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Telluride & the triumph of 'Overlord'

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- The most remarkable discovery at this year's Telluride Film Festival is "Overlord," an elegiac 1975 film that follows the journey of one young British soldier to the beaches of Normandy. The film, directed by Stuart Cooper, won the Silver Bear at Berlin -- but sank quickly from view after a limited release and was all but forgotten until this Telluride revival.

Unlike "Saving Private Ryan" and other dramatizations based on D-Day, "Overlord" is an intimate film, one that focuses closely on Tom Beddoes (Brian Stirner), who enters the British army, goes through basic training and is one of the first ashore on D-Day. Beddoes is not a macho hero but a quiet, nice boy, who worries about his cocker spaniel and takes along David Copperfield when he goes off to war.

The black-and-white movie tells his story through a remarkable combination of new and archival footage. It was produced by the Imperial War Museum in London, where Cooper spent three years looking at documentary and newsreel footage from World War II. About 27 percent of the film is archival and awesomely real -- for example, a scene where soldiers and their landing boat are thrown against rocks by furious waves.

There are sights I had never seen before, including monstrous mechanical wheels that propel themselves across the beach to explode land mines and flatten barbed wire. One of these machines is driven by a ring of rockets around its rim, and as it rolls forward, belching fire and smoke, it looks like a creature of hell.

"Overlord," whose title comes from the code word for one of the invasion plans, uses archival footage to show the devastation of bombing raids, from above and below. Cooper's cinematographer, the Kubrick favorite John Alcott, used lenses and film stock that matched the texture of this footage, so the film seems all of a piece. Tom's story is not extraordinary; he says goodbye to his parents, survives some hazing during basic training, makes a few close friends and becomes convinced he will die in the landing.

This prospect does not terrify him, and he writes a letter to his parents, consoling them in advance.

He meets a local girl (Julie Neesam) at a dance, in a club filled with soldiers on leave. All of the cliches of such scenes are abandoned. She is a nice girl, he is a nice boy, they are kind to each other, tender and polite, and agree to meet again on Monday. But on Monday, he is part of the early stages of the invasion, which seems, he writes his parents, like an entity that is growing to unimaginable proportions while he becomes a smaller and smaller speck of it. He has a fantasy in which he meets the girl again; to describe it would reveal too much about this film, which is a rare discovery.

***

Lodge Kerrigan, who makes films about lonely and isolated people, is back at Telluride for the third time with "Keane," starring Damien Lewis as a schizophrenic man who drifts between being calm and functional, and raving in the streets. He is obsessed with a daughter he thinks was abducted.

The first half of the film follows him from bars to cocaine dealers to quick sex at a truck stop; at one point, he attacks a man in the street. Then, at his transient hotel, he meets a woman and her young daughter. He seems calm and sane to the mother, who entrusts him to pick up the girl after school and bring her home; a few days later, she's gone overnight, trying to track down her husband.

Suspense grows organically out of this material. How long will Keane's period of functionality endure? Will he confuse this girl with his lost daughter? Is the child in danger? Lewis' performance is intense and inward; Kerrigan's camera stays close to him as he drifts in and out of illness, showing him sometimes desperately trying to head off a dangerous episode. Like his first two films, "Clean, Shaven" (1994) and "Claire Dolan" (1998), this new film is observant and sympathetic to a character tortured by inner demons.

***

Sometimes you overhear extraordinary things on your way out of a theater. After the Telluride screening of Michael Radford's jolting "The Merchant of Venice," I heard a woman behind me saying to her friend, "Gee, I thought the poor Jew really got the shaft." So Shakespeare's message got through.

The movie stars Al Pacino as Shylock, the Venetian money lender who lends 3,000 ducats to Antonio (Jeremy Irons), a merchant. When he defaults on the loan, Shylock demands the payment of a pound of flesh. There is a romantic parallel plot involving young lovers, mistaken identities, exchanged rings and so on, but Radford focuses on Shylock and Antonio, and I do not recall any other production of the play that underlines so vividly Shylock's bitterness about his treatment at the hands of Antonio and other gentiles.

Antonio has called him a dog, spit at him, cursed him, condemned the practice of money lending. Yet now he guarantees the loan to his young friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), who needs it to marry the fair Portia (Lynn Collins). Shylock asks Antonio if he is not opposed to usury. Yes, Antonio says, but he will not be using the money himself. Soon after, Shylock is betrayed when his daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) elopes with a gentile, taking along part of his fortune.

The trial scene in the Ducal Palace, where Shylock demands his repayment, is treated by Radford's screenplay as a courtroom drama, and Pacino is uncompromising as a Shylock singlemindedly focusing on revenge. Pacino plays a fierce, proud man throughout the movie, and his delivery of the famous speech, including "does not a Jew bleed?" is barked out as a savage appeal for simple justice. Pacino is not a tall man, but camera angles and staging make him appear ever shorter as his enemies loom over him, and he fights against his fate.

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