With Panorama Europe back at NYC’s Museum of the Moving Image for an 11th consecutive year, it is unlike most film festivals in that nine of the 17 films are directed by women. At a time when gender disparity in American film is the reason for rightful protest and corrective measures, a festival highlighting the work of international women filmmakers is a cause for celebration. The breadth of themes impresses: from the story of a blind pianist in 18th century Vienna to a chronicle of the lives and loves of rural teenagers in a Polish village, the films in Panorama Europe prove there’s no such thing as a “woman’s picture.”
Even those films not directed by women in this year’s festival, which runs through May 19, have female characters at their center. In Bogdan Theodor Olteanu’s Several Conversations About a Very Tall Girl, the Romanian director focuses on two young women who bond over Skype by sharing their experiences about a former lover. With sensitive performances and an ingenious framing device, the film is regarded as the first lesbian love story in Romanian cinema history. Meanwhile, in the rarely screened 1962 thriller Le Combat Dans L’île (the only classic film in this year’s Panorama Europe), the Empress of European cinema, Romy Schneider, gives a performance for the ages as the wife of a right-wing extremist involved in an assassination attempt. The North American premiere of the film was back in 2009; its observations on women who remain loyal to fascists feel like a perfect snapshot of 2019.
Here are five highlights from this year’s Panorama Europe, and the reasons to see them.
Director Elena Trapé first broke into the international scene with her touching documentary Palabras, mapas, secretos y otras cosas (Words, Maps, Secrets and Other Things), which focused on the work of Spanish director Isabel Coixet. Touched by Trapé’s insightful film about her, Coixet took on the role of mentor of sorts and appears listed as an executive producer of Distances. The film is a Big Chill-style intimate drama centered on a group of lifelong friends who pay a surprise visit to their friend Comas (Miki Esparbé), who lives in Berlin. Having outgrown their partying college days, the friends must come to terms with the distances that separate them both physically and emotionally. Trapé carefully details their inner lives not through extensive dialogues, but through silences that cut through the soul and perfectly capture the pains of aging.
The work of Portuguese filmmaker Salomé Lamas lives in the borders. Not only physical and geographical, but also those of genre: what separates fiction from documentary. She famously refers to her works as “parafictions” (she published a book with the same name in 2016) because they defy boundaries. Rather than using this approach as a means of confrontation, she turns in works that invite the viewer to enter new landscapes and mindscapes. For Extinction, she traveled to the state of Transnistria, an unrecognized territory between Moldova and Ukraine, returning with a hybrid road movie and personal essay that fascinates and frustrates in equal measures. Black-and-white cinematography allows Extinction to escape the facile territory of exotic travelogue, instead becoming something akin to an intimate journal entry come to life.
Matriarchy is at the center of Rosanne Pel’s stunning feature-length debut, a quietly disturbing film that shows the lengths to which men will try to disrupt and reconquer a system that they feel was promised to them. When 15-year-old Eryk (Eryk Walny) is discovered to have coerced his 13-year-old neighbor Klaudia (Klaudia Przybylska) into a sexual relationship, the lives of the women in his family are turned upside down: How can they forgive or abet the actions of a predator? By focusing on Eryk, Pel may scandalize viewers who feel that she is justifying his behavior. But, by looking closer, they’ll discover a thoughtful work that’s seeks answers to the very same questions that the characters are asking. Pel doesn’t know any more than we do about why men act the way they do, and her honesty makes us feel as complicit and responsible as the people who raised Eryk.
Inspired by the strange career of Maltese politician Nazzareno Bonnici, who in 2013 ran as an independent candidate in the general elections, earning a total of 47 votes, director Abigail Mallia studies the phenomenon of outliers who think they have enough appeal to steer their countries in different directions. Paul Portelli stars as Karist, a man obsessed with American cowboy iconography who decides to run for office to the displeasure of his son, John (Davide Tucci), who believes he will only make a fool of himself. Mallia’s compassion for Karist makes Limestone Cowboy a rarity: a work that dares not judge a character that might be reviled or patronized by audiences.
The actor Maria Dragus, who left indelible impressions with her work in The White Ribbon and Graduation, plays Maria Theresia von Paradis, better known as Resi, a prodigious pianist who happens to be blind. Set in 18th century Vienna, this 2017 film follows Resi as she befriends Dr. Franz Mesmer (Devid Striesow), who makes her believe that he can help her regain her sight. Mesmer’s methods are peculiar, to say the least, and make Resi the object of even more sexism and discrimination than women of her era would have endured. But director Barbara Albert isn’t interested in creating a mere costume drama — though the designs, by Veronika Albert, are to die for. Instead, she asks her audience a question that remains as relevant today as it was almost 250 years ago: is a woman’s worth limited to the way the men around her perceive it to be?
Here’s a trailer for the festival below. For more information and tickets, click here.