Past Forward

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

7 p.m.
* La Promesse (Belgium, 1996)
At first, La Promesse concentrates on the struggles of exploited immigrants -- in this case, Eastern Europeans in an industrially depleted Belgian city. Igor (Jeremie Renier) enters into an unholy matrimony (metaphorically) as factotum to his father, Roger (Olivier Gourmet), a sleazy slumlord to and employer of illegal aliens. Roger and Igor conceal the death of employee Hamidou, who asks Igor to look after his wife, Assita, as a final request. Ultimately, Igor's character is annealed by the conflicting decisions on which he must act: to help Assita or cower under Roger's demands. Although the filmmakers handle what becomes a standard coming-of-age story sparely and without sentimentality, the characters are as prefab as products of the factories overshadowing them. While in many ways empowered, Assita -- the only character not covered with grime -- represents that female cliche: the emissary of nature amid the "masculine" force of culture. (Guay)

7 p.m. (at the CASTRO)
* Bastard Out of Carolina
(U.S.A., 1996)

A cloudy look on a young face in a family photo can cut you to the quick. The triumph of this movie is that its heroine, Bone (the "bastard" of the title), evokes that pang of recognition even in psychological extremes -- even when her stepfather sexually abuses her. In her directorial debut, Anjelica Huston handles Jena Malone with a sensitivity that's beyond reproach -- that, in fact, is almost beyond praise. Jennifer Jason Leigh is refreshingly unmannered as Bone's mom, and with the help of performers like Glenne Headly and Michael Rooker, Huston gets at the instinctual glue that holds together Bone's extended South Carolina clan. When the men in the family erupt at her stepdad (Ron Eldard), the violence has more emotional rip to it than anything Scorsese has done lately. (Sragow)

7 p.m. (at the PFA)
Nenette and Boni
(France, 1996)

A "sensual, tactile" story from Claire Denis about a sex-starved teen and his pregnant sister.

7:15 p.m.
The Temptation
See commentary under Friday, April 25.

9:15 p.m.
The Second Time
See commentary under Friday, April 25.

9:30 p.m.
Traveller (U.S.A., 1997)
Traveller is about a new-to-movies subject -- the inbred, closed-off community of Irish grifters in the American rural South -- but the result is a hybrid. The filmmakers are caught in a dilemma: They're trying to make a low-budget, out-of-the-Hollywood-loop movie while attempting to stay in the loop enough to recoup their costs. The mix of fine naturalistic details is jangled by a lot of melodramatic stuff. Bill Paxton (who produced) and James Gammon are extremely good, but they deserve a richer scenario. (Rainer)

9:30 p.m. (at the PFA)
Goodbye South,
Goodbye (Taiwan/Japan 1996)

Small-time gangsters in a "knife-edge road trip through southern Taiwan," the fest says.

9:45 p.m.
Little Angel
See commentary under Friday, April 25.

10 p.m. (at the CASTRO)
Clubbed to Death
(France, 1997)

Lola is a slut. The waif-thin, greasy-haired girl (Elodie Bouchez) can rattle off the names of each notch in her bedpost but still tell a friend she feels like a virgin. With this initial setup director Yolande Zauberman (Ivan and Abraham) allows us to see Lola the way she sees herself: beautiful, assertive, and morally ambiguous. Zauberman's laggard direction follows Lola's adventures. Stranded in the country, she's delivered to a rave by a local gutter punk. There she doses herself, sleeps with a stranger (after telling him she's a virgin), and meets an impotent junkie boxer who's attached to the club's vampiric go-go girl. Amid the various tanglings that ensue, Clubbed to Death wants to be a hip, underground film and an existential meditation. But like the techno, house, and electronic music that pumps through the soundtrack courtesy of the Chemical Brothers and Massive Attack, the underground is barely subsurface and the brains are drowned out by the beat. (Stark)

Sunday, April 27
1 p.m.
* Pather Panchali (India, 1955)

A work of genius when it comes to describing both the freedom and constrictions of rural life, Satyajit Ray's churning, lyrical debut film is also one of the most piercing examinations in cinema of sibling love, childhood loss, and family discord. The shared yearnings and antagonisms of the poor village boy Apu and his sister and their mother, their often-absent father (a prayer-caller for hire), and a maddening, ancient aunt are expressed in images that go straight from the eye to the heart. There's nothing precious or stereotypically "art house" about Ray's robust artistry. He delivers not just telling portraiture or pretty landscapes but real movie stuff: Two youngsters race toward a distant railroad train that symbolizes release and escape, then find their aunt sitting strangely motionless on the downward slope of a bamboo grove. Ray's writing and direction are equally thought-out and felt-out. Four decades after he burst onto the scene at the very first San Francisco International Film Festival, his communication of the ineffable remains peerless. (Sragow)

1:15 p.m.
Donka: X-Ray of an
African Hospital
See commentary under Saturday, April 26.

1:15 p.m. (at the PFA)
Outside the Global

Three recent documentaries from Central and Eastern Europe about modern village life.

1:30 p.m.
* A Moment of Innocence
(IRAN, 1996)

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