There was not a true dud to be found among the six festival films I previewed, and all had stellar performances and gorgeous cinematography. The least successful were those that emulated current American fare, such as Pizza King. Set in the seedy Copenhagen underground, Pizza King details the precarious existence of a group of immigrants of various ethnicities (Pakistani, Turkish, Arab) who have turned to crime. In this world of chain-smoking wannabe gangsters, an overabundance of machismo and a lack of common sense overcome these aimless young men, whose lack of fatherly love apparently dooms them. The "hip" soundtrack and the amusing use of English slang ("Bobby, the Motherfucking Man!") don't quite make up for the clichéd script.
Then there's The One and Only, which is being marketed with the dread label of "romantic comedy." Sure enough, it could easily have starred Meg Ryan. This harmless Danish romp involves the entanglements between two couples desperately trying to bear or adopt children. Though earnestly performed with entertaining dialogue, the story contains all the typical Hollywood fluff: love at first sight, a damsel in distress, and the idea that love (or lust) always wins.
Romance of a less formulaic nature blooms in one of the festival's many outstanding films with a historical setting, The Dance. On one of the remote Atlantic Faroe islands in 1913, a wedding is complicated by episodes of jealousy, adultery, guilt, and redemption when a violent storm brings a shipwreck and an accidental death. This unassuming yet powerful film centers around a wedding-night split between those who want to dance, and those whose Protestant ethic forbids them to engage in celebration after a man has died. It's the age-old generational clash -- youthful exuberance stifled by the old and stuffy insistence on "proper" behavior.
Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's latest film, Juha, continues with the bleak (yet often comedic) deadpan tone of his earlier films, like the hilarious Leningrad Cowboys Go America or the depressing comedy Drifting Clouds (also showing in the festival). Juha is a classic morality tale centered on the destruction of a happy rural couple, which occurs when the naive wife is seduced away to the dangerous sensuality of the big city. The crafty use of light and shadow and the perfectly timed music make this black-and-white silent film very expressive and compelling, though it's weakened a bit by a confusing chain of events near the end.
The tribulations of both parental and marital love are explored in the Swedish film The Glassblower's Children. This fairy tale has a dark underbelly à la Hans Christian Andersen, making it fascinating for adults but perhaps a bit scary for kids raised on Disney. The morals of the story (don't take loved ones for granted; be careful what you wish for) seem rather mundane and obvious, but the luscious details of the sets and characters make the film worth seeing. Most notable is the contrast between a wicked, grossly obese, baritone-voiced nanny, and her sister, a witch with a heart of gold.
A much more sinister portrayal of magic is found in the biggest treat of the festival: the latest from director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson, Witchcraft. Here the theme of lust reaches its most dangerous depths, as a Lutheran pastor in 17th-century Iceland wreaks havoc on a village in his relentless pursuit of sorcerers, all in a feeble attempt to quench his lust for a woman he cannot have. An old picture book with lascivious scenes of demonic orgies is the thread that winds through the entire story, as one brutality after another is committed in the name of Christian guilt. Definitely not for the squeamish, though the film is lightened by the eventual delivery of poetic justice. The beautifully desolate locations, superb acting, captivating script, and eerie soundtrack make this a must-see film in an exceptionally good festival.