DIFF online: already setting itself apart from the pack

The programme is as solid and surprising as ever, even if the guests are virtual

The Dublin International Film Festival may have been compromised by the Covid crisis, but the online programme is as solid and surprising as ever, even if the guests are virtual.

The opening gala for Supernova, a weepie drama about an older gay couple undertaking a roadtrip after an early onset dementia diagnosis, featured a Q and A with stars Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth and the presentation of this year’s Volta award to the latter, a DIFF veteran.   New Irish premieres included A Worm in the Heart, in which director Paul Rice and producer Liam Jackson Montgomery visit various LGBT activists across Russia and sit down for an interesting chat with Peter Tatchell. Newcomer Cathal Nally’s well-made Be Good or Be Gone is a gritty Dublin crime thriller, boosted by good performances and low-budget goodwill, a film that is sure to please fans of Cardboard Gangsters and Broken Law.

Just when we thought that the monster movie cycle was entirely played out, along comes Chris Baugh’s The Boys from County Hell to breathe some life into the undead. There’s a good deal of fun and splattering after a bickering construction crew accidentally awaken Abhartach, the ancient Derry vampire assumed to be the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Why has no one been clever enough to reawaken Abhartach for movie purposes before?

To the Moon, the elegant, mesmerising new film from Tadhg O’Sullivan, merely flirts with the monstrous. A visual essay on this planet’s popular satellite, shaped not unlike Beyond Clueless or Elizabeth Sankey’s Romantic Comedy, the film is a beautifully assembled compilation of clips from such enthralling works as The Blue Bird, Night Tide, and Die Nibelungen: Siegfried. A lovely score by Amanda Ferry and Linda Buckley, and poetic words read by Olwen Fouéré and others, tease out lunar associations of love, madness and death. As magical as the orb that inspired it.

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Chore

While it’s always a delight to watch Saoirse Ronan at work, Ammonite proved a bit of a chore. A historical romance set in 1840s England, director Francis Lee’s follow-up to the much-admired God’s Own Country stars Kate Winslet as overlooked fossil-hunter Mary Anning and Ms Ronan as the young, married woman who becomes the amateur paleontologist’s lover. Even a passionate sex scene fails to light up the material.

Fidelity, a controversial new film from Russia, is another title that failed to live up to the hype, despite its explicit sequences. Nigina Sayfullaeva’s erotic drama follows a reckless young Russian obstetrician (Evgeniya Gromova) as she embarks on a series of anonymous encounters; an escape from her loveless marriage. It’s an intriguing premise and there are some winning soapy twists and a committed performance from Gromova, but the film fails to coalesce into meaningful drama.

A recurring and welcome development in recent DIFF years is the sheer number of big – meaning absolutely huge – female performances. The always reliable and characteristically unflappable Nina Hoss kicks a bin (!) in My Little Sister, a marvellous new German drama about a well-heeled mother caring for her ailing artist brother.

In recent years, the divine Paula Beer has replaced the equally divine Ms Hoss as the favourite leading lady of the German auteur Christian Petzold. Beer teams up with Transit’s sensational star Franz Rogowski for Undine, Petzold’s inventive contemporary take on mermaid legend.

At 53, Sandrine Bonnaire, the star of Vagabond, is too young to be one of French cinema’s grandes dames, but she’s certainly put in the hours. In Into the World, she plays a maternity nurse with a secret punk past, an effortless performance that confirms her elevated place in French cinema.

It’s easy to think of Noémie Merlant, the young star of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as a spiritual  successor to Bonnaire. Merlant is terrific and daring in Jumbo, a charming objectophilia comic-drama in which a young woman falls in love with a fairground ride.

Zofia Stafiej makes a big splash as a young Polish woman who must travel to Ireland to bring her estranged father’s body back to Poland in Piotr Domalewski’s I Never Cry.

Joanna Scanlan, a veteran of The Thick of It and many other British TV series, puts in career-best work in After Love. Playing a widow who discovers her late husband had a secret family, Scanlan will break your heart.

Drollery

There’s another unmissable British debut in Limbo, a new feature from Ben Sharrock. There’s a touch of the Finnish drollery of Aki Kaurismäki in the opening section of the film, which concerns the Scottish equivalent of direct provision. Amir El-Masry is brilliantly deadpan as Omar, a Syrian refugee in the Scottish Highlands.

From the US, the Golden Globe-winning Minari, in which director Lee Isaac Chung, working from his own childhood, follows a family of South Korean immigrants who try to farm in rural America, makes for a remarkably moving piece of cinema.

Lapsis, a compelling new lo-fi sci-fi which lays into the gig economy, stars Dean Imperial as a man who takes on a mysterious new job to support his brother with a mysterious new interest.

Other highlights of the festival thus far include Acasa, My Home, a complex documentary portrait of an off-grid nine-children family living in the Bucharest Delta, and Beasts Clawing at Straws, a South Korean suitcase-full-of-money caper.   Few of these titles can compete, however, with Gunda. Many reviews have characterised Viktor Kosakovskiy’s extraordinary documentary as the real life Babe or Charlotte’s Web. It’s better – and radically different – than these descriptions imply.

Shot in crystalline black-and-white, the Joaquin Phoenix-produced Gunda follows a sow and her piglets, giddy cows, and an especially brave one-legged chicken. Shot like a David Attenborough nature documentary, the film never anthropomorphises its subjects. Rather it affords the animals dignity while respecting and admiring their right to be and behave like animals. It’s an extraordinary achievement, one that is boosted by a scene of alien abduction that rivals anything in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.   In a programme that, in difficult circumstances, springs plenty of welcome surprises, the splendid surprise film – Another Round, featuring a lovely introduction from Mads Mikkelsen – was the proverbial cherry on top.

Tuesday festival-goers are advised to check out Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period, an intriguing drama about a 40-year-old neurosurgeon who falls in love and follows her ideal man to Budapest, only to discover he doesn’t remember her.