2007 SFIFF Capsules

A few notes typed at the end of a long flight home.

Daratt is The Son flipped on its axis, the story of a fatherless child whose justifiable desire for vengeance is tempered by grace and grief. A few key scenes are poorly executed and so aren’t quite as powerful as they should have been (the Dardennes would have hit them out of the park), but the film seems more impressive the more I think about it, thanks in large part to a final scene that is as perfectly structured, as surprising, and as satisfying as any I can think of.

Opera Jawa was simply an overwhelming experience for me. Full of images as powerfully imaginative as any you will find in Angelopoulos and late Kurosawa (I kept thinking of Ran), combined with a stunning gamelan score and dance sequences so strange and transcendent I expected Denis Lavant to make an appearance, this film has the effect of all great opera: it’s epic, sensuous, and impossibly beautiful.

A Few Days Later . . . Imagine Kiarostami’s aesthetic (long static takes, a fixation with winding roads) combined with the mise-en-scene, wit, and narrative tension of the typical American soap opera and you’ll get something like this film. I didn’t care for it.

At the Edge: New Experimental Cinema included a couple strong entries. Of the films I hadn’t already seen, Charlotte Price’s Discoveries on the Forest Floor, 1-3 were probably my favorite. As usual when I write about experimental film, I’m coming from a position of near-total ignorance, but Price’s short montages of extreme close-ups impressed me with their rhythm as much as their images. I also really liked Ken Jacobs’ Capitalism: Slavery, which cuts between the two halves of a 19th century stereoscopic photograph, suspending the depicted slaves, slavemaster, and field of cotton in a kind of endless exchange.

Forever, like Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, is a lovely manifestation of its creator’s curiosity. During her pre-screening interview, Honigmann drew a distinction between her films and the work of most contemporary documentarians, claiming, “I don’t make films about subjects; they’re about people. Unless I love the person in front of my camera, I cannot film them.” In this case, she found in Paris’s Pere-Lachaise cemetery a usable metaphor for the fickle permanence of art. There, amidst the shrines to Chopin and Proust, she meets a collection of mourners and pilgrims whose rituals casually reveal the peculiar nature of loss. What makes the film such a success is Honigmann’s willingness to allow the people she meets to dictate the course of her essay. Rather than leading them with questions, she listens attentively, with curiosity, and not surprisingly most are eager to tell her their stories.

The Island begins like an Indiana Jones film and ends somewhere closer to Ordet. I shouldn’t have liked it nearly as much as I did, but the basic premise — a man devotes his life to back-breaking service in a community of monks as penance for his sin — worked for me, and the film is just clever enough, funny enough, and serious enough to avoid sentimentality.

Paprika was not the film I’d hoped it would be — that is, the film that would cure me of my anti-anime biases. The best I can say about it is that it is the product of an astounding imagination. But, at the risk of gettin’ all Bazinian, I’ve decided that I go to the cinema to see images of reality captured by a camera. (That foul smell you just noticed is the reek of my newly-opened can of worms.)

The Old Garden wasn’t the best film I saw at the fest, but it was definitely the most pleasant surprise. More coming . .

Private Fears in Public Places finishes strong, doesn’t it? When I saw it at TIFF I left early, thirty minutes or so before it transformed into a work of magical realism. Resnais, in his old age, has discovered images of such painful and beautiful melancholia, which are too rare in the cinema. By the time it ended, I cared deeply about every character in this film, another rare quality.

Fresh Air is straight out of the Kaurismaki school of expressionless faces, pregnant pauses, and coal-black humor. Agnes Kocsis, who was only twenty-five when she made the film, shoots mostly in master shots, stringing together dull moments in the life of a mother and daughter who long ago gave up on communicating with one another. Fresh Air reminded me also of Juan Pablo Rebella’s Whisky, which likewise ends about how you would expect it to but does so with a precise enough attention to detail and with a genuine enough concern for its characters that it all seems worthwhile. Another film with a strong final sequence.

Desperately Seeking Images was introduced by the program’s curator, who told us he doesn’t like grouping short films by “themes.” He might reconsider that strategy. The standout was Tube with a Hat by Radu Jude, who was assistant director on The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. I love the film’s premise — a boy begs his father to have their television repaired so that he can watch a Bruce Lee movie. The film follows them on their day-long journey.

Vanaja was a last-minute change in my schedule, and I still haven’t decided if it was a good move. I was angry with the film for most of its running time — movies that include child rape and dance numbers aren’t my cup of tea — but at my most charitable, I think Vanaja is an interesting subversion of the Cinderella fairy tale. Like an Angela Carter story (or a Thomas Hardy novel, even) it subjects its heroine to a string of trials with little hope of a happy ending. That it was such a crowd pleaser at the festival, though, confirms my initial impression that first-time director Rajnesh Domalpalli elided too much of the violence and failed to really subvert the genre at all. Truthfully, I’m still a bit angry with the film.

Dans Paris answers the question, “What would those early New Wave films — the ones made before Godard and the rest got all “political” — look like if they were made today?” It’s a fun film. Sexy, touching, with a great score. I liked it a lot.