Directed by: Woody Allen
Distributed by: MPI Media Group
Written by Patrick Hao
At a certain point, Woody Allen is never going to change. His constant grappling of the meaningless of life, fixation on younger women, and the European cinema of Bergman, Fellini, and Godard have been a consistent theme throughout his near sixty-year directing career. And while these cinematic connections point to an auteur, the lack of modulation of these fixations has made Allen’s films stale. Late period Allen has a timeless quality – in a bad way – in that they seem out of place in the modern world. His newest film “Rifkin’s Festival” could just as easily be released in 1979 as it could today.
Wallace Shawn plays Mort Rifkin in “Rifkin’s Festival,” a retired film professor who specializes in studying, well who else, Bergman, Fellini, and Godard. He finds himself at the San Sebastian International Film Festival (Which incidentally is where the film premiered in 2020.) with his wife Sue (Gina Gershon), a publicist assigned to work with populist European auteur Phillipe (Louis Garrell). While there, Mort becomes subjected to the common Allen neurosis. He wants to be a novelist, but his perfectionist nature has given him permanent writer’s block. He suspects his wife is cheating on him with the young director, but it is unclear if he is more offended by her infidelity or the fact that he does not respect Philippe’s films.
Mort finds kinship in a young doctor, Dr. Jo Rojas (Elena Anaya), who just so happens to be beautiful and shares all the same opinions on cinema as Mort. Enamored with his new lady friend, Mort finds every reason he can to visit the doctor, the lengths of which become amusing enough. The plot is interspersed with fantasies in which Mort places himself in the cinema that he so admires including “The Seventh Seal,” “The Exterminating Angel,” and “Jules et Jim.” Even these sequences, which could have been filled with a sense of play, instead feel derivative of much more vital Allen films like “Stardust Memories.” It does not help that “Rifkin’s Festival” continues Allen’s streak of not figuring out how to utilize digital filmmaking. He and cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, give the film an overly drab look that either points to laziness, lack of funding, or both.
What sinks Allen’s films most is that it is tethered to nothing but Allen’s own preoccupations. While his early films spoke to a kind of intelligentsia of New York high society culture, Allen’s films more and more speak only to homebound octogenarian townhouse dwellers. Even his strawman of a modern mid-brow auteur is so utterly unspecific that it is hard to discern exactly what Allen is pointing his ire to or if he has even seen a movie in the last 20 years. You would think that after being rejected by modern Hollywood that forced him to retreat to Spain, a film that purports to rip on the film industry would have more vigor and venom. But he is a filmmaker who cannot see beyond his bubble.
If anything, his inability to get a bigger star as the Allen surrogate than Wallace Shawn is a blessing in disguise. Shawn’s distinctive vocal meter and hermit crab-like octogenarian appearance make him much more convincing when delivering Allen’s dialogue than someone like Timothee Chalamet or Joaquin Phoenix. It’ll be interesting to see how many more films Allen makes in this mode. But if this is his last, at least he is consistent.
Rifkin’s Festival Trailer
“Rifkin’s Festival” is on most VOD Platforms and is playing in limited theatrical release.
You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.