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International Masterworks

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The Memphis International Film Festival truly earns its name this year by featuring 58 films from 13 countries. One excellent point of entry into worldwide cinema MIFF provides is the International Masters Series, screenings of four notable films from four preeminent filmmakers, presented in glorious 35mm format on the silver screens of Studio on the Square.

Note: Ming-liang Tsai's Goodbye, Dragon Inn was not available for screening. It plays Sunday, March 25th, at 7:30 p.m.

All About My Mother, Spain, 1999

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In Pedro Almodóvar's masterpiece All About My Mother, Esteban (Eloy Azorín), a young man who wants to be a writer, celebrates his 17th birthday with his single mother, Manuela (Cecelia Roth), by going to see a staging of A Streetcar Named Desire. Esteban is in awe of the actress portraying Blanche DuBois, Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes, who also stars in The Devil's Backbone, another film in the International Masters Series), so he and his mom wait for her after the show to get an autograph. Chasing after Huma's taxi, Esteban is fatally struck by a car.

So it is that Almodóvar quickly removes the character that most resembles himself. Esteban clearly is awed by his mother, Huma, Blanche, Stella, and, in another reference, Bette Davis in All About Eve. These women inform Esteban's sensitivity to life and inspire his passion for writing, just as they clearly do Almodóvar. But All About My Mother isn't so much about Almodóvar's passion for these feminine icons as it is about the women themselves. This is no fetishistic work of idolatry nor is it a trumped-up platitude on the sanctity of women.

A character comments, "A woman is her hair, nails, and lips." It's with this physical descriptive of womanhood that the film immerses itself. The women who inhabit the film -- mothers, daughters, lesbians, actresses, or transsexuals -- take their cue of what a woman is from what famous women look and act like. The ensemble cast enriches the film with a unique personality that is worthy of the cinematic and literary allusions it makes. Almodóvar continually casts characters in the light of new references to famous roles so that as soon as you've got a grasp on the symbolism, the role orientation changes. That the film feels as unscripted as everyday life while turning in on itself like a golden spiral tattles on Almodóvar's greatest worth as a filmmaker: as a writer.

Screening Friday, March 23rd, 10 p.m.; Sunday, March 25th, noon

The Flower of Evil, France, 2003

If you didn't know Cahiers du Cinéma iconoclast and French New Wave instigator Claude Chabrol was still making movies, don't feel left out. Chabrol hasn't gotten a lot of play in the States, or at least not much that could be felt in Memphis, for some time now. That the 77-year-old Chabrol is still churning out pictures about every year and a half perhaps is only mildly surprising. That he's still got some game, however, 60-plus features in, is more unexpected.

In The Flower of Evil, Chabrol's 2003 familial mystery, Francois (Benoît Magimel) comes home to France, after spending four years in America, to find his step-mom Anne Charpin-Vasseur (Nathalie Baye) in the thick of a mayoral campaign, his father Gérard Vasseur (Bernard Le Coq) chafing at the thought of it, his aunt Line (Suzanne Flon) a dear presence, and his step-sister/cousin Michèle (Mélanie Doutey) as hot as ever. Skeletons long locked in the Charpin and Vasseur family closets are rattled by an anonymous leaflet distributed to smear the candidate: namely, that Aunt Line murdered her own father, a Nazi sympathizer, years before (a mystery set up in the film's opening sequence).

Next comes a surprising little scene: the family discussing the leaflet, casually acknowledging in their conversation that every word is true. Just when you expect the murder to be the focus of the film, it gets resolved. In its place is the real thrust of The Flower of Evil: how the two old French families, the Charpins and the Vasseurs, keep playing out lives that echo down generations. "Time doesn't exist," one character says. "Life is a perpetual present."

Measuring life in generations rather than individuals gives the film a unique perspective on death, especially for a murder mystery: The Flower of Evil doesn't see murder as the ultimate affront. It's a change of pace that gives the film an insouciant air. From a writer/director who has killed scores of characters in a long career, it's perhaps a most appropriate statement on mortality.

Screening Friday, March 23rd, 2:30 p.m.

The Devil's Backbone, Spain/Mexico, 2001

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What is it about 1930s and '40s Franco Spain that attracts Mexican writer/director Guillermo del Toro so? Del Toro has gotten all kinds of pub from his 2007 Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth, set in Fascist Spain at the height of World War II. But that film marked a return to the setting for the filmmaker. His first sortie there was his excellent 2001 ghost story, The Devil's Backbone. In it, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), the son of a leftist soldier, is sent to a school of "Reds looking after Reds' children." There, Carlos encounters the ghost of a boy who disappeared months before. Unlike in most other ghost stories, though, The Devil's Backbone isn't about the specter so much as it is about evil men who continue to live.

The film has a killer central image: a dud bomb unexploded after an air-raid drop, embedded in the middle of the school's courtyard. The explosive device serves as a kind of opposite to Alfred Hitchcock's theoretical bomb: It's inert, never threatening to go off, irrelevant to the plot but full of meaning nonetheless.

The core question in The Devil's Backbone is, What is a ghost? Is it "a tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect in amber." Whatever the answer, the film is sure to haunt you for some time.

Screening Saturday, March 24th, 9:30 p.m.

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