Thursday, April 25, 2013
A cursory glance at the "Country Index" included in the program guide for the 56th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) reveals several titles showing up more than once; a clear indicator of the state of international co-productions in today's festival landscape. Whereas at one time films in an international festival could be guided by the category of a national cinema, such a determinant now teeters on the quaint in the face of economic necessity and/or availability. The language or location of a film no longer signifies its nationality, neither does its director nor its talent. It now seems clear that money and money alone determines a film's country of origin and—in the case of international co-productions—the top financier gets to claim geographical rights, although indices such as SFIFF's "Country Index" gracefully allow shared (albeit tiered) national credits. Yet, just as the concept of a national cinema developed in film festival culture as a perceived reaction to Hollywood's hegemony—and as a tenuous distinction between an art film and a commercial film—it now seems new categories must be devised to distinguish artistry over commercial forces, with how one secures financing—from one country or many countries—emerging as a new style of auteurism for the 21st century. Of course, it's foolish to term it "auteurism", which is in itself a problematic ascription, and perhaps it's best to just call it good business sense in the service of creativity? Fundamentally, does it even matter where a film is from if a good story gets told? And seen? Or do we lose something when films evolve away from their distinct national characters?
While distinctions can still be sifted, however, and because old habits die hard, I offer up a preview of the Ibero-American and/or Latin American entries in this year's edition of the San Francisco International (absent shorts) and—since this is a distinction that may all but fade in the next decade or so—why not start with the official selections in the 2013 New Directors Narrative Feature Competition, where those coming up over the horizon matter more for being new on the scene than where they're from?
The Cleaner / El Limpiador (Adrián Saba, Peru, 2011)—As synopsized by Robert Avila at SFIFF: "As a mysterious epidemic eviscerates Lima's adult population—but spares its children—a solitary middle-aged forensic worker discovers an orphaned boy at one of his cleanup sites and decides to shelter the traumatized youth until he can find a relative to take him. As time passes, a subtle transformation takes hold of both man and child in this gently haunted and affecting study of social alienation and redemption."
The Cleaner is the perfect film to start out this problematic purview, because it's a wholly Peruvian production and yet—as Michael Hawley has suggested in his capsule review—while he can't be sure how, or even if, Saba's film is commenting upon contemporary Peruvian society, "it's clear that his distinct voice is one we should be hearing more of in the future." The film has certainly gained pedigree on the festival circuit. It first came to my attention at the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) earlier this year, having already received a New Directors Award Special Mention at its San Sebastián premiere. It ended up winning the New Voices / New Visions Grand Jury Prize at PSIFF 2013 where the jurors remarked: "While it is set in the midst of a deadly epidemic, this film eschews the usual genre tropes and instead offers an aesthetically distinctive, minimalist portrayal of a human connection at a time when it seems all hope is lost. The director creates an eerie, strangely calm atmosphere which is carefully controlled but never feels forced, and without sensationalism or overt sentiment, allows a touching bond to develop between his lead characters, a lonely old man and a young boy. With The Cleaner, Adrian Saba has created a singular, unusual and intimate tale which stayed with us long after viewing."
I regretted missing The Cleaner at PSIFF—and the opportunity to hear Saba discuss his film with his audience—but was pleased to catch it at the recent Panamá International Film Festival (IFF Panamá) where lead actor Víctor Prada (last seen in Octubre) accompanied the film and interacted with his audience. There Diana Sanchez categorized the film as "an inspired combination of science fiction and Latin American neorealism" where "kindness and generosity reign … despite the surrounding death and decay." By "science fiction", I understand her to mean that The Cleaner is a "near future" narrative, similar to Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer (2008). Without question, The Cleaner evokes an eerie temporal alterity and rewards the patient viewer with heartfelt flourishes.
Habi, the Foreigner / Habi, la extranjera (María Florencia Álvarez, Argentina / Brazil, 2013)—As synopsized by SFIFF: "Highlighted by an impressive and subtle performance by Martina Juncandella, first-time director María Florencia Álvarez's film traces a 20-year-old woman's spontaneous attempt to create a new identity for herself as a Lebanese orphan in Buenos Aires. Sensitively examining the role of culture in self-definition, Habi, the Foreigner is a beguiling coming-of-age story detailing the feeling of being an outsider in your own land."
Habi had its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival where Stephen Dalton dispatched to the Hollywood Reporter that he found the film to be a "puzzling portrait of cultural tourism taken to extremes." Co-produced by Walter Salles and sporting its North American premiere at SFIFF, Dalton describes the film as "delicately crafted" but found the film's plot "slender, open-ended and frustratingly opaque in places." He cautions that though the film "poses some interesting questions about identity and self-reinvention", it never fully answers them. "While Juncadella gives a quietly luminous performance," Dalton continues, "the script offers no persuasive motivation for Analia's bizarre experiment in cultural tourism. Is her attraction to Islam a rebellious protest against her stifling family? An unconscious reaction to the demonization of Muslims in the wake of 9/11? Just a random accident? We can only guess."
The Towrope / La Sirga (William Vega, Colombia / France / Mexico, 2012)—As synopsized by Miguel Pendás at SFIFF, "A shy teenage girl, cast out of her home by a fire which also destroyed her parents, seeks shelter with a handful of denizens of the shores of a mist-shrouded lagoon in this coming-of-age tale set in the lonely, enchanted landscapes of the high Andes where everyone quietly nurtures illusions of success and fantasies of intimacy with other humans."
At Variety, Rob Nelson reviewed the film from the Cannes Film Festival where it was a contender for the New Directors Prize: "Proving that it's still possible for a young director to deliver a film that's committed more to ambiguity than to clarity, and as much to sound as to image, William Vega's La Sirga is a thoroughly engrossing art film that … emphasizes nuance over narrative." At White City Cinema, Michael Glover Smith writes: "Though it feels at times like a checklist of elements designed to go over well at international film festivals (war-torn country, child protagonist, liberal-humanist tone), this is a small, well-made film, bolstered by gorgeous footage of the Andes mountains and an evocative performance by [Joghis Seudin] Arias, whose expressive face could be that of a silent film actress. A vivid snapshot from a remote corner of the earth that's well worth a look." At Critic Speak, Danny Baldwin asserts "it's important to discuss La Sirga … because through its microcosmic symbolism, the film has much to say about the corruption and social inequity that still plague several South American nations." Film Movement has picked up the film for North American DVD distribution and offers their press kit in PDF.
They'll Come Back / Eles Votram (Marcelo Lordello, Brazil, 2012)—As synopsized by Julia Barbosa: "A potent exploration of class and adolescence, They’ll Come Back tells the story of Cris, a privileged 12-year-old who—after being left on the side of the road as punishment for her and her brother's constant bickering—embarks on a journey that will open her eyes to a world she never knew as she tries to find her way home."
Winner of the Candango Trophy at the Brazilia Festival of Brazilian Cinema for Best Film, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, nominated for the Tiger Award at the 2013 edition of the Rotterdam International, and featured in Lincoln Center's New Directors / New Films, They'll Come Back—according to Tomas Hachard at Slant—"shares both a location and theme (the country's intensifying class divisions) with Kleber Mendonça Filho's Neighboring Sounds, but distinguishes itself in method: Filho never showed the Recife slums, preferring instead to have them figure absently as a potential source of menace for his film's middle-class residents, whereas Lordello allows himself more explicit juxtapositions." Hachard praises the film's "high-wire act that They'll Come Back manages to pull off. Lordello doesn't temper any anger toward the status quo and privileged classes, but by emphasizing [lead character] Cris's shift from seclusion to emerging humility and empathy, he also leaves a space open for reconciliation." At Filmleaf, Chris Knipp praises Lordello's "sly and original script" and notes that the "film's class-conscious agenda is transparent but made convincing through a steady accumulation of detail."
Shifting away from the New Directors Narrative Feature Competition, SFIFF56 offers a Spanish debut for their 2013 Golden Gate Award for Documentary Feature Competition, co-presented by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
The Search for Emak Bakia / La casa Emak Bakia (Oskar Alegría, Spain, 2012)—As synopsized by Miguel Pendás: "In 1926, avant garde artist Man Ray shot a film titled Emak Bakia, a Basque expression that means 'Leave me alone.' Intrigued by the fanciful conundrums and coincidences of Ray and his art, filmmaker Oskar Alegría ignores Ray's dictum and sets out to plumb the mysteries of Emak Bakia, leading to an unforgettable journey of whimsical discoveries and charming surprises."
At the San Francisco Chronicle, Walter Adieggo observes that there are "plenty of humorous and intriguing byways" in Alegría's pilgrimage to solve the mystery of Man Ray's experimental shot film and assesses, "The journey is the whole point, of course." Indiewire adds: "A path that was covered and later forgotten is usually a good starting point for a documentary. …But Alegría's aim is not so much to 'document' but to 'explore', and so he goes deep into (Super)Man Ray's footprints like a film diver, like someone who explores the deep, what we can't see on the surface, bringing something that is far-off but completely new. With invention as his North he playfully places his film on top of another—the metaphor about the referent—and brings those remains from the past in the form of a palimpsest, subverting the emphatic gesture of avant-garde art and transforming it into a classic one. But at the same time, Alegría tries to build his home/film and does so with an exceptional use of resources, from collage to symmetry, and from visual parallelism to written irony. As in every good story, this film narrates a journey in search of (inventing) a house we all wish we could live in." At the East Bay Express, Kelly Vance suggests that a film like The Search for Emak Bakia is the heart and true spirit of programming at SFIFF, which he characterizes as a "grassroots appreciation of art for art's sake, the more rough-edged the better. Bay Area audiences are not especially impressed with glitz. Filmmakers mean more than movie stars here." As to The Search for Emak Bakia specifically, Vance writes: "It's kind of a surrealist scavenger hunt, with clowns, tombstones, eyelids, happenstance, and coincidence."
Here are the remainder of Ibero-American and Latin American entries rounding out SFIFF's line-up, alphabetically arranged.
After Lucia / Después de Lucia (Michel Franco, Mexico / France, 2012)—As Joanne Parsont synopsizes: "After his wife's death in a car accident, Roberto moves to Mexico City with his teenage daughter Alejandra. While father and daughter are inherently close, their repressed grief and lack of communication threatens to unhinge them when Ale becomes the victim of brutal bullying at school."
My previous entry on After Lucia can be found here on The Evening Class.
The Artist and the Model / El artista y la modelo (Fernando Trueba, Spain, 2012)—As synopsized by Miguel Pendás: "An aging painter (Jean Rochefort) and his wife (Claudia Cardinale) discover a beautiful, waiflike young woman wandering the streets whom they take in as his model in this story by 1994 Oscar® winner Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque) about artists and their muses."
Winner of the Silver Seashell for Best Director at the San Sebastián Film Festival, and co-written by Jean-Claude Carrière, The Artist and the Model—according to Jonathan Holland at Variety—emerges as "an exquisitely crafted miniature about the creative rebirth of an aging sculptor" that "brings the same craft and care to its subject as its titular artist does to his own work." Though admirable, Holland nonetheless finds The Artist and the Model "oddly remote" and a "kind of study fashioned expressly for the arthouse." At the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Kimberly Chun writes: "The horror of the blank page, the raw sensuality of marble, and the fresh-meat attraction of a new model—just a few of the starting points for this thoughtful narrative about an elderly sculptor finding and shaping his possibly finest and final muse." She adds: "Done up in a lustrous, sunlit black and white that recalls 1957's Wild Strawberries, The Artist and the Model instead offers a steady, respectful, and loving peek into a process, and unique relationship, with just a touch of poetry."
Chaika / Seagull (Miguel Ángel Jiménez Colmenar, Spain / Georgia / Russia / France, 2012)—As synopsized by Michelle Devereaux: "In the startlingly bleak yet beautiful Chaika, Ahysa (Salome Demuria), a young Kazakh prostitute who gives birth to an illegitimate son, finds a home with a downtrodden yet sympathetic sailor in the brutal winter wastelands of expansive, empty Siberia. Trapped in the moonscape-like terrain while longing to take flight, Ahysa suffers the tragic effects of family resentments and her own independent spirit." Winner of the Golden Frog at Cameraimage for both Best Director's Debut and Best Cinematographer's Debut.
Crystal Fairy (Sebastián Silva, Chile, 2013)—As synopsized by SFIFF: "An American in Chile (Michael Cera) joins up with three lanky brothers and a spaced-out hippie chick to seek out the perfect high of a desert psychedelic in this partially improvised road movie from Chilean director Sebastián Silva, whose The Maid won a 2009 Sundance Jury Prize. Merging Woody Allen-esque humor and Ugly American dickishness, Cera is a revelation."
Silva won an award for directing at Sundance where the jurors stated: "One film above all the films we saw felt organic and unassuming; we fell in love with the characters without ever knowing too much about them, embarking with them on a fascinating journey infused with humor and discovery." At Screen Daily, Anthony Kaufman writes: "Director Silva is after something deeper than a mere drug movie, touching upon the fine lines between the fronts people put up and who they really are, as well as a plea for tolerating other's differences." At IonCinema, Nicholas Bell categorizes Crystal Fairy as a "loopy endeavor that is most certainly unpredictable" but complains that its hilarious opening act devolves into a painstaking third act that's "unable to achieve the incredible high it achieves during its setup." At First Showing, Ethan Anderton concurs: "In the end, Crystal Fairy has an interesting opening title sequence, a good amount of laughter, but a story that never quite comes together as complete."
The Future / Il Futuro (Alicia Scherson, Italy / Germany / Chile / Spain, 2012)—As synopsized by Mel Valentin: "Through their relationship with a pair of bodybuilders, an orphaned brother and sister stumble on an opportunity they can't refuse: seemingly easy money by way of a former Mr. Universe turned reclusive movie star. This adaptation of Roberto Bolaño's novella isn't a standard issue crime drama. Ultimately, it's something else altogether: a poignant meditation on time, aging, identity and the movies."
Winner of the KNF Award at the Rotterdam International, Nicholas Bell at IonCinema writes: "While intriguing, and at moments, striking, there's an unfortunate distance from the events and characters in Scherson's film, and an undeniable indifference to what's unfolding before us." At Smells Like Screen Spirit, Don Simpson states that "Il Futuro exists in a surreal fugue state in which strange events are explained by the siblings' damaged psychological state after their parents' catastrophic accident." At Exclaim, Robert Bell characterizes Il Futuro as "wildly impressionistic" and culls out an underlying subtext of "oedipal relations and gender performance."
Google and the World Brain (Ben Lewis, England / Spain, 2013)—As synopsized by Steve Ramos: "Veteran documentarian Ben Lewis travels the world speaking to futurists like Wired Magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly and scholars such as Harvard University cultural historian Robert Darnton for his mind-bending film Google and the World Brain, a fascinating look at the Google Books Project and its global implications."
At Screen Daily, Anthony Kaufman writes: "The documentary convincingly points out that Google's ambitions [to create a massive digital library by scanning millions and millions of books, fulfilling the promise of a 'universal library'] aren't entirely philanthropic, but meant to continue to improve their Search algorithms, and find ways to monetise their enormous stores of information." Though describing the documentary as "largely staid," Kaufman nonetheless proposes that Google and the World Brain "manages to raise intriguing questions about the future of books and the corporate control of information in the Internet age." At Ioncinema, Jordan M. Smith finds Google and the World Brain a "fluently astute and alarmingly predictory film" that "revolves around conflict between intellectual freedom, copyright remembrance and corporate ascendancy" and that suggests a need to find "a legal path into the future." At East Bay Express, Kelly Vance writes: "Google and the World Brain stands out for its sizzling topicality…. Futurists and similar pundits insist, among other things, that Google exists to monetize knowledge, and that despite its paid publicity, Google Books is not a library but a bookstore. If Google were somehow to own every book, all knowledge would carry a price tag."
Mai Morire (Enrique Rivero, Mexico, 2012)—As synopsized by Jesse Dubus: "In the ethereal, nearly pre-Columbian landscapes of the Mexican town of Xochimilco, a stoic woman returns home to care for her 99-year-old mother nearing the end of her life. Haunting and meditative, Mai Morire shows a woman's experience of her mother's death not as a tragedy, but as a natural, even beautiful event in her life."
Winner of a Special Jury Award for director Rivero at the Huelva Latin American Film Festival and Best Technical Contribution for cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer at the Rome Film Fest, Lee Marshall writes at Screen Daily: "This is a film whose drama lies as much in the play of light on water, fields, trees and distant mountains as in the minimal dialogue and interactions between its few characters." But he complains about the film's "funereal" pacing and wishes that the film's "exaggerated understatement" were "just a little less reticent, and a little more legible." At The Hollywood Reporter, Jordan Mintzer states that Mai Morire is a "stunningly shot slice of Mexican realism, but one that would have fared better had it not leaned so heavily on narrative minimalism. …Still, as a meditation on family, ritual and the passing of time, it packs a quiet punch."
Night Across the Street / La noche de enfrente (Raúl Ruiz, France / Chile, 2012)—As synopsized by Judy Bloch: "Cinema sadly lost Raúl Ruiz in 2011, but this posthumously released film, shot in his native Chile, brings back the elegance of his straight-faced surrealism in the story of a man nearing retirement and death who indulges his love for words and conjures up his childhood heroes, from Beethoven to Long John Silver. Ruiz's visual message from beyond is that death is just a word, and not to be feared."
Quite a lot has been written about Night Across the Street, but I would single out write-ups by Daniel Kasman (MUBI) and Justin Chang (Variety). But don't stop there.