Even with the cinemas closed and independent production reeling, it’s still possible to watch really great, original, independent films. This week I saw two — both one-word titles beginning with S: SIN, and STRAY. Both are foreign pictures. Neither would ever play at your local Marvelplex. Yet you can see them both, thanks to the on-going alliance between distributors and independent art cinemas.

Sin (Il Peccato) is a Michelangelo bio-pic, by Andrey Konchalovskiy. Such a project is inherently risky, summoning up dire visions of heroic American (or, worse, Anglo-American) actors gritting their teeth as they paint the Sistine Chapel. But fear not! This is an Italian-Russian coproduction. The locations and cast are Italian. The VFX and some crew are Russian. The result is a film of incredible visual richness and moral complexity, with Charlton Heston and Christian Bale nowhere in sight. Alberto Testone plays Michelangelo as an agitated, enthusiastic, anguished individual who can’t say no to powerful patrons. It’s a brilliant, multi-faceted performance in a film full of excellent acting. The design is splendid, with much attention paid to the filthiness of the “Renaissance”. Cinematographer Aleksandr Simonov has shot the picture in “academy” ratio – 4X3 – rather than widescreen, which is usually obligatory in these ancient epics. But I think I understand his choice: the narrowness of the frame emphasizes the relationship of man not to his environment, but to the ceiling, to the sky, to God…

Of course, Sin needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible, for it is about Big Things. One day, the IFS and the Loft and the other great art houses will be screening films with audiences again (the Texas Theatre is doing this, cautiously, I think), and Sin should prove a popular repertory item. But don’t wait. Watch it on your laptop now, and again when the Big Screens return.

(Tod and I had the pleasure of interviewing Konchalovskiy some twenty years ago for our Kurosawa doc. He was only “western” director to film one of Kurosawa’s scripts – Runaway Train – and he had some memorable stories to tell. Konchalovskiy hated Communism and had moved to the USA, whereas Kurosawa had been a Communist in his youth, and admired Lenin. A spirited shouting match ensued. Now Andrey is back in Russia, and his 2020 film, Hello Comrades!, is an anti-Communist tale. His family are pretty important in Russia – it turns out his father wrote the National Anthem, and his brother his head of the cinematographers’ guild – and the Russians are keen for Hello Comrades! to get an Oscar nomination. Such prestige will, it is believed, help the government party hold back the Communists in the coming elections. Konchalovskiy’s story sounds like a Russian novel – with more chapters still to come!)

When I went to the Mar del Plata film festival in Argentina, I was struck by the numbers of stray dogs who roamed the city. My hosts assured me that this was normal: Argentinians don’t exterminate stray animals, as certain other nations do, but coexist with them. This astonished me. Inevitably, people knew varous dogs by nicknames, and sometimes fed them, and could tell stories about them. What a film was to be made here! I pondered the project, and immediately gave it up, because it would have involved months, if not years, spent shooting on the streets, living in cities and never seeing my own dear dogs, back in the land of plenty… Well, I am pleased to say a braver, stronger filmmaker has stepped up and made that film – in Turkey. Her name is Elizabeth Lo.

Stray is the story of three stray dogs, living on the streets of Istanbul. Lo shot and edited it over a two year period. Her story of the smallest things – abandoned animals – is also a story of abandoned people – Syrian refugees begging, sleeping on the streets, sniffing glue – and of other marginals whom society values not at all, and like Sin, becomes a film about Big Things. Stray is wonderful in many ways. Its conclusion is extraordinary. And thanks to the pandemic, and this inventive reponse, Lo’s film may get a wider and more general distribution. In addition to the art houses, it’s also streaming in support of local animal rescues. So if you want to would like to watch Stray and support the Jackson County Animal Shelter in Southern Oregon just click here.

Stray is currently streaming via the IFS, the Loft, and elsewhere. The Animal Shelter screening is on March 13, followed by an interview with the director.