Highlights of the 2005 Cleveland Film Festival


Asia Argento, writer/director of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, pole danced her way to new heights at Saturday’s showing.

Credit: Beth Rankin

The first half of this year’s Cleveland Film Festival offered a wide variety of films from all over the world. Everything from Tibetan soccer dramas and Iraqi war documentaries to sex dramas starring Anne Heche has come Cleveland’s way thus far, and the arrival of well-regarded indie director Todd Solondz and his new film Palindromes is still to come this Saturday. Here, Steven Harbaugh, Jon Dieringer and Seth Roy review three of the more notable entries from this year’s festival.

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things

Directed by Asia Argento. Starring Asia Argento, Jimmy Bennett, Cole & Dylan Sprouse, Jeremy Sisto, Kip Pardue, Michael Pitt, Peter Fonda, Winona Ryder and Marilyn Manson. (Muse Productions)

Perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of watching Asia Argento’s film, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, is knowing that it has basis in reality — the childhood of West Virginia native J.T. LeRoy, who authored the book of the same name.

The story centers on Jeremiah, a child plucked from his foster home and forced into a hedonistic journey on the road with his drug-addled mother, Sarah. The film is a series of heart wrenching displays of abusive, junkie white trash treating Jeremiah like street vermin — from feeding him hallucinogenic drugs that make the boy claw at his skin and scream, “I’m trying to dig myself out” to forcing him to eat from dumpsters to getting raped by one of his mother’s ex-boyfriends. The film is relentlessly disturbing.

Having read the book, the film follows its source material pretty consistently, with the exception of not elaborating too much on Jeremiah’s downfall into becoming a 10-year-old transvestite prostitute with the aid of his dysfunctional, junkie mother (something probably better left out of film).

Watch for cameos from Marilyn Manson (sans makeup and playing a horny, drunken piece of West Virginia white trash), Winona Ryder (playing a hick psychologist in a children’s rehabilitation ward) and Peter Fonda (playing an overtly creepy priest).

But without a doubt, the best performances come from Asia Argento as Sarah and the little boys who play Jeremiah throughout his childhood. If you can stomach the abuse inflicted on the little boy from Winnie the Pooh’s Heffalump Movie (Jimmy Bennett), then don’t expect for a reward for your bravery like a happy ending.

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things is a 97-minute acid trip through Appalachia’s twisted and deviant truckstop landscape. But most importantly, it’s a testament to how excruciatingly evil, self-absorbed and negligent bad parents can be.

— Steven Harbaugh

Innocent Voices

Directed by Luis Mandoki. Starring Leonor Varela, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Ofelia Medina, Gustavo Muñoz, Carlos Padilla and Ignacio Retes. (Mexico, Lawrence Bender Productions, Spanish with English language subtitles)

When children are killed in a movie, the effect is usually either shamelessly manipulative or coldly distant.

But in Innocent Voices, an autobiographical account of screenwriter Oscar Orlando Torres’ life, it’s hard to fault the effect as either, even if it seems to lead toward the former. It’s the truth, and it’s scary.

Torres was 11 in 1980 when the Civil War broke out in El Salvador and the government’s army began “recruiting” (legally kidnapping) children as soldiers at age 12. As Chava (the Torres character, played by Carlos Padilla) reaches that age, his anxiety builds, and he begins to understand the guerilla cause even if he doesn’t want to be a part of it.

As a film, Innocent Voices suffers to a degree from consistent melodrama. Yet this lends itself — even among the many intense shootouts — to an almost family friendly naivety that is in sharp contrast to the hard facts of the life of Chava’s family.

This is at the crux of what makes it such a compelling argument against the actions of the U.S.-backed — as in billions of dollars in military aid — government. This achievement is all the more substantial in that the politics simply emerge from Torres’ observations rather than serve a predetermined agenda.

On hand for the screening, Torres was a polite and modestly spoken man who said that the film has opened El Salvador to a discussion of the effects of the war, something had not been done since its 1992 conclusion. Susan Sarandon was so affected by the film she is arranging a showing for it at the United Nations. It’s conceivable for one to dismiss the drama as overwritten, but the horror of children used as soldiers is undeniable.

While it may not be the best movie in and of itself, the film’s integrity and high potential for historical significance make it well worth checking out.

— Jon Dieringer

Down to the Bone

Directed by Debra Granik. Starring Vera Farmiga, Hugh Dillon, Clint Jordan, Caridad De La Luz, Jasper Moon Daniels and Taylor Foxhall.

It was my first venture into the world of the Cleveland Film Festival, and the film I chose to see: Down to the Bone.

Irene, played brilliantly by Vera Farmiga (The Manchurian Candidate), who won Best Actress at last year’s Sundance Film Festival for her role as Irene, is a mother of two young boys who works at a grocery store and snorts cocaine in her spare time.

She is in need of another fix, but is also in debt to her supplier. Her husband Steve, played by Clint Jordan (The Rage: Carrie 2), is of no help to her either in helping her end her habit or in supporting it. He has his own drugs.

In a last ditch effort to get high, Irene tries to use her oldest son’s birthday money to pay her debt and buy more coke. This is where she finally realizes that she has hit bottom and checks herself into rehab where she lives for a short time.

While in rehab, she meets the sympathetic, endearing male nurse Bob, played by Hugh Dillon (Hard Core Logo), who has also overcome drug abuse in his past. He helps Irene conquer her demons by attending Narcotic’s Anonymous meetings with her and being persistent.

Down to the Bone feels and looks much like a documentary, which helps viewers to relate to and understand what Irene is going through.

Many of the scenes are drab and boring, especially the scenes where she is using drugs, or when she is in rehab. Director Debra Granik uses the film to express her views that drug use is monotonous and unexciting, while sympathizing with those who may be addicted. She approaches the issue with a realistic view. The problem never really goes away nor is there ever really an ending, let alone a happy one.

Down to the Bone isn’t nearly as flashy or intense as the Requiem for a Dream — a film that also dealt with the effects of drug use — but, in the end, it achieves a similar effect.

—Seth Roy