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San Sebastián International Film Festival 2012: Twice Born, The Dead and the Living, The Attack, & More

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San Sebastián International Film Festival 2012: Twice Born, The Dead and the Living, The Attack, & More

Spain is in economic meltdown. Austerity is hitting most of the population very hard. There are strikes and huge anti-government demonstrations throughout the country. Yet those attending the 60th San Sebastián International Film Festival were barely aware of it. Cafés and restaurants were as bustling as usual, and the cinemas were packed. Film critics being film critics talked movies; no mention was made of the real world outside, apart from the “inconvenience” of the one-day general strike in the Basque country that interrupted the festival. However, some of the films in competition attempted to remind the cushioned critics of reality. But did we really want to see another film about the war in Bosnia, the Holocaust, and the Israel-Palestine conflict? Not if they’re served as suspect and ersatz entertainments.

As evidence, I offer Twice Born, a soapy Euro pudding set against the war in Bosnia starring Penélope Cruz as a brave Italian woman fighting to retain her love for an American photographer, Diego (Emile Hirsch), and of her “son”—born by another woman by proxy amid the bombings of Sarajevo. Misdirected by Sergio Castellitto (both he and his son have important roles in the film), this overly sentimental film in which the war is treated superficially was greeted with justifiable catcalls. The only impressive aspect of the film was the wrinkly makeup worn by Cruz in the present-day sequences (she’s her attractive self in the flashbacks). A colleague of mine suggested that Twice Born and Angelina Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey, another reductive view of the Bosnian war, would make a double bill from hell.

Those who liked Barbara Albert’s earlier meandering, cosmopolitan movies, Free Radicals and Falling, will like The Dead and the Living, a heavily symbolic drama involving the Holocaust. Anna Fischer plays Sita (named pretentiously after the Indian goddess), a Romanian-Austrian girl in search of her grandfather’s past. I’m not giving much away by saying that she discovers pretty soon that he was an SS officer and a guard at Auschwitz, thus diminishing any tension in the rather futile quest. The handheld camerawork doesn’t make the schematic situations more convincing. When Sita isn’t pursuing the facts of her grandfather’s past, which includes a visit to Auschwitz, she’s dancing in discos, going on protest marches for good causes, trying to help a Chechnyan refugee audition for a TV talent show, and enjoying sex with her Israeli boyfriend, Jocquin (Itay Tiran). He’s a photographer who, as necessitated by the film’s politically correctness, takes photos of Palestinians and Israelis in close harmony.

Thankfully, The Attack, directed by the Lebanese-born Ziad Doueiri, renewed my faith in narrative-driven cinema. Set in Israel, it’s a powerful political thriller that confronts the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Never didactic, always unpredictable, the screenplay focuses on a surgeon, Amin (Ali Suliman), of Palestinian origin and the stark choices that he has to make living in Israel, brought into relief when his wife is accused of being a suicide bomber.

The main interest of Emily Tang’s All Apologies lies in its being made and set in contemporary China. When a couple’s son is killed in an accident, the father rapes the wife of the man who caused it, in order for them to pay them back with another child. Rather stilted and too imitative stylistically of Western movies, it does at least comment forcefully on China’s one-child policy.

The Spanish Civil War and World War II form the background to Fernando Trueba’s The Artist and the Model, which takes place in occupied France in 1943. The story of the film, shot in black and white for no apparent reason, is all in the title. An octogenarian sculptor, Marc (Jean Rochefort), hires a young Spanish girl, Mercè (Aida Folch), a refugee from Franco, to be his model. Bearing some similarities to Jacques Rivette’s far superior La Belle Noiseuse, most of the film concentrates on the working relationship between the two protagonists and the contrast between Rochefort’s full, aged face and the sinuous curves of Folch’s nude body. Claudia Cardinale, as Marc’s wife, puts on a lovely, brave smile as she listens to the man describing her as once having had the most beautiful body in the world. Co-written by Trueba and Jean-Claude Carrière, this is very much a heterosexual male fantasy disguised as an existential statement on art and the state of the world.

I didn’t have great expectations for the Trueba film, given his track record of mediocre-to-good movies, but I was deeply disappointed by Laurent Cantet’s Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. This English-language film rings as false as The Class was natural. Monotonous in its abrasive tone and simplistic in its attitude, it offers very little distance to or explanation for a group of adolescent girls behaving badly toward one-dimensionally conceived men. The narration, by one of the female gang members as she looks back on the ’50s, when the group’s delinquency played out in Upper New York State, provides little illumination into their behavior.

Narration is used much more creatively in Javier Rebello’s The Dead Man and Being Happy. In this wry road movie, which tells the tale of an elderly, retired hit man (the impressive José Sacristán), the anonymous voiceover explains what one sees and what will be said before it’s spoken, setting up an ironic distance from the subject. Fleeing Buenos Aires from the man who paid him to do a final killing, which he hasn’t done, the dying hero picks up a 40-year-old woman, and they experience a number of amusing and strange events on the way around the country. The deadpan humor, the lucid cinematography, and seamless editing make this an enjoyably minor work, despite being often too self-consciously quirky.

The narration in François Ozon’s deliciously witty, cunningly clever In the House is an essential element in the plot. Brilliantly adapted from The Boy in the Last Row, a play by Juan Mayorga, the film, which I saw on my second day, almost ruined the rest of the festival for me. Not only because it was so much better than most of the films that followed, but also because it’s about storytelling itself, the way narrative works or doesn’t. While taking in the construction of other films, I kept hearing Fabrice Luchini’s sarcastic tones as a high school teacher of French literature. Luchini, in his element, plays the teacher with dry humor, bored with the mediocrity of his pupils, until he suddenly comes across an essay by one of them, a bright, good-looking 16-year-old (portrayed convincingly by 21-year-old Ernst Umhauer), whose writing intrigues him. He therefore encourages the boy to write more, though what he writes is a personal intrusion into the family of a school friend, whose mother (Emmanuelle Seigner) the young man fancies.

Ozon negotiates all of the film’s twists and turns, the movements between the real and the imagined, with great skill. In many ways, this is exactly the sort of film Woody Allen has been trying to make lately, but has come up short. Ozon also plays a perilous game by turning the film on itself. The director summed it up well in the press notes: “I saw it as a chance to speak indirectly about my work, the cinema, inspiration and its sources, what it is to create, what it is to be an audience.” At one stage in the film, Luchini says, “The ending of a story must catch the audience by surprise, and yet make them think that that it is the only ending possible.” In the House almost lives up to that ambition.

This year’s San Sebastian Film Festival runs from September 21—29. For more information, click here.