It seems film festivals are organic creatures. You never know the strength and tenacity of one’s survival instinct till its very existence is threatened. MAMI’s (Mumbai Academy of Moving Image) Mumbai Film Festival has been around for more than a decade in many avatars. It was a small festival to start with. Then came Reliance and Tina Ambani, who injected both money and glamour to jazz up a festival that had hitherto struggled to find sponsors every year and yet somehow managed to get good to great films and eminent filmmakers. After five years of a rather cushy life, this year the festival’s existence was at stake. Reliance withdrew sponsorship and the festival became an iffy affair.

It is a minor miracle that the 16th edition was finally held last month. Bollywood filled the breach admirably, making headlines for its concerted use of star power to bring off what looked impossible at one time. Bollywood biggies have always been on MAMI’s board but (with honourable exceptions) they mostly appeared at the Mumbai Film Festival’s inaugural ceremony and then vanished. This year, they were galvanised into taking an active part in putting together a programme that satisfied the festival habitué (a cynical creature, most of the time) and infected newbies with festival fever. There were glitches –  inevitably – and yet it was a satisfactory cinematic repast: provocative food for thought from established film-makers and new talents. So, here’s my list of the best films from the festival.

First, I must start with a film I missed but is worth talking about nonetheless. MAMI’s festival has been fertile ground for Marathi cinema. Last year’s find was Fandry, a passionate, textured look at the life of Dalits in a biggish village through the experience of a sensitive adolescent schoolboy with a crush on an upper-caste girl. This year, Court, Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut feature, won the top prize in the international competition section. Court had won the Lion of the Future award for best debut at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, and the determined throngs at repeated screenings at MAMI’s festival made getting into the theatre impossible. The loss is entirely mine.

Court is destined for big things. New Marathi films are released with subtitles, and there lies hope for laggards like me who were late in reserving seats online. Another notable Marathi film that won in the Indian competition section is Killa, which ought to hit theatres soon.

Gueros, directed by Alonso Puiz Palacios, is about four young Mexican

Gueros, directed by Alonso Puiz Palacios, is about four young Mexican

There is something about Latin cinema that draws me like a helpless moth to a flame that often flickers only to deceive. The Mexican film Gueros restored faith in the intangible lure of Latin imagination: fluid form, provocative theme bristling with questions of what makes for revolution, and pleasures of unexpected departures, all wrapped in a retro cool homage to French New Wave. Alonso Ruiz Palacios comes with a formidable reputation: winner, best first feature at Berlin 2014, FIPRESCI prize at Jerusalem, best cinematography at Tribeca and now, jury award at MAMI.

Palacios shoots in black and white, and his handheld camera doesn’t take you on a dizzying ride just for the heck of it. He has amazing control over a freewheeling narrative. The time is 1999 and the students of Mexico City’s National University are on strike. Fede is a student and an anonymous poet whose poetry is read out by Ana, the voice of the student revolution, on radio. He and his friend Santos live in a flat where they cajole their neighbour’s daughter into letting them steal electricity so they can listen to the radio. Ana is a middleclass girl who spells out the unwritten but visible hierarchy that rules academia: Latin American studies at the bottom while English and French literature students are the elite. Fede and Santos’s lives take a turn when Fede’s younger brother, Tomas, is sent to live with Fede because their mother is unable to cope with Tomas. The foursome now takes off in an unreliable car to find the elusive musician Epigmenio Cruz, who is reported to have reduced Bob Dylan to tears. He could have been the saviour of Mexican rock but has disappeared, leaving behind the lone cassette young Tomas inherited from his late father. Suffice to say, the riveting journey comes to an enigmatic end, all of them (and us) wiser and sadder.

Sweetness of spirit and precise observation make for a good combination in A Despedida (Farewell) from Brazil. Admiral, a 92-year-old man, sets out by himself, pushing his creaky walker along, to get himself coffee. Getting coffee is a metaphor for making a last visit to his mistress (50 years younger) and savouring life’s pleasures one last time. The actor’s body language and toothless smile emanate a tangible sense of life enjoyed without regrets. The film is slow and sweet but stubbornly unsentimental.

Clouds of Sils Marias stars Juliette Binoche & Kristen Stewart

Clouds of Sils Marias stars Juliette Binoche & Kristen Stewart

There is usually one film at a festival that gives total satisfaction. A minor flaw to some is so trivial that instead of taking away from enjoyment, it adds that touch of ambiguity to keep you intrigued. Olivier Assayas’s French film Clouds of Sils Maria is so richly textured, so brilliantly cast, so subtly written and directed that you want to stand up and applaud. A film about actors and performance has a special cachet, a great chance to introspect, individually and collectively. When it comes off (quite often ambition exceeds grasp), the film becomes memorable.

Sils Maria takes an eminent actor who made her name in serious art-house cinema to revisit her first triumph in theatre, as 18-year-old Sigrid in Maloja Snake. Now, 20 years later, she is challenged to act in a revival of the play, a lesbian drama in which Sigrid seduces and then betrays her older employer, but this time as the suicidal older woman. Sigrid is now played by a young Hollywood starlet notorious as celebrity news fodder for paparazzi and internet gossip. There is a clash between serious art cinema and despised Hollywood blockbusters, a delicate negotiation between what is considered worthy of a great actress and the whims of a brash Hollywood starlet. This game of cautious advance, alarmed retreat and tentative reconciliation is played like a delicate minuet in which overt moves are undercut by covert withdrawals.

The intertextuality in the screenplay is amazing, opening up many readings. There is Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders, the celebrated actress torn between the excitement of acting in the play that made her famous and fear of enacting the other woman, and La Binoche herself, who, at 50, finds roles drying up for an actress of her calibre. She has pulled off a near cinematic equivalent of the Grand Slam: Best Actress at Cannes, Venice and Berlin. An Oscar would complete the Slam.

Cast as Maria’s efficient assistant, who is more than just an employee, is Kristen Stewart of the Twilight series. Her Val holds her own against Maria, defending the appeal and subtext of pop culture, as they discuss the new Sigrid, to be played by Jo Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), whose claim to fame is off-screen notoriety and a brief part in a sci-fi blockbuster. Val’s mysterious disappearance on a trek to watch the famous cloud formation provides the essential ambiguity that is never resolved. What is predictably enjoyable is how the paparazzi darling takes over the production with the sort of ruthless charm that recalls All About Eve. Clouds of Sils Maria is a must-see film.

Gong Li, 48, looks stunning in Yang Zhimou's Coming Home

Gong Li, 48, looks stunning in Yang Zhimou’s Coming Home

Close contender for the best film at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival was Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home. Foremost among the fifth-generation film-makers, Zhang combines the eye of a master cinematographer and vision of a gifted director. He has made soaring action epics such as Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) after starting out with gritty studies of ordinary heroism in Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991).

Zhang was criticised after Hero for selling out to the Chinese government (Hero validates the conquest of independent kingdoms in ancient China to create the idea of one nation). Coming Home too can be accused of asking for collective forgiveness for the misery and persecution unleashed by the Cultural Revolution.

Zhang uses the intimate story of a couple who are torn apart when the husband, professor Lu Yanshi, is first sent to a reform labour camp during the Cultural Revolution and then arrested for trying to escape it. The couple’s young daughter is a talented aspiring dancer vying for the lead role in a ballet valorising the Cultural Revolution. In an attempt to get the part, she betrays her father, informing the police of his escape plan, and is sentenced to a life of guilt. Her mother, who was a teacher, is caught in a time warp and refuses to let the repentant daughter live with her. After years of sexual harassment by Chinese officials, the wife develops amnesia and does not recognise Lu when he comes home. Zhang spins a delicate, touching narrative in which Lu willingly accepts the role of a letter-reading friend, playing out the ritual of accompanying his wife to the railway station every 5th of a new month as she waits for her beloved. The political context is very much there but tenderness triumphs. The gorgeous Gong Li, who plays the wife, is as beautiful at 48 as she was in Raise the Red Lantern (released 24 years ago), age making her glow with mellow luminosity.

Jimmy's Hall recreates 1930s Ireland

Jimmy’s Hall recreates 1930s Ireland

Then there is the ever-reliable Ken Loach to pack contemporary relevance in his meticulous, spirited recreation of Ireland of the 1930s in Jimmy’s Hall. The implacable hostility of the Catholic Church to the activities of a re-opened community hall in a rural area harks back to a period when any freethinking questioning of feudal privilege was condemned as godless communism. Jimmy returns from exile in New York and brings with him jazz and blues, and awareness of what is happening outside to galvanise young and old. Based on a true story, Jimmy’s Hall makes alerts us to the prevalence of prejudice and closed minds in a globalised world.

Another British film based on true events is the more upbeat Pride, which celebrates the efforts of a small LGBT group based in London to support the cause of striking Welsh miners in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. The interaction between the disparate groups and the range of hostile reactions from the miners runs the gamut of gingerly awkwardness to wariness to warm acceptance.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in a scene from Nymphomaniac Vol. II

Charlotte Gainsbourg in a scene from Nymphomaniac Vol. II

What is a festival minus a film guaranteed to provoke? One expected Lars von Trier’s two- part Nymphomaniac to set screens on fire. Either Mumbai is getting blasé or people had already downloaded the five -hour film. Von Trier is the new Godard, predictably unpredictable, rewriting film grammar with the dogmatic conviction of the New Wave movement’s founder and sending viewers on a hunt to locate film, painting and literary references that are strewn across the narrative. The narrative device is simple and as ancient as Scheherazade’s tale. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is found battered and bruised in an alley by the elderly bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). He takes her home, tends to her wounds and encourages her to tell her story – of guilt, a deep sense of sin and a voracious sexual appetite that drives her to find satisfaction with many men. Her goal is lust without love. The only person she admits to loving is her doctor father.

As she lacerates herself with guilt, Seligman absolves her at every turn, finding parallels with subjects as esoteric as angling and the opposing attitudes to joy and suffering of eastern and western Christianity. Von Trier positions intellectual argument above sex, and that is the film’s strength and delight. He makes graphic depictions of sex and genitalia (some of it prosthetic) so clinical that it is determinedly anti-erotic. He de-eroticises sex to an unimaginable degree and elevates intellectual argument to a sensual level. A neat reversal. Von Trier continues his preoccupation with sex, guilt, sin, melancholia, depression and blasphemy through daring inversions and luminous images. Is his trilogy that began with Anti-Christ (2009) over or is there more ammunition to outrage conservative religiosity? Time will tell.

One more observation to underline the director’s contrariness. Volume two of Nymphomania (which seems to lose some of its intellectual vigour) has a scene of two black men using the protagonist for sandwich sex. The magnificent black man engaged in anal sex is imaged for so long and so caressingly that the director can be accused of objectifying him with racist undertones.

Gett shows the oppression of women in Israel

Gett shows the oppression of women in Israel

Sometimes you find thematic connections in films as different as an Israeli courtroom drama and a collage of South Asian women’s stories. Women’s stories continue to resonate even in post-feminist times. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem by the Israeli brother-sister duo Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz reveals the shocking face of Jewish orthodoxy, in which a woman has no power of getting a divorce in a civil court. Only the Rabbi can dissolve the marriage, and that too when the husband is willing to do so. At one point in the film, the Rabbi tells Viviane Amsalem, who has been fighting for the dissolution of her marriage for three years, “Know your place, woman.” To which the determined Viviane replies in an ironic voice hardened by experience, “I know my place.”

The action takes place in a courtroom where only three judges, two lawyers and the couple are present. Witnesses are ushered in and ordered out. Sometimes the action goes out into the cramped waiting room. And yet, through close-ups and sharply worded arguments, humour and irony, the film holds taut through its 115 minutes. Character, back story, societal norms, dramatic highs and lows – everything is conveyed with precision, insight and dramatic tempo.

Honeycomb Lodge, in the Film India Worldwide section (curated by Uma  da Cunha with unflagging enthusiasm year after year) is a dramatic collage of real-life stories of young Hindu and Muslim women forced into marriages or imprisoned as household slaves in Britain. Lesley Manning gives dramatic shape to stories collected by Surendra Kochar and gives voice to muted lives that are doomed to collective silence. Some of the young women are British born and some are imported from the subcontinent. They are prey to the deep patriarchal prejudices embedded in a ghettoised society. And not all their abusers are men. There is a monster mother-in-law who locks up her daughter-in-law and takes away her baby. It is the deep connection the theme establishes with us that makes you overlook the fairly ordinary direction. Some subjects go beyond films.