Monday, September 13, 2010

San Francisco Latino Film Festival

The Bay Area's annual avalanche of autumnal film festivals gets rolling this Thursday, September 16 with Cine + Mas' 2nd San Francisco Latino Film Festival (SFLFF). Cine + Mas – an organization of former volunteers and contractors from Sylvia Perel's behemothic and now defunct Latino Film Festival – came on the scene last November with a debut fest that screened some worthy films but was woefully under-attended. This year the organization has made two smart moves. First, they've taken their event out of November (a month overstuffed with festivals) and moved it to September where they'll be the only game in town. Second, the principal venue has been changed from Landmark's Lumiere Theater to the Mission District's Roxie Theater, putting the fest closer to its core audience. Let's hope it's a strategy that works, because the Bay Area really does need a festival exclusively dedicated to Latin American cinema. (Sylvia Perel's three-day Redwood City Latino Film Festival makes it fifth appearance November 5 to 7, with the line-up TBA).

SFLFF unofficially kicks off on Thursday with an "Exclusive Cine + Mas PreTheatrical Release" screening of Javier Fuentes-León's Undertow (Contracorriente) – the night before it opens at Landmark's Bridge Theater. If you've been kicking yourself for missing Undertow's sold-out Frameline Centerpiece screening back in June, where it won the Jury Award and according to many was robbed of the Audience Award, here's your chance to see it (or see it again) in a festival setting. Notably, Cine + Mas will be showing the film in 35mm, whereas Frameline's digital screening at the Castro left something to be desired. Director Fuentes-León is expected to attend.

The following evening, SFLFF gets underway with its two official opening night films, Florence Jaugey's La Yuma and Enrique Buchichio's Leo's Room (El cuarto de Leo) (El cuarto de Leo). La Yuma is the first narrative feature to come out of Nicaragua in 20 years and tells the story of a young woman seeking to escape her hardscrabble life through boxing. In Leo's Room, an indecisive Uruguayan grad student struggles with his sexuality, and is aided by a sympathetic therapist, a stoner couch-potato roommate and a grade-school ex-girlfriend whose problems are bigger than his own. In researching the festival's narrative features for this post – a difficult endeavor given that many films have only been written about in Spanish – it appears that Leo's Room is the most critically acclaimed of the bunch. In his rave review for Variety, Ronnie Schieb calls the film "an impressive debut" and a "delicately balanced mood piece" that "drifts in a laid-back dreamy way toward edgy subjects." He goes on to praise the director's "oblique approach to character (that) leaves nothing to stereotype" and the film's "limpid vision of a quasi-amniotic state of grace."

In addition to La Yuma, there are other SFLFF features with strong female protagonists. In Alberto Cortés' Heart of Time (Corazon del tiempo), a young Chiapas woman stirs controversy when she falls in love with a Zapatista revolutionary instead of the village boy to whom she's betrothed. Featuring a non-professional cast, Heart of Time screened in the World Cinema section at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and was one of three films nominated for Best Picture at the 2010 Ariel Awards (Mexico's Oscar). It received five Ariel nominations total, including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Another film in which a young woman is forced to marry against her wishes is Teresa Constantini's 19th century Argentine historical saga, Felicitas. Set on the outskirts of Buenos Aires against a backdrop of war and plague, the titular heroine endures a marriage to a man 40 years her senior and emerges triumphant. The film's trailer resembles an overbaked bodice-buster, but the rich period detail and hunky male lead offer some promise. Then in Gerardo Tort's feminist road movie Round Trip (Viaje redondo), two Mexican women from different social classes discover they have much in common. Tort also directed the grim and gritty Streeters (De la calle), which really impressed me when it screened at the 2002 SF International Film Festival. Round Trip was also co-written by Beatriz Novaro, who along with sister María wrote the 1991 arthouse hit Danzón.

A few other SFLFF narrative features caught my eye. From Bolivia there's Tonchi Antezana's Elephant Cemetery (El cementerio de los elefantes), about a 33-year-old alcoholic reflecting on his misspent life. Elephant Cemetery is a La Paz euphemism for an area where alcoholics go to drink themselves to death. Leftist Brazilian President Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva gets the biopic treatment in Fábio Barreto's Lula, Son of Brazil (Lula, o Filho do Brasil). Starting with his birth in 1945, the film traces Lula's humble beginnings in rural Pernambuco state, his São Paulo childhood and his years as a union leader, ending just before his 1980 entry into politics. Barreto is the younger brother of renowned director Bruno Barreto (Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, Four Days in September, Last Stop 174) and reviews of this film, reportedly the most expensive ever made in Brazil, accuse it of being more than a bit hagiographic. From Cuba, SFLFF has programmed that country's 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submission, Ernesto Daranas Serrano's Broken Gods (Los Dioses rotos), in which a university professor observes modern day prostitution through the mythos of legendary early 20th century pimp/politician Alberto Yarini Ponce de León. Finally, Jose Montesinos directs and stars in the San Francisco-set crime-drama, Owned.

Of course, there are a number of terrific-sounding documentary features in the fest as well. In the past ten years or so, perhaps no other nation's cuisine has exploded on the international food scene like that of Peru. Ernesto Ceballos' Cooking Up Dreams (De ollas y sueños) looks deep into that country's culinary movement and has chef Gastón Acurio of San
Francisco's celebrated La Mar restaurant as one of its guides. Also at the top of my list of docs to see is Mercedes Sosa Singer, an Intimate Journey (Mercedes Sosa Cantora, un viaje intimo), which follows the iconic Argentine folksinger through the recording sessions of her final album. In another Argentine music documentary, Xavier Villaverde and Regina Álvarez' Gypsies in Buenos Aires (Gitanos de Buenos Aires), acclaimed flamenco artist David Amaya uncovers a community of Andalusian gypsies who fled to Argentina during the Spanish Civil War. The aftermath of that particular war is also touched upon in Lillian Lieberman's Visa to Paradise (Visa al Paraiso), which tells the incredible story of Gilberto Bosques, also known as the Mexican Schindler. Bosques was Mexico's Consul General in Marseilles from 1939 to 1943, during which time he issued over 40,000 visas to Jews and Spanish Republicans fleeing Hitler and Franco respectively. Perhaps Ilsa Lund and Victor Laszlo got to Casablanca on visas issued by Gilberto Bosques? Other political-themed docs in the fest include a look at the legacy of the Mexican Revolution (Ray Telles' The Storm That Swept Mexico), plus two dealing with the hot-button issue of U.S. immigration, Esaú Melédez' Immigration Nation: The Battle for a Dream and Ricardo A. Martinez' The Wall (La muralla).

Other special highlights of the festival include a Shorts Program and a Mexico-in-Film Sidebar featuring screenings of two classics: Julio Bracho's 1944 breakthrough urban drama Another Dawn (Distinto amanecer) and Fernando de Fuentes and Miguel M. Delgado's 1943 Doña Barbara. The latter is adapted from Romulo Gallegos' classic Venezuelan novel and stars the irrepressible Maria Félix as a despotic ranch owner.

In addition to the Roxie Theater and Mission Cultural Center, selections from the SFLFF will play at a half dozen other Bay Area venues through September 26. The festival website has links to all the films, with a trailer, film clip or link for each film. The complete schedule is here and you can download a PDF of the mini-guide here. The films scheduled to be screened in 35mm are Undertow, Felicitas, Heart of Time, Lula and La Yuma. Filmmakers are expected at attend screenings of Undertow, Lula, Mercedes Sosa, Owned, Heart of Time, The Storm That Swept Mexico, The Wall, Immigration Nation and the shorts Ebony Goddess, Imaginary Road, Legend and Gordita.

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