Usually the prospect of yet another film festival in New York City wouldn’t fill me with gleeful anticipation. It’s easier to find a film festival here than an uptown bus. But the idea behind the First Time Fest, which kicks off its inaugural event on March 1, is a good one; it highlights directors’ first feature films.
There are other showcases for new talent, certainly, but this one could become something special.
On the other hand, the Israeli feature that the festival’s selectors have chosen for their own first time is something else. “Urban Tale,” written and directed by Eliav Lilti, is the kind of film that makes you want to rend your garments and tear your hair. The premise is unusual but interesting, the actors are attractive, there is a certain undeniable wit at play, but the result is a stuttering, shambling, shaggy mess.
Their mother having died recently, a girl (Noa Friedman) and her brother (Barak Friedman) who is one year her junior, have to decide whether to seek the father who abandoned them many years earlier. In the course of their moral journey, they encounter a strange cast of characters. There’s the brother’s Bible teacher (Esti Yerushalmi) with whom he is having an affair; her lesbian lover (Nathalie Berman); the teacher’s husband (Zohar Strauss), a disaffected ad man; the voluble and volatile guy (Ohad Knoller) with whom the boy ends up sharing a jail cell; and a succession of utterly demented medical workers, cops and bureaucrats.
Everyone, including the two leads, gets a long monologue in which to expound upon his or her eccentric philosophy of life which, inevitably, centers on sex. Eventually, what has been portended since the film’s opening sequence, in which the boy masturbates after watching his sister get dressed for school, happens: the siblings have desultory sex.
Lilti stages all this in a series of vignettes intercut with faux-documentary interview material with aimless zooms and ugly, awkward framing. But there are moments of genuine wit. A telephone operator who helps the boy locate the missing father tells the unseen interviewer, “We don’t commit suicide in our family; our parents don’t like it.” Knoller has a hilariously, scurrilously filthy turn with a Lenny Bruce-ish monologue that eventually leads him to confess to murdering his wife. Alex Peleg has a dry, wry turn as the long-lost father.
But for too much of its 90-minute running time, “Urban Tale” feels like a cross between a series of audition reels and a rather dated piece of avant-garde theater — one of those tiresome farragoes about the inability of people to communicate in modern society that makes its point by having actors talk at one another rather than to one another.
The rest of the festival, happily, looks more promising. New films from Argentina, Belarus and the U.S. are featured, along with older debut efforts including John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon,” Morris Engel’s lovely cinema-vérité avant la lettre, “The Little Fugitive,” and Todd Haynes’ hypnotic “Poison.”
The inaugural First Time Fest will run from March 1-4, with a busy schedule of screenings and panel discussions taking place at the Loews Village VII (11th Street and Third Avenue) and the Players (16 Gramercy Park South). For more details, go to www.firsttimefest.com.