VILNIUS - Explosions, fast cars, sexy stars, lots of blood and CGI effects are what sell a movie these days. Finding an audience for foreign-language, art-house or independent films isn't simple. But in the Baltic countries, film festivals that feed on "films" as opposed to "movies" are thriving.
Now in its 14th year, Lithuania's annual Kino pavasaris ("Cinema Spring") festival is as popular as ever. Tickets are selling out the day before. And once inside the auditorium the atmosphere is hushed and reverential. No popcorn munchers, no disruptive behavior; just 100 percent dedication.
Since most of these films have already toured the world's festival circuit, many of the foreign-language entries have English subtitles.
For those that don't, such as "Three Monkeys," the latest brooding, minimalist masterpiece by Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who won best director at Cannes last year, it is recommended you find a local to translate the essence of the dialogue. All films have Lithuanian subtitles.
Cinema Spring 2009 has some must-see highlights, including some of the most critically acclaimed films of 2008. Each of the films screens several times during the festival, often in halls of different sizes, giving viewers several chances to buy tickets.
"Gomorrah" is such a searing expose of the brutal mafia syndicate that effectively rules the city of Naples that its director, Matteo Garrone, is living in virtual secrecy to protect himself from a contract put out on his life by the Camorra clan.
Raw and realistic, "Gomorrah" is the ultimate companion piece to the "Godfather" movies in the sense that their styles are diametrically opposed. It strips away any illusions of Hollywood romance from America's famous mob movies by using a stark, hand-held, documentary-style approach more characteristic of "The Wire."
"Waltz with Bashir" is an Israeli film that narrowly lost out on winning this year's Oscar for best foreign-language film. Like so many of the other entries in the festival it packs an emotional punch, in this case particularly after the recent Gaza crisis.
Using the same digitally enhanced animated style seen in films like Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" and "A Scanner Darkly," it is a dreamlike confession of a former soldier who tries to recollect his harrowing past.
Another highlight of last year's film fest at Cannes was "Il Divo," the most recent film by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, who made the wonderful "Consequences of Love" a few years ago. It's a satire about a power-hungry politician whose desire to dominate inevitably brings him into contact with the all-powerful force in Italy, the mafia.
Based on the life of Giulio Andreotti, Italy's three-time prime minister, this is more than just a biopic. It shows how easily politicians of any color can collude with deeply corrupting forces while pretending to serve the people. Required viewing for politicos in all three Baltic countries then.
"Still Walking" is a wonderfully observed, poetic tale set almost entirely in a family home within the space of a single day. It is by Hirokazu Kore-eda, a Japanese director whose masterful work is persuasion enough to watch anything he makes.
But movie fans allergic to subtitles can find stuff to watch, too. "Rachel Getting Married" casts Anne "Ella Enchanted" Hathaway in the role of a recovering drug addict just out of rehab that will shock her fans.
"Genova" is a haunting film about two girls reeling from the loss of their mother. A touch lighter, perhaps, "Filth and Wisdom" is Madonna's first film as a director. About three roommates lusting after each other, including a Ukrainian immigrant, it features plenty more filth than wisdom.
However, if all this seems a bit too 21st century, fans of movie classics needn't fret. This year's Cinema Spring includes several films by Federico Fellini, including his exuberant masterpieces "La Dolce Vita" and "8 1/2." Their depictions of how hard it is to focus on creativity and morality in a tempting chocolate-box world of distractions are vital for any self-respecting film lover.
Cinema Spring is screening films at the Forum Cinemas Vingis multiplex and the Skalvija Cinema in Vilnius until April 2.