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San Francisco International Film Festival 2005 - Part 2
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Poster    Italian filmmaker Saverio Costanzo’s Private was one of the two or three best movies I caught at the 48th San Francisco International Film Festival.  Set amidst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it avoids the pitfall of subjecting character to political generalities while still maintaining a specific point of view.  Costanzo is making his feature debut and the presence of some stylistic excesses in the opening scenes may make a viewer wary of overstatements to come.  Happily the young director soon gets his technique under control while still sustaining the excited anxiety it evokes.

     Private’s story is centered around a middle-class Palestinian family living in the Occupied Territories in a comfortable two-story house.  The head of the household is Muhammad, a strict but classically liberal teacher or professor.  Aside from his homemaker wife, Samia, the family consists of two little children, teenaged sons Jamal and Yousef, and the oldest, daughter Miriam.  While the rest of the family tends to bend to father’s will, Miriam is steadfastly refusing his command to take up her acceptance at a German medical school.  She’d rather stay close at home to resist the occupation.

     She seems to get a good chance when, one night, an Israeli Army platoon breaks into her home and seizes it as a sort of mini-base.  From now on, the aggressive officer in charge tells the family, they are restricted to the ground floor on pain of punishment.  At night, they are to be locked up in the living room and not let out till morning.

     This is where Costanzo’s technique takes on some meaning.  His movie is shot entirely with hand-held digital video cameras and, early on, he seems to be in thrall to the light weight and long-take possibilities.  During a simple conversation between Samia and a neighbor, whip pans lead one to wonder whether the camera operator strained his neck.  But the technique pays big dividends when Costanzo shoots the midnight entry of the soldiers.  The excited camera, twirling about in almost total darkness, tidily encapsulates subjective fear and objective frenzy.  For less confrontational scenes – though confrontation of one kind or another insinuates every corner of the film – Costanzo eventually chooses less feverish approaches.

     More profoundly, the dynamic camera style reflects the dynamism of the characters’ relations and attitudes.  The deepest internal conflict occurs within Miriam, the only one of the family who dares to sneak upstairs to the soldiers’ lair.  Hiding in an armoire, she (and, of course, the camera) spies on the Israelis as their interact with one another.  In the process, they become undeniably human to her, even to the point of sharing fear.

     Miriam’s internal deliberations are mirrored in nearly every other major character, even one of the smallest children.  Not all come to the same conclusion as Miriam, but mute reflection leads each to an individual resolve.  The only one not to change is Muhammad, who comes off as something of a hero.  An enemy of all political violence, but determined to hold on to his family home, he is a man of both stubborn peace and peaceful stubbornness.  Through his presence, Private enters the canon of those humanistic films most popularly, though not exclusively, represented by Neo-Realism.

     My inability to remember titles led me to re-see a movie I watched over a year ago at Berlin and to change my opinion of  it substantially.  Brazilian writer-director Roberto Moreira’s Up Against Them All still shifts from what looks like a family drama to a violent tale of murder and sexual excess.  But now the giddy escalation from melodrama to thriller seems to make more sense as it marks reverberations between social and psychological stresses.

     At the movie’s core is Teodoro, married to his second wife, raising the highly sexed teenage daughter from his first marriage, and carrying on an affair with a pietistic mistress with whom he appears to share religious fervor.  But beneath the carefully balanced hypocrisies banked embers simmer.  Before you know it, uncontrolled sexuality and a casual attitude (by the men, anyway) towards violent death join up on a protracted trip to catastrophe.

     Moreira’s evocation of working-poor Sao Paolo leans towards detailed realism, but his tone is just a hair shy of hysterical.  This is melodrama, then, impure and complex.

     The San Francisco International Film Festival featured a “mini-focus” on films from Malaysia, specifically independent features developed apart from the country’s mainstream industry (which leans towards imitation Bollywood, so I’m told).  The four features (out of six) which I saw were a mixed bag, both in terms of achievement and ambition.

     Princess of Mount Ledong, directed by Saw Teong Hin, was easily the best  to these eyes, perhaps because it was the most lavishly produced.  A period romance set in the 15th century, it is animated by the love of a princess for a low-born military commander.  When the princess is forbidden by her brother, a minor potentate, to see her desired, she retreats to the loneliness of a mountain wilderness.  Unfortunately for her, the brother, to cement a political alliance, promises her hand to the commander’s own king.

     Saw employs a lush palette, striking compositions and semi-formal acting that call to mind Japanese films of the 1950s and ‘60s.  But he also contributes visual flourishes that are purely his own.  For example, the prow of a boat gliding into shallow water dissolves into an image of a woman’s hand sifting sand.  These treats rise to the level of eloquence in a scene where the commander, ordering men about at a town landing, is confronted by the image of his loved one (just her image; the woman herself is back at the moment).  The two lovers stand still as, between and behind them, the local bustle goes on, but organized as a series of alternately moving lines.  Unfortunately, the film’s pace doesn’t vary much from the stately, and the resulting rhythm makes it hard sometimes to hitch one’s emotions to the ebbs and flows of the narrative.

     Woo Ming Jin’s Monday Morning Glory is a provocative political piece based on an actual police practice.  A police captain lines up a trio of captured terrorists in front of invited press and forces them to reenact, with commentary, the actions that led up to a bombing that killed 199 civilians.  Woo flash backs from these play-actions to the actual events, largely to unveil their discrepancies but, in the process, also exposing the almost casual approach the terrorists take to murder.  The movie is just that one level of insight away from making a strong impact, it’s posture of neutrality masking an absence of analysis.

     Princess of Mount Legong is based on Malay legend and features a Malay cast.  Monday Morning Glory’s terrorists are Malays, while the police captain is ethnic Chinese.  The Gravel Road is set among Malaysia’s third largest ethnic group, Tamil-speaking Indians.  The story of a teenaged girl’s efforts to break free of her family’s traditionalism and attend university, the movie has invariably summoned comparisons with the early work of Satyajit Ray.  It’s true that director Deepak Kumaran Menon’s style echoes Ray’s subcontinental Neo-Realism, but almost any similarly shot feature would.  The film is almost painfully naïve (not an unattractive quality), occasionally unmoving, and, at times, very well shot.  It’s a first feature by a young man and is best logged under “promising.”

     Sepet, which gets its name from a pejorative term for Malaysian Chinese, is a romantic comedy up until its final reel, when it indulges itself in a grotesquely sentimental reversal.  To that point, director Yasmin Ahmad largely hands her film over to her two attractive stars, Ng Choo-seong and, especially, Sharifah Amani.  The young leading lady is to spunky as limburger is to cheese while her costar is a bit of a show-off himself.  This results in some pretty funny moments, especially when Amani’s character takes down a friend’s boyfriend – a fellow Malay – for his anti-Chinese prejudice.  The airing of Malay-Chinese tensions is also, to an outsider, inherently interesting.  But too often the actors aren’t doing anything more than taking their cute sides out for a walk.

     The Overture, directed by Itthi-sunthorn Wichailak, comes from Malaysia’s neighbor to the north, Thailand.  It’s a familiar sort of film, meant in part for export and a showcase for a national talent or treasure.  This time out it’s talent: The ability to play the ranard-ek, a wooden xylophone that sounds a bit like a marimba.  The story itself relates the life of a fictional musician (though the cast includes at least one real-life virtuoso), cross cutting between his mature older years, when the ranard-ek fell into official disfavor, and his youth, when he was a brash, then chastened, up-and-comer.  As you might expect, there’s a lot of music in the film.  The performances are a sight to behold.  Ranard-ek players and their fans are fond of cutting contests, with two players alternating choruses of increasing speed and density until one drops out.  Add in that Thai musical tastes don’t sound that far off the Western path and you have a film that’s musically entrancing, if dramatically predictable.

     There were, of course, “plain, old” European entries in San Francisco, at least one of which deserves a special mention.  Days and Hours (Kod amidze idriza) is the notable debut of Bosnian filmmaker Pjer Zalica, a 40-year-old Sarajevo-ite with a remarkable eye for the nuances of family relationships.  The movie begins, and largely follows upon, the arrival of a 40ish man at his aunt and uncle’s house atop a hilly neighborhood.  The ostensible reason for the visit is a broken water heater, which does indeed get looked after.  But so do the neatly calibrated relationships of an elderly couple, a dutiful and concerned relative and old neighborhood friends, as well as the sorrows of a deceased son and anger over a remarried daughter-in-law.  Days and Hours is about seemingly small things, but it draws you into its world with the gentle insistence that, looked at from a wide perspective, there is nothing that is not weighted with importance.

     Dear Enemy, from Albania’s Gjergi Xhuvani is a dramatic comedy set during World War II.  A small town merchant navigates the deadly landscape by doing business with the occupying Germans and, at the same time, harboring an Italian deserter, a (communist?) partisan, and a Jewish fellow merchant in the basement of his house.  Our hero also has a Viennese sister-in-law and, with a friendly German supply officer thrown into the kettle, it’s pretty clear that our director is making a Statement about universal characteristics outstripping parochial interests.  What saves the movie is a realistic pessimism and, as is often the case with Eastern European cinema, a sardonic sense of humor that manages to keep most of the action close, if not always down to, earth.

Henry Sheehan
May, 2005
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