53rd Annual San Francisco International Film Festival

Written by:
Beverly Berning
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Micmacs Opens the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival

http://fest10.sffs.org Micmacs

Spring has finally arrived, and with it comes the yearly flock of films from around the world that is the San Francisco International Film Festival.  The festival, which runs April 22 through May 6, is famous for bringing thought-provoking and creatively innovative films to San Francisco audiences, and this year is no exception.  

The program hits the ground running with Micmacs, a zany, madcap blend of the romantic and the surreal by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the incomparable French director of the delightful Amélie and the delightfully macabre Delicatessen. In the spirit that has driven filmmakers from Méliès to the folks at Pixar, Jeunet works his magic again, making Micmacs one of the most imaginative films of the year.

Festivals are not all son et lumière, and SFIFF also has its share of celebratory events honoring cinema’s craftsmen and allies.  This year’s most touching tribute will be for film critic Roger Ebert, who has survived a rugged battle with throat cancer.  Surgery left him without a lower jaw, and without the capacity to speak or to eat or drink.  He has written poignantly and eloquently of his experiences on his blog at http://rogerebert.suntimes.com.  The festival’s tribute to Mr. Ebert is a fitting occasion to honor a true lover of cinema, and one of the greatest champions of cinema’s misunderstood and unjustly ignored.  True to his character, Mr. Ebert brings along with him Erick Zonka’s Julia, a film starring Tilda Swinton that, despite its brilliance, barely caused a ripple when it was released last year.

Other tributes this year include events for the actor Robert Duvall, whose long career goes as far back as his performance as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird; screenwriter James Shamus, the writing genius behind Ang Lee’s masterpieces; Walter Salles, the Brazilian director of Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries; and Don Hertzfeldt, the animator cum philosopher who has established a cult following on YouTube.

The White Meadows

The festival offers a wide selection of narrative films and documentaries, mostly obscure offerings to American audiences, but there is also the usual smattering of films by well-known directors.   Walter Salles returns as co-director, along with Daniela Thomas, of the neo-realist drama Linha de Passe.  There is the contemplative Bruno Dumont’s latest meditation on the human condition, Hadewijch, in which a young woman’s vow of abstinence evokes a filmic discourse on religion.  Hong Kong action film hit-maker Johhnie To brings an intriguing bit of casting to his latest, Vengeance, in which classic French rocker of the 50s and 60s, Johnny Hallyday-he starred in Godard’s Detective-plays a Frenchmen who travels to Macau to seek revenge for a heinous crime.  Also worth noting are: The White Meadows, a visually stunning epic fable from Iran; Russian Lessons, a documentary about the war between Russia and Georgia; Yellow Sheep River, an ethnographic recording of agricultural life in western China; and Alamar, a Mexican film about the fishing communities of Banco Chinchorro whose unique blend of fiction and documentary has become the latest trend in contemporary cinema.

There are also the stalwarts and festival favorites-Alain Resnais is still at it, exploring the passions of the not-so-young-anymore in Paris.  Claire Denis returns once again to Africa, her childhood home, in White Material, starring Isabelle Huppert; Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Air Doll, about a life-size blow-up doll who suddenly comes to life, promises to showcase his unique brand of wit.  Fans of Jacques Rivette or Jane Birkin or both will be intrigued by the French New Wave director’s return to the screen with Around a Small Mountain, a journey of self-discovery set among a troupe of actors in a traveling circus.

Promising young directors are also represented in the festival.  To mention a few:  French director Mia Hansen-Love demonstrates a kinship with mentor Olivier Assayas with Father of My Children; German filmmaker Maren Ade’s Everyone Else is a disturbing portrait of a romantic relationship reminiscent of Bergman; Port of Memory, by the young Palestinian director Kamal Aljafari, is a gut-wrenching story of a Palestinian family forced to leave their home in what is now present-day Israel.

I Am Love

Satiyajit Ray’s recently restored The Music Room is a must-see; and of course, there is Visconti’s splendiferous 1954 Italian classic Senso, which will be shown at the equally splendiferous Castro Theatre. The theater will also show the provocatively titled I Am Love, another film about…yes, forbidden love…set in Italy and starring Tilda Swinton as a Russian diplomat’s middle-aged wife whose attraction to her son’s best friend sets off a wave of transgressive behavior.

Joan Rivers-A Piece of Work

As if Alida Valli and Tilda Swinton were not enough, Joan Rivers will also hold court at the Castro closing night.  The ageless comedienne is coming in support of the eponymous documentary about her life, Joan Rivers-A Piece of Work.  The film promises to be an incisive-and sympathetic-portrait of an entertainer who has remained at the top of her game for longer than many of her admirers have been alive.  (How many of you remember Edgar?)  The grande dame of the snide remark will likely bring the house down closing night, and offer festival-goers an all-American dessert after two weeks of tasting more exotic fare from around the world.

For more information about the over 170 films being shown, go to the festival’s website at http://fest10.sffs.org.  There you will find a program guide with detailed notes on all of the films, as well as information about where and when films are being shown, and how to purchase tickets.

Beverly Berning

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