frustrating; for others, it will account for the movie’s lingering power.