San Francisco's film snobs and film sluts have been abuzz all weekend privy to the advance announcement offered San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) members of this year's lineup for the 54th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF54). It's been hard to keep quiet about this year's offerings but—with yesterday's official press conference, held in the spectacular Alexandra Room on the 32nd floor of the Westin St. Francis overlooking Union Square—the embargo has been lifted, though unfortunately there remain glaring omissions with regard to some of the festival's key events, namely who will be the recipient of the Founder's Directing Award, the Peter J. Owens Acting Award, and the Midnight Awards? Securing talent is specifically the issue here, Executive Director Graham Leggat admitted, adding that this is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks of his position. Let it be known that the all-important spectacular dimension of an international film festival—which all too often comes under fire from cinephilic diehards—is fraught with administrative complications like any other infrastructural arm of the festival that supports its architecture.
Leaving aside that minor disappointment in favor of anticipation, let's take at look at what we have available; first off with SFIFF54's Latin slate. A caveat: the short descriptions have been lifted directly from the SFIFF54 mini-guide, with expanded descriptions linked to the films' titles.
Asleep in the Sun / Dormir Al Sol (Dir. Alejandro Chomski, Argentina 2010, 83 min)—Every dog has his day in this beguiling metaphysical mystery set within the labyrinthine Buenos Aires neighborhood of Parque Chas, where a hapless watchmaker and his canine-crazed wife go soul-deep into a Kafkaesque world of pseudo scientists and self-possessed pooches amid period-perfect '50s decor. IMDb.
When Asleep in the Sun played at last Fall's Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF), Marilyn Ferdinand described the film as "a charming, unnerving film whose picture-postcard, 1950s setting lulls viewers into a sweet dream of nostalgia, only to turn a character's moderate neurosis into a nightmare for all those in her circle." She reported on Chomski's attendance at CIFF, where he advised that the film's genesis "arose from his friendship with Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares and his admiration for his novel Asleep in the Sun. The pair talked about adapting the book for the cinema, and when Casares died, Chomski decided to push on. He retained the spirit of the book, though many plot points had to be added ... to render the story coherent. And he decided to film it as a period piece, as originally written, instead of updating it to the present because he felt the story was too delicate to stand up to today's information-soaked scrutiny. ...Chomski added a very slight political agenda to the film by showing that people often are powerless to stop bad things from happening in their countries and communities. He used the examples of Americans who opposed the invasion of Iraq and Argentinians who did not want a military dictatorship who had these things foisted upon them with no recourse. Of course, history catches up with every event."
At The Parallax View, D.B. Bates counters that Asleep in the Sun "stumbles" in achieving its dream logic by making "two grave miscalculations that undermine the film's dream-like qualities: too much foreshadowing, and too much 'realism.' " But even he admits that "the film is loaded with elements worth admiring", boasting great performances, gorgeous cinematography and impressive evocations of the absurd, circular illogic of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus.
Black Bread / Pa Negre (Dir. Agustí Villaronga, (Spain 2010, 108 min)—In the dark days following the Spanish Civil War, a young boy witnesses a brutal murder by mysterious hooded figures. When his own father is accused of the crime, he sets out to exonerate him, but the facts he uncovers in this twisted gothic underworld are far from comforting. Official website [Spanish]. IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.
Dispatching to The Jigsaw Lounge from the film's San Sebastian premiere, Neil Young noted Nora Navas's win as Best Actress for her role as the put-upon wife of an anti-Francoist farmer in 1944 Catalonia. Over all, however, he found Black Bread to be "a fairly stodgy tearjerker with mild supernatural touches that nod to Spanish-language forerunners such as Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and Erice's enduringly seminal 1970s classic The Spirit of the Beehive." Young makes it clear, however, that "such comparisons are decidedly not to the advantage of Black Bread." Ronald Bergan suffered the same comparisons at MUBI, where he noted those movies "say much more in a less obvious and direct way" and complained that Black Bread was a "never-ending rambling melodrama which pretends to be making a statement on Franco's Spain, but muddies the water with a rights-of-passage drama, 'shocking' sequences, a folk tale of a monster, and a boy that wants to fly. Unfortunately, the film never lives up to its first impressive sequence of someone being killed by a hooded man, and a horse toppling over a cliff."
Jonathan Holland's Variety review from San Sebastian was decidedly more favorable. He characterized Black Bread as "grim and gripping" and noted that "Agustí Villaronga's most mainstream film retains his trademark subversive edge, quickly evolving from rites-of-passage yarn into a complex, challenging item that is both dark to its heart and breathlessly watchable." He added that the film's depiction of rural poverty was "impressive" and that "several scenes, including a dream sequence, are shot through with a raw, unsettling power." As later reported at Variety, Black Bread went on to win nine Goyas, including Best Film, Director and Actress. Notwithstanding, I can't help but wonder if this dramatic sweep wasn't by default due to the well-publicized contention between Icíar Bollain's Even the Rain and Álex de la Iglesia's The Last Circus, whose enmity appeared to cancel out each others' chances. I wonder about this because everyone I know who caught Black Bread at its Palm Springs International screening expressed disappointment and outright amazement when the film went on to do so well at the Goyas. My expectations are low.
Colors of the Mountain, The / Los colores de la montana (Dir. Carlos César Arbeláez, Colombia / Panama 2010, 88 min)—A motley crew of young boys in Colombia lives only for one passion: soccer. But when their precious new ball rolls into a minefield, their dreams are suddenly on hold. Even as the village becomes the center of a tug-of-war between right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist guerrillas, the idea of a rescue attempt is too tempting to resist. IMDb.
Dispatching further from San Sebastian, Variety critic Jonathan Holland noted that—though The Colors of the Mountain appeared "deceptively lightweight"—it was actually a "no-frills, sincere if sometimes cliched drama" that "nicely sidesteps sentimentality and haranguing social criticism, and its wobbly dramatics are compensated for by a wonderful central perf from kid thesp Hernán [Mauricio] Ocampo." Neil Young, in turn, dispatched that The Colors of the Mountain was "a more pungent examination of war's effects on young, innocent victims" than the aforementioned Black Bread. He noted that Arbeláez won the festival's "lucrative" €90,000 New Directors Award and concurred that Ocampo's performance was outstanding and "as good as anything I saw from an adult actor during my spell in San Sebastian."
At Eye For Film, Amber Wilkinson emphasizes the film's "hidden but very real threats" and writes: "Shot almost entirely from the children's perspective, Arbeláez tackles universal themes of conflict and its impact on ordinary people without getting mired in specific politics. He deftly shows how quickly normality can disintegrate when conflict appears on the horizon. And despite having serious subject matter, he has a lightness of touch, an avoidance of outright displays of violence and an eye for the comedic that means older children could enjoy this as much as adults." The Colors of the Mountain has been picked up by Film Movement and is already available on DVD. Their press kit includes a director's statement that, interestingly, acknowledges the film's Iranian influences.
Jean Gentil (Dirs. Laura Amelia Guzmán, Israel Cárdenas, Dominican Republic / Mexico/ Germany 2010, 84 min)—Jean Remy is a Haitian man struggling to find employment in the Dominican Republic. Confronted with rejection and discrimination in the city, he sets off to try his luck in the countryside. Imbued with a naturalistic grace, this deeply sympathetic portrait speaks eloquently to the trials of humanity. IMDb. Facebook.
Following up on their debut feature Cochochi—one of my favorite films at the 2007 Toronto International—Guzmán and Cárdenas received a Horizons special mention at the Venice Film Festival and a jury award at Thessaloniki for Jean Gentil, yet Variety critic Boyd van Hoeij still found their most recent effort "relentlessly dour."
Joy, The / A Alegria (Dirs. Marina Meliande, Felipe Bragança, Brazil 2010, 106 min)—In Rio, a group of young students (played by a memorable cast of nonprofessionals) transcends the hard truths of their lives through spirit and imagination in this magical realist urban teen adventure. Led by the charismatic Luiza, the group creates poetry and mirth in a collapsing world.
Jay Weissberg's Variety review is unapologetically dismissive. Not a good sign. This might fall under what Jonathan Marlow terms a "dodgy" entry.
Mysteries of Lisbon / Mistérios de Lisboa (Dir. Raúl Ruiz, (Portugal/France 2010, TRT 272 min w. intermission)—Counts and Fathers, Marquis and Madames, orphans and nobility all spin their yarns in Ruiz's magisterial new gambit on the art of storytelling, based on a 19th-century Portuguese novel [by Camilo Castelo Branco] yet more like Dickens filtered through a surrealist's gaze. This costume meta-drama from the director of Time Regained (SFIFF 2000) is set in a decadent, baroque old-world Portugal. Official website. IMDb. Facebook.
My favorite film of 2010! I am thrilled to have the chance to experience this masterpiece again. As I wrote earlier, my first Ruiz film arrived as a guest and took a cinephilic slave. A sensual conquest has never been more swift and predetermined. I'm afraid I had little choice but to be overtaken by Ruiz's masterful amusement on the ambitious follies of youth and the nostalgic recapitulations of the elderly. I've resisted writing about the film since its world premiere at the Toronto International only because I felt it warranted at least one more screening before committing myself to such a pleasurable—if challenging—task; but, the truth remains that Mysteries of Lisbon might require multiple viewings. It's that rich and multi-layered.
Souls more informed—and infinitely more prepared than I am—have already weighed in, however. Not only has Rouge provided the definitive online primer for Ruiz, but at MUBI David Hudson has rounded up the first reviews from the TIFF world premiere, the New York Film Festival, plus commentary on the welcome announcement that Mysteries of Lisbon won France's prestigious Louis Delluc Prize. Eventually, I'll get around to drafting a critical overview of those entries; but, for now, am impressed with how Ruiz has crafted a film with a running time of four hours plus that feels breathtakingly only a little over two. Comporting with programmer Rachel Rosen's observation that—if there is any trend to be seen in this year's roster of films—it's that these films seem to find their own lengths. This length is not to be missed!
Nostalgia for the Light (Dir. Patricio Guzmán, (France / Chile / Germany 2010, 90 min)—The renowned Chilean documentarian goes to one of the highest, driest places on earth, the Atacama Desert, to examine the work of astronomers who search the skies to understand our universe at the same time that relatives of those disappeared under the Pinochet dictatorship search the sands for the bodies of the victims. IMDb. Facebook.
Encouraged by Boyd van Hoeij's Variety review from Cannes, I made a point of catching Nostalgia for the Light at the 2010 Toronto International. It rapidly ascended as one of my favorite films of the festival let alone the year and I maintain that this searing and poetic documentary should be a leading Oscar®-contender for 2012. If it's not acknowledged with at least a nomination, it will merely be further confirmation that Americans have not only forgotten their own recent history, but how to judge a work of documentary art that will achieve relevance over time. I remain grateful for having had the opportunity to talk to Guzmán about the film. That conversation is up at MUBI, where David Hudson has been customarily thorough in monitoring the critical response to the film, first from Cannes, then Toronto, then its New York Run at the IFC Center.
I wish more mention had been made at the SFIFF press conference regarding Guzmán's attendance at the festival, by way of the Pacific Film Archive retrospective Afterimage: The Films of Patricio Guzmán. B. Ruby Rich and I agreed that it's an unfortunate embarrassment of riches that SFIFF's master class with Jean-Michel Frodon has been programmed against Guzmán's on-stage conversation with Jorge Ruffinelli at PFA. "I now have a conflict," I bemoaned to Ruby. "Yes, you do!" she confirmed.
Tiniest Place, The / El lugar mas pequeño (Dir. Tatiana Huezo, Mexico 2011, 100 min)—Years after the Salvadoran military destroyed the village of Cinquera in that country's civil war, survivors have returned to rebuild their community. This amazing debut is an evocative testament to place, memory and the power of life to rebound from tragedy. International Premiere. GGA Documentary Feature Contender. IMDb. Facebook [Spanish].
Ulysses / Ulises (Dir. Oscar Godoy, Chile / Argentina 2011, 85 min)—The emotional life of a Peruvian immigrant in Chile is the subject of this nuanced character study of a man uprooted from home by economic necessity and suffering loneliness and dislocation. Higher wages can't fill the void created by separation from everything that is important to him. World Premiere. New Directors Prize Contender. IMDb.
Useful Life, A / La vida útil (Dir. Federico Veiroj, Uruguay 2010, 67 min)—A man who has spent his entire adult life working in a film archive faces a new beginning with the threatened closure of the institution in this loving black and white ode to a life lived among the reels, a deadpan comedy of cinema and obsolescence from the director of Acne. (With short Protoparticles (7 min).) IMDb. Wikipedia. Facebook.
This is one more gem I caught at TIFF 2010 that I can heartily recommend to SFIFF audiences. It's a heartfelt valentine to cinephiles everywhere. My interview with Federico Veiroj is up at MUBI, where Dave Hudson has likewise gathered up reviews from the film's run in New York. I feel a shout-out is in order here to San Francisco's own Global Film Initiative whose prescience to pick up the film for distribution presumably provided SFIFF the print to show at their festival.
Cross-published on Twitch.