Have we lived a good life? Did our deeds live up to our potential? And what of love? Are we with the person that will feed our heart and soul? In “Rifkin’s Festival”, Woody Allen returns to the themes that fuel his work and define him as one of cinema’s most important filmmakers.

Allen’s take on life and relationships has never budged. At 86, the filmmaker is as strongly tethered to his oft revisited views more than ever.

Wallace Shawn plays Mort Rifkin, a former film professor suffering from an existential crisis that seeps into his work (he wants to start his long gestating novel) and his marriage.

His wife Sue (the always fantastic Gina Gershon) is a publicist and Mort has come with her to the San Sebastián Film Festival where she is representing pretentious filmmaker Phillippe (Louis Garrel).

Sue is enamored with Philippe’s latest work because it’s politically conscious and an important anti-war film. She is also enamored with Phillippe.

Mort dislikes the young director and rightfully so. He sees his wife falling for Phillippe and the two are inept at hiding their affections for one another. Mort cannot stomach his pretension. In Phillippe’s next film, he wants to “offer some solutions for reconciliation between the Arabs and Israel.”

As Mort pokes fun at Phillippe’s self-importance and current over-praised film by saying, “War IS hell. As far as insights go…” He stops there, his point made. Phillippe has no clue that Mort has just told him that his filmmaking insights are shallow. A smart and funny line in a film that is full of them.

The seriocomic levels to Mort’s character are classic Woody Allen. In calling out Phillippe’s pretentiousness while gripped in self-doubt, Mort’s own self-centered qualities become external. As Sue tells him, “Your hostility is starting to show.

Wallace Shawn is the perfect actor for a Woody Allen film and this role exists as one of Shawn’s strongest.

Forever in Pop Culture cinema history for his hilarious turn as Vizzini in Rob Reiner’s “The Princess Bride” and his sweet and funny turn as the neurotic “Rex” in the “Toy Story” series, Shawn has always been a great dramatic actor as well.

Shawn’s collaborations with friend Andre Gregory produced three great works of intellectual cinema, 1981’s classic “My Dinner with Andre”, 1994’s excellent “Vanya on 42nd Street”, and 2013’s powerful “A Master Builder”.

In each of these pieces, Shawn shows his ability to be the deep-thinking Everyman in interesting and dramatically inventive ways.

As Mort, Shawn explores many of the themes found in his own work as a playwright (the actor’s admiration for Anton Chekov is as strong as Woody Allen’s love of Ingmar Bergman). The loss of inspiration and the erosion of love and Art are the issues that plague him.

In a representation of what Mort desires from a partner’s mind and heart, frequent chest pains lead him to Jo (Elena Anaya), a doctor with whom Mort finds much in common. Her lust for life and knowledge of good classic films awakens in Mort feelings that have been buried due to his failing marriage and his own insecurities.

Shawn and Anya’s scenes together are intoxicating. As they share dinner and wine at an outside cafe their conversation becomes a freedom for both. Jo is “held hostage” in a relationship with a manic and sex-obsessed painter who threatens to kill himself if she were to ever leave him.

Both Mort and Jo see their desire for life reflected in one another. As they stroll the streets of San Sebastián, they become enamored of one another, even as they are both realizing being together is far from an achievable reality.

Woody Allen creates amusing dream sequences that pay comical homage to some of his favorite directors (Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini, Buñuel). While they are obvious, Woody is having fun with the bridges that have connected his films to theirs. This work isn’t a deep dive into the serious questions of human relationships like his 1992 classic “Husbands and Wives”. Allen uses a lighter touch here, tackling his familiar themes with a softer (yet still potent) wit.

The film is set at the San Sebastian Film Festival and legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro bathes the film in sun and color while perfectly mimicking Allen’s favorite filmmakers in the fantasy sequences. As Mort navigates the landscape, Storaro seduces with his beautiful imagery.

“Rifkin’s Festival” is one of Allen’s better late-career works. It is smart and funny and gives both Wallace Shawn and Gina Gershon a chance to show their immense talents.

The themes found within his works are certainly ritualistic, but no one does this type of film better than Woody Allen.


Rifkin’s Festival

Written and Directed by Woody Allen

Starring Wallace Shawn, Gina Gershon, Louis Garrel

PG-13, 88 Minutes, Gravier Pictures, Wildside