Saturday, May 1, 2 p.m., Rafael; Sunday, May 2, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, May 3, 4:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 5, 4:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Khrustaliov, My Car! (Russia/France, 1998)
The reviewer who watched this film's preview video before me stopped at 20 minutes. And that may be enough for some people to dismiss it as disorienting, dark, and demented: In the winter of 1953, a decadent doctor from a mad household is taken to the heart of darkness, where he is to perform a precious mission. He spits and drinks his way through the Red Army, the KGB-orchestrated "doctors' plot," the Gulag, and the Russian Mafia. By its end, the movie has grown into something at once harrowing and breathtaking, using black-and-white imagery and lighting to evoke Stalinist Moscow as never before. Stay in your seat and give this cinema of distractions a chance to work its sinister magic on you. (Frako Loden)

Sunday, May 2, 6 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, May 3, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, May 4, 8:45 p.m., PFA

Life on Earth (Mali/France, 1998)
This hypnotic, politically astute portrait of an ordinary Mali village on the cusp of New Millennium Day is pure pleasure. A charming but pointed meditation on the lingering echoes of colonialism, Life on Earth employs a blend of documentary and fiction to recount a languid yet subtly inexorable homecoming story. Sun and shade define a graceful, stately world where bicycles and radios are the extent to which technology has infiltrated. But it would be a mistake to conclude that life is primitive here, or that Life on Earth is merely a travelogue. The film screens with the breathtakingly ambitious, Angelopoulos-influenced Brazilian short Day to Day. (Michael Fox)

Wednesday, April 28, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Liquid Sky (U.S.A., 1982)
A cult classic that deserves the name is a rarity. Russian emigre filmmaker Slava Tsukerman's first (and last, to date) feature recasts Weimar Germany -- with its attendant androgyny, drugs, and general air of apocalypse -- as a New York new wave nightmare: It seems those scenesters who aren't shooting up, club-hopping, or gyrating to Fairlight synthesizer music are being obliterated by aliens during orgasm. Who knew? The star of this scintillating show, besides Tsukerman's haunting music, is the glorious Anne Carlisle in a double role as both haute bisexual debutante Margaret and Jimmy, the Bowie-esque "boy" who slaps her(self) around and steals her drugs. Carlisle, who also co-scripted with Tsukerman, has tremendous presence, and the most shocking thing about the film is that she didn't have a bigger career. (Gary Morris)

Tuesday, May 4, 6:50 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Megacities (Austria, 1998)
A better title might have been Anti-Koyaanisqatsi: Well-funded, lavishly shot, and ultimately shallow, this documentary offers riveting images of the working poor of Bombay, Mexico City, Moscow, and New York. The first two cities appear as monuments to poverty, and the film's shots of hovels built right up to the edge of railroad tracks have an undeniable visceral power. But the Moscow and NYC segments are arbitrary snippets that offer almost no context or insight and, given the filmmaker's acknowledgement that some scenes were staged, smell unpleasantly of exploitation -- of the viewer, not the subject. (Michael Fox)

Monday, May 3, 9 p.m., PFA; Wednesday, May 5, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 6, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Passion (Hungary, 1998)
This mesmerizing masterpiece transforms James M. Cain's pulp paean to lust and greed The Postman Always Rings Twice into a profound indictment of state oppression. Transported to a muddy, Spartan farmhouse in the '30s, the story of suffocating, murderous love is told through excruciatingly choreographed long takes that extract every last nuance of suspicion. That freedom is illusory becomes chillingly apparent, however, when the doomed lovers meet the government institutions -- police, lawyers, and clergy. In case you hadn't guessed, the film is shot in exquisitely grim and gritty black-and-white. (Michael Fox)

Thursday, April 29, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, May 2, 8 p.m., PFA; Wednesday, May 5, 9:20 p.m., AMC Kabuki

The Silence (Iran/Tajikistan/France, 1997)
Director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafori create some stunning images in this fable of a blind Tajikistani boy who hears music where others hear cacophony: A young girl hangs cherries on her ears and dances; smiths hammer out bronze-gold pots. Too bad those smiths aren't working on the script or the storytelling -- the children are gorgeous, but except for two incidental, giggling schoolgirls, they are atrocious actors. Makhmalbaf is interested in them only as figurines, as objets d'art, and his pretty technique is like a ceramic glaze hardening on his characters and his film, rendering them lifeless. (Joe Mader)

Saturday, May 1, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Etc.
Screenings are at the AMC Kabuki, 1881 Post (at Fillmore); the Castro, 429 Castro (at Market); the Pacific Film Archive, 2625 Durant (at College) in Berkeley; and the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St. (at A Street) in San Rafael.

Tickets are $9 or $8 for Film Institute members, seniors, students, and the disabled. Tickets are available at the festival box office at the AMC Kabuki Tuesday through Sunday noon to 7 p.m., at ETM ticket machines in many Safeway stores throughout the Bay Area, over the phone by calling (888) ETM-TIXS, and online at www.sfiff.org.

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