New York Film Festival @ 50

Richard Pena arrived at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (and, by extension, the New York Film Festival) in the wake of a veritable palace coup — namely, the acrimonious ouster of previous NYFF director and co-founder Richard Roud, who passed away shortly thereafter.

It was a pressure-cooker moment to be sure, but Richard has always been cool under pressure.

His inaugural NYFF in 1988 was one for the ages, opening with Pedro Almodovar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and closing with Zhang Yimou’s “Red Sorghum.”

In between, there were new films from Romania, South Africa and South Korea, relatively uncharted territory offering early evidence that, where Roud had been key in introducing New York audiences to the vibrant new French, German and other European cinemas of the 1960s and ’70s, Richard II would expose them to a literal whole new world.

Which was only fitting for the Harvard-educated son of a Puerto Rican father and Spanish mother, who came of age in that time when knowledge was power and people still strived to be smarter than their telephones.

Now, as his final festival — which happens to be our 50th — kicks off, Richard is anything but a lame duck: Taking full advantage of programming opportunities afforded by the 2011 opening of the Film Society’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, the 2012 NYFF is the largest and most ambitious the organization has ever attempted, including a 33-film Main Slate, new sidebars devoted to documentaries about cinema and the other arts, and an enormous, unmistakably Pena-esque retrospective of the legendary French television series “Cinema of Our Time” (Cineastes de notre temps).

I’ve had the privilege of working with Richard for the last quarter of his Film Society journey, first as one of the “outside” critics on the NYFF selection committee and, since 2010, as a year-round member of the Film Society’s programming team — Richard’s Mini-Me or Smithers, I’ve sometimes joked, though in truth it’s been nothing but a pleasure as well as a profound learning experience. Richard is, by nature, a teacher, with a distinguished parallel career as an academic (based at Columbia U., with frequent guest lecturing elsewhere).

Over the years, I’ve met more than a few of his former students — many of them now accomplished filmmakers themselves — who have never hesitated to sing his praises. And while I’ve never formally enrolled in any of his courses, I nonetheless feel like a proud alumni of the School of Pena.

To work with him has been to constantly find my own ideas about cinema challenged, deepened and expanded. To say he will be missed is a profound understatement.

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