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Sense of Place at Tribeca: Overview of Films at De Niro’s Downtown New York City Festival

Many of the films of this year’s festival seemed to be tied with a common thread: a strong sense of place. There was a paucity of the type of generic film where, for example, Toronto is substituted for New York City, or the entire film takes place indoors or in an unidentifiable outdoor Anywhere. This grounded place-ness was especially evident in the films competing for the festival’s World Narrative Feature Award.

Small-town Sweden, illusory yet hyperreal

The eerily lovely “Let the Right One In,” which won the festival’s World Narrative Feature Competition, is distinctive in its depiction of an almost otherworldly and yet very categorical and specific snow-covered Scandinavian suburb.

French movies aren’t all cafes and cigarettes

The French movieCharly” takes its visual cues from the dreary Belgian terrains vagues visited to such bleak effect in the movies of brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne; the film ultimately expresses, as movies like “Rosetta” and “L’Enfant” did, how profoundly the landscape can seep into one’s personality and ability to dream and to perceive the world.

China through the eyes of a pragmatist

“Lost: Indulgence” is primarily a meditation on the pervasive influence of money, and how inseparable all human transactions are, ultimately, from financial ones in this picture of contemporary rural China. Apart from a portrait of defined moments in the lives of its characters, the film is also an homage to the specificity of daily life itself, with its sounds, smells and vistas—it lacks the Western-eyed romance of many, if not most, movies about China that are disseminated in North America, precisely because of its unblinking look at the place.

The steadying influence of simple pleasures

“Quiet Chaos,” a meditation on grief, is also extremely place-centered; the protagonist, after saving a woman from drowning during a beach holiday, returns to his family cottage only to find his own wife dead and young daughter terrified. Thereafter, the high-powered television executive steadies himself by examining the minutiae of life as it’s lived in the park outside his daughter’s school—the life of a small area in a small town in Italy that is nonetheless as teeming with activity and emotion as Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead or Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot Cove.

The pub, the lads and back to mine

Set in a small town in Ireland, “Eden” follows the trajectory of a marriage in freefall. The lead actress won the Best Actress award at Tribeca, and the film itself reproduces in loving detail the infinitesimal details of small-town life, the green beauty of the surrounding countryside, the pubs, the street along the river at night…and the role that fantasy plays amid the everyday.

At least in one sense, the Tribeca Film Festival organizers were deliberate in their choices of films with a strong sense of place: the Made In New York Narrative category, in which films were chosen for screening based on their depiction of the New York City.

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