When the Los Angeles–based opera director Peter Sellars accepted the Austrian government’s invitation to stage a massive arts festival in honor of Mozart’s 250th birthday, he commissioned an ambitious series of films for the occasion, each to be made by a director from the developing world. The results now come to L.A., making for one of the undeniable highlights of this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. At first glance, these six features and one short, all said to be inspired by ideas and emotional themes from Mozart’s final major works (the operas The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito, and the unfinished Requiem Mass), could hardly bear less connection to the composer, or one another. Upon closer scrutiny, they reveal surprising bonds, particularly in their recurring notions of war and remembrance, mourning and forgiveness, and the basic human yearning for the company of others. Those sentiments are especially pronounced in West African director Mahmat-Saleh Haroun’s stark and powerful Dry Season, which follows a vindictive teenager from Chad’s rugged countryside to the bustling capital of N’Djamena as he searches for the man who killed his father in that nation’s decades-long civil war. A different armed conflict — the 1930s Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia — rages far from the characters in Paz Encina’s Paraguayan Hammock, in which an elderly couple living in a remote jungle go about their daily chores while pondering the fate of their soldier son. Little of note happens in Encina’s debut feature, and yet we are left with an indelible sense of these quiet, ordinary people living at the other end of the world. The appeal of the New Crowned Hope films, however, is hardly ethnographic or cheaply exotic. The great Malaysian filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone would be an achingly beautiful dream of human togetherness no matter where in the world it were set. Likewise, though the young director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century ostensibly takes place in its maker’s native Thailand, its true setting is the same gloriously knotty head space occupied by Weerasethakul’s two earlier features, Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady. Like those movies, Syndromes starts out along one relatively straight narrative path, then doubles back on itself, giving the impression of two asymmetrical half movies — one past, one present; one rural, one urban — regarding each other through a wonderfully distorted looking glass. Of course, a Mozart-inspired film series would be nothing if it didn’t offer audiences something to sing about. Hence, there’s Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi’s tragicomic musical Half Moon, in which a famed Kurdish musician gets the old band back together — in this case, his 10 sons and a banished female singer — and embarks on a perilous journey toward a concert booking in newly “liberated” Iraq. Best of all is Indonesian director Garin Nugroho’s scintillating Opera Jawa, which draws upon nearly every known form of art and storytelling — painting, dance, puppetry, song, sculpture — to tell the tale of four dancers whose lives parallel the events in an ancient Javanese myth they once performed together. Sung through, danced by dancers with majestically malleable bodies and sporting an eye-popping production design courtesy of several Indonesian installation artists, Opera Jawa is that rare film that can accurately be said to be unlike anything you have ever seen or heard (unless you are Javanese). There is indeed “hope” in these movies — not only for the world at large, but for the future of film itself.

Opera Jawa screens Sun., June 24, 1 p.m., at the Billy Wilder Theatre; Half Moon screens Sun., June 24, 4 p.m., at the Billy Wilder Theatre and Wed., June 27, 2:15 p.m., at the Italian Cultural Institute; Syndromes and a Century screens Sun., June 24, 7 p.m., at the Billy Wilder Theatre and Tues., June 26, 9:45 p.m., at The Landmark; I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone screens Mon., June 25, 7 p.m., at the Billy Wilder Theatre and Tues., June 26, 4:30 p.m., at the Regent; Dry Season (preceded by Meokgo and the Stickfighter)screens Fri., June 29, 6 p.m., at the Billy Wilder Theatre; Paraguayan Hammock screens Sun., July 1, 2:30 p.m., at the Billy Wilder Theatre.

—Scott Foundas

LA Weekly