By Christian DiMartino
Woody Allen’s… 49th (?) feature Rifkin’s Festival has yet to be released in the United States yet. Seeing as the majority of the United States have turned their back on him, and with the recent release of that Farrow propaganda malarkey Allen v. Farrow, chances are we won’t be seeing it for a while. How have I seen it? Well, I’ll just say, I have my ways, but since you people have taken away most of my ways due to an allegation that has been debunked multiple times, you have left me no choice but to find… my own ways.
Which is a shame too, because I think all of the controversy aside, Rifkin’s Festival might honestly have done pretty well. I have seen almost all of Allen’s films, and sure by the time you see about 30 of them, you get the gist that the guy knows what subjects he likes to write about (affairs, murder, mid-life crises, jealousy, etc.) and he does cover similar ground. Having said that, people claim that some of his films are “awful,” and it leaves me to wonder if they people actually feel this way, or they feel this way because Woody Allen directed it. In recent memory, I was disappointed (but didn’t hate) Allen’s Wonder Wheel, because I read the synopsis and was able to predict the whole movie before I entered the theatre, because I know the way he writes and operates. But would I have enjoyed it more if it weren’t his movie?
I don’t flat-out dislike a single one, and with Rifkin’s Festival, while he does cover familiar ground, I will say that for me it came together a bit better than Wonder Wheel and A Rainy Day in New York– one film disappointed, while the other was entertaining and occasionally funny, but miscast and in need of a polish. With Rifkin’s Festival, while it doesn’t scream greatness, all of the pieces appear to be in place, and everything feels just about right. It’s well cast (his most difficult film to cast, according to his great memoir Apropos of Nothing), it’s light but just funny enough to get by, and it’s the sort of laid-back entertainment that passes the time quite nicely.
The “Rifkin” in Rifkin’s Festival is a sort of grouchy old former film professor named Mort Rifkin, played by Wallace Shawn. Shawn has appeared in Allen’s films before, but it’s nice to see a wonderful veteran actor front and center, and more than carrying his own weight. Mort is accompanying his wife, Sue (Gina Gershon, looking luminous) to the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain. There is a lot of Rachel McAdams’ Ines from Midnight in Paris in Sue, as she is gaga over an up-and-coming Spanish filmmaker, Phillippe (Louis Garrel). When Phillippe is around (and he rarely isn’t), it’s as if Mort isn’t. Take a scene at a dinner table- you have three people with an appreciation for film- and any time Mort chimes in about classic cinema, the other two keep talking. You’ll cringe, but you’ll also perhaps snicker, the way Allen wants you to.
Mort isn’t so impressed with Phillippe, for obvious reasons. Mort serves as the film’s narrator, and much of his experience in Spain recalls these “dreams” he has, and these dreams are either a gimmick that will work for you, or they won’t. See, said dreams, while showing Mort’s past and expressing his feelings, also serve as an homage to the films of Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, and so on. Gimmicky, sure, but you know that Allen is using the gimmick from the heart. Mort, feeling distanced from Sue, soon begins feeling lively whenever he meets a Dr. Rojas (Elena Anaya), who, of course, he takes quite the liking to. So the rest of the film essentially finds Mort experiencing a flight of fancy, while also coming to terms with a life that’s right in front of him.
So again, this is a road that has previously been traveled by Allen, yet those of us who go to his movies pretty much know what we’re in store for, and he always manages to find a way to take the old and still make it entertaining. Rifkin’s Festival is entertaining, and it is funny- not hilarious, but it is harmless. I personally haven’t loved a Woody Allen film since Blue Jasmine, but I thoroughly enjoy a big chunk of them. It is, as I see it, his most enjoyable work since Café Society, in that this is the first one in a little while where I could tell he was having fun writing it. The performances work too, from Shawn (serving as a strong Allen surrogate) to Gershon to, in a last minute appearance, Christoph Waltz. Chances are though, when the film plays in the United States, critics will still loathe it, because the Farrow’s have paid them to.
Enjoy it, as I did (it would make a great in-flight movie, and I mean that in the best way), or not, there is no denying that at the end of the day, if anything, Rifkin’s Festival serves as a great cinematic travelogue. The U.S. might have shunned his movies, but European countries welcome him with open arms, and with good reason: the guy is a whiz at capturing these countries and making us long to go there. Look at the opening of Midnight in Paris, or the entirety of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, or Magic in the Moonlight, or so on. He makes all of these places look picturesque. The key to the success this time though is the legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, whose work includes Apocalypse Now, Reds, and The Last Emperor, three of the most beautiful films ever made. This film is almost as worthy. Seriously, this film is so gorgeous at times, it took my breath away, and I watched it on my TV. I can’t wait for the Blu-Ray.