A former servant finds herself caught between two lives when her father's death draws her back to the Tunisian palace she fled as a young girl. A twentysomething Parisian woman craves love but looks only where it can't be found. A Beijing mail carrier lives vicariously through letters he's supposed to deliver. A comic finds himself drawn to his birthplace after bombing in a make-or-break engagement.
Dislocation — psychological, geographical and otherwise — emerges as a major theme of the 38th San Francisco Inter-national Film Festival. But where in recent festivals the philosophical or political implications of a character's plight might have been the focus, likely as not the emphasis this year was on the personal.
Nowhere was this trend more evident than in Moufida Tlatli's The Silences of the Palace (screening at S.F.'s Kabuki 4/29 3:30 pm, and Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive 4/30 6:30 pm), which won the Tunisian writer-director the festival's Satyajit Ray Award for emerging directors. As a nationalist uprising against the French encroaches on the palace in which Tlatli's main character, Alia, was raised, its residents remain largely oblivious. Alia (played as an adult by Ghalia Lacroix and as a child by Hend Sabri) is the daughter of Khedija (Amel Hedhili), whose parents sold her to the royal family. Khedija's duties included providing sexual favors to the Tunisian princes, one of whom, Sid' Ali (Kamel Fazaa), fathered Alia. Among the film's many silences is the ban (itself unspoken) on discussion of Alia's heritage, despite its being common knowledge.
The form of Silences matches the content — dialogue is used sparingly throughout. One nine-minute stretch with a mere two lines beautifully renders Alia's comprehension of her situation and her mother's within the household. Tlatli has told interviewers that she wanted to re-create the space and time of the women of the palace, something that sounds fine in theory but would have made for a deadly dull film were the director's visual storytelling not so assured.
Alia is always a sympathetic character, the exact opposite of Nathalie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), the mean-spirited protagonist of NoŽmie Lvovsky's first feature, Forget Me (Kab 4/27 4:30 pm and 4/28 9:45 pm, PFA 5/1 9:30 pm). A breakup throws Nathalie into a tailspin, causing her to hurt the people who would be her loved ones were she able to love. This gal is so nasty that some may find it difficult to relate to her.
But three things make this picture click: Tedeschi's restless performance, Lvovsky's use of space and light (particularly in the streets and subways of Paris) and three scenes in which her victims finally call Nathalie on her malicious behavior. Lvovsky confronts Nathalie without moralizing or downplaying the pain the character has suffered.
Nathalie has plunged into what Dusan Makavejev calls the “dance of hurting from being hurt,” something the creator of A Hole in the Soul (Kab 4/28 12:30 pm and 4/30 9:45 pm, PFA 5/4 9:15 pm), a child of World War II, vowed early on to avoid. Ironic distance has been one way Makavejev has navigated life's cruel realities — it permeates his previous features such as Montenegro and The Coca Cola Kid. But as the whimsical documentary Hole illustrates, irony is an incomplete balm for his sense of spiritual, mental and physical displacement.
A '70s exile of the former Yugoslavia, Makavejev can now return, though his birthplace hardly feels like “home.” As an artist on the fringes of the avant-garde (his films are accessible but not always “commercial”), he's ambivalent, though good-natured, about the deal-making that characterizes '90s filmmaking. Hole follows him through San Francisco, Hollywood and Belgrade. Whether he finds his soul's hole may lie in his closing image — a pig on a leash traipsing over Shirley Temple's “I Love You All” slab at the former Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
Hole screens with The Kids Play Russian, Jean-Luc Godard's intriguing, at times tedious, reflection on the cross-pollination between literature and film and between Russian and Western cinema. Most interesting about The Kids are Godard's insights into art, politics, history and the movies. The tedium derives from the work's goofy raison d'étre. Hired by an Aaron Spelling (Beverly Hills 90210, et al.) company to make a film about Russia, the director has qualms about plundering that country's culture for a Hollywood conglomerate. The circuitous way Godard nominally fulfills his commercial commitment speaks to the compromises artists make in order to work. Unfortunately, compromise isn't Godard's strong suit.
The title character of Postman (PFA 4/28 7pm, Kab 4/29 7:15 pm and 4/30 9:15 pm) lives with his sister, who's ready for marriage but afraid to desert her introverted brother. Perhaps to fill his life's void, Xiao Dou (Feng Yuanzheng) pries open the mail of the customers on his route. He involves himself in their lives, meddling in relationships he finds unhealthy and attempting to commune with the lonely, elderly, gay and drug addicted. He's not especially helpful.
Director-writer He Jianjun builds his narrative, as Tlatli does in The Silences of the Palace, not through montage but with more leisurely sequences whose pacing reflects Xiao Dou's existence. The director employed a similar technique with less proficiency in Red Beads, which screened at last year's festival, than he shows here.
“So every black person is a murderous drag queen?” screamed an attendee at the preview of I Can't Sleep (Kab 5/2 4 pm and 5/3 9:15 pm). Perhaps anticipating this, the SFIFF press release about films of gay interest contends that in director Claire Denis' film “moral judgments are wisely left at home.” As this year's festival presents varied portraits of blacks and gays (and black gays), it may be myopic to target this one.
I rather enjoyed the film, which is based loosely on a real-life event. Though more happens in I Can't Sleep than in Postman, Denis measures out her story as slowly as did her Chinese counterpart — an hour into the drama the main characters' inter-relationships are, intentionally, still not totally clear. I Can't Sleep's overlapping plots revolve around the murderous Camille (Richard Courcet) and a young Lithuanian (Katerina Golubeva) lured to France under false pretenses by a Parisian theater director. Though I Can't Sleep feels too contrived in a couple of spots, for the most part its cinematography, acting and musical score are subtly effective.
Funny Bones (Kab 5/4 6:45 pm), one of two closing-night features, opens commercially May 5. Oliver Platt plays the not-so-funny Tommy Fawkes, who's trying to follow in the footsteps of his father George (Jerry Lewis), a beloved comedian. When Tommy was six, George slipped out of Blackpool, England, under a sexual and professional cloud. In search of his roots and fresh material, Tommy returns to Blackpool, where he encounters his father's old performing chums.
Peter Chelsom's film (he previously directed Hear My Song) explores what makes people funny, but the director concerns himself as well with extremes of human nature, as represented by calculating Tommy and the more instinctive Jack (Lee Evans). Though Funny Bones makes its philosophical points deftly enough, its various stars' performances are the main charm. Leslie Caron, George Carl, Freddie Davies and Evans stand out among a pleasing cast.
San Francisco International Film Festival continues through May 4 at the Kabuki and Castro in S.F. and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley; for schedule and ticket information call 931-