dir. Veit Helmer
Fri-Thurs July 19-25 at the Grand Illusion.

With a soundtrack packed with bells, whistles, and the patter of perpetual rain, the delightful Tuvalu is by no means a silent film. But neither is it a "talkie"--there are about 10 lines of dialogue in the 86-minute movie. Veit Helmer's first feature is an elaborate homage to silent cinema (with a smattering of other allusions); it seizes the physicality and spectacle that once grew organically out of soundless storytelling and transplants them into a thoroughly modern production. This conceit could have easily slipped into mere gimmickry, but with the aid of a highly capable cast and crew, Tuvalu achieves much more.

Denis Lavant (the limber star of Beau Travail) plays Anton, a pool boy of uncertain age who is charged with the upkeep of his blind father's once-magnificent public bath. Anton is also responsible for sheltering his father's ego. Every morning, he inflates a life jacket to disguise his old man's sunken physique. And with the help of a recording of splashing children, Anton manufactures the illusion that the pool is as popular as ever.

The visuals the old man is missing tell another story. Like a tottering diva, the opulent public bath (shot on location in Bulgaria) even decays impressively. Chunks of plaster loosen from the ceiling and crash onto the heads of unsuspecting swimmers below. Tin cans funnel rain from the constantly leaking roof and provide the sole water supply for the building. The whole jury-rigged mess is so outrageous that, when the city inspector assesses the building's adherence to code, you can't help but pull for the pool, despite the clear hazard it presents. The only thing that still works in the building is the gleaming Imperial water-heater--and a nymphet named Eva (Chulpan Khamatova) is after its spark plug. Madcap chase scenes ensue.

The film has a cerebral side, too, and you'll leave the theater with a more profound sense of the pros and cons of development than even John Sayles' more explicit Sunshine State can muster. Tuvalu is smart and fun--what more can you want from a movie?