Rounding out its 55th year, the generally celebratory San Francisco International Film Festival seemed to open on a melancholy note, with the deaths of two illustrious film-culture stalwarts still fresh in the memories of local cinephiles: Graham Leggat, who had since 2005 been the San Francisco Film Society's executive director, succumbed to cancer last year; and Bingham Ray, a veteran force in the indie circuit who'd agreed to take over the position, passed away in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Just as Nietzsche envisioned art as “the redeeming, healing enchantress” that could confront despair, it was up to cinema then to alleviate the event's potentially mournful mood. Indeed, the titles chosen to pay tribute to the two men—Benoit Jacquot's unusual Versailles-set drama Farewell, My Queen, which opened the festival in dedication to Leggat, and Carol Reed's sardonic 1949 masterpiece The Third Man, reportedly Ray's all-time favorite film—served as reminders not only of SFIFF's characteristically eclectic selection, but also of its dedication to acknowledging the medium's past while steadfastly gazing ahead for discoveries.
Situated at a crossroads of film festivals (opening after SXSW, unfolding at the same time as Tribeca, and wrapping just prior to Cannes), SFIFF is a place for encountering first-time visions as well as catching up with established artists. Alps, Yorgos Lanthimos's follow-up to Dogtooth, builds on the Greek filmmaker's absurdist view of life by venturing beyond the previous film's hermetic living room and finding an even wider set of suffocatingly stylized communities. To give away too much of the plot would be to rob the narrative's interconnected shards of relationships and rituals within rituals (a teenage gymnast's demand for pop rather than classical music, a nurse's stiffly recited ecstasy during a lugubrious bit of cunningulus, an old paterfamilias's ballroom reminiscence) of their ominous sense of mystery. Suffice to say that Lanthimos has expanded the surreally terse style and notions of communication and identity of his breakout film without sacrificing any of its singularity; call it the Happiness to Dogtooth's Welcome to the Dollhouse.
A more benign web of affairs is spun by prolific Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo in The Day He Arrives, a doleful comedy of romance (as opposed to a “romantic comedy”) that nevertheless boasts a structure as ingenious as the one of Alps. Following a semi-retired film director (Yu Jun-sang) as he runs into old girlfriends, drinks with students, hears his own insecurity echoing inside his head, and repeats it all over again (or does he?) during a trip to his native Seoul, it works up a gentle, slowly enveloping mist of falling snow, clinking glasses, and zigzagging emotions. The idea of “untraceable forces at work” comes up during one of the characters' numerous tipsy philosophical sessions, and a tinge of cosmic existentialism seems to hang over the film's moments of graceful humor and confessional anguish alike. “I have a memory to cherish now,” the protagonist murmurs the morning after hooking up with an acquaintance. After viewing Hong's often sublime mélange of possibility and rue, viewers can say the same.
If it's difficult to mistake Alps and The Day He Arrives as anything but films by their respective directors, it's even more difficult to recognize The Exchange as having come from the same man who made The Band's Visit. In place of the earlier film's deadpan hope for cross-cultural solidarity, Eran Kolirin here offers a peculiarly tranquil portrait of private dislocation. A tiny change in his schedule and a different view of his apartment are all it takes for a meek Tel Aviv university professor (Rotem Keinan) to slide into an obsessive search for the alien in the familiar. Suddenly, he's exposing himself in elevators, screaming into empty apartments, and otherwise seeking to disrupt his usual routines in ways that increasingly alienate his wife (Sharon Tal). Depicting its central breakdown with an almost perverse visual and tonal blandness, Kolirin's film ultimately functions best as a concept than an emotional experience. Still, it lingers in the mind as a snapshot of an unsettled soul willfully receding from the universe: Had it not already been taken, the title The Man Who Wasn't There would have fit it perfectly.
Next to the purposefully nondescript settings of The Exchange, the world of Terraferma is tangibly specific from its very first frame. Set in a small, secluded Sicilian island where volcanic rocks and decaying boats are vivid enough to qualify as supporting players, Emanuele Crialese's drama pits social strictures against the more instinctive “laws of the sea.” Unfurling over the course of a humid summer season that finds a fishing community abruptly invaded by pleasure-seeking tourists, it starts off promisingly as a detail-rich coming-of-age story with a teenage local (Filippo Pucillo) at the center of a tug of war between a grandfather determined to keep the island's traditions alive and a mother with eyes set on the mainland. As soon as a pregnant Ethiopian refugee (Timnit T.) and her son are saved from drowning and hidden at the boy's home, however, the story becomes a paternalistic, nuance-free lecture on immigration (think of the Dardenne brothers' La Promesse with all the thorny moral quandaries neatly flattened and folded) that dulls its visuals and rhythms. Anyone who's seen Golden Door has the right to expect far more from Crialese.