Heartland Film Festival: Narrative feature reviews 

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The Referee (L'Arbitro)
★★★★ (out of five)

If you're a student of the art of movie making, or just a fan of whacked-out cinema, put The Referee on your Must See list. Director Paolo Zucca's gorgeous black and white comedy/drama nods at everyone from Sergio Leone to Busby Berkeley, incorporating religious imagery, surprising visual flourishes and a couple of verbal exchanges that trigger memories of Abbott and Costello. The movie, in Italian with subtitles, is beautiful, funny, melodramatic and weird. Despite all that's going on stylistically, it manages to follow its narrative threads in a mostly coherent fashion.

In a translated interview, Zucca explained his approach, "Aesthetically speaking, one of the avenues I investigated for this film is blending tones and film genres. While I have mainly opted for comedy and the light touch, I've interspersed the film with darker moments, such as a few of the stages in the international referee Cruciani's descent into professional 'hell,' or the minor subplot involving the ancestral codes of sheep breeding in Sardinia. By the same token, the epic and the grotesque, the highbrow and the lowbrow all mingle in the film and switch places quite unpredictably at times. I chose to film in black and white, partly to achieve the maximum degree of abstraction from reality and from the constraints of tie and place, to avoid the film's being seen as an objective representation of the world of football, or a particular geographical context."

Zucca's story deals with football (soccer to Americans), fanaticism, ambition, ethics and more. Atletico Pabarile is the worst team in the Sardinian third league. The townspeople particularly hate getting thumped by Montecrastu, which is led by Brai, an arrogant owner of a great deal of land. Ah, but things may change, because young Matzutzi, sporting a world-class mullet and facial hair straight out of '70s porn, has come back to town. With his great athletic prowess, he may prove to be the savior of the town.

Meanwhile, Cruciani the referee has eyes on advancing to the big-time. Others are interested in helping him further his career, but only if he cooperates with their plans. And in the midst of the sporting excitement, two cousins playing for Montecrastu are feuding over the proper methods of sheep breeding.

By setting his stories in small towns, Zucca can offer a more intimate take on the joy and madness that accompanies football. Listen to the odd insults hurled by some fans — "Wrinkled ass face!" "Go get fried, egghead!" "May you suffer a stroke with all the little strokes behind!" — and consider some of the things you hear at local games. Listen to athletes taunt their opponents by chanting, "Dead! Crazy! Ugly! Dumb! Faggot!" — and you'll be reminded why it's still a big deal when players come out.

Or just watch for all the treats as Zucca shifts from one homage to the next, from one style to another, and one striking camera angle (hey, it's a kick from the ball's point of view!) to a peculiar visual (look at that player's ta-daaa skid onto the field!). Sure, sometimes the substance trips over the style, but even that is interesting. And it looks phenomenal. —Ed Johnson-Ott

CAPSULE REVIEWS by Ed Johnson-Ott (EJO) and Scott Shoger (SS)

Amira and Sam
Freaks and Geeks veteran Martin Starr gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Sam, an army vet trying to adjust to civilian life at home. After a failed attempt a stand-up comedy, he lands a job working at his cousin's Wall Street firm. Amira (Dina Shihabi) is at tough cookie who fled Iraq after her brother was killed by U.S. soldiers. She meets Sam and the encounter does not go well, because this is a romantic comedy/drama and that's how it works. Thankfully, the "Angry Amira" part of the story turns into something much more specific and satisfying. The whole cast is strong, but Starr does an exceptional job fleshing out Sam. (EJO)

Ben's At Home Trailer from Mars Horodyski on Vimeo.

Ben's At Home
I'd venture that most people who decide never to leave the house again aren't in quite as fine fettle as Ben (Dan Abramovici), who manages to get laid and keep his job during a brief, self-imposed exile following a tough breakup. But that's part of the light, breezy charm of Mars Horodyski's 70-minute, Montreal-filmed comedy. Sure, Ben's in danger of losing friends and looking like a full-blown agoraphobe to the delivery girl who stayed at his place after her shift. But this whole exile thing will likely be a momentary setback for a relatively well-balanced guy with puppy-dog eyes. There's something to be said for this Ben's At Home's let's-make-a-movie earnestness, and the stakes are low enough that it's okay if a joke falls flat or a performance doesn't quite jive with the rest. (SS)

Interesting Japanese relationship drama with intertwining storylines. Jempei is a mild-mannered teacher getting ready to propose to his girlfriend. He visits the doctor as part of his pre-proposal regime and is devastated to learn he is infertile. Meanwhile, his nine-year-old nephew is being bullied in school. The boy's upset mother reaches out for advice on how to fix the problem and complications ensue. Finally, an old storyteller exasperates his friend with his depressing tales. Everything comes together at a party that takes some surprising turns. The characters are exasperating at times, but always relatable. In Japanese with subtitles. (EJO)

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