Past Forward

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

* Indicates films recommended by our reviewers.

Thursday, April 24 (Opening Night)
7 p.m.
Bliss (U.S.A., 1997)

This movie is being promoted as the hottest thing since Last Tango in Paris, but it's closer to soft porn with a thick coat of varnish. Craig Sheffer and Sheryl Lee are the newlyweds who discover early on that their bliss isn't total. The wife can't climb the heights of passion, so she surreptitiously seeks out the services of Terence Stamp's Baltazar -- a sex therapist who knows his Tantric 12 steps. But most of the therapy is talk, and then the husband gets in on it too -- and before you know it, we're watching the equivalent of an Eric Rohmer movie directed by Zalman King. When it turns out that the wife's problems are related to repressed-memory syndrome, you may decide you want to repress a few memories yourself. (Rainer)

7 p.m. (at the Pacific Film Archive)
The Last Gasp (Sweden, 1995)
Night Music (Sweden, 1918)

Ingmar Bergman's The Last Gasp, an hourlong play filmed by Bergman for Swedish television, depicts a fictional confrontation between silent filmmaker Georg af Klercker and the financier who ruined him. Plays with af Klercker's unpreviewed feature Night Music, appropriately enough a drama about the clash between art and commerce. (Rickman)

7:15 p.m.
Love! Valour! Compassion! (U.S.A., 1996)
Satirical references to On Golden Pond can't cloak the On Golden Pondness at the core of Terrence McNally's play (now movie) about a handful of gay friends spending hot-weather holidays at a remote lakeside home in Duchess County, N.Y. It's a standard let's-face-our-mortality comedy-drama with a core group of friends replacing the nuclear family and AIDS doing service for old age. As a straight man, I wanted to make sure I hadn't missed any subtle tension or frisson in a work that, after all, has been hailed as "one of the major plays of our time"; a gay pal assured me that he wept for the whole third act when he saw it in the theater in 1995, then never thought of it again. Joe Mantello, who directed the play, also made the film, which stars nearly all of the original cast members, including John Glover doing the double turn of a nasty Brit and his sweet brother; Jason Alexander assumes the role of the musical-comedy-lover originally played by Nathan Lane (a replacement that led local wag Mike Snyder to dub the film Love! Honor! Costanza!). (Sragow)

7:30 p.m.
* Wake Up Love (Argentina, 1996)
Eliseo Subiela (Man Facing Southeast) looks back nostalgically to the Argentine '60s in this likable film about the prospective reunion of a batch of Buenos Aries baby boomers. One of Subiela's usual overanalytical heroes is once again confronted with an irrational life force, in this case an old pal who gyrates to Elvis Presley to keep fit. It's the wife of "Elvis" -- our hero's teen flame -- who resides however at the film's emotional center, in an affecting performance by Soledad Silveyra, a Giulietta Masina look-alike. Subiela maintains a nice balance of sentiment and intelligence throughout, and the film ends when it should, not when you expect it to. (Rickman)

7:30 p.m. (at the PFA)
* Jour de Fete (France, 1947)
Jacques Tati's feature debut is restored to its original color in a characteristically idiosyncratic comedy about a postman-on-wheels who tries to modernize his mail deliveries.

7:45 p.m.
* When the Cat's Away (France, 1995)
A young woman returns from holiday to find her cat missing. Cedric Klapisch's almost-too-charming film recalls in part the social utopianism of Renoir's Popular Front films as a hitherto disunited portion of modern-day Paris comes together to help her find little Gris-Gris. Klapisch gets particular comic mileage out of cat-loving old ladies in various shapes and sizes. A film for Francophiles and friends of felines, two formidable blocs of SFIFF attendees; expect sellouts and fistfights in the lobby as tickets skyrocket in value. (Rickman)

Friday, April 25
1:30 p.m.
* Believe Me (Brazil, 1996)

A fascinating film from Brazil. The simple tale has an almost primordial resonance: A teen-age brother and sister fall in love and produce a child, who is ultimately set adrift, his fate left for God to decide. The son returns a man and unknowingly marries his mother; again, God is called on to sort out the mess. The burden of guilt, the innocence of children, expiation, and redemption; the filmmakers take it all, fit it to the lives of the people in a wild and desolate region of Northern Brazil, and capture it in Super 8. They revel in the saturated colors of the medium, and they let their little hand-held cameras roam over the faces and enter the lives of the denizens of this starkly beautiful wilderness. (Maher)

1:30 p.m.
* Nightjohn (U.S.A., 1996)
Sometimes a filmmaker can pour ideas he was hatching for one movie into another that gets funded. While developing Nightjohn, gifted African-American director Charles Burnett must have used his research for an unrealized project about Frederick Douglass to add texture and detail to Gary Paulsen's "age 12 and up" novel. Despite awkward, prosy patches, Burnett delivers a surprisingly full account of slave life in the 1850s, as well as a potent fable of literacy. Carl Lumbly brings bedrock conviction to the heroic Nightjohn, who feels that his people can't begin to know who they are (or what they can do) until they can spell their names. Lumbly makes you believe that this Johnny Appleseed of reading and writing would return to slavery from a free life up North, and risk mutilation for his teaching. With Lumbly, Allison Jones as his daughter, and Lorraine Toussaint as her mother providing a strong core, Burnett is able to throw the supporting cast some brilliant bits. For one whole astonishing minute, Bill Cobbs, as a slave called "Old Man," bitterly spits out the alphabet, conveying hidden danger and tragedy in every letter. The scenes between the driven plantation owner (Beau Bridges) and his restive son recall the eloquent tension of the Southern major and his son in The Ox-Bow Incident. (Sragow)

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)

9:30 p.m. (at the PFA)
The Second Time
See commentary under today, 2 p.m.

10 p.m.
* Just for Laughs!
(France, 1996)

Nouvelle vague mascot Jean-Pierre Leaud, shrunken by age into a wrinkly wraith, has lost none of the buoyancy that made his flyweight apparitions in Masculine-Feminine or Day for Night so appealing. As a cuckolded househusband in this amusing film, he mopes, dithers, and schemes, shuttling back and forth -- like the film -- between bedroom farce and affecting drama, often hitting both registers within the same scene. Director Lucas Belvaux demonstrates an impressive ability to keep many different moods and plot elements afloat at the same time in a film that's inventive and surprising throughout. (Rickman)

10 p.m. (at the CASTRO)
* Dream With the Fishes
(U.S.A., 1996)

Screenwriter Finn Taylor's debut behind the camera is refreshingly subversive and authentically amoral, unlike the pseudo-nihilistic attitude-copping in too much independent film these days. Fishes also boasts a stressed, overexposed look in the early scenes (which are set in San Francisco) and an accent on character over plot that recalls the risk-taking, rough-hewn films of the early '70s. As the mismatched duo on the run from death, responsibility, and nutritional food, David Arquette and Brad Hunt gradually and imperceptibility mold a bond strong enough to keep the film aloft. (Fox)

10:30 p.m.
* The Trap (Japan, 1996)
The third in a very popular detective series starring Japanese film sensation MasaToshi Nagase. Writer/director Kaizo Hayashi lovingly reinterprets film noir for the benefit of his hip, enthusiastic Japanese audience. The Trap is fascinating and at times creepily perverse, particularly given Nagase's dual role as savvy detective Maiku and a sad retarded boy named Mikki, around whom terrible things seem to happen. Aficionados of the trilogy say The Trap is the weakest of the three, but it's nonetheless well worth seeing. (Maher)

Saturday, April 26

1 p.m.
Hands Over the City
(Italy, 1963)
See sidebar, "The Subject Is Rosi."

1:15 p.m.
Drifting Clouds
See commentary under Friday, April 25.

1:30 p.m.
Nightjohn
See commentary under Friday, April 25.

1:30 p.m. (at the CASTRO)
* The Matinee Idol
Frank Capra's rediscovered comedy The Matinee Idol (U.S.A., 1928) wasn't previewed in time for a review, but is recommended sight unseen if only for the half-hour of shorts that precede it, two silent comedies by and with one Charles Bowers, Now You Tell One and Egged On (both U.S.A., 1926). The phlegmatic, tousle-haired Bowers clearly patterned his comic persona after Buster Keaton's, save that his roles as a single-minded inventor incorporate trick photographic effects far different than Keaton's usual insistence on photo realism. Bowers goes to the other extreme of creating impossible gags -- mice that fire guns, rubberized eggs that can't be broken, trees that grow so fast they crucify the unwary. (Rickman)

2 p.m. (at the PFA)
Donka: X-Ray of an
African Hospital
(Belgium, 1996)
A documentary about a poor hospital in Guinea, West Africa.

3:15 p.m.
* Marketa Lazarova
(Czechoslovakia, 1966)

Sculpted from snow and blood by director Frantisek Vlacil, this 1966 Czechoslovakian epic of 13th-century Bohemia has been likened to Bergman and Kurosawa in their medieval modes. A better reference point might be contemporaneous films by Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev) and Sergei Paradjanov (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors), works like this one bedizened and barbaric by turn. Robbers and barons, their faces carved from turnips, skirmish over rocks and sleet, propelling a compelling narrative forward, even as the film takes the time to incorporate timeless passages of a maiden's erotic deliriums and a mad monk's ravings about his sheep. With great cinematography by Bedrich Batka, this may be the gem of the festival. Watch out for the wolves. (Rickman)

3:30 p.m.
* Hamsun
(Denmark/Norway/Sweden, 1996)

Jan Troell's movie about the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, starring Max von Sydow, is a shattering experience. Hamsun, Norway's national hero and a Nobel Prize winner, drifted into Nazism and, after the war, became a national disgrace. Troell's movie gets inside Hamsun's skin and makes us understand that most disturbing of paradoxes: the fascist artist. There are sequences, such as Hamsun's audience with Hitler in his Alpine aerie, that are as chilling as anything ever put on film. (Rainer)

4 p.m.
La Rencontre
(France, 1996)

"A different kind of love story," says the fest -- filmed in video, and refilmed off a TV monitor by director Alain Cavalier.

4:30 p.m. (at the CASTRO)
Jour de Fete
See commentary under Thursday, April 24.

4:30 p.m. (at the PFA)
The King of Masks
(Hong Kong, 1996)

A rural tale of a street performer in China in the 1930s who adopts a small boy -- who turns out to be a girl.

5:45 p.m.
... And the Moon Dances (Indonesia, 1995)
Garin Nugroho's "sensuous," "enigmatic" portrait of three spiritual seekers. "There is little explanation and no judgment, no catharsis, no resolution," says the fest.

6:45 p.m.
Carla's Song (England, 1996)
Leftist Brit director Ken Loach (Raining Stones, Land and Freedom) is normally a reliable, astringent observer of moral conscience in the midst of social indifference and political corruption. But he succumbs to reheated agitprop and mawkishness in this North-meets-South tale set amid the U.S.-supported war on the Sandinista government. Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting's Begbie) plays an insubordinate Glasgow bus driver who unaccountably falls for a pretty but unresponsive Nicaraguan exile. The romance isn't convincing; it's a device to get the gringo (and the audience) to Nicaragua to experience firsthand the peasants' righteousness and the Contras' cruelty. Loach's not-so-hidden agenda overwhelms the drama. (Fox)

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
Village

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

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

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)

6 p.m. (at the CASTRO)
The Last Gasp
See commentary under Thursday, April 24.

6:30 p.m.
* Chronicle of a Disappearance
(Palestine, 1996)

Droll, irreverent, and oblique, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman's extraordinary first feature is a devastating political critique of the state of the people without a state. Using montage grammar from experimental films to explore themes of family and identity favored by personal-documentary makers, Suleiman captures a sunbaked picture of alienation and inertia. Fact and fiction become indistinguishable, even after the filmmaker locates a narrative structure sometime around the film's midpoint. A subtle, rewarding, and utterly atypical view of the Middle East, Chronicle introduces an observant, acerbic, and very, very smart filmmaker. (Fox)

6:30 p.m. (at the PFA)
The River
See commentary under Friday, April 25.

7 p.m.
Me! I'm Afraid of
Virginia Woolf
(England, 1978)

A comedy about a "timid, apprehensive and embarrassed intellectual," part of the fest's tribute to Alan Bennett.

9 p.m.
Noel Field -- The
Fictitious Spy
(Switzerland, 1996)

A documentary on the life of a U.S. diplomat-turned-communist eventually tried behind the Iron Curtain for being a Western spy.

9 p.m. (at the CASTRO)
Black God, White Devil
(Brazil, 1964)

"Mystically stylized and reverberating with malice," the fest says; chosen by Francis Ford Coppola for the fest's "Indelible Images" series.

9:15 p.m.
Nenette and Boni
See commentary under Saturday, April 26.

9:15 p.m. (at the PFA)
Moebius
(Argentina, 1996)

The festival's program note for the Argentine film Moebius says it is informed by bloody purges by the country's military dictatorship in the 1970s, but it seems more informed by TV's X-Files. A train vanishes into Buenos Aires' labyrinthine subway system. Two-fisted mathematician Daniel Pratt is called in to solve the problem. Ridiculed for his theory that the tunnel system has grown so complex that it has become literally infinite, he must crack the case alone. Moebius is very well-crafted, and it has a terrific, mind-bending climax, but it's too long, and could have used some of Scully's droll humor. (Booth)

9:30 p.m.
Wake Up Love
See commentary under Thursday, April 24.

Monday, April 28

1 p.m.
The Man Who Couldn't Feel and Other Tales
(England, 1996)
Three short films from avant-gardist Joram ten Brink.

1:15 p.m.
The Trap
See commentary under Friday, April 25.

1:30 p.m.
Chronicle of a
Disappearance
See commentary under Sunday, April 27.

3:30 p.m.
It's Elementary (U.S.A., 1996)
"They think it means you're going to explain sodomy to first-graders," says local filmmaker Debra Chasnoff of the resistance she and co-producer Helen Cohen met in filming classroom lessons on homosexuality. In four years of filming, the pair could only find six schools willing to participate. Footage of protests and school board fights, set against reports of gay teen suicide and anti-gay violence, was drawn primarily from news broadcasts. But the politics play out against an insightful series of lively teacher-guided discussions about issues like kids with gay relatives, stereotyping, and discrimination against gays. (Wisner)

4 p.m.
The Land of Leja
See commentary under Friday, April 25.

4:30 p.m.
Traveller
See commentary under Saturday, April 26.

6:45 p.m.
Goodbye South,Goodbye
See commentary under Saturday, April 26.

7 p.m.
The World of Steve Silver
(U.S.A., 1997)

If audiences didn't know much about Steve Silver before, they still won't after they see Ken Swartz's documentary on the late creator of Beach Blanket Babylon. Swartz takes the tribute route, glossing over the life of a potentially fascinating subject, and makes only passing references to various legal hassles Silver had or the privacy he guarded so fiercely. (Silver freely offered romance advice, says Armistead Maupin, but never discussed his own love life.) There's some footage from BBB's early days at the Savoy-Tivoli and shots of the celebrities, from Queen Elizabeth to Carol Channing, Silver met along the way, but lack of dimension turns this documentary into something like the show itself -- a tourist attraction. (Wisner)

7 p.m. (at the CASTRO)
Autumn Sun
See commentary under Friday, April 25.

7 p.m. (at the PFA)
Drifting Clouds
See commentary under Friday, April 25.

7:30 p.m.
Honey and Ashes
(Switzerland/Tunisia, 1996)

"Three Tunisian women struggle from freedom from the legacy of the harem," the fest reports.

9 p.m. (at the PFA)
Carla's Song
See commentary under Saturday, April 26.

9:15 p.m.
* Swordsman II
(Hong Kong, 1991)

Another dazzling entry in the Hong Kong gender-bender sweepstakes. This one features the great Jet Li as an exuberant lush whose endless attempts to retire from martial arts are thwarted by warring sects and especially by the glorious Brigitte Lin, a "male" cult leader who castrates himself to consolidate power and becomes a woman in the process. The film's dizzying fight scenes are thrilling, but the most seductive elements are the gay and lesbian underpinnings, especially Jet's intense romance with the ultrapowerful Lin, which proves to be her undoing. Selected by director Henry Selick for the fest's "Indelible Images" series. (Morris)

9:30 p.m.
The Man Who Couldn't Feel and Other Tales
See commentary under today, 1 p.m.

9:30 p.m. (at the CASTRO)
Viridiana (Spain, 1961)
The Bunuel classic; chosen by Saul Zaentz for the fest's "Indelible Images" series.

9:45 p.m.
Believe Me
See commentary under Friday, April 25.

Tuesday, April 29

1 p.m.
The King of Masks
See commentary under Saturday, April 26.

1:15 p.m.
Nenette and Boni
See commentary under Saturday, April 26.

1:30 p.m.
Man of the Story
See commentary under Sunday, April 27.

4 p.m.
* Love Serenade
(Australia, 1996)

In this hilariously perverse fairy tale, the prince is in fact a frog, and the two princesses who vie for his favors are certifiable. Australian writer/director Shirley Barrett uses disco and Top 40 kitsch as a background for the Hurley sisters' fight over a smarmy big-city DJ (George Shevtsov), who moves in next door. In a comic high point, the sisters turn a leisurely canoe cruise with their bored prince into a screaming match over whether their dog, Sooty, was sucked into one of the river's mysterious "holes" or was eaten by a carp. (Morris)

4:15 p.m.
La Rencontre
See commentary under Saturday, April 26.

4:30
Clubbed to Death
See commentary under Saturday, April 26.

7 p.m.
Just for Laughs!
See commentary under Friday, April 25.

7 p.m. (at the CASTRO)
Love's Debris
See commentary under Sunday, April 27.

7 p.m. (PFA)
Little Angel
See commentary under Friday, April 25.

7:15 p.m.
Noel Field -- The Fictitious Spy
See commentary under Sunday, April 27.

7:30 p.m.
Two or Three Things About Women
(U.S.A., 1996)

Three documentaries by and about women. The program includes the presentation of the Mel Novikoff Award to S.F.'s Film Arts Foundation.

9:15 p.m.
When the Cat's Away
See commentary under Thursday, April 24.

9:15 p.m. (at the PFA)
Wake Up Love
See commentary under Thursday, April 24.

9:30 p.m.
* A Private Function
(England, 1984)

British playwright and TV writer Alan Bennett once complained that film directors confuse moviemaking with generalship, and thus fail to see his screenplays as "ready-made movie material" -- since in his scripts, "the infantry is recruited from aunties, and wheelchairs make up the armored division." But his first produced screenplay, A Private Function, about a pig and a bloke, proved to be prime British comedy on the hoof. It's set in 1947, when postwar food rationing is at its fiercest. Three Yorkshire professional men (Denholm Elliott, Richard Griffiths, and John Normington) plan a celebration banquet for the impending royal wedding. For a proper feast they buy an unlicensed pig and fatten her up in secret, out of reach of a sinister Ministry of Food inspector (Bill Patterson). Enter the new local loony in town, foot doctor Michael Palin, who ends up playing Androcles to the porker, relieving Betty of a painful splinter and ultimately pignapping her. Bennett has a wicked sense of how all our advanced-primate itches -- whether for food or affection, tradition or glory -- simply demand to be scratched, no matter what the circumstances. (Sragow)

9:45 p.m.
Moebius
See commentary under Sunday, April 27.

10 p.m. (at the CASTRO)
* The Old Dark House
(U.S.A., 1932)

This delightful and still potent comic horror film, directed by James Whale with an impressive cast both famous (Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton) and forgotten (sic transit Gloria Stuart), can now be seen as the root from which grew both The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It all depends on how the comedy and horror elements are portioned out. In this case the balance is neat indeed: In one scene, a macabre old woman confronts young Gloria Stuart with the inevitable corruption of her fine clothes and flesh. It moves from the funny to the profoundly unsettling in the space of a few moments. House is S.F. filmmaker George Kuchar's selection in the fest's "Indelible Images" series. (Rickman)

Wednesday, April 30

1 p.m.
Tableau Ferraille
(Senegal/France, 1997)
A drama of political corruption in Africa.

1:15 p.m.
* Pizzicata (Italy/Germany, 1996)
This feature from documentarist Edoardo Winspeare is set in the Salentine Peninsula of Italy during World War II. Politics have passed these people by, so when a young Italian-American pilot is shot down, he's able to fit in without too many questions asked. He even learns to dance the traditional dance of the region, the pizzicata. Well, he gets the steps down well enough, but he doesn't recognize the powerful traditions at work beneath the music. Naturally, he falls in love with the wrong woman. Pizzicata is great when the fiddles play, and the people sing. Winspeare's background as a documentarist serves him well in these scenes, but as a writer he has trouble with the story and in fact seems almost grateful to let it drift from his control. The audience won't feel gratitude when they leave the theater dissatisfied. (Maher)

1:30 p.m.
Moebius
See commentary under Sunday, April 27.

3:30 p.m.
Bastard Out
of Carolina
See commentary under Saturday, April 26.

3:45 p.m.
Goodbye South,
Goodbye
See commentary under Saturday, April 26.

4 p.m.
Honey and Ashes
See commentary under Monday, April 28.

6:45 p.m.
* Festival
(South Korea, 1996)

Veteran director Im Kwon-Taek's film is almost ethnographic in its exhaustive detailing of a traditional Korean funeral, right down to explanatory titles during the various rituals. But it's also an engaging look at a huge extended family, with all its simmering rivalries and long-dormant lusts crashing together after a favorite matriarch's death. And threaded through this Altman-esque chaos is a gentle, occasionally maudlin, storybook fable, told from a child's point of view, of the matriarch's last years. These three strands don't quite weave together comfortably, but it's a lovely film despite the awkward structure. (Booth)

6:45 p.m. (at the CASTRO)
Genealogies of a Crime
(France, 1996)

"A teasingly postmodern puzzle," says the fest of this Raoul Ruiz work starring Catherine Deneuve (in a double role) and Michel Piccoli.

7 p.m.
Love Serenade
See commentary under Tuesday, April 29.

7 p.m. (at the PFA)
La Rencontre
See commentary under Saturday, April 26.

7:15 p.m.
Mother and Son
(Russia/Germany, 1997)

"A masterpiece ... a movie of incredible stillness," writes J. Hoberman of the Village Voice of this drama about a dying woman attended by her son.

9 p.m.
Throne of Blood
(Japan, 1957)

The Kurosawa epic, selected by director Carroll Ballard for the fest's "Indelible Images" series.

9:15 p.m.
Level Five
See commentary under Friday, April 25.

9:30 p.m.
Salvatore Giuliano
(Italy, 1962)
See sidebar, "The Subject Is Rosi."

9:30 p.m. (at the PFA)
Believe Me
See commentary under Friday, April 25.

9:45 p.m. (at the CASTRO)
* Shadows
(U.S.A., 1959)

This was John Cassavetes' favorite Cassavetes movie. You don't have to be interested in Cassavetes, or improvisation, or the roots of the New York film style that flowered with Martin Scorsese to find Shadows funny and moving. You just have to be open to a jumpy, hip, mood-swinging form of dramatic poetry influenced in equal measure by New York acting classes and jazz. Concocting a plot that fit his multiracial group of actors, and coaxing them to summon the thoughts and feelings of art-minded New Yorkers (circa '57), Cassavetes captured the meaning of the words "identity crisis." The film's relative looseness about racial labeling makes the moments when race becomes an issue all the more powerful. The title doesn't refer only to the ability of Lelia Goldoni and a brother to pass for white. It also refers to characters living in the shadows of people they hope or fear they might become. The actors fill the movie with nervy, prickly textures. Goldoni has the face of a sometimes ravaged, sometimes aroused cherub. Rupert Crosse is wonderful as the agent/manager of a down-on-his-luck musician -- he's like a captain who's just a little anxious about sinking with his ship. (Sragow)

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