The longest running festival in North America delivered its 52nd edition with typical ease, straying little from a tight script that relies on fastiduously selected, proven titles from the festival season. With the San Francisco Film Sociey now offering year-round programming, and pining for a new home in the historic Presidio enclave, SFIFF has effectively become the organisation’s annual two-week harvest, neither overwhelming in its yield nor lacking in quality fruit. That the festival continued to reap full houses during an economic slump was good news indeed; maybe the newly unemployed were finding time for matinee screenings of Antonioni restorations (Le Amiche, 1955), or solace in the exploits of an unrepentant French thug (Mesrine: A Film in Two Parts, Jean-François Richet).
On the subject of seeking home, two standout films offered contrasting takes on the metaphorically ripe notion of belonging. Ursula Meier’s Home had the benefit of marquee power in Isabelle Huppert, as well as the director’s auspicious made-for-television debut, Des épaules solides (Strong Shoulders, 2002). In Home she strikes a conceit that takes ex-urban living to an absurdly allegorical level but with an original tone that nevertheless suggests Tati’s Trafic (1971) and Godard’s Week-End (France, 1967) by way of the Dardennes (the presence of Olivier Gourmet as the wild-eyed patriarch only enhances the impression). While Huppert and Gourmet command full attention as the obsessively affectionate parents of a wayward household threatened by a completed highway, it is in the youngest of three children – a lanky blonde boy named Julien, whose angelically tortured face is practically caressed in the intimate framing by DP Agnès Godard – that Meier sympathetically situates her tale of domestic woe. If the family intrinsically threatened from within becomes environmentally subject to an even more hostile climate from without, coping becomes the definitive living condition, a symbolic state that Meier treats with a rather elastic sense of humour and dread. Keep the noise out, or let the light in?
Permeability is implicit in Esther Rot’s curiously titled debut Kan Door Huid Heen (Can Go Through Skin), a film perhaps described as one woman’s descent into exquisite decay. This aching pastoral is relentlessly fixed on Marieke (a fearless Rifka Lodeizen), a young Dutch woman who at film’s outset narrowly escapes a brutal attack in her bathtub and is left naked and shivering on a city street. Cut to a presumably willful retreat in an abandoned house in the country, where recovering Marieke flirts with total isolation (literally holing up in the cupboards) or tentatively re-engaging (with a kind neighbour who initially offers sheep to keep the wild grass down). Rots remains vigilant of Marieke through alternately hopeful and sordid moments (one instance of both involves a kitten rescue that goes horribly awry), resulting in an ambiguous characterisation that is exhausting but ultimately compelling in its compassion. Rots rigs her heroine’s mindset to a fractured aesthetic – in particular a freely associative sound design – that is dramatically hyperbolic but viscerally grounded. The Lynne Ramsey/Morvern Callar connection is not altogether without basis, though it’s as if Marieke was recoiling not from the death of a beloved but rather the peeled away fragility of her own survival.
Destined by design to incense the impatient, Jaime Rosales formally ”experimental” Tiro en la cabeza (Bullet in the Head) expands on his aesthetic of stasis, removing his camera to a distance at which dialogue is inaudible, supplanted by an ambient drone of traffic and nature, and his characters reduced to sheer gesture, seen behind windows and often framed in rectalinear compositions. The camera does move, however, and this is in substance a traditional existential thriller executed by radically different means. Tedium is a given, as an unidentified man who is the film’s default protagonist goes about his quotidien routine; he eats, drinks, lurks at a kiosk, meets a woman, sees friends. The cumulative banality is underscored by the sense of portent that lurks in Rosales’ cinema, that violence can erupt at any moment, indiscriminately, unforgiving, unspectacularly. Will this man get the titular bullet in his head, or will he be the one to deliver it? Does this change our perception of the preceding action? This being Basque country, the question of motivated violence is rendered relative by Rosales’ preferred mode of storytelling, a refusal of disclosure that leaves the viewer helplessly detached – a position uniquely contrary to the violence-as-spectacle style, and fundamental to the passivity of film viewing. Neither fatally boring nor trance-inducing as its detractors and defendants may concede, Tiro en la cabeza finds Rosales at the very least refining a singular vision. Maybe he could benefit from taking a soccer star as his subject…
Bullets fly in Mesrine. Equating the ascendance of France’s historical Public Enemy to his formative participation in the Algerian war may be too facile in its causal logic: best to treat the tale of the ferocious but forgivable gangster as an ideal vehicle for a larger-than-life four hour biopic.Vincent Cassel thrashes and swaggers his way through two decades in the life: heists (two at one go, just for kicks), jailbreaks from maximum security (doubling back to spring mates), fatherhood (absentee style), and megalomaniacal headline grabber (until Pinochet moves in on the infamy title). One-time boss Gerard Depardieu and sidekick Mathieu Amalric register as mere footnotes in Mesrine/Cassel’s reckless arc – gilded with Champagne, girls and rabbit stew, no less – but it’s a morally crusading cop with a funny beard (Olivier Gourmet) who doggedly pursues ”May-reen” to the bitter end. A total romp, and no small wonder why it isn’t France’s biggest export to America since Carla Bruni.
With Documentary rising, it was comforting to see modest but pointed works from a couple of veteran practitioners, dispatching from cinematically exotic locations without any attendant exoticism. Heddy Honigman returns to her native Peru in El Olvido (Oblivion) and refracts the country’s abuses of power through a street-level inquiry of lives lived beneath the shadow of the presedential palace. Honigman finds a kind of poetry in everyday labour; the implied hell in a pisco sour routinely served up as an example of national pride; a mother conscionably defending her childrens’ labour of performing tricks at traffic stops. Her subjects dwell in a political and economic oblivion, spinning endless cartwheels for a dirty palm full of coins; dignified, and anything but oblivious.
Jean-Marie Téno’s Lieux Saints (Sacred Places) is devoted to a place of worship that will strike a spiritual chord in any festival-trotting cinephile, a makeshift movie theatre in Burkino Faso that doubles as a prayer room when not hosting young Africans to VHS screenings of Jackie Chan flicks and the rare native film (Yaaba, Idrissa Ouedraogo, 1989). Forget about soda pop sticking to the cineplex floor: proprietor Boubakar’s Votre Cine Club is all wooden benches and dirt floor, but boasts a roaming PA system in the form of a djembe drummer who beats out coming attractions, while wondering if the brothers Coen, Dardenne, and Lumière will heed his call, a deep song that pre-dates cinema but a tradition to which the movies now belong. Quite unexpectedly Lieux Saints emerges from a simple evocation of Ouagadougou to an unforced treatise on art and community. Comforting to know that, in deepest Burkino Faso, a bad print is still ”no good for the film fans.”
Aida Begic’s Snijeg (Snow), winner of the New Directors Prize in the festival’s most compelling section, charts a week in the life of a Bosnian mountain village where the women have been widowed and orphaned by the war, leaving a spectral community that is nonetheless hard at work. Absence and survival are reflected in the artifacts of their labour: textiles refashioned from used clothes and fruits harvested and preserved, the kind of work faced with potential obsolescence when entrepreneurial Serbs come seeking to buy out the land from under them. Director Begic goes for personal grace notes amid the new political determinations of the region, lingering on a young woman’s windswept headscarf as she waits, possibly in vain, for a suitor to buy up her stock of jam in what amounts to the possibility of a kinder destiny.
At 52, SFIFF is both venerable and unlikely to change its ways. Names such as Coppola and Redford dutifully fill out award slots that are part of the festival’s enduring appeal; no film lover doesn’t welcome such luminaries. But what of Lourdes Portillo, recipient of the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award, represented with her new film Al Más Allá? Certainly no household name, yet both she and audiences stand to benefit from the exposure. The notion of persistence of vision then extends to the festival itself: in a city reknown for transgression and tolerance, why not mount a truly daring program in which the unsparing becomes the expected (the inclusion of Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence  in the program is one such lesson in prescience)? SFIFF is Votre Cine Club at a highly evolved level: let there be action films for the kids and Hindi films for the women, but let there continue to be mysteries unfolding in the dark that we may yet make sense of.
The San Francisco International Film Festival website: http://www.sffs.org/sf-intl-film-festival.aspx