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2017 Silk Screen Festival Focuses on Difficult, Captivating Fare

Reviews of three marquee films included in the 2017 Silk Screen Film Festival, plus local movie news and notes.

photo © studios idrream / macguffin films

There is a point in “A Death in the Gunj,” the opening-night film of the 2017 Silk Screen Film Festival, at which it becomes clear that the stakes of the film are much higher than you thought.

Until this point, the film — a tale of family dynamics, desire and maturity set in a small, out-of-the-way Indian village in the late 1970s — seems like the sort of quiet indie drama which will result in tears and understanding, but nothing more dramatic. Then the knowledge creeps in that the placid, beautifully shot idyll before us is a distraction from darker things hiding behind the eyes.

Of the three films I reviewed for this year’s festival, that’s something of an abiding theme — hidden wells of darkness and regret. That should not be taken as a sign that these films are anything less than captivating to watch, however; as always, Silk Screen provides a fascinating and uniformly challenging collection of global cinema.

In “A Death in the Gunj,” directed and written by lauded Indian actress Konkona Sen Sharma in her debut feature, we meet Shutu (Shyamal Chatterjee), the quiet black sheep of a boisterous family, as siblings, cousins and friends retire to the countryside for a holiday. The group is full of strapping, rambunctious men and confident women; Shutu, in contrast, is reserved and sensitive, deeply rattled by the death of his father.

He’s fixated on Mimi (Kalki Koechlin), a striking family friend; when she finally acknowledges his advances, however, a disastrous series of events is set in motion.

The ending to the film is unforgettable, as is its ghostly, bittersweet atmosphere. A far cry from the Bollywood features many Americans associate with Indian cinema, “A Death in the Gunj” is easy, deft storytelling and lovely filmmaking.

“A Death in the Gunj” will be screened tonight at the Harris Theater.

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Creeping tension — not fear, but pure tension — rises and climaxes twice in “Harmonium,” a prize-winner at Cannes being screened in Pittsburgh for the first time as part of the festival. A small family is upended when a mysterious friend of the father turns up looking for work, room and board; as details about this new presence emerge (and others are hidden away), any audience versed in Hitchcock will begin gripping their armrests tightly. Quiet, powerful and far more shocking than I anticipated, the thriller from director Kōji Fukada is a gut-punch of a story — and yet never less than beautiful. This is a film that will stay with you, even if you’d rather it didn’t. “Harmonium” will be screened twice: at the Melwood Screening Room on Sunday and at the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium on Thursday.

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Some film festivals which showcase global fare can skew heavily towards weighty, grand films — the sort of work which is likely to be submitted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Fortunately, Silk Screen makes room for more curious entries as well — undeniably fine films that are probably not headed for the awards circuit, but remain worthy of a viewing. “Kupal,” an Iranian film from director Kazem Mollaie, is just such an entry. The title character is an eccentric and isolated hunter and taxidermist living in a steadfastly secure compound, surrounded by his conquests. When a faulty door leaves him trapped in his own basement, he must find ways to survive and try to reach help. “Kupal” deftly sets up its protagonist’s predicament (although the message may be a little heavy-handed). And while scenes of Kupal’s struggle — not to mention violence involving animals — will undoubtedly put off some audiences, those up for it will find a difficult, moving film akin to a niche domestic indie drama. “Kupal” will be screened twice: at the Melwood Screening Room on Monday and at the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium on Thursday.

*    *    *

The Montage: Compare two big-screen versions of “The Great Gatsby” at the Tull Family Theater with a pair of upcoming screenings. The dramatically underrated 2013 film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, will be shown this Monday at 5 p.m.; the Robert Redford version will follow on Sept. 25. The former is free to anyone with a library card (of any kind), the latter is just plain free. Click here for details ... Evaluate the “Essential American Cinema” of the 1980s at Row House Cinema this week, as the Lawrenceville theater shows “Do the Right Thing,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Raging Bull” and “Koyaanisqatsi” ... Start your Sunday off in fine, vintage fashion with “The Philadelphia Story” at The Hollywood Theater. For $15, you’ll also get breakfast.


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