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SFIFF Film Capsules 

Wednesday, Apr 25 2007
Why Didnt Anybody Tell Me It Would Become This Bad in Afghanistan?
(Cyrus Frisch, Holland)

Filmmaker Cyrus Frisch set out to record deteriorating relations between the native Dutch community and immigrants from the Middle East in his Amsterdam city square, using only his cellphone as his camera. Secretly filming the confrontations outside his window between teens and police, or a fight in a supermarket, Frisch's furtive spy cam records windowsills, tile floors, and his spectacularly pointy boots as often as it records items of interest. The fictional ruse that the camera operator is an Afghan veteran muddies things but does allow Frisch to cut in some combat footage. While many of this film's incidents are indeed socially revelatory, this "first feature film made on a cellphone" is most interesting for the smeary beauty of his enlarged cityscapes, which pushes Why didn't anybody tell me ... away from hard-hitting realism and toward pure formal abstraction. (Gregg Rickman)

(Joachim Trier, Norway)

This peripatetic first feature has the hell-bent energy of the opening track of a debut record, and more ideas than a double album. Most of them work, although there's a point where the onslaught becomes fatiguing before precocious newcomer Joachim Trier wisely dials it down a notch. Erik and Philip, best friends and aspiring novelists, drop their manuscripts in the mailbox together. Philip gets published, gets famous, and cracks up. Erik's path to adulthood is a bit less dramatic. The film aggressively — and skillfully — shifts tones, going back and forth between Philip's nervous struggle with mental illness (and his desperate attempts to recapture what he had with his girlfriend) and Erik's rueful evolution from easygoing buddy to solo artist. The snippets of punk rock and Joy Division, however, don't quite mesh with the natty set design and middle-class values on display. Trier is a director to watch, but he's not quite the rebel he thinks he is. (M.F.)

(Michael Glawogger, Austria/Switzerland)

In his previous fest films, the globe-trotting, mind-blowing documentaries Megacities and Workingmans Death, Michael Glawogger strived to erase the gulf between the haves and the have-nots — or at least our sense of the distance. His riveting, dark-humored return to fiction has the same aim but offers, if that's possible, an even more pessimistic view of human nature. Glawogger puts a homeless alcoholic savant and an amoral yuppie scum on crossing paths in wintry Vienna, then pushes them within belching distance of both nihilism and redemption. A well-meaning elementary school teacher who randomly gets involved with both men serves as the ineffectual conscience of the film. As a director, Glawogger is both a cruel and beneficent God, ultimately repaying each indignity he inflicts on his characters with an opportunity for profound enlightenment. He is almost as generous to his audience, "sweetening" his tough-minded tale with caustic one-liners and devastating insights into dating and sex and, finally, an ending that conceivably, possibly, just might be interpreted as hopeful. (M.F.)

(Philippe Falardeau, France)

The unassuming Olivier Gourmet (known for his work with the Dardennes) is a balding Everyman, and his ramshackle, distinctly ordinary appearance distracts us for a long while from the complex construction of Philippe Falardeau's jam-packed script. Gourmet plays a frustrated Belgian inventor and son of a famous writer who discovers in his 40s that he's adopted. A bulldog of sorts, Michel kisses his Congolese wife goodbye and flies to French Canada, where the plot snowballs with delicious misdirection and irony. There's as much pleasure to be had from this film as any in the festival, whether one views it as a goofy hoot with a feel-good frosting or something weightier. (I opt for the latter.) At the very least, this poignant comedy harbors serious hopes for the possibility of sons acquitting themselves with their fathers, and vice versa. The numerous references to the Congo (which inevitably evoke Belgium's horrific colonial treatment) do not completely coalesce, but the briskly matter-of-fact depiction of Michel's interracial marriage is so refreshing that one wishes it got more screen time. How about a sequel, Philippe? (M.F.)

The 12 Labors
(Ricardo Elias, Brazil)

In this entertaining Brazilian film, young Heracles (Sidney Santiago) takes a job as a bike messenger for a day. An 18-year-old just out of a juvenile reformatory for drug dealing, his attempt to go straight is threatened by old associates and the 12 tasks he's assigned. The jobs are of increasing difficulty and he needs a great deal of ingenuity to manage them — paralleling his namesake of legend. Filmmaker Ricardo Elias keeps things moving as the likable if shy Heracles zips around São Paolo on his motorbike, the film's plot allowing a cross-sectioned portrait of a huge city and its several levels. Strongly sketched-in supporting characters, like Heracles' buoyant cousin Jonas (Flávio Bauraqui) and harassed dispatcher Roseli (Vera Mancini) help fill in gaps in Elias' social tapestry. Movies like this are Neorealism Lite, fun to watch in ways Bicycle Thief (an obvious influence) never was, but no less involving. (G.R.)

The Island (Pavel Lounguine, Russia
Crazed Russian monk Anatoly faces the wrong way when he prays, insults parishioners, and sets the monastery on fire. His bizarre behavior annoys his colleagues, and may annoy you, too — Pavel Lounguine's wintry film is more taxing than funny to watch. Andrey Zhegalov's superb cinematography does let you feel every bone-chilling moment of existence (not life) in this isolated North Sea hideout for a man with a reputation for holiness. Anatoly (former rock star Pyotr Mamonov) is in fact taking a lifetime to atone for his cowardly behavior in the face of Nazi brutality. "Why did Cain kill Abel?" he asks his long-suffering fellow monk Job, and he's not kidding — he'll come to terms with his crime before the film ends. At times morose, tedious, and bizarrely compelling, The Island plays like a lost novella by Dostoyevsky, like Crime and Punishment or The Possessed, all about an insufferable man's suffering soul. (G.R.)

A Few Days Later ...
(Niki Karimi, Iran)

Iranian director Niki Karimi plays Shahrzad, a thirtysomething Tehranian with plenty on her plate and no desire to deal: Her boyfriend Mahmood's ex-wife has returned to Iran, her disabled son by him must be moved to another facility, and now her father has been hospitalized. She fends off Mahmood's phone messages and reminders of work obligations at her graphic design firm while putting up with a sexist client, boorish cab driver, assorted presumptuous males, and a space-hogging neighbor's SUV. The way she finally deals with this last annoyance is childishly satisfying, but her indecisiveness in every other sphere is never resolved. The result is that the film remains little more than a study of any woman's messy life. If she had some of the joie de vivre of her friend and co-worker Ghazaleh, we might have gotten somewhere besides home to work, work to home, and back again — all with furrowed brow. (F.L.)

(Heddy Honigmann, Netherlands)

A graveyard holds much more than marble and statuary in this superb documentary by Dutch director Heddy Honigmann, whose 2004 Dame La Mano depicted the importance of rumba among Cuban exiles. Like that film, this is a celebration of life — this time among the tombstones of famed Parisian cemetery Père-Lachaise. Honigmann queries a Japanese pianist paying tribute to Chopin's tomb, and in halting English the woman conveys intense passion and sorrow where Chopin has intersected her life. We keep returning to women who clean famous graves (Apollinaire, Proust, Ingres, Modigliani) and a docent who's inclined to lead tourists to unvisited graves, like that of a chanson singer who died young. Highlights include a man moved to draw a comic book version of Proust's Recherche, three blind people who sit down to watch Simone Signoret in Les Diaboliques, and an embalmer who talks as he works about preparing dead people for their final appearance before the living. (F.L.)

Bunny Chow
(John Barker, South Africa)

Stand-up comedy is unfortunately scarce in this semi-improvised semi-documentary of three young South African stand-up comics who travel to Oppikoppi, a predominantly white annual rockfest. There's a bit of humor in two of the more experienced performers hectoring a third on his comedic flaws, and all three are having trouble with women in their lives. The funniest moments are a brief montage of hallucinations experienced by Joey, the conflicted Muslim who unintentionally ingests a whole vial of "liquid weed." It seems only right, though, when we arrive at the festival grounds to expect either good music or good stand-up — none of which is in evidence. In fact, the tyro artist is heckled off the stage and receives some useless advice from a man who insists on pissing into the same commode at the same time. Add to that a trio of tired female stereotypes, and it's best to view this one with lowered expectations. (F.L.)

Private Fears in Public Places
(Alain Resnais, France/Italy)

Octogenarian Alain Resnais is admired for his French New Wave films Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, but he's working in a lighter vein today. This year, he brings us another Alan Ayckbourn stage adaptation (after the 1993 Smoking/No Smoking) with familiar players Pierre Arditi and Sabine Azéma among a cast of six seasoned Parisians looking for a second chance at love. Azéma's character is less a seeker and more a giving sort who, for instance, cares for and feeds a foul-mouthed invalid. At one point in the film, she lends her smitten colleague ostensibly a videotape containing a bland Christian talk show but that reveals something outrageous when he lets the tape run longer. Her enigmatic character is just one strand that entwines with the others like a wistful scarf enfolding the selves we create for our winter years. (F.L.)

To get a listing of showtimes and venues, go to


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