British director Hugh Hudson is the special guest at this year's Sofia Film Festival* – from March 9 to March 29 – to accompany a screening of his most famous movie. To those in the dark – the title features a line from William Blake's Jerusalem and the star of the film lives in Bulgaria.
It was 30 years ago that a relatively minor British movie defeated such heavily hyped films as Reds and On Golden Pond to win best film. Unusually, Chariots of Fire – for this is the film concerned – scooped no other major honours in the best actor or best director category. Only veteran character actor Ian Holm picked up a gong for best supporting actor.
However, audiences, critics and Academy members were won over by the authentic period feel, the strength of the story – two athletes driving themselves beyond endurance to triumph at the 1924 Olympics – and the rousing slow motion shots of barefoot runners on the beach to the backdrop of a masterful Vangelis score.
Hudson, nominated as best director for the film, was unjustly overlooked in favour of Warren Beatty for Reds, a marathon, rambling epic that proved popular with Hollywood's liberal-leaning elite. Hudson's direction, by contrast, was much tighter and less self-indulgent. Nevertheless, Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for best movie. And who can forget writer Colin Welland's famous rallying cry, "the British are coming" as he accepted his award? British cinema, long in the doldrums during the 1970s, a period when only sexploitation and Carry On movies seemed to be made, was now in contention for the big awards.
Sofia's most famous UK expat, Ben Cross, rocketed to stardom with his role as Harold Abrahams, the Jewish athlete who endures the anti-Semitism of the "suits and cigars" at Cambridge university, later winning a gold medal at the Olympics in the 100 metres sprint with the help of trainer Sam Mussabini. The late Ian Charleson played devout Christian Eric Lidell, winner of the 400 metres and sterling support came from Nigel Havers, John Gielgud and Patrick Magee.
Hugh Hudson's career did not scale the heights expected after the success of Chariots. Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, was a modest hit but the Al Pacino epic Revolution was a critical and box office failure. This led to quite a long hiatus for Hudson. By the late 1980s he was directing a party political broadcast for the Labour Party and an advert for British Airways. Later, he won plaudits for Lost Angels, a portrait of disaffected youth in California. According to the internet rumour mill, Hudson is currently planning to make a film version of Orwell's classic novel Homage to Catalonia.
Fans of British cinema will also love a double bill from, arguably, the greatest director Britain ever produced. Who else but David Lean? Those familiar with Lean's work will probably best remember those sweeping international epics, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago from the 1960s as well as his last movie, A Passage to India.
Yet all of Lean's films were classics in their own way. Even Ryan's Daughter, his 1970 love story set in war-torn Ireland, has enjoyed a revival. The film, savaged by critics on its release and even by one of its stars, Trevor Howard, who said "two-and-a-half hours is too long for a piddling love story", led a distraught Lean to take a 13-year sulk from film-making. Those were lost years. Moral of the story – make films for audiences, not a handful of critics!
The Lean films screened at the Sofia Film Festival are from his early days: Great Expectations (1946) - with John Mills as Pip - and Oliver Twist (1948), both black-and-white masterpieces and featuring Alec Guinness, as Herbert Pocket and Fagin, respectively. The films may lack the majestic panoramas of his later epics but they are examples of classic storytelling at its best. See them again and you will understand why Guinness was Lean's favourite actor. Lean even cast him – somewhat improbably – as an Indian in A Passage To India.Other highlights
1. Among other movies being screened at this years festival, the 16th, is House of Tolerance (2011), Bertrand Bonello’s highly stylised look at the final days of a fin-de-siècle brothel in Paris. The film has been hailed for its "visual sumptuousness".
2. No Man's Land (2001), set during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993, is a film that has won critical plaudits as well as high ratings on IMDb.
"A welcome antidote to glossy pseudo-histories such as Pearl Harbor and Enemy at the Gates, No Man's Land is a proper, grown-up war film, made by people who actually seem to know what they are trying to represent – a project more in the vein of La Grande illusion," wrote film critic SF Said.
3. Tree of Life (2011) set in a quiet suburb in 1950s America, follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father. Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain head an all-star cast.
4. Generation P (2011) deals with the advertising industry in post-Soviet Russia. One reviewer declared: "This film successfully blows your mind."
5. The Death of Mister Lazarescu (2005), the second feature by director Cristi Puiu, recounts the last hours of a lonely and sick man, Lazarescu, as he passes through a succession of hospitals. Shot in close to real time and described by Puiu as exhibiting a "typically Romanian slowness" that builds palpable suspense, the film is also punctuated by a dark humour familiar from other Eastern European cinema.
6. Stoichkov charts the phenomenal sport career and tempestuous life of the most famous Bulgarian who ever lived – if you are a football fan – Hristo Stoichkov.*This year's festival is organised by Art Fest under the auspices of the Municipality of Sofia and in partnership with the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture, the National Film Centre and the National Palace of Culture. The programme will include about 160 feature and documentary films and more than 60 shorts. For a full timetable of the films on offer, please see http://siff.bg.