SFIFF54: Black Bread, End of Animal, Aurora, Nostalgia for the Light, On Tour

SFIFF54: Black Bread, End of Animal, Aurora, Nostalgia for the Light, On Tour
 If the film festival is a safe place for cinephiles to celebrate the medium and champion the theater experience in the face of a retreating movie culture, then The San Francisco International Film Festival programmers have done well in selecting films that require thought, dedication, open-mindedness, and - most importantly in this day - films that look good on a big screen. Because why find parking, pay 15 bucks and sit in a theatre with rude audiences if the movies aren't delivering an experience.

To their credit, all the films I have seen so far this year (and I'll have a preview tomorrow for the late night shows) would lose something special on a smaller screen. To honor these films now is to praise not just their ability to entertain, but to rejoice in their beauty and their power to captivate a theater full of people.

Having said that, I saw all of these films on DVD screeners. They never said being a critic was easy.

Black Bread
Black Bread's opening moments are as immediately brutal as those of any film this year: a horse-drawn cart is attacked, its driver murdered and the occupied carriage sent over a cliff - horse and all. The carnage is witnessed by a young peasant boy (Francesc Colomer), whose call for help draws unwanted attention to his family.

Set in Catalonia during the Spanish civil war, Black Bread is a mystery with an unlikely detective. The young boy, Andreu, stumbles upon clues and secrets about the murder and, even as viewers put the pieces together, it's unclear how much the boy himself understands. As Andreu's doe-eyed confusion turns to bitterness and rage, it's hard not to wonder whether children truly understand more than they are given credit for or if Andreu is lashing out at mysteries that he isn't yet capable of grasping.

Director Agusti Villaronga's In a Glass Cage (1987) remains an affecting, undiscovered gem, and I wish I had a better excuse than minor inconvenience for not seeing the rest of his work. In both films Villaronga captures a sinister mood and faithfully recreates a turbulent time without romanticizing it. Black Bread doesn't hold as powerful a flame as its nine Goya awards might indicate, but it's a solid period melodrama, and should be well-received at festivals such as this one.

End of Animal
A pregnant young woman is traveling by taxi along a dirt road when the car is hailed by a hitchhiker. The hitchhiker is aggressive, knows a suspicious and unsettling amount of personal information about both the woman and the cab driver, and announces that in 270 seconds all the electricity in the world will go out.

The most alluring aspect of New Korean Cinema is its tendency to feel tangibly real. Many scenes are like spying on strangers; characters are prone to clumsiness, stuttering, unappealing manners and are generally fine being unattractive. An approach inverse to Hollywood filmmaking, this kind of relatable human behavior is important in grounding End of Animal, a film that tackles the end of the world, visits from the metaphysical and a vicious beast roaming the Korean countryside. The film often moves in frustrating circles, as the young woman struggles to find refuge within a living nightmare, but its convincing characters consistently keep Animal from running off the rails.

Like End of Animal, realism is key to the success of Romanian crime drama Aurora. The synopsis is titillating: Viorel, a downtrodden engineer, meticulously plans a shooting in dreary wintertime Bucharest. In its actualization, however, Romanian director Cristi Puiu's (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 2005) film follows Viorel as he shops for guns and tests his equipment, in between picking up pie at the local cafe, renovating his apartment and taking a shower. By interlacing its violence with banality, the film seamlessly drains some of the American thrill and glamour that has come to surround gunplay and murder.

A number of early scenes are unafraid to linger on tedium - in a darkly ridiculous manner - but as the film progresses it becomes an increasingly taught mystery, one that asks audiences to question why rather than how. In the same way that Let the Right One In and We Are What We Are positioned well-trod horror myths within recognizable worlds, Aurora drowns a provocative subject in a sea of mundanity. And, at a hefty three hours, it is a testament to Puiu's technique that Aurora remains one of the most charged thrillers of the year.

Nostalgia for the Light
Juxtaposition. Critics love to use the word; it's one of the most elementary forms of critique in any art field. Nostalgia for the Light is all about juxtaposition: the juxtaposition of technology and history, memory and buried bones. Political documentarian Patricio Guzmán explores Chile's Atacama Desert, an area with a sky so translucent that astronomers from all over the planet come to observe space from the largest telescopes in the world. But the Atacama Desert is also home to an obfuscated past, a place where aging Chileans scour the earth for the remains of family members who were taken as political prisoners during the country's military coup in the early 70s.

Guzmán's narration, like the film, is more poetry than knowledge and the cinematography - from the night sky to the arid, dusty desert floor - is consistently gorgeous. The director's intentions are never in doubt, and Nostalgia wears its indignance on its sleeve. Such a pretense-less narrative isn't easy to swallow, but it accomplishes what the best documentaries do: it shines a light where there were only shadows.

On Tour
What an odd little film this is. I suspect most Western audiences familiar with Mathieu Amalric know him as James Bond villain Dominic Greene in Quantum of Solace. Or, as Jean-Dominique Bauby if you follow the arthouse, in Oscar-nominated The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. But On Tour is an altogether different kind of film; a beautifully clumsy thing that owes much to neorealism and the grimy verite of John Cassavetes.

Haggard-looking ex-TV producer Joachim (Amalric) arrives in France with an American burlesque group, organizing a run of shows meant to climax with a career-making performance in Paris. As viewers, we are dragged from port towns to The City of Light, never the wiser about Joachim's true intentions, and Amalric's performance is lively in a manner that is equally charming and pitiable.

The film's Closing Night slot is no surprise; Amalric won Best Director in Cannes last year. But much of the acclaim must be attributed to the cinematography of Christophe Beaucarne, who finds beauty in unlikely places. On Tour is episodic and wandering but it is also believably funny and has a good deal of fantastic cabaret footage. I would have happily watched Joachim and his girls tour for another hour or two.

Cross-published at Ornery-Cosby
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