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Putting the world back together at the 45th annual S.F. International Film Festival

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While whole regions of the world seem to be splitting apart, San Francisco comes together these next two weeks under the auspices of art. This year's International Film Festival tries as ever to unify the universe of film, and in many respects it succeeds. Including 180 films representing 46 countries from Argentina to Venezuela, the festival is certainly big; it encompasses everything from Japanese shoot'em-up thrillers to experimental American set pieces to absurdist Iranian comedies. Of particular interest is the substantial collection of films from Latin American countries, the unusually strong selection from the Middle East, and the typically large showing of Asian films (all three highlighted in these pages this week and next).

But like any organization trying to be all things to all people, this fest leaves certain areas underserved. African movies seem particularly lacking, as do works from India (and South Asia in general). The U.K. is practically missing, with just five features, and there's only one piece from Russia -- with love, presumably. This is not to say that international festivals should work like immigration services, holding back worthwhile films from certain countries to sustain a quota system. Still, the sponsoring S.F. Film Society seems to be reaching for the so-called youth audience, with new gimmicks like midnight movies and a surfeit of gangster flicks, at the expense of comprehensiveness and consideration for specific local communities.

Criticisms aside, there's much to enjoy here. Local moviemakers shine brightest in the documentary category, and films with gay and lesbian themes include several standouts (again, both categories showcased in our coverage). Unexpected delights -- among them the "chivalric action spectacular" Musa the Warrior (from South Korea, starring Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's Zhang Ziyi), the must-see French-Spanish documentary The Pinochet Case, and the crowd-pleasing Russian mob caper Sisters -- should continue to lure a discerning and broad audience. Whether you're drawn by the call of diversity or just want to catch a few flicks you won't see anywhere else, the SFIFF will transport you to other realms. -- Karen Silver

Decasia (U.S.A., 2002)
Composed of pieces of rotted nitrate film that in many cases are the only surviving glimpses of vanished early-20th-century scenes, Bill Morrison's Decasia is a cinematic symphony. It uses three distinct movements and snatches of repeated imagery (Sufi dancers, nuns leading children through a Last Day landscape of fire and brimstone) to unify disparate visions into a satisfying whole. The rot allows for some stunning visual effects -- a boxer punching a blur, a carnival ride materializing out of liquid space, a judge's features suddenly distorting into a Munch-like scream in a shot from a lost melodrama. (The film's second movement contains several quick bits from lost films with the likes of Mary Pickford, I think, and William S. Hart.) Unfortunately, Decasia was inspired by, and is wedded to, an ear-splitting composition by Michael Gordon that sounds like Philip Glass on crank. Ghostly silence would have been a better accompaniment to this American Book of the Dead. (Gregg Rickman)
Sunday, April 21, 5 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 24, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Distance (Japan, 2001)
Four relatives of the members of a murder/suicide cult meet in rural isolation on the deadly event's third anniversary, joined by a surviving cult member who'd fled before the apocalypse. Events strand the five overnight. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda's film expands on the themes of his earlier Maborosi (about the psychological recovery of a suicide's widow) and After Life (a dormitory for the newly dead) in its sensitive depiction of bereft individuals regenerating in a new community. Distance shares with these others its lovely hand-held cinematography and a smooth, even style that renders even the most dramatic scenes leisurely. New among Kore-eda's methods are flashbacks of cult members interacting with the protagonists -- shouting poetry, grinning as their marriage breaks up, or simply saying goodbye. A brother's refusal to eat a Popsicle is especially sad and sinister in context. This slow but involving film rewards strict attention, as enigmas continue to unfold through the final sequence. (Gregg Rickman)
Saturday, April 20, 9 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Monday, April 22, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 23, 3 p.m., AMC Kabuki

I'm Going Home (Portugal/France, 2001)
This deceptively slight film is a celebration of acting, from Michel Piccoli's smoother-than-silk performance as a renowned but aging Parisian stage actor to John Malkovich's etched-in-brass cameo as an impeccably professional film director. The tale depicts, through a series of minor incidents, Piccoli's unhurried yet purposeful life in the aftermath of his wife's sudden death. The lack of plot is all but unnoticeable thanks to Piccoli's naturalistic portrayal of a Parisian so steeped in his milieu that he happily downs the same espresso at the same table in the same cafe every day. Director Manoel de Oliveira interposes lengthy scenes from a trio of stage productions (Exit the King, The Tempest, and Ulysses) starring Piccoli's character, providing spectacle, irony, and artifice -- or rather, since we're talking about an actor, a heightened state of reality. Ultimately, the nonagenarian Oliveira (whose hourlong ode to his birthplace, Oporto, My Childhood, also screens in the fest) is less interested in death than in exploring what constitutes a life. Is it the people with whom we live and love, or our ingrained collection of patterns and routines? (Michael Fox)
Tuesday, April 23, 7:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Friday, April 26, 4:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 1, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

La Spagnola (Australia, 2001)
A display of the wacky and the grotesque, La Spagnola details the fierce rivalry between a beautiful Spanish spitfire and her gawky daughter after they've been abandoned by the man of the house, who's absconded with the family savings to buy a spiffy car and move in with his blond mistress. Living in a shack near an oil refinery in a dusty Australian town circa 1960, the Australia-phobe mother schemes to get the car and keep meat on the table, using methods that incur her daughter's wrath. Reminiscent of Sweetie and Love Serenade, two other Australian films about battling female relatives and food issues, the better-looking La Spagnola treads a fine line between female-empowerment comedy and stereotypical slapstick (it could do without the zucchini masturbation scene, for example). Still, the unpredictable plot line, deadpan mayhem, and fine performances by the two leads make it an arresting experience. (Frako Loden)
Tuesday, April 23, 2 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 29, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 1, 9:15 p.m., Park

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