Having just rounded out its fifth decade as the longest running American film fest, the San Francisco International Film Festival might be forgiven for a bit of self-love. In addition to the guest lineup of local megastars (George Lucas, Robin Williams), there were the “we rock” vibes emitted by Fog City Mavericks. Better suited for a cable premiere, Gary Leva’s fluffy love letter to Bay Area filmmaking was instead granted centerpiece status, in return giving Frisco its wettest recorded tongue bath. Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood and Philip Kaufman are among the interviewees, but no Easy Riders, Raging Bulls downfall arc here; the trajectory of San Francisco directors is presented as a steady ascension, buoyed by oft-repeated ideas of artistic independence. It’s one thing to trace a straight line from Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic experiments to the Skywalker Ranch, or to completely ignore the most memorable SF-set films (Vertigo, Point Blank, Petulia) in favor of a couple of Pixar sketches; it is quite another to give me Chris Columbus the auteur.
No need for such cheerleading: the program by itself was enough proof of the festival’s dedication to vital cinema, with a strikingly varied line-up of international works for cineastes to lose themselves in. Emanuele Crialese’s Golden Door, a remarkable reinvention of the immigrant-saga format, opened the fest and summed up everything great about it with its fierce expressiveness and curiosity toward new worlds. Crialese’s rich imagery (resplendently captured by the great Agnès Godard) was matched by Pedro Costa’s in his bone-dry, poetic, spectral Colossal Youth, another film of precise yet mysterious movements. Having not seen the Portuguese filmmaker’s earlier work, it’s difficult to imagine how the rigid aesthetic (suffocating compositions, incantatory non-performances) might fit in his last installment of a trilogy about slum dwellers in Lisbon’s Fontainhas district; what is unmistakable, however, is Costa’s masterly control of space and his investigation of it as a crossroads of lost souls. Challenging pictures of narrative innovation and cinematic sensuousness, Golden Door and Colossal Youth indelibly illustrated the “voyages of exploration, discovery and transformation” promised by executive director Graham Leggat as the fest’s main thrust.
Cyrus Frisch’s Why Didn’t Anybody Tell Me It Would Become This Bad in Afghanistan was another promise fulfilled, namely the fruit of the “new technological platforms” discussed in last year’s Kinotek program. Offered as the first feature-length work shot on a cellphone (a decision, Frisch assured me, more budgetary than conceptual), it feeds off a sense of free-floating anxiety and finds hitherto unknown textures amid the heightened blotchiness of the camera’s pixilation. Scarcely living up to its provocative title and groping through its new format, Frisch’s film is a muddled mix—half genuine discovery, half excruciating private reel—but a searchingly modern one. The modernity of such experiments was pointedly balanced by screenings of silent movies like Victor Sjöström’s great The Phantom Carriage and Allan Dwan’s graceful The Iron Mask, the latter introduced by pioneering film historian and documentarian Kevin Brownlow. A much deserved winner for the Mel Novikoff Award of cinema appreciation, Brownlow was as diligent as ever in his conservationist efforts, presenting invaluable glimpses of lost silents, introducing one of his documentaries (Cecil B. De Mille: American Epic), and reminding viewers of the need to look backward as much as forward.
The festival was full of such contrasts. Flanders and The Violin both dealt with the cruelties of people at war, yet where Bruno Dumont’s new film sees the battleground as an extension (crystallization, really) of his vision of a senseless world, Francisco Vargas Quevedo’s portrait of wartime resistance views military nightmares as devastating intrusions into severe but hopeful human landscapes. The rural patches and battered deserts of Flanders give Dumont as ideal a canvas as the imagined Vietnam of Full Metal Jacket did for Kubrick, but the director’s ponderous approach has by now become calcified to the point of unintentional lampoon. There are evocative moments—a cut from the blood on a prepubescent insurgent’s head to the blood bubbling between the heroine’s thighs back home—but here Dumont’s Neanderthal brooders and weighty glares amount to little more than a lengthy, existential shrug.
Humanity gets a fairer share in The Violin, and the wider variety of emotions on display makes the violence endured by the characters more affecting. Set during an unnamed Latin American country’s civil war, Vargas Quevedo’s film pits guerrilla rebels against oppressive military forces, with an elderly violinist (a wonderful Ángel Tavira) traveling between the two groups in an effort to help out his son, one of the rebels. The story’s penchant for peasant nobility and aged sagacity is kept in check by Vargas’s unsentimental admiration for the characters’ revolt, and by a sensitivity to the complex emotional connections of music that brings to mind Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp.
Defiance is also the subject of Im Sang-soo’s The Old Garden, even if filtered through a thick curtain of disillusion. The virile anger marking much of the new South Korean cinema is accompanied here by the bitter melancholy of the protagonist, a socialist activist (Ji Jin-hee) arrested in the aftermath of the Gwangju Massacre in the early ’80s and released in the new millennium to face “freedom shock.” “Life is long and the revolution is short,” it is said as he sees his former comrades as pale shadows of their former militant selves, yet Im rejects defeatism by insisting on the critical reconsideration of historical wounds still palpably felt today (as in Im’s The President’s Last Bang, the film has brought him his share of controversy back home). The Old Garden’s politicized disgust shames The Caiman—likewise a leftist’s lament, Nanni Moretti’s so-called return to his early political works is instead a slack, pusillanimous comedy about the Italian film industry, with its supposedly subversive subject (a schlock producer takes over a new project without noticing the movie is really an attack of Berlusconi’s machinations) shoved aside in favor of fatigued jibes at movie-star vanity and bourgeois domestic troubles. Moretti himself appears as one of the actors playing the political leader in the film-within-a-film, but his point seems to be the obsolete nature of political films nowadays, coupled with the belief that “it’s always a good time for comedy.” Offered as Moretti’s Sullivan’s Travels, The Caiman is barely his Hollywood Ending.
Continuing with auteur entries, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Hana brings his themes of struggling familial communities and spiritual dislocation to what is possibly the least urgent samurai saga ever. The hero (Junichi Okada) is a swordsman burdened with the duty of having to avenge his slain father, but he’s more interested in teaching the kids in his dilapidated village to read, or in chastely courting a local widow. Mock duels are held because “real fights are scarce” in 1701 Japan, but when the father’s killer at last appears, Okada is reluctant to bring violence; so is Kore-eda, who, with the film’s gentleness and mild scatology, seems to preserve the child’s view from Nobody Knows even in ronin territory. The picture may at times get too winsome for its own good, but that’s nothing compared to the insufferable cuteness of Gardens in Autumn, where the tone of deadpan cloying is set in the very opening (a batch of old Parisian gents surveying a warehouse of coffins as if looking for a coat). Deposed diplomats and African squatters all figure in Otar Iosseliani’s comedy, which is so mellow about its own elfin absurdity that it dissolves long before Michel Piccoli pops up in granny frock and drag. A similar desperation befalls Tom DiCillo’s Delirious, where the teaming of a choleric paparazzo (Steve Buscemi) and a sweet, homeless aspiring actor (Michael Pitt) suggests an oblivious parody of Midnight Cowboy. At one point Elvis Costello appears to pitch a musical about Britney Spears (“Imagine Tennessee Williams…only not so gay”), a project that sounds more interesting than this film, which proceeds like a vague Sundance memory from 1996.