Just before the movie "Compliance" screened in Manaus, Brazil, during the Amazonas Film Festival, director Craig Zobel was more than a little nervous about how the flick would be received. After all, it was arguably the most controversial movie at Sundance earlier this year.
"At that first Sundance screening, a woman told me that it was a horrible film and I was a horrible person," Zobel recalled to me while standing just outside the Teatro Amazonas -- Manaus's magnificent 100-year-old opera house and the primary venue for the fest. Many critics (including this one) lauded the film as being a chilling cinematic psych experiment; others decried it as exploitation. Either way, it's not a feel-good movie.
Yet the mood at the Teatro Amazonas was, before the "Compliance" screening, downright giddy. Brazilian actress Leticia Sabatella was attending, so the theater was packed with fans, most of whom seemed to be 14-year-old girls. As she took her seat, Sabatella gave the crowd a royal wave, and the place erupted into one collective squeal.
Based on a true story, "Compliance" is about a harried fast-food-restaurant manager who, after a call from a someone posing as a policeman, confines her employee in a backroom, strip-searches her, and ultimately allows her to be sexually assaulted.
Since Sundance, Zobel has been touring the world, showing "Compliance" at one film festival after another. He's been consistently surprised by the reaction abroad.
"Almost everywhere I've gone, including here in Brazil, people said, 'This is an American thing, though, right?'"
After a screening in London, an Italian woman insisted that the events from the movie couldn't possibly happen in Europe. "I just looked at her and said, 'You're from Italy,'" said Zobel, referring to Mussolini's rise to power in the '20s. "The whole entire room laughed. She laughed too."
[Related: Indie Roundup: 'Compliance']
Before coming to Brazil, Zobel screened his movie in Moscow. The first question during the postscreening Q&A was from an old woman with a scarf tied around her head.
"The question was, 'Your film seems to speak to something that we recognize very much as Russian people, and I wondered if you would ever consider doing a film about Stalin,'" he said. "I just said, 'Da.'"
During previous screenings, the Amazonas Film Fest's diverse audience had not been shy about chatting with neighbors, talking on the phone, or nursing an infant, but during "Compliance" the crowd was engrossed. "That was the quietest I've ever seen this audience," I heard a publicist connected to the fest remark.
Of course, the audience's contemplative mood quickly evaporated once people remembered that Sabatella was still among them when the lights went up. As she left the theater, the opera house's lobby echoed with more squeals.
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See the trailer for 'Compliance':