Monday, April 6, 2009
SFIFF52 The Line-Up Part 2 (Latin America and Europe)
When I finally got a look at the complete line-up for the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF52), I'll admit I was more disappointed than thrilled. Out of 25 films on my festival wishlist, only seven had made the cut. I did notice a number of films with familiar titles and/or directors and was certainly delighted at their inclusion. But ultimately, it felt like way too many of the big international festival hits of 2008 were M.I.A., and in their rightful place stood a bunch of unknown entities. There also seemed to be more than the usual number of films that will soon open in Bay Area cinemas. I have little interest in seeing these at our festival, unless the director will be in attendance (and to the festival's credit, it appears that many of them will be.)
In the end, one can either waste time mourning the festival one wished for, or get busy scoping out the festival one is being handed. So with that in mind I spent an afternoon reading Variety reviews of all those unfamiliar titles. From my research I've concluded that far from being full of non-starters, this year's SFIFF offers a beguiling spread from which it will indeed be difficult to choose. What follows is my very subjective tour of the line-up.
Most of the grumbling I've heard about SFIFF52 concerns the Latin American selection. Last year the festival screened very few films from the region – the programmers rightfully claiming that, with the exception of Mexico, it had been an off year. In 2008, however, virtually every important director released a new film. Last autumn's pitiable SF Latino Film Festival (an organization which is now kaput, if rumors I hear are correct) didn't screen any of them, and it was hoped that the SFIFF would pick up the slack.
And to an extent they have. Lake Tahoe, Fernando Eimbcke's follow-up to 2004's hilariously deadpan Duck Season, is perhaps the film I'm most anticipating in this year's festival. (It just won the Ariel – Mexico's Oscar – for Best Film and Best Director). Argentine auteur Carlos Sorin returns to SF for a fourth time with his latest, The Window. Rudo y Cursi reunites the two male stars of Y tu mama también and is directed by that film's co-writer Carlos Cuaron (Rudo y Cursi opens in the Bay Area on 5/15). Dutch director Heddy Honigmann, winner of the festival's Persistence of Vision Award in 2007, returns with Oblivion, a second documentary filmed in her native Lima, Peru (the first being 1994's Metal For Melancholy). And speaking of the Persistence of Vision Award, this year's recipient is none other than Bay Area filmmaker Lourdes Portillo (The Devil Never Sleeps, The Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo, Señorita extraviada), a director "whose three-decade focus on Latino experience on both sides of the Latin American-U.S. border has taken myriad forms through a keen, interdependent harnessing of imagination, self-reflection and narrative excavation, always with a profound commitment to the justice and dignity owed her subjects." I couldn't have said it better myself, so I didn't. Portillo will be interviewed by film critic John Anderson, followed by a screening of her latest work, Al Más Alla.
All of this is well and good, but where I ask, is Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, which ranked #1 on Film Comment's 20 Best Unreleased Films of 2008? Or Pablo Larrain's Tony Manero and Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool, which ranked #9 and #10 respectively on that same list. The festival has screened three previous Pablo Trapero films, so why not last year's Cannes competition entry, Lion's Den. Or Walter Salles' Linha de Passe, with its Cannes Best Actress Prize for Sandra Corveloni. From Mexico we're missing Rodrigo Plá's Desert Within (winner of a whopping eight Ariels) and Gerardo Naranjo's I'm Going to Explode, among others. Icing on the cake would have been three significant films from this year's Berlin Film Festival – Claudia Llosa's Golden Bear winner The Milk of Sorrow, Adrián Biniez' Silver Bear winner Gigante, and Lucia Puenzo's follow-up to XXY, The Fish Child. In their place, the festival has programmed Argentine director Celina Murga's A Week Alone (her film Ana and the Others played the festival in 2003), Gabriel Medina's The Paranoids (also from Argentina), Andrés Wood's The Good Life (from the director of the 2004 Chilean arthouse hit Machuca) and Gasoline, the debut film from Guatemalan writer/director Julio Hernandez Cordon. These films will need to be awfully good to make us forget those we're missing out on.
There are 11 French language features in SFIFF52, nine of which I'd been fervently hoping to find in this year's line-up. Perched at the top are new films from two of France's most important directors, Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat. Denis' 35 Shots of Rum is a lighthearted family drama which garnered the director's best reviews since 1999's Beau Travail. Breillat, whose The Last Mistress opened last year's SFIFF, returns with a provocative take on the Bluebeard legend. Vincent Cassel just won a Best Actor Cesar Award for his lead performance in Mesrine: A Film in Two Parts. This four-hour biopic of celebrated French career criminal Jacques Mesrine co-stars some of the biggest names in French cinema, including Mathieu Amalric, Ludvine Sagnier, Olivier Gourmet, Cécile de France and Gérard Depardieu. The latter's son, Guillaume Depardieu, sadly passed away last year and the festival is screening Versailles, one of his final performances. He portrays a vagrant whose life is turned around when a homeless woman leaves her young son in his care.
Dominique Blanc plays a middle-aged woman possessed by jealousy, paranoia and self-loathing in The Other One, a performance for which she won the Best Actress prize at last year's Venice Film Festival. It sounds like a role custom-made for Isabelle Huppert, who will be represented in this year's festival by Home, a first narrative feature from director Ursula Meier. Director Olivier Assayas has received the best reviews of his career for Summer Hours, in which three geographically estranged siblings (played by Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jérémie Renier) must dispose of their dead mother's culturally requisite estate. (The film opens in Bay Area theaters on 5/22). Modern Life will be the ninth film by revered social documentarian Raymond Depardon to appear in the SFIFF. His latest examines the plight of French farmers and the disappearing face of rural France. From French-speaking Canada comes Philippe Falardeau's It's Not Me, I Swear! , a film set in 1968 whose main character is a "10-year-old hellion with a cause." I was a big fan of Falardeau's Congorama, which screened at SFIFF two years ago, and am excited about seeing his latest work.
The two French films which were previously unknown to me are French Girl and Khamsa. The former is the directorial debut of Souad El-Bouhati and tells the story of an 18-year girl living in Morocco who longs to repatriate to the France of her childhood. The girl is played by Hafsia Herzi, and anyone who saw her stunning performance in last year's The Secret of the Grain surely won't want to miss this. Khamsa follows the struggles of a 13-year-old boy living in a Roma community on the outskirts of Marseilles. The director is Karim Dridi, whose memorable film Bye Bye played the festival in 1996.
As excited as I was by all of these French films in the fest, there were many more whose absence leaves me a bit mystified. Consider the following a partial wishlist for the SF Film Society's French Cinema Now series this autumn: Philippe Garrel's Frontier of Dawn, Christophe Honoré's La Belle Personne, Rithy Panh's The Sea Wall, Claude Chabrol's Bellamy, André Téchiné's The Girl on the Train, Benoît Jacquot's Villa Amalia, Costa-Gavras' Eden is West, Joachim Lafosse's Private Lessons, François Ozon's Ricky, Martin Provost's Séraphine, Erick Zonca's Julia and Jan Kounen's 99 Francs.
Elsewhere in Europe
There are at least a dozen other European countries represented in this year's festival, and the film I'm most excited about is Spanish director Jaime Rosales' Bullet in the Head. Rosales directed last year's Solitary Fragments, which screened at SFIFF51 and emerged my favorite film of the year. His latest is supposed to be a slow, seemingly mundane anti-narrative that eventually explodes with an act of violence perpetrated by Basque terrorists. The film has received its share of scathing reviews, so I was very pleasantly surprised to find it programmed here. There are several other films which have been saddled with the "difficult" tag. Kornél Mundruczó's minimalist Cannes competition entry Delta, I've been told is a gorgeously shot tale of brother/sister incest set on the Romanian Danube River delta. Miguel Gomes' Our Beloved Month of August is an improvised 147-minute documentary/fiction hybrid filmed amidst Portugal's rural summer music festivals. A highly inventive, darkly-comic B&W noir set during Bulgaria's communist era is the stuff of Javor Gardev's Zift, one of four films in this year's The Late Show series. Winner of the Grand Prix in Cannes' Critics Week competition, Aida Begic's Snow is set in a remote Bosnian village populated exclusively with war widows and children.
There are also a number of evident crowd-pleasers in the festival's European mix. Screenwriter Gianni di Gregorio (Gomorrah) makes his directorial debut with Mid-August Lunch, in which a middle-aged Roman man finds himself caring for four elderly women during the Feast of the Assumption. Christos Georgiou's Small Crime is a combination police procedural and romantic comedy set on a beautiful Greek isle. The one film in the festival I've already seen is Erik Poppe's Troubled Water, a compelling Norwegian redemption tale with a clever narrative twist. Children-in-peril films are usually popular with festival audiences and this year's SFIFF has several, including Lance Daly's Dublin-set Kisses, described as a cross between Huckleberry Finn and The Night of the Hunter. And although they hardly sound like crowd pleasers per se, there are three other films from The Continent I hope to see should time permit: Esther Rots' Can Go Through Skin (Netherlands), Simon Staho's Heaven's Heart (Sweden) and Adrian Sitaru's Hooked (Romania).
From Great Britain there are three films that have caught my attention. To the best of my knowledge there hasn't been a Peter Greenaway film screened in the Bay Area since 1999's 8 1/2 Women, so I'm very happy we're being given the chance to see his latest, Rembrandt's J'accuse. The film is a cine-essay on a hypothesis explored in his brilliant 2007 narrative feature Nightwatching – that is, a belief that a murder mystery is contained within Rembrandt's painting "The Night Watch." One of the most critically acclaimed films from this year's Sundance Film Festival was Armando Iannucci's In the Loop. This scathing satire on the trans-Atlantic Bush/Blair build-up to the Iraq War stars James Gandolfini and Steve Coogan, and is scheduled to open in Bay Area theaters in July. Finally, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert director Stephan Elliott directs his first film in ten years, Easy Virtue. This Noel Coward adaptation stars Jessica Biel, Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth, and will be in Bay Area theaters on 5/29.
My overview of the SFIFF52 continues in Part Three, where I have a look at the films from the USA/Canada, Middle East, Africa and Asia.