Wallace Shawn, left, and Elena Anaya in "Rifkin's Festival." 

Wallace Shawn, left, and Elena Anaya in "Rifkin's Festival."  Credit: Quim Vives/Wildside/Gravier Productions

PLOT At a European film festival, a writer suspects his wife of having an affair.

CAST Wallace Shawn, Gina Gershon, Elena Anaya

RATED PG-13 (some adult talk)


WHERE Malverne Cinema and Art Center, VOD and digital platforms

BOTTOM LINE Woody Allen’s return to theaters is a throwaway at best.

Wallace Shawn plays Mort Rifkin, a former film professor and aspiring novelist, who attends the San Sebastian International Film Festival in Woody Allen’s 49th feature, "Rifkin’s Festival." Mort is the latest in a long line of Allenesque heroes, a self-absorbed nebbish full of existential dread and nagging suspicions about his wife. She’s a beautiful publicist, Sue (Gina Gershon), who is assigned to babysit Philippe (Louis Garrel), a handsome French director with an outsized opinion of his importance. Philippe believes, for instance, that his latest drama could bring peace between Israel and Palestine.

Mort’s reaction: "I’m glad he’s turning to science fiction."

That may be the funniest line in "Rifkin’s Festival," which tells you how tepid and tuned-out this movie is. It was filmed in the summer of 2019 during Allen’s dizzying fall from grace — accused by his daughter of sexual molestation, denounced by Hollywood’s A-list, dropped from a multi-film deal with Amazon — but you’ll find no clues or references to any of that here. Instead, Allen retreats into his most familiar tropes: the fear of death, the meaning of life, the allure of women, the comfort of old movies. If anything, Allen — via Mort — seems to be plugging his ears to the outside world. Contemporary politics is just trivial noise, Mort tells his wife, compared to "the big questions — what’s it all about?"

Those who grew up on Allen's movies may feel a twinge of sympathy for Mort, a lover of cinema still clinging to its storied past. "Film festivals are no longer what they were," he tells his therapist. Wandering around San Sebastian, and between rendezvous with an attractive doctor, Joanna (Elena Anaya), Mort loses himself in black-and-white reveries modeled on the great works, including Orson Welles’ "Citizen Kane," Luis Buñuel’s "The Exterminating Angel" (look for Massapequa's Steve Guttenberg as Mort’s glib brother, Jake) and Ingmar Bergman’s "The Seventh Seal," which features an amusing Christoph Waltz as Death. These segments, however, only prove Mort’s/Allen’s point: They’re based on movies that are surely losing their relevance to current audiences. What’s more, Allen has done this homage routine before, in "Stardust Memories," "Love and Death" and other, more inspired films.

It’s tempting to view "Rifkin’s Festival" as a final referendum on a once universally admired filmmaker. In reality, it’s merely another halfhearted effort, the kind we’ve seen from Allen many times before. The question, at this strange juncture in his career, is what comes next.

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