Past Forward

For its 40th year, the San Francisco International Film Festival boldly goes where it has gone before

2 p.m.
* The Second Time
(Italy, 1995)

The chance meeting of a college professor and the sometime terrorist who shot him 12 years before sparks this excellent drama. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, out of her jail on a day pass, is very good as an average woman trying to live an average life in most un-average circumstances, while her still-seething victim (Nanni Moretti) is bitter, fragile, and curious in equal shares. The bullet that's lodged in his head weighs less heavily on him than his hurt feelings. This fine, subtle film, handsomely shot by Alessandro Pesci in grays and pastels, should establish Mimmo Calopresti as a major new Italian director. (Rickman)

3 p.m.
Bliss
See commentary under Thursday, April 24.

4 p.m.
* The Temptation
(Poland, 1995)

Few films about the Catholic Church were made over the years; that's where Poles gathered to oppose and finally overthrow communism. Barbara Sass has decided it's time to look daringly at the church. A beautiful young nun is driven to collaboration with the Stalinist authorities. She's incarcerated with a dissident priest, the love of her life, in an isolated, abandoned building and forced to spy on him. You're pulled in from the first scene (as she witnesses lesbian sex in prison) and fascinated to the last frame. The Temptation dares to explore faith and religion without being religious about it. See it and be mesmerized. (Stachura)

6 p.m.
Level Five (France, 1996)
This new feature by the formidable Chris Marker reworks the themes of time and memory he's plotted going back to La Jetee (1964) as well as incorporating the male-female duologues of his great travelogue Sans Soleil (1982) -- but here these two great themes work against each other. A profound and moving documentary on the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 is cut into and trivialized by directorial noodlings on and about the Internet, digressions on such errant topics as the score for the film Laura, and a boring love story. The low point comes when a heartbreaking confession by a survivor of Okinawa's enormous civilian losses is placed on a video monitor behind and to the rear of Marker's emoting fictional mouthpiece. I don't care about the mediation of memory by the media, Monsieur Marker, I want full attention paid to this man. (Rickman)

7 p.m.
* Peter J. Owens Award/The Grifters
The fest's acting awards occasionally go to performers so young or with a credit roster so limited, they come off as marks of encouragement rather than achievement. Let's hope the bestowal of the Peter J. Owens Award to Annette Bening this year encourages her to do more roles like Myra in The Grifters, which screens after an onstage interview and clips: As a swindler who prefers big con jobs to petty scams, Bening is forever blowing bubbles, deftly turning Myra's non sequiturs into oddball perceptions about the action. She brings down the house when, in the midst of sex, she quotes an item off a menu: "Luncheon Special. Broiled hothouse tomato under generous slice of ripe cheese." (Sragow)

7 p.m.
(at the CASTRO)
* The River (Taiwan, 1997)

No one is dissecting modern city life in all its fragmented angst better than Taiwan's Tsai Ming-liang. Like his last film, Vive l'Amour, The River portrays three lost souls joylessly passing their days in almost ludicrous starkness. Mom, dad, and son all live desolate, makeshift lives, barely speaking to each other, each so abstracted they can't seem to fix even the simplest problems in their lives, like a leaky ceiling. Sound awful? Well, it may be bleak, but Tsai's vision is so bracingly fresh, intimate, and often hilarious that it's like a tall, cool drink on a muggy day. (Booth)

7 p.m. (at the PFA)
* Autumn Sun (Argentina, 1996)
Eduardo Mignogna's film is both classic romantic comedy and study in unexpected opportunity. Clara (Norma Aleandro), a weary, 50-ish, Jewish Buenos Aires accountant, places a personal ad for a well-educated, morally impeccable Jewish man. Enter ersatz Jew Saul Levin (Federico Luppi), shabby but handsome. Clara hires Saul, despite his ineptness, to play the part of a fantasy beau to convince her brother of the existence of her love life. Mismatched Clara and Saul must decide if their lonely 30-year routines are worth tweaking for the dubious pleasures of an unlikely relationship later in life. The film's mood is one of comfortable resignation, with the promise of change. (Guay)

7:15 p.m.
The Land
of Leja
(Syria, 1995)

A portrait of a young Druse woman, abandoned by her husband, who flees with a new schoolteacher.

7:30 p.m.
Little Angel (Germany, 1996)
"A bittersweet love story between a lonely East Berliner and a Polish black marketeer," says the fest.

9:30 p.m.
Drifting Clouds
(Finland, 1996)

Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki is heir to the legacy of Fassbinder. The style of both filmmakers is a kind of social melodrama that lets life do its worst to the hapless characters -- though Kaurismaki is somewhat kinder to his. In Drifting Clouds a husband and wife have little in the way of entertainment except for buying on the installment plan. They've got new furniture, a bookcase, and a TV. In a few years they plan to buy books, but fate has other plans: Both lose their jobs. You don't know whether to laugh or cry and so you do plenty of both. (Maher)

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