Past Forward

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

The latest work from Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Salam Cinema) is based on a striking conceit: As an anti-shah youth in 1970s Iran, Makhmalbaf stabbed a policeman and was subsequently jailed and tortured. Twenty years later he wants to film his experience; incredibly, the policeman helps him hire and train the young cast. Innocence puts a comic sheen on its real events and real characters, as director and policeman face endless problems, from their own bitchy relations to an actor too emotionally overwrought to use a fake knife. Makhmalbaf's Brechtian manipulations build to one of the most beautiful endings in recent cinema. (Morris)

2:30 p.m. (at the CASTRO)
* Exile Shanghai
(Germany, 1997)

Ulrike Ottinger has a big story to tell, and she takes her time doing it. Ottinger intends the four hours and 45 minutes of Exile Shanghai to stand as a monument to the Jews who brought their culture to China and carved out a society for themselves. She starts at the beginning, when Sephardic Jews came to Shanghai at the end of the 19th century, and stays to the arrival of the Communists. Ottinger is a fan of the long take. Modern-day Shanghai goes about its business under the staring eye of the camera, and our informants pull out their old photos and talk at length about how it was back then. There's great stuff here. The older families in Shanghai formed an elite society and built their own fabulous country clubs alongside those of the French, English, and Americans. But World War II came and those who fled the Nazis were forced into the ghetto by the occupying Japanese. Does Exile Shanghai have to be this long? No, not really, but there's not much you'd want to give up in this wonderful story either. (Maher)

3:30 p.m.
The King of Masks
See commentary under Saturday, April 26.

3:30 p.m. (at the PFA)
* Love's Debris
(Germany/France/U.K., 1996)

We begin with a question from Roland Barthes: "Why and how do singers find their emotions in their voice?" Werner Schroeter, who has directed more operas than feature films, looks to a group of mostly European divas, some of them as "ruined" as the 13th-century abbey where the film takes place, for answers. These grande dames each perform a favorite aria and expound, often eloquently, on love, death, and music. Schroeter's prowling camera subtly equates the timeless architecture of the abbey with the sometimes wrenching emotions of the voices that fill its vast, vaulted spaces. (Morris)

3:45 p.m.
Man of the Story
(India/Japan, 1995)

The big stories of history contain the single tales of individuals. That is the message of Man of the Story as it follows the idyllic upbringing of a young, oversensitive boy in a privileged but freethinking family in southern India. The boy's story parallels the rise of the first elected communist government in the '30s and its rebirth in the '50s. Our hero grows -- from a young boy coddled by servants into a hesitant hero of the revolution. Director Adoor Gopalakrishnan is not afraid to bare his conflicted feelings about the complicated relationships between families and their servants or about the beauty of life in the countryside, but the film is never able to get inside the characters. Audiences will have the amazing beauty of India to look at while struggling for an emotional handhold. (Maher)

4 p.m.
Everything for Sale
(Poland, 1968)

* What do you do when your friend, the star of your movies, dies in a freak accident? Poland's famous Andrzej Wajda created a film to mirror life: In it, a lead actor doesn't appear for a scene involving a deadly leap onto a moving train. Lovers, wives, and friends play themselves in a moody, beautiful tribute to the wild and brilliant Zbigniew Cybulski, Poland's James Dean. The images are stark and graphic, the acting superb. This personal piece is part of the fest's "Indelible Images" section, selected by Irving Saraf, the Academy Award-winning documentary-maker. (Stachura)

5:45 p.m.
*Diary of a Country Priest
(France, 1950)

The title character in Robert Bresson's 1950 film (from the Georges Bernanos novel) is both timeless and startlingly modern. As played by Claude Laydu, he's a religious neurasthenic. He's almost all spirit: He forces his parishioners to meet him not just face to face but soul to soul. His hunger for communion overrides the limits of his experience and understanding. He locks into depth perceptions of the other characters, as if he were practicing a sanctified, rough-hewn form of telepathy. The cure's handwriting and his ink blotters (which resemble Rorschach tests), the tight shots of his cloaked, fragile figure, and the close-ups of his anguished brow and burning eyes work to pull viewers into the hero's consciousness. The rigor of the filmmaking heightens its sensory impact: The sound of a distant gunshot seems deafening when it registers on the cure's countenance. With the sparest means, Bresson achieves an extraordinary quality: a religious kinesis. (Sragow)

6 p.m.
* Underground
(France/Germany/Hungary, 1995)

The 1995 Cannes Film Festival Palm d'Or winner from Emir Kusturica (Arizona Dream) finally makes it to San Francisco in all its lusty, lunatic glory. Reckless and profane, Underground is a hugely ambitious mad dash through 40 years of Yugoslavian history and the various "fucking fascist motherfuckers" who've stomped across its landscape. It's very long and occasionally a bit wearying but so full of surprises and astonishing images that it'll keep you fully flabbergasted. Still without a distributor, it may never come through here again, so see it while you can. (Booth)

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