View Full Version : San Francisco International Film Festival 2007 (50th anniversary)

Chris Knipp
04-03-2007, 10:03 PM

7 YEARS (JEAN-PASCAL HATTU) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17723#post17723)
12 LABORS, THE (RICARDO ELIAS) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17727#post17727)
AD LIB NIGHT (LEE YOON-KI) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17776#post17776)
amour-LEGENDE (MI-SEN WU) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17690#post17690)
AGUA (VERONICA CHEN) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17747#post177477)
ALONG THE RIDGE (KIM ROSSI STEWERT) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17740#post17740)
ARIA (TAKUSHI TSUBOKAWA) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17849#post17849)
BAMAKO (ABDERRAHMANE SISSAKO) (http://www.filmwurld.com/forums/showthread.php?s=&postid=15959#post15959)
BORN AND BRED (PABLO TRAPERO) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17826#post17826)
CAYMAN, THE (NANNI MORETTI) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17697#post17697)
COLOSSAL YOUTH (PEDRO COSTA)) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17694#post17694)
CONGORAMA (PHILIPPE FALARDEAU) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17738#post17738)
DANS PARIS/INSIDE PARIS (CHRISTOPHE HONORE) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1963-Rendez-vous-With-French-Cinema-2007&p=16878#post16878)
DARATT (MAHAMAT-SALEH HAROUN) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17718#post17718)
FALLING (BARBARA ALBERT) (http://www.filmwurld.com/forums/showthread.php?s=&postid=16025#post16025)
FLANDERS (BRUNO DUMONT) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1963-Rendez-vous-With-French-Cinema-2007&p=16917#post16917)
GARDENS IN AUTUMN (OTAR IOSSELIONI) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1851-Ny-Film-Festival-2006&p=15960#post15960)
GRANDHOTEL (DAVID ONDRICEK) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17581#post17581)
HANA (HIROKAZU KOREEDA) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17716#post17716)
HEAVEN'S DOORS (SWEL AND IMAD NOURY) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17684#post17684)
HOW IS YOUR FISH TODAY? (XIAOLU GUO, 2006) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17751#post17751)
ISLAND, THE (PAVEL LOUNGUINE) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17772#post17772)
LADY CHATTERLEY (PASCALE FERRAN) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17843#post17843)
LOVE FOR SALE: SUELY IN THE SKY (KARIM AINOUZ) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17755#post17755)
MURCH (EDIE AND DAVID ICHIOKA) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17588#post17588)
OLD GARDEN, THE (IM SANG-SOO) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17585#post17585)
OTAR IOSELIANI (JULIE BERTUCELLI) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17798#post17798)
PAPRIKA (SATOCHI KON) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1851-Ny-Film-Festival-2006&p=16047#post16047)
PARTING SHOT (JEANNE WALTZ) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17788#post17788)
PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES (ALAIN RENAIS) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1851-Ny-Film-Festival-2006&p=16020#post16020)
RAGE (ZULI ALADAG) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17736#post17736)
ROCKET SCIENCE (JEFFREY BLITZ) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17590#post17590)
REPRISE (JOACHIM TRIER) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17815#post17815)
ROAD TO SAN DIEGO, THE (CARLOS SORIN) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17839#post17839)
ROME RATHER THAN YOU (TARIQ TEGUIA) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17749#post17749)
SILLY AGE, THE (PAVEL GIROUD) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17817#post17817)
SOUNDS OF SAND (MARION HANSEL) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17437#post17437)
SUGAR CURTAIN, THE (CAMILA GUZMAN URZUA) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17790#post17790)
THESE GIRLS (TAHANI RACHED) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1851-Ny-Film-Festival-2006&p=16047#post16047)
TIMES AND WINDS (REHA ERDEM) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17796#post17796)
VANAJA (RAJNESH DOMALPALLI ) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17725#post17725)
VIE EN ROSE,LA/LA MOME (OLIVIER DAHAN) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1963-Rendez-vous-With-French-Cinema-2007&p=16914#post16914)
VIOLIN, THE (FRANCISCO VARGAS) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17794#post17794)
YACOUBIAN BUILDING, THE (MARWAN HAMED) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17753#post17753)

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE FESTIVAL: A ROUNDUP (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?1999-San-Francisco-International-Film-Festival-2007-%2850th-anniversary%29&p=17856#post17856)

You will find some these reviews at the Festival Coverage NYFF and Rendez-Vous with French Cinema links, but most are below.

The full SFIFF film listings (200 from 54 countries) can be found here. (http://fest07.sffs.org/films/)






Chris Knipp
04-04-2007, 05:50 PM


Pluses and minuses (see below)

Positive review: Adapted from Marc Durin-Valois' prize-winning novel Chamelle by Belgian director Hansel, Sounds of Sand/Si le vent soul�ve les sables is the beautiful and moving saga of a little family somewhere in Africa forced to leave home and struggle eastward across the desert with their livestock in search of water. Along the way they endure great loss, danger, cruelty, and heartbreak. This film dramatizes many of the demographic and human problems that face the African continent: drought, revolution, lawlessness, poverty, homelessness. Hänsel's powerful visual storytelling makes all these things real to us, while bringing alive the drama of human beings. Images are striking, and so are the people, and all the actors are fine, particularly the father, Rahne, played by Isaka Sawadogo and his little daughter, Shasha, played by Asma Nouman Aden. Music is used deftly and economically. This is committed narrative film-making at its best. It brings home major issues but never seems preachy or doctrinaire. At the end, what remains of the family winds up in a UN camp. "This is my Pouzzi," says Sasha, using her pet name for her father. "He looks sad because he has lost his camel." The viewer will remember a series of striking, pathetic tableaux. A heartrending and vividly told tale.

Negative review: Shot in Djibouti, Hansel's film attempts to be universal by being unspecific in locale and by casting the dialogue by all and sundry entirely in rather academic French. Everything is generic and sanitized. If the family is desperately short of water, how come they have full wardrobes of immaculately clean clothes and are perfectly clean themselves? At the outset Rahne meets another man who says they should travel together because it's safer that way. "Yes," Rahne says, "we will travel together. We will leave before dawn to take advantage of the coolness." It's stilted elementary primer language. Even religious phrases that sound Muslim, like "God wishes it so," are said in French, when likely they would be said in Arabic. A bunch of wild looking outlaws speak the same academic French. An online viewer wrote that this is "a romanticized film made by a middle aged western woman aimed at...middle aged western women" and added, "naturally in the end the main characters get saved by white people from the West." And this is true. Hänsel uses the authentic setting and real-looking African actors to make us naive westerners believe that we're watching something real, but it's a downbeat fairy tale, none of which is true to a specific and coherent whole. Sawadogo, by the way, has lived in Norway for the last fifteen years.

Chris Knipp
04-18-2007, 01:23 AM


High above a Czech town, it's raining. . .

In this whimsical, rather fey movie in a setting that's both shabby (the town) and grand (the landscape), two couples who trade places and two older men who bother the shy main character wander in and out of scenes in a hotel perched on a mountain and topped by a pointed weather tower. There are dreamy, breathtaking panoramic views of sky, clouds, and the town of Liberic below. Up in that tower, Fleischman (Marek Taclk) practices the art of meteorology and shies away from girls. He knows exactly when it's going to rain -- which is pretty often.

Fleishman's bugged by the sex-obsessed hotel manager, Jegr (Jaromr Dulava), and carries out occasional paid "operations" for "Mr." Franz (Ladislav Mrkvicka), a man who claims he was a Luftwaffe pilot. An old dilemma comes up: should one travel or stay at home? Fleishman's putting together a makeshift hot air balloon to escape his unpromising existence. Marek Taclk has a rumpled appeal, but only comes to life in the final minutes when hotel maid Ilja (Klra Issov), who's ditched her irritating waiter boyfriend Patka (Jaroslav Plesl), persuades Fleishman to kiss her. Platka pairs off with another lovely housekeeper, Zuzana (Dita Zbransk), who was sweet on Fleishman, and Mr. Franz's ashes have been scattered over Liberic. The skinny Platka, a slick Steve Buscemi type, claims to have lived a year in the US and is constantly using English phrases. He sells an all-purpose bottled liquid called "Happy Life." Nobody's buying.

Ondricek's previous films have done well at Czech and other Europlean film festivals. This occasionally funny, sometimes poetic work may be his grandest, dreamiest, most beautiful feature yet, and it has a certain winsome charm, not to mention the memorable sky- and land-scape images and the glimpses of the unique Hotel Jested. The use of sound and original music is as fresh and beautiful as the panoramic images. But all this doesn't ever meld into a satisfying emotional or intellectual package, mainly because the action is too desultory.

Characters are emblematic and each thinly conceals some sort of philosophical message. The two older men -- the manager and the fake veteran -- are self-assertive bores. The two couples are sad sacks; a winning moment is when, sitting together in the dining room, they all tell each other they're "sorry." Everybody is acting their heads off most of the time, which is rather fun. As Jason Pirodsky says in an excellent review (http://www.expats.cz/prague/article/film-cinema/grandhotel/) on the Czech website Expatz, "David Ondricek's Grandhotel is an odd bird of a film; satisfying neither as comedy or drama, yet moderately interesting and mildly affecting throughout." It consists of a series of vignettes and "almost isn't there. Almost nothing happens, nor do we expect much to happen --- only a director like Ozu, I imagine, would be able successfully to unearth the subtle profundities hidden in a film like this. But this isn't the work of Ozu."

Chris Knipp
04-18-2007, 06:58 PM


Historical meditation on the conflict of love and politics

Im satirically (and brutally) depicted the 1979 assassination of South Korean ruler Park Chung-hee in his last film, The President's Big Bang (ttp://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?p=491). The Old Garden is another animal, soft, intimate, notable for its physicality and not without moments of poetry. The color is rich, and small details, hair, a touch, the munching of food, as well as the splash of water on a torso or a face, rain, snow, a policeman's club, are lovingly dwelt upon or intensely felt. This film is set only a little later in time but also in another more thoughtful style. It follows the outlines of a bestselling novel by Hwang Sok-yong, a story about the conflict between a memorable love affair and a life of devotion to leftist politics. It opens with the release of its hero, Oh Hyun-woo (Ji Jin-hee), who has spent seventeen years in prison for leftist activism and complicity in the student anti-government riots of May 1980 known at the Gwangju Massacre (they left several hundred dead). The 1979 coup led not to democracy, but military dictatorship. Public outcry against Gwangju was decisive in the run-up to democratic elections in South Korea that finally happened later in the Eighties. At Oh's release (which would be around 1997), times have certainly changed, though oddly enough, there is no reference to the new political situation. Clearly South Korea has had an economic boom and Oh's mother is now a wealthy realtor, who buys him 11,000 euros worth of new clothes without giving it a thought. His old political allies are either ineffectual idealists or hopeless pessimists who squabble among themselves at an evening gathering.

Oh doesn't want to stay with his mother. He returns to the mountains where he was hiding out before arrest and revisits the home of art teacher Han Yoon-hee. She hid him for a while after the massacre and they had an intense affair. She is gone, dead of cancer ten years into his confinement without ever being able to see Oh again. He goes to her old place, where her paintings and writings are starting points for flashbacks to the earlier political events and to those days in hiding with Yun-hee. The editing is lovely here, moving from present to past seamlessly and neatly time after time and with a minimum of confusion.

As we watch Hyun-woo's troubled idyll with Yoon-hee, we know what's going to happen -- he's going to get caught -- and we wonder how. This is the portrait of a relentlessly dedicated crusader. His political duties are more important to him than his love. Though Yoon-hee begs him to go with her deep into the mountains to hide -- she will quit her art teaching job for that -- he decides to go back to Seoul, and he's quickly captured there.Yoon-hee is pregnant with his child. It's a girl, Eon-gyul.

The second half of the film focuses more on Yun-hee's life during Hyun-woo�s time in prison and on the horrible time of the massacre. Yun-hee doesn't raise Eon-gyul, and the little girl is sometimes alienated from her mother. She remains faithful to Oh, and when a cute younger leftist comes on strong to her, she sends him packing.

The accusation that this film will be incomprehensible to us because it's a little vague about the historical events is hard to credit. We know very well what's going on. If anything is off-putting, it's some odd eating habits, not the politics. The emotional side, anyway, is very understandable. Hyun-woo's behavior is a little hard to sympathize with, but that's because he is who he is: someone who remains a hero by in some ways failing as a human being. But he's never made predictable. And where before we wondered how he would get caught, now we wonder how the story will end.

When he finally talks to Eon-gyul on the phone and then meets her on a busy glitzy street in Seoul (and she's a sexy babe now) Hyun-woo doesn't admit he's her father, but she knows. Haven't we seen that somewhere before? The ending, with this scene followed by a sentimental, sugary song, is cheesy, with the shadow of Yun-hee lingering none too subtly in the background (the couple's palpable longing for each other has been handled beautifully up to here). Yun-hee's paintings, ultra-realistic sentimentalized and aged "photographs" of the family and personalities, are also a bit cheesy. They may have worked better in the novel where you don't actually have to see them.

Still, the beauty of early scenes, the understated depiction of the intense love affair, the seamless but clear and logical ways the film shifts time-frames, leave good memories that the somewhat rudderless second half can't erase. As a whole, The Old Garden reads as a passionate meditation on how lives can seem in memory and in reality to revolve around a few key moments. Im has almost made us forget about the "long littleness of life," made us believe in the grandeur of a historical narrative where each scene seems a beautifully crafted piece in a chronological puzzle held together by fact and emotion. As Yoon-hee, Yum Jung-ah is intense without ever being weepy or melodramatic. Ji Jin-hee, as Oh Hyun-woo, is a sexy hunk with acres of charm. He has a smugness that is unappealing, but that just may be exactly right for his character. You almost wish she had lived instead of him. What is to become of him now? Will he get rich like his mother, or continue to be a crusader for workers rights?

The film, Im's fifth, is currently playing in Paris, where its complex melding of love and politics has been critically well received, according to Allocine (http://www.allocine.fr/film/revuedepresse_gen_cfilm=115558&note=3&ccritique=18829795.html). Whether Americans are as responsive to such a story, with its intense mix of historical and personal, is another question. Hwang Sok-yong's novel was a Le Monde "Books of the World" selection in France.

Part of the San Fransicso International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
04-19-2007, 05:09 PM


"Gerald McBoing Boing" gives a master class in film editing

Walter Murch is the premier, high-profile American film and sound editor associated with longtime film school colleagues Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas (and in the grand old days American Zoetrope). This is a documentary where Murch talks to us, while the editors playfully manipulate the images a bit sometimes to illustrate his points (jump cuts, sound channel shifts, etc.) and intercut clips from films. They show clips with the dialogue just a tad off to remind us the elements are separate. Murch talks about how he edits "mute" initially to simplify the process.

Murch is a superb elucidator of his art, his talk pungent with interesting comparisons, metaphors, vivid hypotheticals and examples. You hear the methodical craftsman in the calm voice and see the inspired artist in the sampled work. David Ichioka is one of Murch's former assistant editors.

This is about breaking the rules, starting with how Godard's 1960 Breathless used taboo jump cuts, which was like an artist letting brushstrokes show in a painting, Murch says. Murch went to Paris to study at 19, in 1963, right at the height of the New Wave, and "got bitten by the film bug." He came back to study film at USC and combined his new "bug" with his old one for tape and sound editing.

Another rule to break was the one against looking directly into the camera, a taboo much broken to good effect in Apocalypse Now where it makes sense because everything is from Willard's point of view. You invent or reinvent to suit the work, Murch is implying. Thus 5.1 sound (RIGHT /CENTER /SUBWOOFER / LEFT-SURROUND / RIGHT-SURROUND) was invented for Apocalypse Now and Murch reedited sound to fill theater space divided that way. The sound mixer plays a Times Square "shell game," Murch explains: he switches which elements are highlighted among ambient sound, music, and dialogue, bringing only one or two of these to the fore at a time, alternately, because this is clear, while to present the whole package all at once all the time would be a blur to the audience.

Film is a "theater of thought," Murch says. Actors' faces show the passage of thought and emotion to the camera, an effect impossible to create on stage. Blinks of the actor's eyes indicate articulated joints of thought that may be a place to cut.

Murch stands up to edit, because of the energy, and it's like conducting an orchestra or performing surgery or butchering meat, all jobs done standing up. He doesn't say anything about the switch to digital, which might be interesting, but maybe to Murch the transition has been too seamless to mention, one can't say. This is a rich condensed sampling of the Murch wisdom, not an entire treatise.

The 1989 reediting of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil following Welles' 58-page memo to the studio is one of his triumphs; I think that's when I learned who he was and how important his work has been. Likewise the reediting we know as Apocalypse Now Redux with the film riskily but successfully cleaned, a new richer soundtrack, and missing sequences restored.

It's an art form Murch is talking about here, hence his stress on fostering accidental collisions that are better than conscious decisions, that overcome the limitations of the rational.

You will see details of how the Bronx "El" train sounds are used to lead up to Michael's (Pacino's) shooting in a restaurant in The Godfather to avoid music and make the music when it comes more effective.

Music can be overdone, "almost spray-gunned on the film" after it's cut, and Murch is a master of the inspired under-use of music of which that Godfather scene is an example. Another astute collage-ing of music works (to keep it from over-determining, which is "like an athlete taking steroids") as we see in the horse's-head-in-the-bed scene.

Murch talks specifically also about THX 1138, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, and Touch of Evil, classics it's exciting just to dip back into. Also discussed with clips: Minghella's (and the Saul Zaentz Studio's) The Talented Mr. Ripley, The English Patient. The master talks about his early love affair with a tape recorder in the fifties: as a pre-teen, he knew what he wanted to do. They called him "Gerald McBoing Boing" from the animated cartoon character who could open his mouth and emit any sound. The whiz kid is no nerd; he's a brilliantly articulate adult, simply as straightforwardly informative as you could ever want.

The Ichiokas have neatly and appropriately edited Murch's talk. This is a short film (it's only 78 minutes), but it is packed with nuggets of gold any cinephile might want to memorize.

Chris Knipp
04-20-2007, 12:47 AM


"A teenage boy with a horrific stuttering problem joins his high-school debate team in an ill-fated effort to win the girl of his dreams. "
-- publicity blurb.

A Sundance film, this has been described as a combination of Thumsucker, Art School Confidential, and Napoleon Dynamite. Also mentioned are The Squid and the Whale for the focus on adolescent sexual obsession and Zach Braff's Garden State for the New Jersey coming-of-age setting. Election has been referred to as the classic forerunner. The reason for all these associations is that this first fiction effort by Jeffrey Blitz, the director of the highly successful Spellbound (a documentary about a national spelling competition and its quirky top competitors), is in a familiar genre and struggles to distinguish itself from other versions. It's not as definitive a statement as Election; it's people aren't as appealing as Thumsucker's, or as ludicrous as Napoleon Dynamite's. The parents aren't skewered as sharply as The Squid and the Whale's. Art School Confidential was a flop and Garden State was a bore, so we can disregard them. Young Hal Hefner (talented Canadian actor Reece Thompson) has a worse problem than thumbsucking: an erratic stutter that makes him tongue-tied under pressure, though at other times he can communicate to various degrees.

That's the most persistent thing Hal struggles with, but there are plenty of others. His parents are breaking up. His older brother (Vincent Piazza) is a bully who attacks him in the shower and an OCD kleptomaniac to boot. His crap school counselor can't help him: "it's a shame you're not hyperactive," he quips. And Ginny (Anna Kendrick), the high school champion debater, is using him in a peculiar way. Why has she asked him to be her partner on the team, the year after they've lost the New Jersey State High School Policy Debate Championships because of a breakdown on the part of the awesome, but now disgraced dropout, Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto)? The reason she gives is that she senses intense competitive instincts in Hal: "deformed people have a hidden source of anger," she says. One thing you can say about this movie: it's smart, its characters are clever, and the dialogue is witty and sometimes surprising. That doesn't make it altogether work, but it makes it watchable; besides, the actors are all pretty good, and Reece Thompson is an appealing actor. He's borderline goodlooking, but, intentionally on the part of the director, who had to do two exhaustive searches to find him, he isn't sexy and buff like all the young actors in California. He's from Vancouver.

It turns out that writer/director Blitz himself stuttered, and was on the debate team and they won. But that isn't how it happens in Rocket Science. Maybe Blitz didn't think anybody would believe it if it did. But it's even harder to believe Hal's persistence when at every trial he can't get a sentence out, while Ginny can summarize an eight-minute argument in ten seconds. This story seems to be about persistence, but it's also about too many other things: first love, parents splitting, sibling problems, overcoming a handicap. One point is clearly made: being a teenager is hell for a boy, especially if he stutters. But maybe stuttering is just a metaphor for being a teenager. Maybe that's what thumbsucking was in Thumbsucker. Only Justin in Thumbsucker became a star of the debating team, and that was more fun.

This movie is made for the kind of audience that gets it (and enjoys doing so) when a boy urges Hal to join the philosophy club and then reassures him that Hegel is not included. There's a soundtrack of odd songs with downbeat lyrics (notably by the Violent Femmes) that are often spot on and appealing. Disturbia's cool and edgy Aaron Yoo does a surprising reversal as Hal's proper, nerdy friend and competitor Heston. Hal describes Ben as a "god" who (as a dropout) is "doing drycleaning," and he is convincingly godlike and brilliant in his brief turn as the returning team member. The plot falters here, because Ben and Hal enter competition without school approval. How could that be? Come to think of it, why doesn't Hal overcome his stutter, the way we want him to--at least a little bit? His presenting the resolution in the debate to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic at Ben's suggestion, because stutters can be overcome while singing, is pretty far fetched. The whole movie is a string of ornate whimsy. Perhaps so were those other films, especially Napoleon Dynamite. But they hang together a bit better. Still, I liked Hal: rarely has a handicapped character been made so appealing and human -- in an ironic high school coming-of-age flick, anyway.

Part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007, Rocket Science will open in theaters in California June 1st.

Chris Knipp
04-28-2007, 04:19 AM


Absurdly ambitious but also highly stimulating

You may need to be 28 and 23 to be as wildly over-ambitious as Swel and Imad Noury, the half-Moroccan, half-Spanish brothers who made the multiple-plotted Heaven's Doors (Abwab ul-Jinnah), their first narrative feature, for only $180,000. Does everyone want to start out with an Innaritu-style diagram of all human experience now? The Nourys have created what in some ways is a sentimental and amateurish film, but the panorama is rich and the milieu feels authentic. A lot of movies are shot in Morocco, including, to mention only two, Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down and parts of Michel Gondry's Art of Sleep. But those are the work of interlopers and don't capture authentic Moroccan life like this one.

The Nourys seem to have wanted to throw in everything but the kitchen sink: cocky young men, blind peasant women, drunken sages, innocent schoolchildren, ex-cons, gangsters, break dancers, and an alcoholic American expatriate woman from San Francisco whose soul-bearing and whining phone calls to her mother back home are, to an American audience, obtrusive and somewhat embarrassing. Even she seems a real Casablanca resident, though: how else could she be American yet obviously understand Moroccan Arabic and be fluent in French?

In the first segment and the last (of three, all set in Casablanca), with their gangsterish content, it feels as if the Nourys may be influenced more by cinema than by their own experience, which is fine. We get a close look at several characters in each of the three parts. The most fully realized people -- even if their stories are left hanging -- are the expatriate lady of the middle segment and a fifty-year-old man just released from prison who dominates the final segment.

As the film opens, Ney (Rabie Katy), a young man whose pals all wear muscle shirts, long hair in a pigtail, and turned-around baseball caps, reports to a slick character with a big swimming pool and a bar-lined SUV and thereby turns to crime to support his blind mother (Latifah Ahrare) and a young sister, Maria (Samia Berrada), who's well behaved and bright in school. This opening sequence is the most irritating of the three, because none of the action is clear and the hand-held camera makes you seasick. Despite his being closest in age to the filmmakers, Ney seems the least realized of the main characters. His moments at home with his blind mother are hard to reconcile with the way he spends his time otherwise.

A feud Ney gets into with a gangster named Faisal (Farid Regragui) leads to his killing a father and putting the mother in a coma, and the little son Salim (Taha Ghrabi) and the mother are taken in by the American lady, Lisa (Aimee Meditz), who's grumpy and put-upon at first and then falls in love with the little boy and is devastated when he's taken away with the comatose mother by a Moroccan relative. This segment anchors the whole, because it's about the stuff of everyday life more than the crime stories that bookend it. It shows the cameraman can keep his hand steady when he wants to, and the woman is interesting, even if her emotional arc seems pushed and weepy. She seems a real person; it's a pity she's not a better actress. Smail (Hakim Noury, the directors' father), the quiet, self-contained, elegant released prisoner, is the film's most interesting figure. He's mysterious, but perhaps because of the filmmakers' connection with him, they make us feel close to him. He's been incarcerated for fifteen years and connects with his best friend -- who turns out to be the Amercan lady's estranged husband -- and his girlfriend before preparing a rglement de comptes with a pal who betrayed him. This doesn't quite feel like a conclusion so much as like a story that could have been more fully developed. Paulo Ares' cinematography has its moments, but the jiggling in the Ney scenes simply seems clumsy. The editors' inter-cutting of tiny slices of earlier and later moments into scenes is more distracting than illuminating. You have to learn to walk before you can dance. The Nourys and Ares seem to have been far too much in love with every shot, though given the ambitious schemework, it's hardly surprising the film is over-long (160 minutes). Apart these criticisms, there is a lot of interesting stuff here, and the plotting is pretty ingenious, with its regular structures and its recurrent focus on mothers and sons. And despite the obvious flaws, it's somewhat exhilarating to see an almost indigenous moviemaking effort of such complexity coming out of Morocco. Probably this isn't destined to be anything but a festival film, but one hopes it will lead to more from this country and these young men. The film was produced by the directors' mother, Pilar Cazorla.

Part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, 2007.

Chris Knipp
04-29-2007, 01:38 AM


He loses his passport and his memory, and it's all a lark

"Be careful. I will fall in love with somebody who needs me... Just kidding." Says the girl who comes to rescue Oshima, when he's lost in the desert after his girlfriend, May, went off to find a police station supposedly only a few miles away, and was gone for four hours.

So begins the essential story of amour-LEGENDE, though not the film itself, because it's here that the young man who's called "Oshima" has just dozed off and then wakes up to find he's lost his memory, but has a new girl there in front of him saying her name is Coco -- a girl to tell him what's happening, where he is, and so forth.

Amour-LEGENDE's essential charm lies in several elements. Though being trapped in a desert on an island off the coast of somewhere in South America, locked out of one's rental car (a cheery light-blue Mercedes) and losing one's memory don't sound like easy things to deal with, both of the principals, or all three of them, since the two women are played by the same actress, Rachel Ngan, and the man is played by Yousuke Kubosuko, have a light-hearted quality. There's something dashing and casual about the stylish Kubosuko, perhaps a profound indifference engendered from the actor's recently recovering from a fall from his nine-storey-high condo or his controversial advocacy of marijuana use. Ngan was born in Hong Kong and educated in Canada and she answers Kubosuko's Japanese remarks in casual, slangy American English. (He sometimes speaks English too and she sometimes speaks Japanese.) Both, it later turns out, are also fluent in Chinese. She speaks Spanish, which comes in handy dealing with the locals. Perhaps this constant alternation of languages helps contribute to a sense that these people are on separate planets. It also means this is a "pan-Asian production." But director Wu has used that polyglot aspect to his own ends. The linguistic flourishes provide amusement and a certain detachment.

There is also something consistently light and beautiful and elegant about the visuals. The desert images are a little washed-out. The actors are both very easy on the eyes. The unflappable (but at times lightly annoyed) Oshima never loses his composure, and this somehow lightens the viewer's load in going through an experience that never seems to move forward. Midway, it returns to the beginning. Along the way, flashbacks finally allow us to guess what might have happened. The long-haired Oshima, somewhat improbably an office executive (he seems more like a playboy or a fashion model -- or why not both?), lived with his wife in Taipei. It was there that he began an affair with May (Ngan, of course), whereupon they decided to go off for an idyll on this island she'd found out about called La Bamba del Corazon. Incidentally "Oshima" means "big island" in Japanese, so maybe Oshima is happening inside somebody's head. And by the way his wife's name was April, but it seems that he may just call her that, as he comes to call the new woman (whom we see as May) May, though she says her name is Coco, just because he likes these names.

Sitting in the nice hotel where Coco and Oshima wind up, she says, "You look like a vet." A veterinarian. How do you look like a vet? And he is one. He wonders if the island really exists. The map they have found for the island in May's empty suitcase is really a map of the Egyptian towns that run along the Nile.

Oshima thinks Coco, or maybe May, took away his memory. There are hints of a misogynistic attitude in the film, and it's firmly from the young man's point of view. But it's also a love story. Life is just a dream, or as the Spanish line goes, a dream of a dream, and love too then is just a dream; but it's a dream worth having.

When May and Oshima went to a hotel on the island (this is before May disappears), they met the King and Queen of the island. Later the Spanish-speaking king reappears as a man in evening clothes wearing a large squirrel's head and talks to Oshima and Oshima answers in Japanese. They understand each other. And they wonder why. Could this all be a dream?

Coco and Oshima continue to look for May, on a place called Snow Mountain which is where May had intended for the couple to go. Finally Coco disappears in another hotel, and Oshima meets May but she denies they know each other and says, repeating what they were told eons earlier, "If a couple breaks up on Snow Mountain, it will take eight hundred million light years before they can meet again." And Oshima says, "No one's told you? A light year is a unit of distance." End of story. End of film. Amour-LEGENDE is just a diversion. But Mi-sen Wu's light touch makes it work. (It's an elegant puzzler like Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad; and it has links with the Antonioni of L'Avventura). To be harsh with it would be to "break a butterfly upon a wheel."

Mi-sen Wu's amour-LEGENDE /Songshu zisha shijian (2006) is being shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
04-29-2007, 03:42 PM


Sketches for a cinema of exhaustion

This filmmaker is Portuguese and has been chronicling the Cape Verdean immigrant population of Lisbon for some time. The Portuguese title is Juventude en marcha, Youth on the March; it's not clear where the Colossal comes from, though in either case the phrases are presumably ironic. Nobody is going anywhere. Using cinema vrit methods, Costa focuses on Ventura, a tall, lean sixty-something Cape Verdean man living in Lisbon whose wife leaves his cave-like second-story slum dwelling, tossing out the window and thereby destroying a lot of the furniture before doing so. Ventura subsequently appears to wander around acting as "a genial but vacant guide" to a series of people he refers to as "children" or "son" or daughter" and who engage in "impossibly long-winded monologues" in "uniformly grimy, unlit interiors" (except for a couple of bright white ones in the new housing project that has since replaced the slum; these quotations are from Justin Chang's review in Variety written after the film's Cannes Festival screening). Occasionally Ventura, who refers to himself as a "retired laborer," recalls building projects he worked on when he first came to Lisbon and a fall he suffered during one of them, but he does not offer much commentary or advice to his younger interlocutors.

The visuals are mostly gray, with patches of color that sing out in contrast. Ventura plays cards; looks at a new apartment in the project; listens there to Vanda (Vanda Duarte, subject of an earlier Costa film) talking about her painful childbirth experience,and later with her child; plays cards or eats a meal with "sons;" and visits the national museum where another "son" is a guard.

Costa offers less to viewers (and conversely perhaps gives them more to do) than almost any filmmaker presenting lives and people. Hence, in part paradoxically, he has a "coterie of fans" whom this new film will keep in "rapt attention"-- while doubtless "proving a colossal bore to anyone else" (Justin Chang again). Costa is a minimalist, and in minimal art, less is more; with success, the principle of the "tremendous trifle" will apply. Elements that elsewhere would go unnoticed will become significant or beautiful. The online cinephile writer Aquerello (http://filmref.com/journal/archives/2007/02/colossal_youth_2006.html) (Strictly Film School) believes this to be true of Colossal Youth and says of Ventura that his "lean and angular physicality cuts a dark and sinuous figure as majestic and transfixing as the works of art that frame him" in the museum. Aquerello further comments on the film's most studied element, in which an injured laborer asks Ventura to write a letter home to his girlfriend --a letter, Aquerello speculates, that also subsequently "becomes an expression of the wan protagonist's own sense of abandonment since his wife has left him." Aquerello calls the repetition of the letter's phrases in the film an "incantation." This, he thinks, typifies "the transfiguration of the corporeal into the ethereal through mundane ritual" of the film's "awkward composition, disarming humility, and poetic ineloquence."

In its most elaborated form the letter Aquerello refers to goes like this:

My love, being together again will brighten our lives for at least 30 years. I'll come back to you strong and loving. I wish I could offer you 100,000 cigarettes, a dozen fancy dresses, a car, the little lava house you always dreamed of, a threepenny bouquet. But most of all, drink a bottle of good wine and think of me. Here, it's nothing but work. There are over a hundred of us now. Did my letter arrive safely? Still nothing from you. Some other time. Every day, every minute, I learn beautiful new words for me and you alone made to fit us both, like fine silk pajamas, wouldn't you like that? I can only send you one letter a month. I often get scared building these walls. Me with a pick and cement, you with your silence, a pit so deep, it swallows you up. It hurts to see these horrors that I don't want to see. Your lovely hair slips through my fingers like dry grass. Often, I feel week and think I'm going to forget you.

The overwhelming impression of Ventura is of fatigue, and one of my points of reference from literature for Costa's filmmaking as exhibited in Colossal Youth is the novels and to a lesser extent the plays of Samuel Beckett. "I can't go on. I'll go on," is a famous Beckett conclusion. Beckett's Irish gift for the music of language served him so well that he deliberately switched to French to limit himself, though in his own English translations of the results, especially the plays, the poetry still sings in the mud and ruins of his devastated dead-end characters' lives.

Beckett works entirely with the ear- and mind-stimulating power of words. However impoverished the vocabulary, in the hands of a master words can work magic. Costa is doing something different, because if he seeks indeed a "poetic ineloquence," whatever that might be (Beckett's characters aren't ineloquent, just desperate and impoverished), then in editing 320 hours of digital video down to 155 minutes, he may be trying to knit together a fine carpet out of torn rags.

New York independent filmmaker Kevin Lee has a respectful take (http://mattzollerseitz.blogspot.com/2007/02/colossal-youth-slumland-empire.html) on Costa like Aquerello, but he has reservations. Lee rejects the assertion that Costa is completely outside the "zeitgeist," i.e., utterly original, insisting he "falls into much of the same stylistic territory as a dominant strain of festival cinema that relies heavily on static long takes and a non-demonstrative approach to performance. It's a style that I am finding increasingly exhausted and exhausting, which may be why I at times resisted Colossal Youth, suspecting it of defaulting to an international cinematic house style for universal ennui." But Lee is impressed by Costa's use of space, the way he gives his characters "profound dignity" by his "lensing" and use of limited single light sources (Aquerello's painting analogy may work here; one thinks of Caravaggio--though if you come to this film expecting the beauty of Caravaggio you will be as deeply disappointed as if you come to Beckett expecting Shakespeare). Lee concludes:
As much as I've tried to make a case for the logic behind the film's more puzzling elements, after one viewing I am not fully persuaded that Colossal Youth's many fragments cohere into a masterful whole. According to Peranson, Costa spent two years shooting 320 hours of footage, and no doubt he established strong relationships with his actor-subjects in that time, but that still does not discern whether the film's seemingly loose structure is a vivid reflection of the dissolute lives playing out on screen, or is simply dissolute, indulgent filmmaking. Yet I have no reservations in lauding the film for the specific and innovative approaches it takes toward depicting a way of life that is usually portrayed, when it is portrayed at all, without attentiveness or empathy. It is in the attempt to create a house of cinema from the derelict moments of these people on screen that I find Colossal Youth pulsing with purpose. This may be true, and certainly there is something unique about Costa's dingy imagery, but the pulsing with purpose is a thing that comes and goes. What lasts a sense of the hopelessness of urban immigrant poverty.

Part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
04-29-2007, 09:57 PM


[b]Too many good things

The new movie by popular Italian leftist filmmaker Nanni Moretti (whose The Son's Room was much admired by US art house audiences) is new only to us. It opened over a year ago in Italy, and that long a lag is crucial in politics -- long enough for Romano Prodi to have replaced Silvio Berlusconi as Italy's prime minister. Il caimano is, however diffusely, a political satire, an "attack" on Berlusconi, notably providing an overview of his dubious practices -- the way he used to hide ownership of multiple companies, his gradual domination of Italian media long before he became president, his manipulation of the judiciary, and much more. What is a "caimano," a "cayman"? A kind of crocodile: a reptile, large and dangerous, with a long mouth full of teeth to devour its victims. A rapacious creature. Berlusconi is waiting in the wings to leap back into power if the center-left coalition fails, as it recently temporarily did. Hence though there have been big changes, Il caimano's theme is not stale.

In various forms, Berlusconi plays an important role in the movie -- and played a tremendous role in its promotion in Italy, as did studious secrecy about who would play him and what role Moretti himself would play. Not only does the film include footage of Berlusconi in person uttering some of his most flagrant public remarks, notably his likening European Parliament member Martin Schultz to a "Nazi kapo," but there are three actors portraying him. Perhaps to take the bulk of the flack, the final climactic Berlusconi-surrogate scenes star Nanni Moretti himself. In these, Berlusconi is sentenced to seven years in prison for various crimes but is cheered by the crowd coming out while the judges and prosecutors are jeered and attacked with fire bombs. But before that there are two other actors: one (Elio De Capitani) who looks indeed unmistakably like the billionaire politician; and another (Michele Placido) who looks more like a distinguished Italian movie actor.

But this being Moretti, Il caimano isn't so much about Berlusconi as about Moretti himself, or a surrogate, and above all about cinema. Il caimano has a distinctly autobiographical dimension and takes on germane topics -- filmmaking, the Italian taste in movies, and the fortunes of a central character who is a director with a marriage on the rocks.

Ultimately the film is a little soft on Berlusconi. As someone says when making a film to expose his main offenses is mentioned, "But everyone knows all that," and this must have been one of the obstacles Moretti faced. Moreover the reality is more extreme than any satire. The actions of America's current administration may seem over the top to opponents. But imagine a president who was the subject of criminal trials almost too numerous to mention, including bribing a judge, illegally financing a political party, embezzlement, perjury, tax fraud, false accounting; who has passed laws to exempt himself from charges; and who owns a majority of the private sector national media and during his tenure controlled a large segment of state television as well. It's another world over there, a world, from the Anglo-Saxon point of view, too surreal to satirize. It may also be said that, since Berlusconi's propaganda machine was active long before he took power and his television stations became the popular ones, Italy's problem is not Berlusconi but the world he has created.

But let's look more specifically at Moretti's movie. In it, Silvio Orlando plays Moretti's stand-in, Bruno Bonono. Once Bruno made popular action films but he has long been in difficulties. At the outset he considers making one about Christopher Columbus but is abandoned by his longtime producer and approached by a young woman at an awards show honoring earlier efforts, who gives him the scenario "Il caimano" skewering Berlusconi. The fledgling screenwriter, Teresa (Jasmine Trinca), is the essence of all that is wholesome, but later Bruno is shocked to be invited to her family gathering in the country and learn that she is a lesbian and she and her female partner are raising her baby. (No radical, he begs her not to tell him how the baby came into the world.)

Perhaps unaware that this scenario is a difficult project to complete (though Moretti himself would know), Bruno finds Polish billionaire Jerzy Sturovsky (Jerzy Stuhr) to finance it and, despite those interjected sequences we've been shown depicting both the real Berlusconi and the actor who closely resembles him, he instead persuades Marco Pulici (Michele Placido), a seasoned Italian film star with nice cheekbones and luxuriant white locks, to take on the role in order to give "The Cayman" a gravitas and sex appeal (and hence a kind of three-dimensionality) that in real life he lacks. This seems to be a bad choice, since Pulci withdraws and Jerzy pulls his funding.

But Bruno's main problem is at home. He is sleeping at work, but trying to be a good dad by telling bedtime stories based on one of his most outrageous movies, Cataratta (Cataract), to his two boys, Andrea (Daniele Rampello) and Giacamo (Giacamo Pasarelli), and he hopes to make peace with his estranged wife Paula (Margherita Buy) who once starred in that actioner.

Il caimano is tumultuous, funny, and winning. Silvio Orlando, Moretti's regular alter ego, is appealing and multidimensional. The trouble with the film is that it tries to do too much and, because of its inability wholly to meld together the various plot lines, at times seems thrown together even as its sequences are often impressive and always well photographed, well acted, and technically polished. Moretti is multitalented. Perhaps here too many of the talents are on display at once. The reason why The Son's Room, despite occasional comic moments, is so moving and dramatically effective is that it chooses to limit its focus to an intimate personal level. And there are conversely times when one wished that Moretti had had the imagination and ingenuity to make a film not about three topics -- fiulmmaking, marriage and the family, and a right-wing politician -- but on just one of those, whether it be the political, the personal, or the artistic and cinematic elements of Il caimano.

Chris Knipp
05-02-2007, 01:53 PM


Are we ready for a cowardly samurai?

In Hana Koreeda has turned from modern times to make another samurai-going-out-of-style movie, set in 1701 when "sword fighting has flown out of fashion with the wind." The film focuses on the cute Soza, played by boy-band singer Junichi Okada, who's supposed to avenge the death of his samurai father (killed, embarrassingly, in a fight over a go game rather than any battle), but would rather play go himself, soak in a hot tub, or teach neighborhood kids writing than practice his swordplay. Hana questions the very validity of revenge and war but unfortunately does so with an inept fighter and even a coward as a hero. Why this isn't a good way of presenting alternatives to warlike philosophy is obvious: a hero is needed who can say "I can do it but I choose not to," rather than one who must say, "I can't, so I better not." Despite the film's considerable charm in presenting a variety of colorful characters and incidents -- abetted by excellent acting, a realistic period tenement setting, and fresh-sounding western renaissance music -- its main character becomes an embarrassment and a disappointment rather than a revelation. Unfortunately the young star's appealing sweetness seems a mockery. As Mark Shilling of Japan Times has commented, Okada is "too handsome and cool to be a sympathetic coward. Too bad Bill Murray isn't 20 years younger -- and Japanese." Moreover (as Shilling also says) Hana's lively incidents are rather meandering, don't interconnect very well, and don't add up to climactic moments: the story line "lacks anything major." The natural impulse is to want the climax of a real revenge, the one Sozo is supposed to enact. Defeating such conventional expectations, the film feels longer than it is.

It may be that Koreeda, whose films have created a unique mood, means for Hana to make us uncomfortable, and the colorful characters and rude toilet jokes are an intentional effort to put us off our guard. Certainly when the moment first comes when Soza is beaten up by a local punk in pink, Sodekichi (Ryo Kase), it's horrifying and demoralizing because Soza up to then has been not only immensely simpatico, but a guy with a worthwhile function in the tenement house (nagaya) village -- which Koreeda has departed from film tradition in making realistically rickety. Soza says he's in the shabby place because (as introductory titles have told us) samurais are frequently undercover in such locations at the moment. When he learns his revenge-object, Kanazawa Jubei, is living nearby, it turns out one of his informants and caf-pals knew it all along and the latter advises him to say nothing. "This samurai revenge thing is out of style," he adds. Besides, "with your skills" (i.e., the lack of them), "you're doomed." Hana makes this sort of point too bluntly and repetitiously.

The setting, which compares (as Shilling notes) to that of Kurosawa's memorable flop Do-des-ka-den, is a lively but pathetic community where people live selling scraps -- and their own excrement, sold for fertilizer to a landowner, is worth more than the fruit of their labors. It's a world where indignity is a constant, in which Soza's humiliations seem almost normal.

The interest of Hana, despite its not being Koreeda at his best, is that it reflects contemporary Japanese demoralization -- a deep sense of the loss of traditional values as well as an equally strong sense of personal uncertainty in the old areas of machismo that once were strong. And it does this in a deceptively traditional-looking framework that shows how seductive and unavoidable Japanese tradition still remains. In that way, the director has been able to manufacture the same troubling unease that made his more powerful Nobody Knows so riveting and disturbing. This still feels like a distinct misstep for the filmmaker -- but he has seemed capable of doing something completely different almost every time -- and no doubt what comes next will be a surprise, perhaps a more exciting one.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-02-2007, 02:01 PM


A cold dish in a hot climate

Like Koreeda's Hana, Haroun's Daratt is another new filmed tale about delayed revenge, but a very different and much more powerful one. Atim (Ali Barkai), whose father was murdered in the aftermath of Chad's civil war, goes out to avenge his father's killer after a general amnesty is declared. His plans change when in order to carry out his task he goes to work at the killer's bakery. While Koreeda's Soza is timid and doubtful and lives with a lot of other people, Atim is virtually alone and perpetually angry and seems ready to kill at any moment.

Revenge is a dish best enjoyed cold means it's not a crime of passion but of premeditation. Into that premeditation play not only a personal sense of wrong but often hereditary cultural rules governing loyalty to tribe, clan, family, or parent. It seems unlikely anyone would feel obligated to carry out an act of revenge (as both Soza and Atim do) without cultural input requiring it; and since traditional values are in a state of flux or devolution, the motivation may wane. This must explain the arcs of both Hana and Daratt. Soza of Hana feels an obligation to his clan, which however his own nature rejects; he's a gentle soul who would rather teach calligraphy than practice his dubious swordsmanship skills -- which don't seem to translate well from the dojo to the street. Atim is directed by his ancient, blind grandfather to avenge his father's death. It seems almost a religious duty, and in some folk interpretations of Islam such obligations are given a religions sanction. In fact, though, when Atim arrives at the unidentified town where his "victim" lives and begins working for his father's killer, he refuses to go to the mosque with him, perhaps sensing that subjugation to the will of God might dampen his sense of purpose, or because he realizes his bloody mindedness ill fits a religion whose greeting is "peace be upon you."

Daratt's fable-like quality arises from its forceful simplicity. Each character has some iconic function. Atim's grandfather Gumar Abatcha (Khayar Oumar Defallah) acts as a relentless force of judgment. The soldier who is nasty to Atim on his trip (Abderam ane Abakar) is a minor wrong-doer, who disrespects Atim, which also must be avenged. Upon arrival Atim's befriended by an amiable petty thief, Moussa (Djibril Ibrahim), who helps him get established in town, but whom he summarily abandons once he narrows in on his task. When we first see Nassara (Youssouf Djaoro), the man who killed Atim's father, it's obvious he is more important. He looks like a priest. He is a tall, thin man in a robe with a scarf around his neck and a distant, ascetic air -- off-putting, but not easy to despise on sight -- and he appears at a gate with a bag full of bread scraps that he distributes to poor boys who come to him with tin plates. This happens several times, and then Atim goes up to Nassara. Everything about Atim from first to last suggests inarticulate rage. One would say his performance was one-note were it not so strong and convincing. He takes the proffered hunk of bread, bites out of it, then spits it out. The man says if he wants work, to come back tomorrow. Nobody talks much in the film. In fact Nassara has had his throat slit during the war and has to hold a gadget up to his neck to be able to say anything.

The strength of the film comes from its tension and suspense, from the accumulating power of things left unexplained. It is never obvious, right up to the last scene, what Atim is going to do. When he stays with Nassara and is befriended uneasily by his young wife Aicha (Aziza Hiseine) and begins to work for him, it's not clear why. Is he biding his time to achieve maximum surprise? Or is he simply hesitating? Moreover while evidently Nassara is becoming fond of the young man, it's hard to say whether Atim is liking him more or feeding his hate. Certainly the situation is complicated by the fact that in some strange way Nassara has become a surrogate father figure for Atim (an outcome recalling events in the Dardennes brothers' The Son), but also because, when Nassara's back is killing him and he lets Atim do all the baking, it delights Atim to accomplish this task with success. Nassara like Atim is silent and seems full of anger, further linking the two men, young and old, in an uneasy embrace. One of the most vivid ever portraits on film of prolonged, inarticulate rage, Daratt is also a more emotionally intense and convincing depiction than Koreeda's Hana of how someone bent on revenge might waver painfully over the task.

Daratt is a fascinating, powerful tale. Its intensity, its vividness, its simplicity, even the dry heat of the setting, all conspire to make for a riveting film.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-03-2007, 07:12 PM


Strange ways of loving

This West Coast premiere film and contender for the SFIFF SKY Prize depicts a triangle that occurs when a young woman starts an affair with an employee where her husband is incarcerated. Hattu worked with Andre Tchin on Wild Reeds and Les Voleurs. This is his first feature-length film. Mat (Valerie Donzelli) faithfully visits her sexy, intense husband Vincent (Bruno Bruno Todeschini of Ozon's 5x2), when she's spotted by a pale, pointy-faced man (Cyril Troley) who says he's there to visit his brother Jean. Having been advised by her nurse friend Djamila (Nadia Kaci) to take a lover, she consents to mechanical sex with Jean in a car. The relationship continues and intensifies. It's not till some time later that Mat learns Jean is a guard at the prison, not a visitor, and that in fact he is friendly with Vincent and is making life easier for him. Mait's life revolves around this strange triangle; she gives up an opportunity to work in a beauty parlor to take care of Djamila's feisty little boy Julien (Pablo De La Torre) during the days. Another surprise comes latter.

For a film about deprivation, 7 Years nonetheless manages to be brim-full of sensuality, gestures, words, smells expressing longing and excitement, and there are plenty of scenes of sex real and imaginary. The film's drollest aspect is that not only is Jean equally important in both Mat and Vincent's lives, but to Jean himself, his relationship with Vincent seems as important as his relationship with Mat. Half way through one begins to wonder: Is Jean bisexual? And his face has that longing, Taste of Honey look. Suffice it to say, things get more and more intense -- and twisted, though in a quite logical way. This film is good at using limited means to arouse complicated emotions. It's a solid piece of work, but has nothing special about it to make it memorable. The plot structure is such that the story fizzles out somewhat at the end. The film feels like the product of a sophisticated tradition but also a somewhat exhausted one.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-03-2007, 07:26 PM


A festival favorite with lovely cinematography

Set in rural South India, this sweet movie with its nice music and dancing and lovely colorful visuals has a disturbing arc that leads to a picture of old social barriers being challenged. Fifteen-year-old Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya), the daughter of a drunken fisherman, goes to work for a rich lady, Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari), who teaches her to dance. The lady's son Shekher (Karan Singh) comes home from America and he sees Vanaja being fresh with her friend from home the boy postman Ram Babu (Krishna Garlapati), and, thinking she's loose, later rapes her.

Vanaja is pregnant, and when Rama Devi finds out, she punishes her son, insisting Vanaja have an abortion at once. But Vanaja decides she must have the baby (when she does, it's half as big as she is). The girl is wily, and deals with adult sized problems as a young teenager.

The world of this film seems in some ways untouched by modernity; or it could have taken place as well in the 1930's as the 2000's. No televisions or computers come into sight. But maybe Vanaja learned her independence from things happening in India today, even though they don't seem to touch the milieu of the film. The subject is a girl, and the background is light and entertaining, with local color respected but not filled in too elaborately, but this isn't a picture for young people to watch.

It may seem a bit peculiar that the rich woman's hunky son, who has lived in America, would wind up becoming half enamored of a scrawny young lower caste girl, but that's what happens; but this isn't completely impossible: after all, Vanaja's baby is his child. Spoiled and a little weird and violent and not very grown up, Sheker is in sharp contrast to his mother, with her warmth, wisdom, and independence; she's a real Indira Gandhi.

There are scenes of Vanaja dancing for Rama Devi (with her musicians) throughout. The final one, in a big blue room, is quite magical, a triumph of bright color and luminous natural light. Young Mamatha Bhukya's dancing is at its most complete and accomplished in the scene. She acts out a whole drama, with all the expressions and movements. But obviously there is a lot more to this film than the story of a servant girl who wanted to learn to dance.

Vanaja is a festival favorite, being scheduled, I've read, for 22 such screenings in the US. So it ought to do okay in art houses. The cinematography is absolutely lovely, without seeming artificial or overly studied. India is still one of the most colorful places on earth in more ways than one. Domalpalli gets excellent performances, some broader than others, from everyone. There's truth here, but this is far from vrit, and as in so much traditional Indian filmmaking, the director seeks more to entertain us than to hit any profound notes.

"Submitted in partial fulfillment of the degree of MFA. Columbia University, New York," the end titles tell us. He earned the degree and then some with this accomplished piece, which is notable for its visual beauty. Its weakness is that despite her adult problems, the young Vanaja somewhat lacks depth as a character.

Shown as part of the San Francisco Internation Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-03-2007, 07:35 PM


Brief, episodic, but cohesive portrait of urban Brazilian youth

As the 1959 Marcel Camas film Black Orpheus and its 1999 Carlos Diegues remake Orfeu were Brazilian popular life retellings of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in Rio de Janeiro, this film, Os 12 trabalhos, is (more superficially, however) a So Paulo retelling of the Labors of Hercules. Incidentally Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro) was a seminal "crossover" film which for many US and European film viewers must have been their first glimpse of Brazilian life and exposure to the musical sound of Brazilian Portuguese. The idea of using the colorful favela world of Rio's urban poor to recreate an ancient myth was a powerful one. The remake sets Camus' effort in perspective by being more ethnically authentic and more totally Brazilian. In recent years Brazilian film-making has become increasingly visible with the success of 'Doa Flor and her Two Husbands, the Oscar won by Central Station; some may have seen Lavoura Aracaica, or Madam Sat; more have seen City of God, itself an ambitious personal and generational history set largely in the favelas. Thus we North Americans approach The 12 Labors, even without knowing the language, with a certain background and set of expectations.

It may seem a letdown to know that the twelve "labors" given to Herakles (the handsome Sidney Santiago) after his release from Febem juvenile detention consist simply of complications that arise as he learns the ropes as a messenger boy, but we remember that the "hell" of Black Orpheus was a big bureaucratic office building. This time there's no romance (the girl who kisses him is just his cousin's ex-girlfriend), and more rap than samba, So Paulo instead of Rio. Things are at a lower key. The tasks (a misdelivered envelope, an escaped cat, a grumpy man) can on the whole hardly be called "Herculean," and Herakles never seems in a life-and-death struggle to complete them: hence the parallels with the Greek myth are pretty weak. (If as an online note says there are 300,000 messengers in So Paulo and two of them get killed in traffic accidents every day -- we do see two of them, one fatal -- so too the stakes for Herakles might have been made considerably higher, the pace faster.)

The result is appealing, richly human but unspectacular. However, the effect of the new Brazilian cinema can be felt in the fluent vernacular portraits of urban under- and middle-class people, the clear sense of living, pulsing city life. Nice features are the disenchanted voiceover with its poetry and its extra data on characters, the sparky dialogue spoken by Herakles' cousin Jonas (Flavio Bauraqui), who got him this job, and a sequence bringing to life a comic strip Herakles has drawn in his notebook. There are over a dozen other characters, colorful and attractive: the film is as much a string of vignettes as a coming-of-age tale. The story ends on a somber, tragic note that modulates into something deeper with a nice ending sequence of a long night ride ending in a dawn walk on the beach and a look at us that recalls the finale of The 400 Blows. No doubt Elias and Santiago will be heard from again, of that we can be pretty sure. Nice music by Andr Abujammra , editing by William Dias, and images by Jay Yamashita. Very cohesive, very watchable, and, as so often with Brazilian films, brimming with life.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007

Chris Knipp
05-05-2007, 08:00 PM


A film more provocative than convincing, about important issues

Rage (Wut) is a film made for German TV about Turks in Germany. It was written and directed by a man born in Turkey who has lived in Germany most of his life and studied filmmaking there, just as the younger winner of the top prize in Berlin in 2004, Fatih Akin of Head-On (Gegen die Wand), was trained in the arts in Germany but identifies with the Turkish minority. While Akin's approach is complex and ironic, Aladag treats the German-Turkish conflicts schematically and simplistically.

Can (Oktay zdemir)-- pronounced like "John" -- is a cocky Turkish youth with bad teeth and a ponytail who has it in for Felix Laub (Robert Hler), a "nice" German boy who plays the cello and lives in a big modern house with a swimming pool. Felix has apparently bought some dope from Can, so though Can, surrounded by his little posse, steals his fancy sneakers and roughs him up and extorts money from him on a daily basis, Felix tries to conceal these things from his parents and goes on thinking Can may be his "friend." Felix's father Simon (August Zirner) is a university philosophy teacher (soon to be promoted to full professor) who dates his young girl students, and his mother Christa (Corinna Harfouch) sells real estate and is having an affair with one of Simon's best friends. Simon finds out about the stolen sneakers and the daily extortion and gets pretty angry.

The practical question is: what do you do in such a situation, since any action against Can and his gang might lead to reprisals? Felix may be wise to take the beatings and give the money, but he's in a dangerous situation. And Can, of course, is full of rage, and that's why tormenting Felix provides him with so much pleasure. Needless to say, there are other ways of expressing discontent with the kind of social inequities Can experiences, like growing up and trying to campaign for one's rights. But Rage simply exists, without hopeful solutions, within a context of the failure of Germany's "guest worker" program and the roiling discontent of the large Turkish minority of which both Can and Felix are victims.

Rage skewers middle class liberal German families that try to be "nice," aren't overtly racist toward the large Turkish minority, and turn the other cheek when they are attacked, due in part in Simon's case to what his son calls his "Hitler complex." The film, which ignores the fact that Turks are more often the victims than the attackers, suggests the practitioners of such liberalism as the Laubs' are spineless and sissified; and it even questions Simon's masculinity, or at least his physical courage, though not Felix's. Simon fails again and again to control Can and late in the picture almost commits an act of terrible cowardice, but still ends by exacting revenge. Presumably there are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Simon's philosophy, and these include knowing how to give someone "a good hiding," as the subtitles somewhat primly put it. He eventually gets Michael (Ralph Herforth) -- who he is soon to discover is his wife's current lover -- to deliver the "hiding" to Can for him. Can's behavior is so provocative (as is the film itself, at the cost of subtlety and even believability) that one wonders if they have court orders in Germany. The Turkish guy not only is a danger to Felix, but enters the Laub house repeatedly and menaces and abuses them and breaks things.

But before matters have reached that point Simon goes to Can's apartment and asks his father, an older man, to make Can return the sneakers. Can brings them right away, in a bag, but this is when he first enters the Laubs' house and prances around abusing and mocking them. One wonders if Aladag hasn't spent some time studying the films of Michael Haneke. The climactic sequence at the end in which Can gets truly nasty seems as if it may owe a good deal to Haneke's 1997 Funny Games. In that, a pair of punks torment a family and make them play sadistic games with each other. Can doesn't need a sidekick: he does just fine on his own. The young Oktay zdemir deserves credit for playing Can with great boldness and conviction. On the other hand the ethnic German principals are, as written, cardboard figures. Christa is a stiff, bitchy wife, full of innuendoes about her husband's spinelessness; Simon indeed seems incredibly wishy-washy, and poor Felix is a ridiculous good boy, polite to his parents, but equally eager to be Can's "friend" and too easily taken in when Can with obvious mockery says they are "brothers." Felix inexplicably has no real friends.

When Simon has reached his limit with Can, he manages to get him arrested for drug dealing, even though Felix was one of the customers he spied and in the police station Felix refuses to bear any witness to Can's criminal activity. Generations are in conflict, even though Felix and Simon don't fight. Can's father disowns him and Can weeps when he realizes this -- his sole moment of weakness.

Rage makes its points economically. The screenplay is swift-moving and pointed. The film tends to seem crude and exaggerated; there is no nuance in it. Conversely it is enormously effective in its clear aim of making viewers uncomfortable and illustrating the titular rage of young Turks.

Though there's no indication that Can's dignified, older father (Demir Gkgl) is really poor, it's also clear that he's less well off than the Laubs. (Apparently the reason an associate professor has such an impressive spread is money from the couple's parents.) Aladag has stated that for him Can is a hero, but this is a sad thing to know. Can is a prancing bully. Akin's anti-hero in Head-On, Cahit, also wants to destroy himself as Can ultimately does, but the reasons are more complex, and in the performance of the immensely charismatic Birol nel, Cahit is funny and appealing. Two different approaches, each perhaps with its validity. If Aladag's Rage arouses worthwhile debate of issues Germans have been unwilling to speak of, it will have had a positive value. But it feels like a film that would mostly just polarize or repel people.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007. The director was present for a Q & A after the public screening May 1.

Chris Knipp
05-05-2007, 08:08 PM


A droll gemtlich comedy of connections, inventions, and origins

Congorama is a complicated, gemtlich comedy by a Canadian filmmaker about an eccentric Belgian engineer. "You're number one when it comes to modernizing facilities," a supervisor tells the film's eccentric protagonist, Michel Roy (Olivier Gourmet, familiar from some of the Dardennes brothers' powerful films), "but inventing isn't your cup of tea." Michel goes in search of his origins. Where does he come from, and where does he belong? One perceptive viewer suggested this is a metaphor for the Quebecois of Canada, who don't resemble the Anglos any more than little Jules resembles Michel.

Michel lives with Jules, his son, a cute little Congolese boy (Arnaud Mouithys), and his Congolese wife, Alice (Claudia Tagbo). He takes his pap, Herv (the late Jean-Pierre Cassel), paralyzed from a stroke, around with him. From a packet of papers Herv gives him, Michel learns he isn't Herv's son and he isn't Belgian. He was adopted in Canada, and his birth parents are unknown. He goes to find them.

In Quebec, an old lady tells him his birth parents were named Legrand, but in the town he finds only Legros. He eats some bad French fries (Belgium is famous for its fries--not Quebec) from a stand, "Legros Hot Dog." Michel spends time with a minister, then gets a ride with a man named Louis Legros (Paul Ahmarani) and dodging an emu they have an accident in Louis' car and Louis ends up in a permanent coma. This begins a flashback about Louis, whose father also turns out to have been an inventor, perhaps a more important one; and there are curious direct, or nearly direct, intersections with Michel's life, including links with the Congo. Events take us back to the Brussels World Fair of 1958. It's there that the Congorama was to be found: an exhibition where Louis was born. It's also the name Michel gives to his electric car in honor of his wife. And the name of a book Herv has written, illustrated by Jules.

Congorama is a droll, offbeat kind of Irritu film, jumping back and forth between past and present, slipping by odd moments when lives and paths collide. People think of Irritu or Tarantino, because they think only of films. Somehow this seems on the whole a more literary than cinematic narrative; it might work very well as a novel. It takes a while to get going, but it's quite ingenious. Its way of tying things together gives one a feeling of satisfaction at the end, like finishing a puzzle, but a puzzle full of humanity and humor, leaving behind rich material to ponder.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-05-2007, 08:20 PM


A line that will make you weep

Italian title: Anche libero va bene (Sweeper's okay too).

Kim Rossi Stewart is a well known actor in Italy. Recent notable performances: Criminal Romance (2005, Michele Placido), The House Keys (2004. Gianni Amelio). In this, his superb directorial debut, the subject is childhood and dysfunctional families, a difficult one to deal with in a fresh way, perhaps, but the situation of newly free-lancing photographer Renato (Stewart), his 11-year-old son, Tommaso/Tommi (Alessandro Morace), and Tommi's older sister Viola (Marta Nobili) does emerge as different, yet true to life. Tommi, the main character, is a somber boy, shy and quiet, a good swimmer. Viola is the bright light in the house, a cheerful soul. It seems Renato is a single father, and a troubled one. He's a rageaholic, borderline bipolar, who often screams at them for little foul-ups in the house. Then one day the wife and mother of the family, Stefania (Barbora Bobulova), turns up, tearful, cowed, terrified of Renato's rage. She's comes and goes, we learn, remaining, apparently, unable to be faithful to one man and also involved with a rich guy. Renato is very reluctant to take her back. He also inappropriately involves the kids in the decision about this, and lets them hear the foul words he applies to his wife.

As time passes Renato becomes more emotionally stable at home with Stefania around, though he seems unable to cooperate on a job, trying to tell the director to photograph a camel when he needs a shot of a car, then walking off the set, and already having cut off his former employers.

Tommi is the realistic one. He knows Stefania will leave again, and hence finds it hard to give her affection. His freedom is to go up on the roof and look down through a pair of binoculars. This is his refuge. He has a friend now, Antonio, son of rich neighbors. He takes Antonio up to share the roof with him. Tommi dominates the film with his sad eyes in an impassive face. His heart seems to threaten to become frozen, and sometimes when it opens, it quickly shuts again. Despite too much pushing from his father, he still does well in swimming, though it never seems as if he cares. In class he chooses to stay seated next to Claudio, a new boy who has reacted to the trauma of his father's death by becoming mute. Tommi writes "I love you" to a girl he's next to in ceramics class, but when she finds the note, denies that he had anything to do with it.

Stewart gets excellent acting from everyone, most remarkably from young Morace, who doesn't seem "actor-y" at all but completely genuine. The direction in other ways is not as inventive or fresh as it could have been. The camera-work is mechanical in following people around. But the deeply touching story makes that unimportant.

One gets a strongly particular sense of the family here, of its instability and sadness, especially Tommi's; the film seems to have less ability to open itself up to the outside world and show the characters' relationship to it, in spite of scenes at Tommi's class at middle school.

After Renato's rejection of Tommi for giving up the swim team, a contrast comes when his friend Antonio's father invites him to go fishing, just the two of them, Antonio being in Naples with his grandmother for the day, and Tommi has dinner with Antonio's family to share the fish they catch. This father isn't judgmental but helpful, and the family is a serene and happy one.

As always it is disturbing to see children being subjected to a family life that is only wounding them, and which they will at best survive. Things are particularly bad when Tommi drops out of a swim match and finally declares he doesn't want to swim any more (we know he always preferred to play football). "Who gives a damn!" Renato declares. You're no son of mine." What a child needs is first for both parents to be present in their life and second to have unconditional love and support. They often don't get either. Along the Ridge is courageous in showing parents who fail and a child who somehow manages to deal with that.

As things get worse for Renato, Tommi's life takes on a tragic dimension and the film gains some of the resonance of the great Italian neorealist films. Those who've grown up in a dysfunctional family will understand the cold comfort Tommi feels escaping from his father's meltdown on a sky trip with Antionio and his cheerful, decent parents. The title in Italian refers to a reconciliation between Tommi and his dad. He's going to let Tommi play football after all and the position Tommi favors is midfielder, but dad likes sweeper. "Sweeper's okay too," says Tommi. In context, it's a line that will make you weep.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-06-2007, 02:21 PM


Swimming, life: levels of the game

Another narrative feature with a semi-documentary approach, Agua (Water) blends footage of actual competition and high quality training swimming with dramatized scenes of the two principals, Chico (a determined pool swimmer) and Goyo (an outdoor long-distance swimmer). Both have arrived at moments of trial and uncertainty in their lives when the intensity of their dedication has left them ill equipped to deal with anything else and totally bereft when the sport lets them down.

Chino Bengoechea (Nicols Mateo) is the younger one. He has a pregnant wife, Luisa (Jimena Anganuzzi), and was an orphan who grew up with his coach Roque (Pablo Testa) as his family and virtually lived at the pool throughout his youth. Goyo Blasco (Rafael Ferro), a man in his mid-thirties who was dubbed by local fans "Il Tiberon del Rio," The River Shark, is an ex-champion in the famous local marathon swim disgraced when after winning he was disqualified for doping. Returned to Santa Fe after an eight-year sojourn in the desert, Goyo cannot reconcile with his ex-wife, Maria (Gloria Carra), and their daughter doesn't even know he exists. For one reason or another, neither Chino nor Goya has much else besides swimming,and that, unfortunately, includes the women in their lives.

Agua superbly captures the beauty of swimming, the physical perfection of competition swimmers, the symmetry and grace of their movements, and the feel of the water itself as few films have done, using an austere, largely wordless approach that lets the water and the bodies speak for themselves. The sparingly used underwater photography is exceptional. No music, just the sound of water from inside it: "Time.rhythmreachtimereachtimeturn" Chino's voiceover speaks during one particularly nice passage. These moments are like a meditation. Chino's brief voiceovers comment occasionally on where his life is at successive moments. They keep his viewpoint a constant presence, but are understated.

The film shows the uncertainty of almost everything else about the two men's lives because the discipline of their training has left them ill suited for other concerns and responsibilities. Agua conveys the tension and extreme focus of a match, the way the admonitions and warnings of the coach ring out in the ears of the young team members with the intensity of Moses delivering the Ten Commandments.

Chen's film is distinguished by a certain rhythm, which might be defined by the regular contrast between the comforting (but also a little scary) silence under water, on the one hand, and the cacophonous echoes above at a big pool, on the other. A heartbeat sound against silence is stopped when the camera cuts to handlers above watching the swimmers, with the splashes of the water, the shouts, the echoes, and we go back and forth. This is nothing unusual in itself, but Agua does it with unusual simplicity and clarity and the underwater images are particularly nice because they are so straightforward, nothing tricky. In the earlier swim sequences, the eye gets a chance to grasp and savor the rhythm of the strokes. In the later ones, we get closer to the swimmer himself, his semi-blind concentration, his breathing, his immersion.

In the competition he's been training for, Chino is badly defeated by the champion and comes in fourth, so no Santa Fe swimmers qualify for the national team. He knows he ought to focus on Luisa and the coming baby now, but he can't. Nothing seems to matter any more. For him, success in international competition might have been a bridge out of poverty. We see him go to work carrying carcasses in a slaughterhouse, and Goyo is urged by an old mentor to train for the Santa Fe-Coronda Marathon again, told he ought to have won it: he did win it, but the title was taken away for use of a forbidden substance. And so Goyo decides to compete again in the 57 kilometer river swim from Santa Fe (a real race) and Chino is eventually prevailed upon to man a backup boat for him.

The film spares us Goyo's training and skips straight to his competition. Here, the filming of Goyo's swimming becomes more intense and expressionistic, close up on his head with no sound but his almost gasping intakes of air on each downstroke and the splash of the water around his arms followed by almost abstract close-ups from under water that express Goyo's complete mindless abandon to the effort. You couldn't get much closer to a competition swimmer than the film does at this point. "He is an animal," Chino has observed in voiceover earlier. "He is not aware of his body." Chino's approach is more self conscious and hence less total. Little problems that come up along the way heighten the intensity and bring Chino and Goyo into a symbiotic relationship.

The beauty of a documentary approach to narrative feature which is partly at work also here is that settings and contexts are allowed to speak for themselves. The potential drawback is that we may lose a sense of urgency about the characters. In this elegant film, with its intense focus on competition in relation to the two men, that does not happen. In the end, though, it isn't about the competition. The story does not lead there but moves on to somewhere else. And yet in some sense a baton has been passed.

A winner.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-06-2007, 03:12 PM


Going nowhere defiantly: a rough manifesto from an unacceptable civil state

"Kafka says that the Statue of Liberty has a big stick in her hand, " says Zina (Samira Kaddour). "For him to talk like that, it's certain that his visa was refused!" answers Kamel (Rachid Amrani). This sprightly young couple in Algiers grew up in the middle of warfare between government forces and the Islamist opposition so constant over the last decade they're hardly aware of the danger as they talk about leaving the country and go looking for a means to get out. In what director TeguIa calls "a slow-motion road movie" they wander around in a borrowed car along nameless streets, in industrial lots, in houses of friends or acquaintances, or in nearly empty houses. One house has a corpse in a bath, and a couple of abandoned passports. Before that, they get hauled in to the police station for nothing other than having a coffee and sitting in a bar with a friend. Zina's independence of manner and dress are provocations, but she gets away with them. The cops try to seize the car Kamel has borrowed from his uncle. While out driving they get stuck because of the curfew and stay with friends and party and get drunk. Later on a road outside town they're close to gunfire. They're still on the road, going nowhere in particular, when the film ends.

Kamel made pizza in Milan. We see him make it for a friend. There's a scuffle in the dark, near the port. Another guy talks of leaving illegally. Kamel and Zina discuss passports. He's bribed a sailor to get him out on a boat and wants her to come with him. During the curfew they go to visit an older man who says he was assigned to guard Eldridge Cleaver while he was in exile in Algeria during the 1970's. "You're fleeing slaves," he says, alluding to their desire to leave the country. "That's not my line." He cites D.H. Lawrence: "America is a republic of refugees," and says typically they know what they're fleeing, but not what they're seeking.

The director suggests his film (Arabic title Roma wa la n'touma) is "happy," not a "tragedy," "a film without guilt, about the simple joy of being alive even if the life here only amounts to a supposed good mood of the characters who cross an urban desert."

Some scenes are cut off abruptly and the continuity between them is not especially good, images are a bit murky, and the audio is uneven. As a short review (http://www.acec.glauco.it/pls/acec/consultazione.mostra_pagina?id_pagina=00963) of Rome Rather Than You on a government-sanctioned Italian Catholic film website (ACEC) says, the film wasn't chosen to be shown in Venice in September 2006 for "the precision of its mise-en-scne or for its production values. It's a kind of manifesto film, a declaration of a state of emergency from a state whose civil order can no longer be discerned." The film, this writer points out, is an assertion that borders are not real limits. It's a portrait of a state of mind, young, defiant, hopeful but ironic.

Shown in the New Directors series in competition for the SKYY Prize at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-06-2007, 03:26 PM


Engaging meta-fiction tale about writing and murder in changing China

In How Is Your Fish Today (Jin tian de yu zen me yang?), a screenwriter called Rao Hoi, the protagonist, who, to make things even more self-referential, is the film's actual author playing himself, ponders Lin Hao (Zijiang Yang), his protagonist in a screenplay he's trying to write. His producer wants something like a mainstream US thriller -- Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, maybe -- which he certainly isn't going to get. Rao Hoi, a bespectacled smoker -- though he does go to the gym and has a personal trainer -- sits in the restaurant downstairs in his apartment building that he calls his "office" and eats his favorite meal, "Chairman Mao's stewed pork," thinking and re-thinking what to do with Lin Hao. All this in quiet, meditative voiceover, as the images (both of Rao and Lin) unfolds in a manner both soothing and stimulating.

As Rao tells Lin's story or the fragments of it that occur to him, he comments on the requirements of the narrative. When Lin meets a woman at a deserted train station, Rao narrates that Lin is lonely now and needs company, but adds that he needs someone to get his character to Beijing. Lin has killed his girlfriend -- at least that's the idea -- and has gone into hiding by wandering around up north, running into various people including a fat, obnoxious salesman and a policeman (who causes him to flee from the boarding house he's stopped at), and ultimately winding up at the far northern point of Mohe. The woman he meets waiting with him alone by the tracks, who might have any kind of name but whom he calls Mimi, is played by Xialu Guo, the director. This isn't just economy: it's more meta-fiction. And Mimi is as mysterious and wreathed in red scarves and cigarette smoke as any Wong Kar Wai lady, even Maggie Cheung.

Lin's journey to the area known as Mohe from southern China is told in flashback by Rao Hui; but he is going there himself. He wants to use this location because he's always been curious about it.

This film came directly out of a documentary. Xialu Guo went to Mohe to make a film about this northernmost point in China for a British company. When she got there, the place seemed too poor and dreary -- despite the Northern Lights -- to provide adequate material, and the documentary was never completed. She was left with footage not only of the place but of passengers on a train heading there being interviewed about it.

In How Is Your Fish Today? there's also footage of Xiaolu Guo, Rao Hoi, and their filmmaking cohorts gambling and parying at Rao's home, where they like to gather regularly, his omnipresent voiceover tells us, because he's the only one who's not married with kids. That worries them a little as he is in his thirties now -- but they like getting together there.

At the same time that much of this is documentary or autobiographical footage, through the skillfully interwoven invented narrative it continually develops its appealing romantic meta-reality. And the DV cinematography is consistently fine as it depicts lives and places in the chaotic world of contemporary China.

Just as the filmmaker's documentary project on Mohe morphed into this fiction, Rao Hui begins to express some doubt that his murderer character Lin Hao could ever really have killed anyone. And the woman, who could have any one of many names, stays with him (with Lin Hao, that is), or he stays rather with her, in a Beijing apartment.

When we see the flashbacks where Lin Hao goes to Mohe, where Rao Hui has always wanted to go and where Xiaolu Guo was supposed to make the documentary, this film reminds me of another film about Patricia Highsmith in which she checks into the same hotel where Tom Ripley is staying, and as she speaks and is interviewed about her famous amoral hero, it's intercut with dramatized key scenes from the Ripley novels, notably Ripley Underground.

Xiaolu Guo's film is an engaging and adept blend because of its excellent photography, the ceaselessly various voiceover narration, nice music, and of course most of all fine editing. The filmmakers have learned how to make movies. Rao Hui teaches film occasionally and he mentions showing his students films by Rohmer, Pasolini, and Fassbinder. (He shows them Rohmer's Le rayon vert and then they vanish, escaping the after-screening discussion.) In fact stylistically perhaps this is more literary and sophisticated and indebted to western cinema than the work of powerful younger Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke, though it doesn't seem to have as much to say or to have quite the emotional resonance of Jia. But this in itself may be highly expressive of a kind of exhaustion engendered by China's overwhelming exponential growth rate; and resonance is where you choose to find it. Xiaolu Guo evokes so many pleasant memories of filmgoing, while showing us a new China, that the experience of watching How Is Your Fish Today? can be quite enchanting -- especially for a film lover. Anybody who can make simply driving through Beijing so informative and fresh has a way with a camera and a narration, and the final segment makes Mohe, which seemed too mundane and poor to make a documentary out of, into an intriguing mixture of drab moments and pure poetry.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007. A SKYY Prize contender.

Chris Knipp
05-06-2007, 03:38 PM


A kitsch but lively modern Cairo social panorama

"They" say it's overly faithful to the bestselling novel by Alaa Al Aswany which I have not read. For Egypt, Yacoubian Building is the most expensive film ever (quotes vary). Director Hamid was 28 when he made it and is the son of the screenwriter who did the adaptation. The film is an ambitious and promising if under-edited piece. Perhaps it ought to have been in parts like Marco Tullio Giordana's The Best of Youth/La meglio giovent, to which it has been compared. But instead it's a somewhat sprawling 172 minutes and feels at times like a smashed-together telenovela.

Hollywood Reporter says the film may "offer a revealing window into the secular world of a modern Islamic country -- its indulgence in alcohol, sexual promiscuity, political corruption and personal betrayals. From such 'deformities', the movie argues, Islamic fundamentalism gains its most passionate adherents." But we can do a little better than this crude analysis. Moroccan-born western-educated novelist Laila Lalami (http://www.lailalalami.com/blog/archives/003144.html) points out the book (and consequently the movie) is full of prejudices against gays; resembles the old "large-scale melodramas" produced by Egypt's "huge film industry," with their "young idealists, desirable ingnues, old predators, and so on"; and is crudely moralistic -- with almost every character forced to make choices that "ultimately result in either their downfall or redemption." It's also full of heavy-handed emotional manipulation and cliff-hangers. Alaa Al Aswany is no Naguib Mahfouz. Aside from the prejudice against gays, we're told that mixed marriages produce confused children; that all women love sex enormously; etc. It's important to realize that however engaging the film is and notable the actors are in the Egyptian film world, it's made out of dross, not gold.

The titular Armenian-owned, Twenties Yacoubian Building in the once elegant, restricted central zone of the city "became home to Cairo's rich and powerful when it opened," Lalami writes. After the revolution, however, "storage sheds on the rooftop were rented out to poor families--a sort of sky-high slum." This allows for a story about the building's residents that spans society. The action is set in the 1990's. And the basic panorama goes something like this:

In the foreground is Zaki Bey El Dessouki, or "Zaki Pasha" (weathered charmer Adel Imam), a superannuated playboy kicked out of the family apartment by his mean, half-crazy sister. He may seem seedy, but he's the house aristocrat. Fanous (Ahmed Rateb) is his faithful manservant. Dawlat (Essad Younis) is his nutty, vindictive sister, who has always resented his fun loving ways and now is out to get him. Hatem Rasheed (Khaled El Sawy) is a gay editor who takes Abd Raboh (Bassem Samra), a good-looking soldier from the country, as his lover. Rasheed isn't mincing, but he reflects an Egyptian discomfort with gayness; still, an attempt is made to understand him. He likes dark Nubian men because they remind him of an early experience with a family servant. The film's treatment of the sexual aspect of Hatem's relationship with the soldier feels like something made in the 1950's. In general sex is a burden for the people in this movie, either a risky temptation or an ordeal. It gets nasty, and then the camera shrinks away.

Haj Assam (Nour El Sheriff) is a self-made millionaire (through a chain of stores selling modestly-priced women's clothing) with political ambitious. He wants to get into politics -- to be elected to the People's Assembly (Majlis al Sha'ab) for access to power, but he is made to pay dearly for it. Along the way, he takes a penniless young widow with a young son, Soad (Somaya el Khashab), as a second wife and forces her to have an abortion. As Lalani puts it, Assam "is the nouveau riche to Zaki' Bey's aristocrat." The brothers Abaskharon and Malaak (Ahmed Bedire) are Coptic Christians who save every penny they make, by legal and illegal means, in order to finally afford a room on the roof.

On the roof are Taha (newcomer Mohamed Imam) the son of a bawab. A bawab is a doorkeeper, more like a concierge or a super in New York rather than a "janitor" as it's translated. With such a lowly father, Taha is turned down by the police academy as not socially adequate to become an officer, and adopts a "plan B," to major in political science, which leads him to sympathy with the university religious fanatics, who like him come from poor families, and he eventually becomes an Islamic fundamentalist. His girlfriend Buthayna (the lovely Hind Sabry) leaves him when he becomes religious. She's previously been sexually harassed in every job she's had -- as we're shown in a lurid scene. Perhaps she feels too defiled to be worthy of one so innocent and decent as Taha, and she seems hardened. A reader has pointed out that she is much poorer in the book than here. "Egypt's young men are easy preys to religious extremism," Laila Lalami says, "while the country's young women are victims of sexual exploitation." Eventually Buthayna goes to work for Zaki, who's reformed after being robbed by a whore and kicked out by his sister and treats her well. Their May-December romance is the film's only niceness -- except for the relationship between Zaki and Christine (singer Youssra), who runs and sings in the most elegant restaurant in town, where the songs of Edith Piaf are revived. (One of the film's most magical sequences is a long pan through downtown Cairo with the voice of Piaf herself in the background.) Taha is imprisoned and given Abu Ghraib treatment to de-islamicize him. It doesn't work. To get revenge, he trains as a terrorist -- a chain of events that looks frighteningly up-to-date.

The film has little details any Cairo downtown resident will know -- like Zaki Pasha yelling angrily because another resident has left the door of the antique elevator open on their floor so no one else can use it. Though this isn't Naguib Mahfouz, like him it attempts to draw a richly representative picture of a whole society. It's a rather sad picture with its disapproval of the present and nostalgia for the past. And again, despite the three, or perhaps six, million dollars spent, some exterior sound is awful, the wrong kind of lens is used to pan up and down the city buildings, and some of the Islamicists' beards look pasted on. But with all that's going on, it holds your attention.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007; a SKYY Prize contender. Earlier in the year one of the Film Comments Selects series at Lincoln Center, New York.

Chris Knipp
05-06-2007, 04:15 PM


Lackluster abandon

Love for sale, following Anouz's moody, unusual Madame Sat, is again about a marginal, uncertain character, a young woman who flirts with prostitution while left with the raising of a young child, but this time the result is less of a success, though the Brazilian director does achieve a raw neorealist flavor and the images, though sometimes grainy, are colorful and well-lit.

Hermila (Hermila Guedes) leaves So Paulo and returns to the little town she came from expecting Mateus, her boyfriend, to follow. He never does, and she stays with her grandmother and her young aunt or hangs out with her young friend Georgina (Georgina Castro), who turns tricks. When Mateus doesn't turn up and she learns he's disappeared, she switches from selling raffle tickets for a bottle of whisky to selling ones for herself, or as she calls it, for "a night in paradise," planning to use the money she raises to go as far as she can away, somewhere in the direction of Porto Allegre. An old boyfriend, Joao (Joao Miguel) starts making love to her and says he's mad about her, and Hermila goes along with it, but she's not really interested. When her grandmother finds out about the raffle tickets she gets rough and Hermila leaves for a while; grandma and auntie take care of Mateus junior. Hermila turns a trick or two and eventually gets together enough money to leave town, and she leaves Mateus junior behind. Joao rather pathetically follows the bus on his motorcycle for a bit, then circles around and comes back. And that's about it.

It's not too clear what Anouz was trying to achieve in this film.
Visuals are sometimes striking in their evocation of heat and a relentless sun and capture authentic scenery and people, but the action is desultory at best. Madame Sata had a big advantage: a colorful main character, based on a real person, Joao Francisco dos Santos, with an interesting story and a go-for-broke performance by the remarkable Lazaro Ramos in the lead. With her elegant cheekbones and beautiful body, Hermila Guedes is convincing enough as someone men would buy raffle tickets for, and she projects a range of emotion from despair to wild abandon, but her character is unformed and uncertain and the meandering story focused on her provides little to react to or ponder.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-09-2007, 06:28 PM


Portrait of a saintly trickster

Former rock star Pyotr Mamonov gives a committed and intense performance in this visually elegant wide-angle lensed film about an eccentric healer. Anatoly (Mamonov) has been guilt-ridden for many years over being forced by German WWII soldiers to shoot his boat captain (seen in an introductory segment). He has become a monk but lives apart from the others on a little permafrost-covered island, obsessively stoking the coal furnace that heats the nearby monastery. Word of his ability to heal the sick, cast out demons, and foresee the future has spread abroad, and people regularly turn up seeking to be helped by him. A scene where he heals a boy with a rotting hip and then chastens the mother is particularly strong. Also watch how he brings down the father superior, Filaret (Viktor Sukhorukov), to size for his softness -- and finally drives out a demon from a young woman who seems crazy. It's her father who provides the tormented Anatoly with relief that makes him feel ready to die.

There is an undercurrent of rough humor in all this. Anatoly is a cantankerous and wily prankster and the tall young Father Job (Dmitry Dyuzhev) openly despises him. The film is episodic, but focused constantly on Anatoly. He is striving to relieve his guilt by living as a hermit in conditions as harsh as they are squalid, but he is not loath to visit his own sufferings on others.

Comments on the film usually dwell upon the lovely wide-screen visuals, in muted color, of the unusual landscape and the iconic monks by Andrei Zhegalov, which may at times evoke the Russian film classics. Sometimes the musical background (piano with orchestra), though sparingly used, seems a little too light and New Age for such an austere setting and intense tale. The screenplay by recent film-school graduate Dmitry Sobolev, is well paced, but a bit on the simple side, and resolves things a bit too easily at the end.

The Island seems in contrast to most of the work of Lounguine, which is very much about current people and issues. He said this is the beginning of a series of "lives of saints." And from what he says the focus on the spiritual is meant to fill a felt need in the materialistic Russia of today.

Mamonov was also featured in Taxi Blues (1990), Louguine's first feature, which won a special prize at Cannes; his The Wedding (2000) won the Cannes Best Acting Ensemble prize.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-09-2007, 07:36 PM


Death in a family, seen through an outsider

Like Hong Sang-soo (Woman Is the Future of Man, A Tale of Cinema, Woman on the Beach), Lee Yoon-ki is skillful here at using extended dialogue among a group of young people to develop character and situation. In this story of a girl who's brought to stand in for a lost daughter for a dying old man, the dialogue spreads out to a whole extended family. Two young men start talking to the young woman (Han Hyo-ju) on a Seoul street where they've found her. Myeongeun, who was always strange, went away to school, and then a few years ago simply disappeared. Gi-yeong (Kim Yeong-min) is convinced this is Myeongeon. She denies it. But then he persists, asking her if she would be willing to come and make the dying man happy by posing as his long-lost daughter. It's not really clear to us whether this girl is or isn't Myeongeon. This uncertainty provides a kind of tension throughout the film.

The first third of the film is full of discussion and argument, first to persuade the girl to come to the house, then when she does, among other family members over whether this idea of her impersonation is proper.

The argument goes on and on among family members and others sprawled on the living room floor. Some of them split off; and later still guests come to visit the dying man and a meal is served outside on this warm summer night.

One of several striking coups de theatre comes during the big family debate, with everyone sitting on the living room floor. An older woman has taken the girl aside right away, and after giving her tea, despite all the argument, she solicitously leads the girl through the living room: and suddenly everybody realizes. It's done.

Ad Lib Night's middle section, which drifts from group to group, with attention drifting away from the girl, and some people chatting in bedrooms or kitchen, others dining on barbecue outside, could well use some tightening up. But the tension of a large gathering around a drying man, whose wealth various people are obviously interested in inheriting, is nonetheless well maintained. There's an ironic sense in which the girl seems almost the only one who innocently cares about the dying man, even though she appears to have no particular connection with him.

And then too through all this the girl (Han Hyo-ju) remains quiet and mysterious. She's taken up to the real girl's old room to rest, and puts on her socks. Is she the runaway girl? Or is she trying to take on her persona?

Ad Lib Night lives up to its title: it's an actors' feast, with tons of interpersonal and group dynamics going on from scene to scene. And though this may be a low budget film, a good camera (and good cameraman) and seamless editing mean smooth and attractive visuals and nice transitions. The final sequence of the girl being driven back to Seoul at dawn is particularly subtle and handsome, with blue reflections slithering across the windshield -- as the girl provides a final revelation, that explains her presence that night, if not her relationship to the family.

There are many factors that make this an adept and interesting film. It's like a good play that preserves unity of time and place. Its "long day's journey" takes us into a rich picture of family dynamics. Its subtleties and mysteries are thought-provoking.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007. North American premiere.

Chris Knipp
05-11-2007, 04:38 PM


Delicate collision: tough turns tender

Ia small mountain town Isild Le Besco's character, Fred (Frederique) is an angry young woman working on the night shift at the hospital. As a nurse, she's efficient but remote. She's fed up with her life. Says she "can't take it any more." When she talks to her cop ex boyfriend Andre (Christophe Sermet) about leaving town, he makes her even madder when he admits he's already got a new girl living with him. In reaction she picks up two men in a bar and has quick sex with one after the other. "Couldn't you be more tender?" the first asks her.

"Have you heard? I'm not tender," she tells the second ("T'as entendu? J'suis pas douce.") That's the film's original French title: Pas Douce. Not Tender.

Fred is a crack shot, a champion marksman when she was younger. She's also mad at her dad (Philippe Villeumier), a commanding presence and a supervisor at the firing range where she practices. As striking an actress as she is striking looking (when she's properly used), Le Besco is as obsessively angry here as she was obsessively adoring of the famous singer in her role as a nave fan in Emmanuelle Bercot's 2005 Backstage, but here, though still just in her mid-twenties, she has more authority.

Next, just when Fred seems to be getting ready to leave town as she's told Andr� she's about to do, throwing away her junior marksman silver cups, she suddenly takes up her rifle and goes out. She's on a hill in the woods when a bunch of school kids walk by below her. Two aggressive boys are yelling at each other. One has a slingshot. He shoots a bird, then when the other boy protests, shoots him and hits him in the eye. Impulsively Fred swings her rifle toward them and fires, hitting the boy with the slingshot in the knee after grazing the boy holding his eye. An ambulance comes. She rushes after it in her car.

The boy with the damaged knee, Marco (Steven De Almeida), is put in the ward where Fred works. After some rough moments on both sides, Fred commits herself to being Marco's chief caregiver. This development is justified in the plot by the fact that he's so hostile and difficult no other nurse wants to deal with him. A relationship develops that tempers the rebellion of both individuals. Fred's plan to leave town goes on hold; she still has to decide what to do about her legal culpability. As Marco's care proceeds, both he and Fred soften. Fred opens up emotionally, listening to Marco's divorced parents, including a mother Eugenia (Lio) returned from Portugal, and his dad with whom he lives (Yves Verhoeven). The history of family problems Marco comes from is deftly sketched in, as are several other occupants of the hospital room, always with a corresponding alteration in Marco. Marco and Fred relate in part through PlayStation. She's good at that, so she's cooler than he thought.

If you asked what makes A Parting Shot different from something on an American TV series, the quick answer would be Le Besco's breasts. As in Jacquot's recent Untouchable, they're seen and they are beautiful. But there's more to it than that. The initial rebellion is outlined rather quickly for both characters, but the short (83-minute) film still manages to be subtle at showing the emotional changes in both these wild children after the shooting. Perhaps the best thing about the film is that despite its economy -- there's not a wasted moment -- it doesn't tie up all its threads neatly as a TV drama might.

Le Besco's pouty manner can be irritating sometimes, but this is a role made to order for her. De Almeida is also excellent. His Marco is a handful but also, behind the anger, winningly vulnerable. Ultimately A Parting Shot, far from not tender, leaves one with an impression of surprising tenderness.

A Parting Shot/Pas douce was awarded the Fipresci (international federation of film critics) Prize at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007. This is the Swiss-born Waltz's first feature-length film, and with its elegant concision and emotional intelligence it promises good things to come.

Chris Knipp
05-11-2007, 04:47 PM


Memoir of a lost paradise of youth in post-revolutionary Cuba

When the Berlin Wall came down and then the Soviet Union fell, Cuba had the rug pulled out from under it. More totally dependent on Russia than they knew, Cubans in the 1990's faced a time of devastating scarcity they call the "Special Period." This meant hours waiting for a bus or a loaf of bread; no longer making enough to pay for basic necessities; no longer having security or hope for the future. Camila Guzman Urzua made The Sugar Curtain/ El Telonn Azukar to represent her experience and that of members of her generation -- who regard their youth in the 1970's and 1980's as a halcyon time of idealism, happiness, and hope. When the "Special Period" came, Guzman Urzua and many others of the best and brightest of her generation left Cuba. This personal documentary is their story, their reminiscence, with a look at people and things in Cuba today filmed for comparison.

"It has been twelve years since I left Cuba," Guzman Urzua writes in a statement to go with her film, "yet it is always on my mind.. . Now I go back and the old country has disappeared." Revisiting Cuba with a camera, Guzman Urzua talks to family and friends and films her old schools and examines photos and documents and historical footage to fill in the background on three decades. If it provides a good deal of general information for non-Cubans along the way, The Sugar Curtain still isn't formal history or polemic. Though she covers good and bad aspects of "her" Cuba, Urzua is not concerned with abstract critiques, ideological debates, or political analysis. More than anything, her film is the memoir of a childhood and the portrait of a faded dream.

Born in Chile, Guzman Urzua was brought to Havana by her parents after the coup against Allende when she was two. Her parents believed in the ideals of the Cuban Revolution and were enthusiastic participants in its life. She grew up in Cuba, left in 1990 at age nineteen; lived and studied in Spain, England, and Chile; and for the past seven years has studied and worked France.

"We were raised according to 'revolutionary ideals,'" Guzman Urzua says in her statement, "in a place where we all felt equal and where material values had lost importance. We were part of a huge laboratory, full of good intentions, in which the 'new man' that Che Guevara had imagined was being built. . .We lived with a somewhat precarious daily comfort, used to the rationing or lack of certain products. But in Cuba, still today, people have always improvised (inventar we say)[;] every problem has and still has a solution. . . It came naturally to us to receive medicine and education totally free; we considered it our right. All basic necessities were accessible to everybody. Unemployment didn't exist, everybody had a roof over his head.. . .I remember a sense of solidarity everywhere, and also the constant reminding of the fact the country could be invaded at any time. . . " (But she adds in the film that she doesn't remember ever being afraid.) "Now. . .when I see [Cuba's] reality today I feel an immense emptiness inside. . . there is nothing left, only some of my dear friends, the buildings' facades and the sea. I feel as if my childhood has been torn away.. . The intention of this film is to rescue that reality we had when we were children.."

Paradoxically, when Guzman Urzua films students and classrooms in Cuba today, they are still full of the revolutionary ideals -- and as cheerful and happy as in the past. Otherwise everything is different: people feel the need to cheat and steal to survive, one woman says. There are two economies, of the peso and the dollar, and people think ceaselessly of money -- never a concern of in the 1980's. The film makes no predictions. It only asks what will happen. The filmmaker says Cuba didn't have "real communism," because its economic situation was artificial, due to the combination of the US blockade and Russian support. The sense of equality and solidarity her generation talks about however was real, in her view. Neither socialism nor capitalism rules Cuba today, she says; both are present. Will western capitalism take over, or will there be a new Fidel-style capitalism? All that's clear to Guzman Urzua is that revolutionary Cuba has been reduced to a shell of its 1970's and 1980's self.

Guzman Urzua's parents are separated and her father lives in Spain. Her mother, who remains in Havana, speaks only very briefly to the camera (with Guzman Urzua seen in a mirror), haltingly expressing an enduring sadness about the coup against Allende and an equally enduring gratitude toward Cuba for the home and security it provided to them, along with citizenship, as it did to many others. The director has a friend who's in a musical group called Habana Abierta, who does a lot of talking; some of his group also speak, and we see them perform one political song at a concert.

Despite the film's sense of a lost paradise, paradoxically the filmed present-day Cuban schoolchildren still unmistakably seem happy. This is notable in classrooms, in school hallways, and most of all on a work-study summer vacation in the country much like the ones the filmmaker experienced at the same age. The saddest moment of the film is when Guzman Urzua and a friend remember the names of several dozen of their good friends, who have all gone, to Chile, Argentina, Brazil, London, Paris, Rome, Milan, Canada, and on and on. One begins to suspect that whatever the voices in Miami may say, the Cuban Revolution nonetheless, for many, for three decades, was a time of great hope and no small accomplishment. Though the camera-work may be clumsy at times, the arc a bit inconclusive, the value of this personal documentary is its emotionally convincing portrait of a vanished childhood and lost ideals.

This first feature by Camila Guzman Urzua, who studied film in London and Paris, was shown as part of the San Frandisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-11-2007, 06:19 PM


The authenticity of age

Francisco Vargas's The Violin is an intensely rich tableau of rural conflict in Mexico in the Guerrero region in the 1970's. The pictures of country people with their poverty and rugged faces are as vivid and convincing as the FSA dust bowl photographs of the American poor of the depression era, and the rich, grainy black and white cinematography with many intense close-ups heightens the period realism, while also evoking cinematic antecedents like Italian neo-realism.

Focusing on an old man, Don Plutarco Hidalgo (played by 81-year-old Don Angel Tavira), who plays the violin despite a missing right hand (as does the actor himself, subject of an earlier documentary by the filmmaker), The Violin tells the story of an incident in which peasant rebels were driven from their stronghold and then tracked down and killed. The opening titles accompany a prelude that shows from ground level a scene of brutal torture.

When the narrative proper begins, we see the wrinkled, poor, but dignified Plutarco, accompanied by his son Genaro (Gerardo Taracena) and grandson, Lucio (Mario Garibaldi). working as street entertainers to earn a few pesos for tortillas and cheese.

Later, the three are forced to split up when they go into the country and witness an army attack on their home. Don Plutarco ultimately displays exceptional coolness under pressure as he manages to charm a field commander of the military (Dagoberto Gama) and spirit out ammunition, and then eventually (the area bristling with armed guards) is trapped. He hides the fact that his son is one of the rebel leaders. The narrative arc is simple; but though it contains moments of considerable tension and suspense, The Violin is more important for its texture and its viewpoint than for the dramatic aspects of its action. Vargas, who with this film won the SKYY Prize for a first independent feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival, shows above all a sure hand with his non-actors and an ability to recreate his rural milieu flawlessly, while combining, as the award noted, a distinctive aesthetic with a strong political point of view.

Tavira makes Don Plutarco into a surprisingly understated hero, finding courage inside a dry, aged heart. The action in some ways is rather like a conventional western with good guys cut off at the pass. But it's not about that: unlike a more mainstream, conventional film, Vargas' is politically committed, deeply rooted in a particular place and specific humanity, a song of the Mexican common people. The black and white images will remain a pleasure to look at for a long time to come. But the film stands or falls on the unique interest of the lean, somewhat sphinx-like Don Plutarco. He is its strength and its weakness. He is an interestingly ineloquent figure, but the focus on him makes the story rather more a footnote than an epic. This is no Battle of Algiers, and is, of course, not meant to be.

Chris Knipp
05-11-2007, 06:32 PM


A lovely little package

A sanitized and aestheticized image of village life is the limit of what Reha Erdem's Times and Winds (Turkish title Beş Vakit) shows us, but not without emotional conflicts--jealousies, resentments, secrets, with a focus on twelve- to thirteen-year-olds. They wear blue smocks, like French schoolchildren. The tranquility is well captured, to the point that the film may seem to lack a pulse. There's life under the surface but mostly we don't get to see it. What we do see is a little panorama of physical and mental abuse. One boy, Omer (Ozkan Ozen), whose father is the local imam (Bulent Emin Yarar), is beaten by him and plots his death. Yakup (Alibey Kayali), his best mate, resents his own father too, for always preferring his younger brother. Two adult brothers are abused in turn by their father for being bad farmers. In fact all the parents in Times and Winds are mean to their children. A horse is also beaten.

Sex and love are not missing from the picture. Yakup is madly in love with his young schoolmistress, and another female character is an older girl named Yildiz (Elit Iscan), whose life is touched on from time to time. Yildiz cares for her baby brother, hears her parents making love; is aware of and troubled by sex. Late in the film, she has a mishap, which may make us think there will be more. There is an illness. And a birth.

And that is the message: people are born, they go to school, they grow up, they have trouble and endure hardship, have squabbles, have kids, grow old, and die. Not a simple message, but not one you're likely to be surprised by. The restrained, episodic structure further distances the viewer from deep emotional involvement, while perhaps awakening a vague sense of nostalgia or a pleasure in the exoticism and remoteness of the world depicted.

The skillful widescreen cinematography by Florent Herry and the music of Aarvo Pärt are almost too potent a combination. The film has been called hypnotic and stunning. The images of landscapes and skies are overwhelming, the sense of the rhythms of time and life are meditative. The Turkish title, Beş Vakit, means "five times," and refers to the five times of the day in which devout Muslims are expected to pray: fajr (dawn), dhuhr (noon), 'asr (afternoon), maghrib (sunset), and 'isha (evening).

Pärt's strong, recurrent orchestral music makes you feel like you're in a concert hall. But the sweet exoticism and prettiness don't compensate for the failure to take any aspect of the action, the girl's awareness of sex, the boy's crush on his teacher, the brothers' rivalry, the older men's squabbles, mean anything, cause any lasting conflict, create any situation in need of being resolved. Similarly there's a failure to look forward or backward. A portrait of the texture of village life (an old woman gets a shot, a cow starts calving) isn't a portrait of any villager's life. Erdem sets his simple, lovely rhythms going masterfully. But he also seems to suffer from an unwillingness to look really deeper. (The music imposes a greater sameness on the action than it would otherwise have.) But this is the dissenter's view. Times and Winds played at Tribeca and now at the SFIFF. And there is a festival audience that adores such things.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-11-2007, 10:41 PM

(Otar Iosseliani, Le merle siffleur)


"I should learn to cut more"

This little documentary by an open accolyte celebrates the quirky filmmaker Otar Iosseliani and was made when he was shooting his latest, Gardens in Autumn (included in the NYFF 2006 and SFIFF 2007) The Georgia-born Iosselioani, who's now seventy-two, came to Paris 25 years ago and started making films there after being banned at home.

Iosseliani's first feature, November (1966) won him the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes. His 1972 Pastorale disappeared in the Soviet archives and was held back from distribution. When Pastorale was a hit at the Berlin festival in 1982, he emigrated to France. He's won prizes in Berlin and Venice five times since. He's made about eighteen features.

In this documentary, Iosseliani comes on reciting Pushkin, and, perpetually, smoking cigarettes. He discusses the film and there are segments of earlier ones. The essence of Iosseliani is a certain joie-de-vivre, and there are always shots of lovely feasts and people living well. The house may be a shambles but there will be a good bottle of wine. There are also elaborate scenes with movement of people but no dialogue. Gardens in Autumn is about a man who is a civil servant, loses his job, and then has another life. It's like playing hookey. This is Iosseliani's spirit. Perhaps what people most remember of Gardens in Autumn is seeing Michel Piccoli in drag with a prim gray wig, dancing and knitting. His film is unruly, it goes on too long, yet we see here that he makes dozens of beautiful sketches (rather like classic 1960's European cartoon drawings) and plans scenes down to the second. It's just that he doesn't like to cut, or to watch a film after it's been cut. And there are elements that he prefers not to plan.

Iosseliani's wall is covered with the French equivalent of post-its, strips of paper printed up with phrases for things he'd like to get on film: "a complete idiot who's a wonderful violinist," "to die young due to stupidity," "a bender" ("that one I can do!" he comments), "The bigger they are, the harder they fall." "A burglar ceremoniously received." And so on.

He argues gently with his producer, Martine Martignac, who is frequently exasperated. He wants more time for preproduction. She says the money isn't available for that. But he gets Russian money too! And dollars. But Mme Martignac is omnipresent: she's his worst nightmare, and he's hers. If you insist on seeing Gardens in Autumn, you can guess why. Some of the production is pretty elaborate, and the sets are many, and the scenes go on, and on, and on, and on. "The film will be long, that's all. But we'll see," Iosseliani says to her, when they're in the middle of the shoot. "Maybe that's not bad. Or maybe it's very bad. One doesn't know." (Or one does.)

He smokes. And when he's not smoking he whistles. And he drinks. Vodka after vodka. The film is a bit lean on the "making of" aspects till half way through, consisting more of personal reminiscences, discussions with staff and production people, and some clips of earlier films showing the Iosseliani style as well as of Gardens in Autumn . But when the "making of" begins, it's fun too, as usual. There are some extremely droll set-ups of scenes, particularly one in which a couple of men are to be arguing in a coffin shop over the same coffin, for their own burial. "This will be very funny," Iosseliani says: and it is, at least the idea of it is. You get to see Iosseliani in a heavy downpour throwing food at some wild boars to make them stay in the frame. "I'm really wet to the skin. I'm so wet it's got to where I'm enjoying it. It's a long time since I've had this much fun," the director volunteers, smiling.

And then there's Narda Blanchot. She is a priceless old lady like the late Margaret Rutherford, with the same bony energy and the same long jaw. He wants to use her, but she can't drive any more. Only we do see her whipping around in a bright shiny Alfa, top down, getting a light for her cigarette from a cop and then whipping off again. She can't walk. Hence Michel Piccoli in a gray wig, to take her place. "You know, the old ladies today, they're not what they used to be," Iosseliani says. . . But Michel Piccoli nonetheless agrees that if Iosseliani find s suitable real old lady by shooting time, he'll drop out.

There are films that are better to talk about than to watch: Gardens in Autumn is such a film. See this; avoid the film itself. This is charming. Iosseliani is a delightful old cove. But don't try to produce one of his films. And in this case, don't try to watch it. (Some of his earlier ones have gained him a cult following. And you can't deny it: there are some drops of the blood of Jean Renoir in his veins. )

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-13-2007, 02:33 PM

Espen Klouman-Hiner and Anders Danielsen Lie as Erik and Phillip in Reprise

Youthful New Wave-ish wit from Norway

Joachim Trier's smart, witty first film about a group of talented Oslo twenty-somethings won a prize at Toronto and was Norway's Oscar entry. Reprise focuses on Erik (Espen Klouman Hoiner, who's blond, and smiles practically all the time) and Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie, dark-haired, crew-cut and wide-eyed). They're well-off, presentable and ambitious young men (and best friends) who try to launch writing careers by submitting manuscripts at the same moment. They also share a passion for the same reclusive novelist, Sten Egil Dahl (Sigmund Saeverud). The film amuses us right away by showing a series of alternative possible outcomes to the young men's ambitions with quicksilver editing and a bright voiceover--a light approach which, with the close artistic friendship in the story's foreground, brings up memories of the Nouvelle Vague and especially Truffaut's Jules et Jim. The screenplay, appropriately for a treatment of young people on the brink of maturity, constantly toys with possibilities, which we briefly see. Much of its charm is in the editing, but the opening segment is such a flood of wit, it's a little hard to sustain it.

Moreover things turn a bit more Nordic and dark when Philip is the one to get published first, but immediately has a psychotic episode--partly attributed by doctors and family to his "obsessive" love for his girlfriend Kari (Viktoria Winge)--that lands him for a while in a sanatorium. Much of the film that follows deals with the problems for Phillip and the problems Phillip poses for others after his psychosis emerges.

Now Erik gets a MS. accepted, a little novel (we guess) called Prosopopeia. He thinks that with this event, he must end his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Lillian (Silje Hagen) -- a decision perpetually put off that may recall Matthieu Amalric's wavering over Emmanuelle Devos in Arnaud Desplechin's similar study of a group of (a bit older) intellectual young people, the 1996 My Sex Life. . .or How I Got Into an Argument.

Reprise is full of little ironies, some a bit obvious. There's one friend who acts as a mentor for the guys. Not a good idea to have girlfriends, he says--they'll make you settle into a life of watching TV series and having nice dinners and give you too little time to read and listen to music. That's his rule; and he doesn't have a girlfriend. Then, wouldn't you know it, he's the first one to wind up married and living the bourgeois family life. Another easy irony is the way the pretty editor at Phillip's publisher's is first utterly repelled by an older punk rock band friend's politically incorrect and offense chatter, then later is drawn to him like a magnet and marries him.

The film's co-writer Eskil Vogt studied at La Feris, and his French residence comes out in the way two segments of Reprise take place in Paris, where Philip and Kari first discover they're in love and where they go back after his mental problems to recapture the feeling, with mixed success.

Erik and Phillip know where the reclusive Sten Egil Dahl lives and occasionally spy on him. Phillip shoots Erik on a bench pretending to talk with the writer but forgets to remove the lens cap so the photo is a blank. Undeterred, Erik enlarges the resulting black rectangle and hangs it in a prominent place on his wall. Later it turns up as an emblem on the jacket of his book.

Erik performs badly on TV after Prosopopeia is out (arguments over the odd title stand in for a young author's stubborn missteps). He refuses to acknowledge a personal element in his references to psychosis, or anything else for that matter, in his book; and such reticence doesn't go over well on the boob tube. He also reflexively uses a lot of affected finger "quote" marks imitating their mentor, making him look the fool even to his friends. But, in another quick irony, Sten Egil Dahl sees the show, reads Erik's book, and, rescuing him from a mugger, reassures him that he did right on television and that he likes his novel -- or most of it, anyway.

Phillip's psychosis seems to come and go. He can't write any more -- but then he does, though it's unsuccessful, as Erik feels obliged as a best friend to tell him. Phillip has a habit of counting from ten down to zero and we may think when he gets to zero one day he's going to throw himself off a roof or in front of a truck. The darker side is always there, but also the light side. That's why, Trier says, he used lots of punk music but also French poetry in his film. Part of the pleasure in this enjoyable, fresh piece of work is the sense of a group of talented, bright young people at work together making it. The punk band is part of the way the film fills in a whole group of friends from this generation of whom Phillip and Erik are only the foreground. Norwegian filmmaking plainly is infused with lots of new blood and in a good period: there were plenty of Norwegian competitors for their Oscar submission this year.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007 and a SKYY Prize contender.

Chris Knipp
05-13-2007, 05:18 PM


"Big things are happening in this country"

Edad dela Peseta or "silly age" is the term used in Cuba for the pre-adolescent period from the age of seven to the age of eleven. Giroud's stylish, assured period study of this awkward time takes him back to the very moment of the revolution of Fidel Castro, to 1958. The whole film is a bit tongue in cheek. Samuel (Ivn Carreira) is ten. He's so sophisticated and handsome-looking it's a bit hard to believe that, but everything is heightened. Samuel is the Rudolf Valentino of little boys. Except that sometimes he still wets his bed. This is Havana as Hollywood. The film is brightly-colored, as tasty as a box of fine candies, but its elegance is tinged with the acid of irony. The writing never pushes its points too hard, and the result is pure pleasure. Coming of age may be a well-worn theme, but there is always room for new variations. Samuel's utter self-possession, defiance, and good looks provide a fresh mix.

Samuel is brought to Havana by his mother Alicia (Susana Tejera), newly divorced--but not for the first time--to live with her long-ignored mother Violeta (Spanish actress Mercedes Sampietro). Violeta is a piece of work. She teases and commands Samuel, tries to intimidate him a little, threatens him with being sent away to school. (He's always in a the white shirt and tie he wears at his Catholic school.) Then rather suddenly he becomes Violeta's protg. They hit it off. He's as strong-headed as she. She's a portrait photographer; he becomes her assistant. She threatens him to make him work for her, but she needn't; he likes it. Gradually a "nice" relationship between Violeta and Samuel develops. One wouldn't call it "warm," but they're close allies, two of a kind. For him she's a bridge toward good things to come. He's probably at least as grown up as she is.

Samuel also gets to watch "television" of a very special sort that a woman of ill fame shows his classmates--a scene out of Fellini's Amarcord, but like everything in this film, tidier and more elegant. Alicia meets Ramon (Jose Angel Egido), the plump and proper owner of a shoe store, in a weepy movie. They look over at each other, both with tears streaming down their faces, and they know they're a match. She goes to work at Ramon's shop, and eventually they are to marry. Meanwhile Samuel gets increasingly advanced kissing lessons from the television lady's very foxy daughter (Claudia Valdes). (In one of Giroud's more daring conceits, he continues at home in bed with a ceramic head of the Virgin.) He is madly in love with a real woman he meets delivering photo portraits, Violeta's most beautiful model, a movie star named Nuria (Carla Paneca), a gorgeous lady who lives in a nice house and later turns out to be the girlfriend of one of the most famous heroes of the Cuban Revolution.

Samuel isn't particularly enthusiastic about Ramon, but Ramon makes a successful effort to woo him. Ramon is the one who first alludes darkly to the "big things happening in this country," at the time news to Alicia. He's plainly not at all happy about these "big things," so it seems likely he's going to be among those who will flee when the Revolution happens, as it does, finally, with a burst, jump-starting The Silly Age's last section. But we see nothing of it but some historical footage, and a glimpse at Nuria's boyfriend. The film works on its own small scale with an eye for the absurd--implying its "big things" only appear so to the participants--though perhaps hinting that as Samuel slips out of his silly age, Cuba slips out of hers.

Everybody knows Havana has an unsurpassed collection of Fifties cars, and some of the most immaculate of them are seen to good advantage in this film. Everything else is likewise perfectly in period. Giroud's touch is deft. He never lets a scene run too long. He's a surprisingly smart and mature filmmaker. Credit is also due to the cinematographer, Luis Najimias Jr.; the author of the screenplay, Arturo Infante; and the production designer, Maya Segura.

The Silly Age was shown at the Toronto festival last September and was a SKYY Prize contender (for first time directors) when shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007. It won the new SFIFF Chris Holter Award for Humor in Film.

Chris Knipp
05-14-2007, 12:30 PM


Running from emotion in Patagonia

As Born and Bred (Nacido y Criado) begins, Trapero quickly establishes the happy, well-off family, the designer dad Santiago (Guillermo Pfening); mom, Milli (Martina Gusman); and little Josefina (Victoria Vescio), living in a house all done in white with a maid to wait on them. They even drink milk for breakfast. They take a day trip out in the country to visit and then BAM! On the way back, squabbling with the girl, who climbs onto the front seat, Santiago looks away from the road and there's a terrible accident. We don't know at first what's happened, hear only the voice of the dad. Fast forward to winter in Patagonia with a male companion. The designer Santiago, tousled and bearded now, is living a rough life out in the country, it appears, hunting with Robert (Federico Esquerro) and Cacique (Toms Lipan). Night scenes show he is disturbed, suffers perhaps a kind of post traumatic stress syndrome. Normal for the most part, at other times he seems deranged, acting out little moments of hyper-vigelance right in the middle of a drive or a hunt and vomiting in the night. His constant associates now obviously don't know him well, and he tells them nothing.

Trapero seems much more at ease in developing this scene than the earlier too-perfect family life. Santiago is escaping, unsuccessfully. The men work occasionally for the local airport, though traffic is dwindling. They go to Riojano's bar, and when they've caught some game they sell it to the barman for the meat or the skins, usually at a loss to them. The barmaid Betty provides sex trois -- one such session an occasion for more moody acting out by Santiago.

It's intentionally left up in the air what's happened with Milli and Josefina, who're vaguely and occasionally referred to. What became of Santiago's successful career? Someone keeps trying to call Roberto, and later someone calls Santiago on his phone. What's going on? Why has Santiago chosen this way out? A call he makes to Victoria (Nilda Baggi) shows he hasn't told his relatives where he is. This seems to be male avoid-responsibilities country, since Roberto has a girlfriend back home who's pregnant and he won't talk to her; he calls her his "ex." Even Cacique, the Indian, neglects his family and goes out carousing knowing his wife is sick. It's all drink, hunting, a little work, and machismo with these big boys. There is a shade too much determinism in the similarity of the three men's behavior.

This goes on too long, and the tension created by the accident is lost. Finally a naked shot of Santiago shows his body is covered with welts, apparently incompletely treated burn scars. When Cacique's wife dies, Santiago's grief is released and he confesses to Robert about the accident. But as we learn next, he really doesn't know altogether what has happened, because he fled before finding out.

Seemingly like a prolonged tease, Born and Bred does provide an intense experience. It will appeal to you if you like to have emotions developed by their non-expression. Trapero is a highly esteemed director and this film may increase its interest if one sees it in relation to his previous work, but I have seen only this one. His 1999 debut Crane World and his 2004 Rolling Family were earlier SFIFF selections. He has relied more often on non-actors in the past, but this is a change, because Guillermo Pfening is a well-known TV actor. It's also said (e.g., in the Variety review of Born and Bred by Robert Koehler) that each of Trapero's films has been a complete change from the previous one, and so this may be reflected in the stark contrast between the pristine domestic prelude and the rough Patagonian sequences the follow in Nacido y Criado. However the opening sequence is unconvincing and the Patagonia scenes are atmospheric but too long, so this film can hardly be called a success.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-16-2007, 03:07 AM


Innocent pilgrimage to a soccer god

The Argentinian director Carlos Sorin has staked out a small but secure place for himself in the world of cinema. His gentle road movies have tended to use non-actors in congenial roles to depict wanderings in obscure regions (mostly somewhere in Patagonia or the far south of the country). The most recent Sorin films concerned traveling dog show followers (Bombon, el perro (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?p=622), 2004) and a small collection of minor people whose tales were intertwined (Historias Minimas (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?t=406), 2002). This time his main traveler is more driven, and has a more mainstream mission. He makes it almost all the way to Buenos Aires, and he is, essentially, doing what millions do, or would like to.

Tati Benitez (Ignacio Benitez) is a fanatical sports fan. What could be more fanatical in Argentina than the need to worship and follow Diego Maradona, the soccer god? There's nothing offbeat about Diego. Tati, a healthy young fellow who has a sweet and honest and innocent and rather pretty face, lives in a remote village in the Misiones jungle with his pregnant wife (Paola Rotela, the actor's actual, and actually then pregnant, spouse). Tati's uniform is a soccer shirt with Maradona's number 10 on it and has a huge 10 tattooed on his back. Fellow villagers joke that he's married to the star. The presentation of Tati's obsession is tongue in cheek, as various villagers tell the camera about it. He's even got two parrots who chime "Maradona."

Times are tough and Tati has lost his job as a lumberjack. He goes to work for Silva (Miguel Gonzales Colman), an ancient Indian woodcarver who speaks only the guaran language, learning the trade in exchange for small rewards. His wife is at home expecting the baby. Tati learns all about the kinds of wood. One day in a forest looking for good pieces to carve in a heavy rainstorm Tati finds a big root rising up out of the ground that he thinks is the spitting image of his soccer idol standing with arms lifted in triumph after scoring a goal. Thinking himself blessed by the magical appearance in his path of this symbolic object, Tati lugs the root back and in time Silva brings out the likeness. We never quite get a good look at the whole thing up close, but it's clear the resemblance is largely in the eye of the beholder, and grows in proportion to one's fandom. Eventually, the news comes (this is in 2004, when it happened) that Maradona has had a heart attack and is in intensive care in Buenos Aires. Everyone hangs on watching communal TV's. When he first hears the news, Tati thinks it's just a bad joke. After a few days "El Diego" is reported to have abruptly left the hospital. Later he's reported to be playing golf at a club.

A youth club has offered to accept the carved root, but after consulting with a fortune teller, Tati, Sorin's rural sports fan everyman, decides he must make the pilgrimage to his idol and present it directly to him. He goes off, the carving wrapped in black plastic secured with a rope. Of course people keep asking what it is and he must unveil it. He meets lost of people along the way, including the main actors in 'Bombon', Juan Villegas, in a camera shop, and Walter Donado, driving an ambulance. Also notable is Maria Marta Alvez as a girl from a roadside brothel and Lila Caceres as a young wife on a pilgrimage to pray to the cowboy saint, Gauchito Gil. Most notable, because they are together longest, is Waguinho (Carlos Wagner La Bella, actually a film producer), a big burly bearded Brazilian driving a giant truck, who when he hears about the sculpture at first refuses to give Tati a ride, Maradona of course being no friend of Brazil, where the god of soccer, in case you didn't know, is Pel (Edson Arantes do Nascimento), who, dare we say it, is the greatest soccer player of all time. (But it only said "arguably," -- and that was on a Brazilian website.) Waguiho does give Tati a long ride, and his rambling monologues bring home the folkloric aspects of football worship. After all, the big carved root is a kind of idol, and it's clear the common people in Latin America come close to attributing supernatural powers to their athletic deities.

When Tati finally gets to the place where Maradona's supposed to be, he finds a whole encampment. It's surely no accident that "San Diego" could signify the athlete's sainthood -- though his failings -- drug excess, obesity, sheer unruliness -- do not go unmentioned either -- and Santiago (i.e., San Diego) de Compostela is a famous Christian religious pilgrim's destination. This is the clearest sign that Sorin's work feels more mainstream this time, not only because he is dealing with an object of mass popularity, but because where Tati goes is where, in a sense, everyone in the country wants to be at this moment. And not only that, but there is a kind of accomplishment in the handling of crowd scenes, shots of big trucks in motion full of standing riders, not to mention Tati and the Brazilian in the big cab, all showing more technical ambition this time. There is a kind of propulsive forward energy in El Camino de San Diego that 'Bombon' and 'Historias Minimas' lacked. The love of ordinary folk, of the little guy, the forgotten person, is stronger, more touching than ever this time. Sorin might reach a larger audience with this film. If ever there was a feel-good movie, this is it. There is at the same time a certain sense of loss. Carlos Sorin no longer seems an obscure director one loves in a special way because hardly anyone else knows or cares about him -- but that was really never true anyway.

Shown as a part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-16-2007, 02:59 PM


Conventional, yet revolutionary

Lady Chatterley is based on a version of one of the most famous and controversial English novels of the twentieth century. There have already been many screen variations of D.H.Lawrence's story of the wife of a paralyzed and impotent English aristocrat who finds sexual gratification and a new life with her husband's gamekeeper. One can see why this film won the Cesar last year. As they should be, the scenes between Lady C. and the gamekeeper are the unforgettable element, and the heart of the film is the actors. Marina Hinds is radiant, a cross between Ingrid Bergman and Mariel Hemingway in looks but fresher and more authentic than either. When this Lady C. and the gamekeeper make love, it's as real and tender and sexual and quick as you could imagine, or, dare one say, as such things might really be. Jean-Louis Coulloc'h as Parkin is a rather burly fellow, slightly balding, with a sensitive face, taciturn but dignified, and not inarticulate, just tight-lipped. He is not simple and peasant-like. He is manly, but he's a loner, happiest by himself. Hippolyte Girardot as Sir Clifford is not a handsome man, but importantly he is neither angry nor excessively dignified. No one overplays his role -- they play things straight, and that's the overriding virtue of this movie. It lets the elements speak for themselves, and the result is a revelation.

Surely an essential element of the book Lawrence was trying to write was a realistic sexuality seen directly and tenderly, without embarrassment. But Lawrence saw it differently in the three successive versions he wrote, of which only the third is widely published and known. They are The First Lady Chatterley, John Thomas and Lady Jane, and Lady Chatterley's Lover. As Helen Croom explains (http://web.ukonline.co.uk/rananim/lawrence/theladyc.html), the second version introduces the "sexual healing" aspect not in the first, but is more tender than the third, in which the gamekeeper, his name changed from Parkin to Mellers, has become "hard and bitter" and the relationship has been made more purely sexual, with the addition of purple passages intermingled with a liberal use of Anglo-Saxon sexual "four-letter" words. The second version is simpler and more tender, and so is this film. Croom feels the well known third version really isn't the best. Its fetishizing of sexuality takes us away from what Lawrence really excels at, which is relationships, and the wonderful thing about Ferran's film is how clear and direct the Lawrentian relationships are and yet how every onscreen moment subtly changes them.

Lady Chatterley takes its time, and in the version shown at the San Francisco film festival, it's three hours long. The spaces between the scenes are as important, and so are the silences, as the scenes themselves for the mood created. As the story begins, Lady Chatterley becomes overwhelmed by lassitude. Her doctor tells her she must get out. This is what leads her to walk around on her husband's estate. She sees Parkin from behind with his shirt off washing up. He's not some aerobicized Natutilus male but a work-conditioned man with a solid, muscular, bull-like torso. She moves away at first and doesn't speak to him, but later it's obvious if not now that a desire has been planted to know what it feels like to touch this body. Later she asks for a key to the "cabane" where Parkin comes to work, and to go there herself. The utter quiet of the place awes her. There's a sense in the shots of big expanses of tree and grass, of immersion in the outdoors.

What's striking is that there's no tension in this story. One day she's there, and Parkin asks Lady C. if she wants it. She does and then they begin making love there on the floor of the "cabane" regularly. She comes to life. This is when Marina Hinds begins to glow with natural happiness. No one is suspicious, there's never any danger that they'll be caught. Sir Clifford is stiff and uncomfortable, but it isn't overdone and in fact is very subtle. Much of the time it's notable how well he does. At dinner parties he's like anybody else. And Parkin isn't gruff and rough. Nor does he as in the published third version make up little pet names for their private parts.

Constance Chatterley is a vibrant young woman who needs sexual experience and comes to life when she begins having it; and she's beautiful and the gamekeeper wants her, and he isn't ashamed or afraid of having her. Then she goes away on a trip to Europe that's been planned before, with a lady friend and a man, and that gives her a chance to cover things up. But after the trip, things change. Because this is a Thirties period film set in France, Lady Chatterley and her husband are formal in addressing each other, and she and Parkin don't use the familiar "tu" till she comes back. Parkin isn't a romanticized Noble Savage, some incarnation of the physical. He's physical all right, but he dresses in a shirt and tie.

The most peculiar thing is that without any apology or explanation all the people and places are English, but everyone speaks French. This is as if to say: This seems very real, but it's a fable, and we're not going to fake it about that.

There have, as mentioned, been many film versions, and perversions, of Lady Chatterley. Ferran's is an elegant production, in many ways conventional (it was made for television, with a still longer running time), and it's without self-conscious stylistic gestures -- with the one notable exception of the very measured pace. Nothing gets in the way of the actors and the setting -- the big aristocratic house, the great lands around the property. There's not much more to say. If you want to experience a revolutionary moment in twentieth century English fiction that's still quite alive today, you will have to see this. It's a remarkable film. Some boning up on the writer and the period before or after your viewing wouldn't hurt.

The longer French TV version is to be entitled Lady Chatterley et l'homme du bois (Lady C. and the man of the woods). Kino International is the US distributor and it's scheduled to open in New York June 22, 2007.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, May 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-17-2007, 11:01 PM


Island histrionics make for a slow, whimsical ramble

Tubokawa's droll, extremely offbeat little film Aria uses its setting on the island of Hokkaido to examine a hermetic world of Japanese histrionics and quirks--notable among them shyness and determination -- and perhaps shame and deference to ancestors and spirits of the dead. Ota (Masayuki Shionoya) is a recently widowed, and very reticent, piano tuner and the film opens with him at work. By an irregular path this leads to an aged puppeteer named Kuzo (Masao Komatsu) and a mysterious young woman, Kako (Mariko Takahashi) who says she's the puppeteer's daughter, who helps Ota go looking for the piano Kuzo's wife used to use to accompany his performances and at the same time for a special remote beach where Ota's wife wanted her ashes scattered. Ota is burdened with a sense of shame for not having paid any attention to this wish and so having been up to now unable to fulfill it. All he has to go on is a little torn snapshot of the beach, which, of course, looks more or less like any other patch of ocean and sand.

The grief-stricken Ota has been living with old friend Kojima (Simon Yotsuya), who has a clock collection and repair shop. This is where an initially disdainful Kuzo comes by to leave off his weirdly lifelike doll, "Miss Aria," for repairs. Kuzo's bustling, incompetent apprentice, Senju (Sojuro Kataoka) appears to pick up the puppet and he becomes a part of the story, especially when Kuzo collapses at a performance Ota has gone to, and later dies in the hospital. There is a brief moment of bonding between Ota and Kuzo in the hospital room when the latter confesses he has long ago lost his wife and still misses her. His dying wish was to have the piano found, and it's at this point the film turns from desultory character study to whimsical and mildly supernatural road movie.

On the little journey around the island's nearly deserted beach areas various individuals are encountered, including an old man who runs a restaurant, who has a map to show where the beach is and seems to know the location of the piano; another old person, a woman hitchhiker who sings about the sea; and the keeper of a shrine surrounded by statues of foxes. Chaplin meets Fellini as Ota livens up a bit, clearly inspired by the young lady, Kako, and Senju puts on a little mustache. Finally it begins to seem that the young woman, rather than the puppeteer's daughter, may be a fox spirit or the reincarnation of the piano tuner's wife. Come to think of it, the puppeteer's hauntingly lifelike doll itself seemed like some imprisoned spirit.

Aria is a tiny, tiny film but its frailty is not without firm assurance. Here, Hokkaido becomes a setting where Japanese tentatativeness and understatement have their own sense of style and rigor. Tsubokawa uses an appropriately quiet visual manner, with Ozu-like static shots predominating. Tsubokawa's first film was the intriguing Clouds of Yesterday, a silent evocation of bygone cinema, which was even more slow-moving and more in debt to Italian film, but lacked the storytelling ability revealed however obliquely here. It was shown at last year's SFSIFF and I wrote (http://www.filmwurld.com/forums/showthread.php?s=&postid=15203#post15203): "Tsubokawa's sadly grainy and hard to follow Clouds of Yesterday is steeped in cinematic sense and may be a rough hint of fine work to come." Only for the patient, Aria nonetheless will utterly charm some with its quiet rewards.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007.

Chris Knipp
05-19-2007, 03:30 PM


Though nothing I saw except maybe Lady Chatterley was really magical this year at the 50th SFIFF, the general quality was high, and I can think of six that are worth singling out, and quite a few more worth mentioning.

Lady Chatterley will be coming to US theaters. Pacale Ferran, whose film won the French Cesar for best picture this year, based it not on the familiar third version but D.H.Lawrence's second version, which has less blunt sex talk, more tenderness, and more focus on the relationship beyond sex between Lady Chatterley and her impotent husband's gamekeeper. The gamekeeper's called Parkin instead of Mellors, and he's not gruff and harsh or inarticulate, just a loner and a man of few words. Jean-Louis Couloc'h is quite special in this role, not like a movie actor at all. Seen without a shirt by his future lover he has a bull-like muscularity, but he always wears a coat and tie. Balding, a bit stocky, the actor has a quiet assurance and a kindness and patience that make a unique impression. Marina Hinds as Lady Chatterley is equally convincing in her arc from a fading creature almost losing the will to live to a blooming, radiantly happy young woman discovering sexuality and love. Hippolyte Girardot as Sir Clifford, like the other actors, avoids any exaggeration. We feel his helplessness; he need not telegraph it. What's avantgardist in the film is its slow pace; it takes its time to give a full sense of the lifeless house and the vibrant world of trees and grass outside. The sex scenes are the more real for happening fast. This is film that gets a well-known story right as never before. The fact that an English story with English names is all in French gives the whole something of the feel of a fable.

Veronica Chen's Agua, an elegant narrative feature about competition swimmers, Chino (Nicolas Mateo) and Goyo (Rafael Ferro) at two stages of their lives, is stunning for the way the act of swimming is filmed. The sparingly used but unforgettable underwater photography captures the grace and symmetry of the swimmers' bodies, their unity with the water, the sound of heartbeat and breathing that become a meditation. Chen combines adept documentary realism with dramatic sequences that underline these two men's poor adaptation to life outside their obsession. Goyo has just returned after years of hiding following a drug disqualification that cost him the championship in a marathon, and Chino fails to make it to the national team in indoor pool competition and is lost and rudderless. Agua is distinguished by a clear rhythm defined by the contrasts between the silence of the swimming under water and the cacophony of life above water at a big pool or at a meet with a crowd of spectators. Both swimmers in a sense are defeated, but are thus freed to go on with the next stage of their lives.

Argentinian Carlos Sorin has carved out a place for himself with his little Argentinian road movies mostly using non-actors and filmed in remote Patagonia. His Road to San Diego is his most adept, winning, and mainstream film to date. Its hero is Tati Benitez (Ignacio Benitez), a naive country boy who shares something with billions of others on the planet: he is a huge soccer fan. And his idol is the Argentinian superstar, Diego Maradona, "El Diego." Tati is an out-of-work lumberjack with a pregnant wife living in a little village in the Misiones jungle who carves a huge root to look like his soccer hero. When Maradona has a heart attack, Tati goes on a journey carrying the carved root as a worshipper would make the pilgrimage to the shrine of a saint. He meets various people along the way, including some of the actors in Sorin's previous Bombon, El Perro, about men traveling to dog shows. His main companion paradoxically is a Brazilian truck driver, Waguinho (Carlos Wagner La Bella) whose soccer idol is not Maradona but Pelé. The Road to San Diego is about hero worship and how at some level it blends into folklore and magic. Tati is a sports fan everyman, and Sorin's feel-good saga expresses universal truths through its quirky specificity. The director has never been more accomplished, this time making use of more elaborate shots and crowd sequences and achieving greater narrative thrust. The secret of his quiet mastery is probably going to get out now.

Edie and David Ichioka's Murch is a simple little 85-minute documentary that gives the legendary American Zoetrope editor Walter Murch a chance to sound off for a while about how he cut and pasted movies like The Conversation and The Godfather and Apocalypse Now into the classics they are, and crafted his remarkable recreation of Welle's Touch of Evil according to the director's fifty-page statement of his original intentions. This is "just" a "talking head" film, but with his clear explanations and colorful metaphors Murch is a head that really knows how to talk, and the Ichiokas illustrate all his references with just the right clips from the films in question exactly when needed. For anyone interested in how films are put together, this is enlightening, inspiring stuff.

Joachim Trier's Reprise is a youthful New Wave-ish display of wit and cinematic panache from Norway that's a portrait of a recent generation of creative Oslo young people. In the foreground are Erik (Espen Klouman Høiner, a tall blond guy who smiles almost all the time) and childhood pal Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie), equally presentable and well off, with bright eyes and a crew cut. Both seek to embark on writing careers at the same time, and both idol-worship an outstanding but reclusive older writer called Sten Egil Dahl (Sigmund Saeverud). Phillip gets published first but then hits a snag when a psychotic episode lands him for a while in a sanatorium. Erik comes next with a book oddly title Prosopopeia, and he gets shot down on a TV discussion show for his lack of candor. Girlfriends come and go. Some of the ironies are a bit too obvious, and the debt to Truffaut and more recent French cineastes may be be over-evident, but the way a group of friends is cohesively represented and the energy of the narrative and the adeptness of the editing are exhilarating and fun; it looks like Norway's not short of cinematic talent these days. This is a promising display of brilliance and intelligence.

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Daratt (from Chad) is a powerful film about delayed revenge. The young Atim (Ali Barkai) has lost his father in civil war; he knows who did it. When the government announces a general amnesty on war crimes, his blind grandfather commands him to go to the capital and kill the man. Revenge is a dish best enjoyed cold means it's not a crime of passion but of premeditation. That takes time, and it's not easy for a youth like Atim. Besides, when he arrives in the city, he gets hired by the killer, an austere baker named Naseera (Youssouf Djaoro), and while both of them seem consumed with anger most of the time, Atim experiences satisfaction in learning to do the baking by himself, and up close it may be harder to see a way to do the deed. The strength of the film comes from its tension and suspense, from the accumulating power of things left unexplained. It is never obvious, right up to the last scene, what Atim is going to do. Daratt is one of the most vivid ever portraits on film of prolongued, inarticulate rage. Its intensity, its vividness, its simplicity, even the dry heat of the setting, all conspire to make for a riveting film.

If none of these absolutely haunted and mesmerized me the way Mexican Ricardo Benet's News from Afar (Noticias lejanas) did last year, or (even more so) Argentinian Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos did two years ago, on the other hand the general quality of what I saw was higher. Other standouts that gained festival recognition: Pavel Giroud's beautiful, witty The Silly Age, about a pre-adolescent charmer in Havana on the eve of revolution, won the SFIFF's new Chris Holter Award for humor in film. Its wry portraiture and jewel-box look make it a pleasure to watch. Fernando Vargas' The Violin, an atmosphereic black and white film about peasant rebels, focused on an old street musician, and won the SKYY Prize for a first independent feature: it's most notable for its gritty realistic images and convincing depiction of the faces of the rural poor of Mexico. Jeanne Waltz's A Parting Shot, from Switzerland, with young French star Isild Le Besco, won the FIPRESCI international film critics award, again for an outstanding first feature, and is a subtle, economical film about two youthful rebels who're tamed and matured by helping each other under stress.

There were also very fine films I'd already seen at Lincoln Center and elsewhere: Bruno Dumont's return to form Flanders, depicting the ravages of war; Abderrahmane Sissako's indictment of the rich countries and the WTO in Bamako, Christophe Honore's lively Nouvelle Vague renewal Dans Paris, starring Louis Garrel and Romain Duris; and the dazzling performance of Marie Cotillard as Edith Piaf in Olivier Dahan's La Vie en Rose.

And I could also mention the family funeral drama from Korean Lee Yoon-ki, Ad Lib Night; Chinese Xiao Guo's clever meta-fiction of a screenwriter and a murderer How Is Your Fish Today?; noted Italian actor Kim Rossi Stewart's very moving dysfunctional family study and directorial debut, Along the Ridge; French Canadian Philippe Falardeau's novelistic depiction of a search for identity, Congorama; and the list could go on. It was a good experience, this festival, again leaving one with a strong impression that filmmaking is alive and well all over the globe and new talent is springing up faster than you can keep track of it. Too bad such a lot of this never makes its way to our theaters at all, or is seen only in TV or Hollywood recyclings.