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Real to Reel 

Week 2 of the 46th San Francisco International Film Festival

Wednesday, Apr 23 2003
Bus 174 (Brazil, 2002)

This documentary of a Rio de Janeiro bus hijacking and its back story exposes a stinging irony: the ubiquity of real-time and retrospective media attention lavished on its central figure, who on that day waged the final act of a lifelong "battle against invisibility." As a boy, Sandro do Nascimento witnessed his mother's murder, a trauma compounded by its having propelled him into the fold of the city's many hapless street kids. Director José Padilha strives to reveal the context of the eventual hijacker's ill-fated formative milieu, in which poverty is rampant and variously destructive, and police are both brutal and incompetent. However thoroughly extrapolated and politically charged the culminating incident is, though, Padilha's account doesn't seem all that different from one of the many true-crime shows now available on cable TV; it can feel too teased out. As an effective eye-opener, however, it rebukes viewers for romanticizing Rio's urban energy. (Jonathan Kiefer)

Wednesday, April 23, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, April 24, 2:30 p.m., Castro; Sunday, April 27, 6 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

Extraño (Argentina, 2003)

Santiago Loza's debut feature comes across with impressive surety, demanding that we tolerate its nonverbal mysteries. And we do. A gliding, palpably quiet event, Extraño is a film, its maker explains, of fragile silence. But too much explanation is unnecessary, and would break the spell: The movie raises intriguing questions about its characters in part by deliberately saying nothing to answer them. Axel (Julio Chávez), a surgeon who's prematurely retired for unstated reasons, lives in a kind of waking hibernation in his sister's house. Axel's nephew joins him in feigning the responsibilities of adulthood, nonchalantly smoking, perusing pornography, and, of course, not saying much. By chance, Axel meets a young woman (Valería Bertucelli) who's as pregnant as the movie's pauses; they form a relationship whose only salient feature is the fact of no longer being strangers. Superbly articulated by his cast, the director's preference for muting his rich material is a feat of cinematic intimacy. (Jonathan Kiefer)

Monday, April 28, 3:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 30, 7:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Iran, Veiled Appearances (Belgium, 2002)

Veteran Belgian documentarian Thierry Michel structures his essential survey of contemporary Iran as a parable of authority and opposition. The unsettling opening half-hour centers on the fundamentalist Shiite Muslims (of both sexes) who pushed Ayatollah Khomeini to power and fervidly back his successor. Easily controlled by their religious leaders (like the devout everywhere), they're encouraged to mourn and idolize "martyrs" (such as relatives who died in the lengthy war with Iraq) while condemning all secular attitudes as Satanism. Nonetheless, advocates of reform and progress -- most of them under 30 and many of them women -- abound, notably at the universities and cheerfully congregating in the mountains outside Tehran. Michel, who's best described as a pragmatic optimist, leaves us smiling, hopeful but unconvinced that Iran's legions of disaffected and impatient youth can wrest control from the zealots. (Michael Fox)

Saturday, April 26, 11 a.m., AMC Kabuki

The Last Train (Uruguay/Argentina/Spain, 2002)

The high concept here arises with plans for a Uruguayan locomotive to be sent to the United States for use in a Hollywood film. The 33, as it's known locally, is "a jewel of national heritage," and a few old lefties from the Friends of the Rails Association won't let it go without a fight. So they steal the train. The fine cast certainly pulls its weight, and the 33 becomes a character in its own right. Director Diego Arsuaga doesn't say much about the movie in which the locomotive had been cast, and doesn't need to, but in its shrewdest moments, his film itself suggests a subversive take on that old American saw, the traveling-fugitive buddy picture. Arsuaga's gang of aging romantics, tracking through their country's forlorn rural landscape and outfoxing cops along the way, can't help but appeal to American moviegoers, especially in these parts. (Jonathan Kiefer)

Sunday, April 27, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 29, 12:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki

L'auberge espagnole (France/ Spain, 2002)

An economics student's postgraduate year in Barcelona is the peg for Cédric Klapisch's slick ensemble comedy, which plays as a sitcom Bildungsroman about a not especially appealing young man. Klapisch, whose When the Cat's Away did a nice job of showing the network of neighbors that comprises life in a quarter of Paris, gives us a tourist's Barcelona -- once we're past the first dull half-hour, as we wait for our protagonist to leave his girlfriend (Amélie's Audrey Tautou) behind and get there. The movie hits every single beauty spot I recall from my own visit, but tells us nothing of the people of that city. The focus is on Xavier (Romain Duris, a Steve Guttenberg for our time) and his wacky fellow students in a grubby apartment building, each of them from a different Common Market country. (The movie is less French than "Euro-pudding," which is one slang meaning for its title.) Many of these players are quite entertaining, so much so that we lose interest in Xavier in favor of wanting to know more about the artistic English girl, her doofus brother, or the lesbian from Belgium. Ultimately, alas, we don't, and we finish off stuck with the predictable conclusion of Xavier's semi-mental education. (Gregg Rickman)

Tuesday, April 29, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Mango Yellow (Brazil, 2002)

In the opening scene of Cláudio Assis' urban folklore, a waitress laments, "Love always goes wrong," then wishes the world would fuck itself. As Assis sees it, the film's titular color is overripe and starting to rot. The setting -- humid, seamy, and redolent of the forgotten urban underclass -- is perhaps pointedly neither Rio de Janeiro nor São Paulo, but the more provincial coastal city of Recife. The waitress is but one element of the ensemble, which also includes a hot-tempered butcher, an absorbingly queeny hotel chef, and a young wife who stands in for the city's tarnished religiosity. We meet them in vignettes, enduring or perpetrating their lives' traumas and petty schemes. Assis' style is aggressive and insouciant at once, if not especially novel. A roving, Altman-esque narrative swirl and a snap of American indie shock value are among the counterpoints of traceable influence at work here. The result is coarsely melodious. (Jonathan Kiefer)

Saturday, April 26, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 29, 9:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Monday Morning (France/Italy, 2002)

This almost plotless film follows hangdog factory worker Vincent (Jacques Bidou) from his tedious rounds to an attempted escape south, to follow his dream and paint. In between scenes featuring Vincent getting drunk, hanging out with a transvestite, and gradually losing his money are lightly funny vignettes of French village life back home, bathed in a warm glow of nostalgia for a vanishing community. Georgian director Otar Iosseliani has been making lovely pastoral pieces like this for more than two decades, first back in the old U.S.S.R. and latterly in France, and is clearly a master of the small-scale human comedy. Sight gags in this movie raise smiles, not laughs, and Vincent's plight brings sighs, not tears; for long stretches everything stays in a modulated lower key. Monday Morning is soothing but never boring, as it makes you wish you, too, could be a Sunday painter in such pleasant company. (Gregg Rickman)

Thursday, April 24, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 26, 2:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 1, 9:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

My Terrorist / For My Children (both Israel, 2002)

Endless discussion points rather than exceptional filmmaking distinguish this double bill of provocative documentaries by Israeli women. Yulie Gerstel was wounded in a 1978 terrorist attack in London that left a fellow El Al flight attendant dead. Now she'd like to meet and perhaps forgive her assailant, who's still in a British prison. This intriguing idea goes nowhere in her shallow and self-indulgent My Terrorist, a deeply unsatisfying meditation on personal responsibility. In For My Children, former S.F. resident Michal Aviad and her husband debate whether it wouldn't be prudent to pack up the kids, leave their hypertense home in Tel Aviv, and return to the States. With disarming skill, the artist charts her family's precarious state, balanced somewhere between the integrity and idealism of Israel's founders and the repressive policies of its current leaders. (Michael Fox)

Saturday, April 26, 4:15 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Sunday, April 27, 3:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

My Voice (Portugal/France/Luxembourg, 2002)

From its opening funeral procession for a dead parrot to its closing image of the head of Guinea-Bissau's founding father magically levitating off its pedestal, Flora Gomes' musical comedy gives a light touch to issues confronting Africa today. Cultural identity is particularly on the table -- a dead man whose friends wait till the priest leaves to bring out the sacrificial pig was both "a good Catholic and a good animist." "Here the Portuguese are sweepers," we learn of Paris (where the film spends half an hour), unlike back home, a former Portuguese colony. The heroine prefers a tasty white French musician to a striving, cell-phone-laden bourgeois from home. A parable of self-empowerment built around Vita's coming to terms with a family prohibition against women singing, Gomes' enjoyable but not urgent movie is modeled after Jacques Demy's 1960s musicals, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; if it's less inventively staged, it is at least colorful, joyful, and beautifully sung. (Gregg Rickman)

Wednesday, April 23, 6:45 p.m., Castro; Thursday, April 24, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Women's Prison (Iran, 2002)

Neither the documentary exposé that its title implies nor a squalid remake of Caged Heat, this understated Iranian feature (aren't they all?) is nonetheless gripping and mysterious. The film begins in 1984 as a new female warden -- a stern proponent of the revolution -- takes over an anarchic jail. Tahereh's pitiless tactics earn the prisoners' enmity and, eventually, respect; she breaks one tough young woman named Mitra in order to tame her. Their icy relationship gradually evolves as the film jumps to 1992 and then 2001, by which time Tahereh's idealism, sadly, has faded along with Mitra's cynicism. First-time director Manijeh Hekmat has no use for sensationalism or cheap melodrama, staging everything from a birth to a suicide to a lesbian rape with detached medium shots that preserve her characters' dignity. She applies the same rigorously unsentimental perspective to the plight of women in Iran; over time, the prison becomes increasingly overcrowded and its inmates younger and more desperate.

Monday, April 28, 7:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 29, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 1, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

About The Author

Michael Fox


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