Tickets (15)

Who are you calling a dense vision?
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The Independent Culture

Tickets is a portmanteau film, but without the baggy self-indulgence that makes so many examples of the form pure agony to sit through. In Tickets, a strict formal device keeps everyone working off the same timetable, as it were. The setting is a train travelling across Europe with a cross-section of passengers: an all-human-life-is-here panorama, or an earthbound variant on the traditional image of the "ship of fools", depending on how kindly each director is disposed towards humanity. Unlikely a trio as its directors may seem - Italy's Ermanno Olmi, Iran's Abbas Kiarostami, our own Ken Loach - they have certain common questions to ask. How do we travel now, how do we cross borders, how do we share space in an increasingly cramped world? Who gets to travel first class, who has a seat in second, and who has to settle for crouching in the corridors if they're lucky?

In Olmi's episode, an elderly Italian pharmacologist (Carlo Delle Piane) has formed a shy sentimental attachment to the woman (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) who has organised his journey. As he sits in the restaurant car trying to write her a thank-you letter, his mind starts wandering and he remembers the distant image of a young woman practising the piano. Ostensibly, there's little on offer here but a gentle epiphany, and gentle epiphanies aren't exactly fashionable in cinema these days. But what's remarkable in Olmi's sketch is its density of thought and vision. As the story zigzags between the journey and the events preceding it, there's a hovering sense of chaos and tension: the train carries a detachment of menacing soldiers, including a stone-faced commander in shades who grumbles into his mobile in transatlantic English. The professor is shocked to be interrogated on his reasons for travelling: old freedoms are threatened by over-zealous security. The episode's minor-key involves a young Albanian mother trying to feed her child in the cramped corridor.

Like the professor himself, the episode comes across as benign and whimsical, but Olmi's eye is bracingly restless. A waiter brings aperitifs, the professor's finger hovers delicately over his laptop, everyone - in a sweetly incongruous sight gag à la Jacques Tati - turns to stare at a man conducting a Chopin piano prelude on his headphones.

Olmi's episode is old-fashioned and mild, but it constantly buzzes with intelligence and witty curiosity.

Abbas Kiarostami shot his entire film 10 inside a car, so a train corridor must feel to him like the wide blue yonder. In his episode, a portly Italian lady (Silvana De Santis) gets on with a young man (Filippo Trojano) and proceeds to make everyone's life a misery. She makes her attendant swap seats to prevent him staring at a glamorous young woman, argues with a politely harassed man who thinks she has taken his mobile phone, then declares all-out hostilities on the two travellers whose seats she has commandeered.

If there's a distinctive Kiarostami touch here, it's in his familiar delight in escalating seemingly irresolvable arguments. The matron - who bears an alarming resemblance to the late, great, over-inflated Divine - is the catalyst for some relishably flustered eye-rolling from fellow passengers. An extraordinary shot also embodies Kiarostami's love of observation from a distance, although it's more usually from mountaintops and across rocky valleys. As the young man helps his obstreperous charge get dressed in a compartment, the scene is viewed from the corridor, through a window segmented into mirrored strips, so that while we watch the argument inside, we also see the reflected landscape roaring past behind us; but we don't see the young girl whose eyes we're presumably watching all this through. Again, it's a slender anecdote, but Kiarostami has the knack of persuading us that we're actually there, and that this foolish business is the most fascinating spectacle in the entire world.

What, after all, could be more riveting than people arguing on a train? That's the theory, but it isn't quite born out in Ken Loach's episode, written by Paul Laverty; while the other tales fascinate by their quiet oddity, this one shouts and waves to attract our attention. Three young Celtic fans on their way to a match dole out Asda sandwiches to the Albanian family from Olmi's episode, then suspect them of stealing one of their tickets. Panic, rage and prejudice ensue - "Maybe they're al-Qa'ida, planning an attack on the fucking Vatican," one of the trio speculates. Things come to a head when the young mother (Aishe Gjuriqi) makes an impassioned plea for understanding of her family's plight, and it comes across like a pitch for a future Loach-Laverty project on Albanian refugees.

The definitive Loach touch comes when the ticket inspector comes round: Loach can't see a peaked cap without hearing marching jackboots, and of course it's a triumph of popular defiance when the boys escape from the small-minded oppression that he represents. Actually, the inspector comes across in Kiarostami's episode as a genial, patient chap who deserves our sympathy for presiding over a carriage-load of neurotics and malcontents: you feel he gets the short end of the stick here.

Tickets is emphatically moderate in its ambitions - if you were expecting a proud display of flag-waving for the survival of international art cinema, it's certainly not this. But it's an enjoyable trip and occasionally touched by grace. Let's say that the pleasure of the journey rather depends on which window you most enjoy looking through.