Karlovy Vary sidebar sees helmers go beyond the borders

An intellectual concierge, a precocious 11-year-old and a refined Japanese gentleman form a friendship in Paris. A Swedish mother and son head to the Far East in search of new relationships. Two naive East Germans decide to visit San Francisco after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hey, European cinema isn’t just about Europeans anymore.

The films in the 13th edition of “Variety Critics’ Choice: Europe Now!” at the Karlovy Vary fest do more than cross cultures, they also delve into darker aspects of Europe’s past.

The documentary “Garbo: The Spy” is a compelling account of an extraordinary Spanish double agent during WWII who helped change the course of history. Beginning during the peak of Stalinist terror in communist Poland, “Reverse” shows how an encounter with the secret police changes life for three generations of women. And VCC’s first-ever Romanian selection, “Medal of Honor,” is set in December 1995, with the country in the midst of transition from the post-Ceausescu hangover.

Also demonstrating the multi-faceted nature of the continent’s cinema, European Film Promotion (EFP), longtime Variety collaborator on the sidebar, now numbers 31 national promotion organizations representing 32 countries, with the Albanian Center of Cinematography recently joining the network.

No one theme or genre unites the selections in the eclectic lineup. Apart from an inclination to favor first and second features, we concentrate on European films with freshness, invention and a sense of discovery. Nevertheless, a strong element of humor is present in eight of the 10 titles, although only two are out-and-out comedies.

Feel-good U.S.-set road movie “Friendship!” (a box office phenomenon in Deutschland), from sophomore helmer Markus Goller, begins with a lightly satirical look at former East Berlin, before linguistic and cultural misunderstandings provide a rich source of humor in America.

Switzerland’s top-grossing local pic, delightful romantic comedy “Will You Marry Us?” is the second feature from Swiss-German helmer Micha Lewinsky. It centers on a small-town bureaucrat whose life is thrown for a loop when an old b.f. pops up from her past.

In the tradition of Jiri Menzel’s “My Sweet Little Village,” but utterly contemporary in its satire, sly rural comedy “Men in Rut” from sophomore Czech writer-helmer Robert Sedlacek draws its humor from the clash of small and big worlds as politicians in a remote burg — so remote, in fact, that the road ends there — try to realize their dream of a new highway connecting them to Europe.

A terminally ill 15-year-old wants to get laid before meeting his maker in debut director Bruce Webb’s “The Be All and End All,” a working-class British dramedy that hits the sweet spot with its delicate balance of outrageous humor and heartfelt (though never sappy) drama.

More wistful humor is at the heart of French first-timer Mona Achache’s wildly successful helming debut “The Hedgehog.” Adapted from Muriel Barbery’s bestseller, it’s a touching parable about the importance of unconventionality.

Likewise, Swedish director Hakon Liu’s Taiwan-set “Miss Kicki” ruefully plays on the poignancy of misunderstanding and misplaced hopes.

The Eastern European titles rep comedy of a much drier, darker sort — in the case of “Reverse,” from debuting Polish helmer Borys Lankosz, the humor is positively black. Meanwhile, mordantly comic “Medal of Honor,” the sophomore feature from Romanian Calin Peter Netzer, becomes ever more engaging as the ironies mount.

Providing a change of pace, tense Irish drama “Snap” from playwright-turned-filmmaker Carmel Winters uses devices such as documentary video, Super-8 and mobile phone cameras to lend an unsettling immediacy to her kidnapping tale.

Finally, Spaniard Edmon Roch’s docu “Garbo: The Spy” employs a dazzling mixture of feature film and archival footage, interviews and music to underscore the shifting border between truth and falsehood.

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