45 and Holding 

Is the San Francisco International Film Festival suffering a midlife crisis with the departure of Peter Scarlet?

It's a whole new fest. The 45th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival seems familiar at first glance -- same impossible-to-digest glut of films (180 in all, with 82 narrative features), same wide-world smorgasbord of coffee-table films and village pictures, same desperate, perceived need for Hollywood "star" presence to attract perplexed multiplexers. But this year's festival is different.

That's because this is the first time in nineteen years that Peter Scarlet hasn't called the shots as the festival's artistic director. When he departed after last year's event to become head of the Cinemathèque Française in Paris, most of his programming staff left with him. In their place is an arrangement of staffers and at least one guest programmer -- Roger Garcia, late of the Hong Kong fest -- plus an "international advisory board" made up of four professionals with experience in Europe, Asia, and the United States. The new team is expected to do more or less what Scarlet did, but it's doubtful that any one of them will personally provide live English translation for a rare, unsubtitled French silent, say, or come out on stage in Mongolian finery to introduce Genghis Blues, the way Scarlet did. Scarlet (with one "T," no matter how the Chronicle pink section spells it) stamped the festival with his personality. He's going to be a hard man to replace.

Nevertheless, the international flavor is about the same. Plenty of American indie and neo-indie features (including Jill Sprecher's New Yorkish character study Thirteen Conversations About the Same Thing, which opens the fest Thursday, April 18 at the Castro); the usual strong representation from France, Hong Kong and China (the Garcia effect?), Germany, and Japan; and a welcome smattering of interesting entries from Mexico and Latin America, especially Brazil and Chile. So what if we're missing some of those hard-to-reach places like Tajikistan or Burkina Faso? You can't have everything.

A few potshots and quick observations about the 2002 fest: It's good to see the festival honor Pier Paolo Pasolini. The late Italian Marxist homosexual filmmaker/ poet/essayist/provocateur deserved more recognition in his lifetime, but this year's screenings of Laura Betti's docu-biography Pier Paolo Pasolini as well as Pasolini's 1968 political sex drama Teorema are welcome signs that rebels still matter to the festival -- at least dead rebels. The fest's idea of a live rebel is evidently Warren Beatty, whose Bulworth and Reds are being screened in conjunction with his receiving the annual Akira Kurosawa Award for directing. Some commentators have complained about the "lifetime achievement" aspect of it, given Beatty's spotty directorial filmography (in addition to the above two, his only helming credits are Dick Tracy and Heaven Can Wait), but such are festival politics. Does Beatty deserve to stand with Satyajit Ray, Robert Bresson, and Michael Powell? No. But then neither do Arturo Ripstein and Im Kwon-Taek, two other previous winners. For paparazzo-bait megawattage, Beatty is this year's best hope, along with Peter J. Owens Award recipient Kevin Spacey, honored with a showing of his 1994 Swimming with Sharks.

Otherwise, the fest is a little light on archival treats this year, outside of Argentine Fernando Birri's 1961 Los Inundados (Birri takes home the Persistence of Vision Award), a rare screening of Teinosuke Kinugasa's 1926 avant-garde A Page of Madness (enlivened by a score by rock band Superchunk), and the 1916 social drama Where Are My Children?, one of the films saved by preservationist David Francis, winner of this season's Mel Novikoff Award. But what's this category in the program guide called "The Other Side of Midnight: Films That Appeal to the Edgier Sensibility"? Four neatly ghettoized titles -- a pair of Japanese bloodbaths by Takashi Miike and Shinsuke Sato, a skateboard doc, and an American neo-splatter flick called May. What's that all about? Every film in a worthwhile film festival should have some sort of a noncommercial edge to it, or else why bother to have a fest at all?

That said, there's a tidy trove of nonmainstream pics for worldly film fans in the schedule, including the Friday, April 19 opening night twosome at the Pacific Film Archive, Orlando Lübbert's A Taxi for Three and Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Millennium Mambo. The former is a grotty Chilean comedy/crime thriller about a luckless Santiago cabbie (played by Alejandro Trejo) who gets carjacked by a couple of plug-uglies (Fernando Gómez-Rovira and comedian Daniel Muñoz) in need of a getaway car, thus inaugurating his own short career as a petty criminal. Director Lübbert's Santiago has all the greasy queasiness of a John Singleton tour of LA. Meanwhile, in the nightclubs and smoky apartments of filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Taipei, a young woman named Vicky (Shu Qi) gets caught in a whirlpool of drugs, hostess bars, a nowhere turntablist boyfriend, and a gangster boyfriend who abandons her in Japan. Since veteran Hou (Flowers of Shanghai; Goodbye South, Goodbye) is doing the directing, it's a quiet, leisurely-paced whirlpool. Vicky's numb resignation is evidently supposed to symbolize the emptiness of the 21st century.

Many of the fest's most striking entries this year are in either Spanish or Portuguese, and tell cruel stories of youth. El Bola, the first feature by Spain's Achero Mañas, introduces us to Pablo, nicknamed "El Bola" (The Pellet), a twelve-year-old Madrileño whose family trouble (his father beats him) in no way reduces the movie to mere "social problem" status. Nicely detailed performances by Juan José Ballesta as El Bola, Manuel Morón as the abusing parent, and Alberto Jiménez as the sympathetic father of a classmate, plus Mañas' cool, intelligent handling of a hot-button topic distinguish El Bola. Mexican director Gerardo Tort's Streeters (Spanish title: De la calle), on the other hand, is as melodramatic as they come, a grimy slice of underclass (and underground -- the kids live in a sewer tunnel) existence in contemporary Mexico City. Picking up where Los Olvidados, Pixote, and other kids-of-the-slums films leave off, it relates the sad love story of young Rufino and Xochitl, whose gutter lives -- as street vendors fleeing from a violent renegade cop -- are rendered, post-Amores Perros, in a viscous world drained of color. Not for everyone.

Things are just as tough in Brazil, according to João Moreira Salles and Katia Lund's documentary News from a Personal War and Beto Brant's narrative The Trespasser. Salles and Lund's exciting video report takes us into the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, where "one person dies every half hour, ninety percent shot by large-caliber guns," as heavily armed drug gangs defend their 'hood against disillusioned, weary cops. One gang, Comando Vermelho, openly declares war on the middle class, and the violence has become so entrenched that it's produced commentators like then-Chief of Police Helio Luz, who nonchalantly states that he doesn't blame the dealers, and that if he lived in the favela he would probably do the same. The remarkably frank police chief, reportedly now a state representative for Rio, admits on camera, "I practice law enforcement to protect and serve the status quo." Crooked police -- along with corrupt businessmen, a dangerously bored young rich woman, and a particularly loathsome hit man/hustler named Anísio -- figure in Beto Brant's hot and nasty crime pic The Trespasser. Trouble develops when low-life Anísio, hired by two unscrupulous construction-business operators to whack their senior partner, lingers like a germ around the company after the job is done, insinuating himself into everything up to and including the dead man's spoiled daughter. Actor Paulo Miklos turns in a fantastically creepy performance as Anísio, with overtones of Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear and Michael Mann's Miami Vice.

The meaninglessness of borders is the theme of a trio of downbeat dramas. In Abolfazl Jalili's Delbaran, a fourteen-year-old Afghan refugee scratches out a living in a truckstop just inside the Iranian border, amid long stretches of lonely country and sparse dialogue. No frills here, just the story of an unwanted kid in the middle of nowhere with a chip on his shoulder, told surprisingly sympathetically by writer-director Jalili. Alain Gomis' L'Afrance shows the African side of Paris, as a dissatisfied immigrant from Senegal ("I'm tired of being 'A Black'") holds onto his homeland in his heart, despite rough treatment by the French. Pick of the litter, though, is veteran director André Téchiné's Far Away (French title: Loin), the dour little saga of a lone wolf French long-haul trucker named Serge (bearded Stéphane Rideau, radiating melancholia). Serge, who makes his living running between Tangier and Paris for a Moroccan clothing manufacturer, is sorely tempted to try smuggling drugs next time out, but he has other things on his mind, such as his erstwhile girlfriend Sarah (Lubna Azabal, in a knockout performance), who wants to move to Canada. Adding to the uncertainty is Said (Mohamed Hamaïdi), a Tangier stool pigeon with a grudge against Serge. Something's got to give. And it does.

As usual, the festival is full of fascinating documentaries, chief of which is probably Daughter from Danang, the not-necessarily-heartwarming account of an Amerasian woman's reunion with her birth mother in Vietnam, by Bay Area filmmakers Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco. Also well worth seeing are Ravi Shankar: Between Two Worlds, Mark Kidel's wonderful portrait of the Indian sitar master; Frederick Baker's ironic documentary Stalin: Red God, a testimony to pop political culture and short historical memory; Wang Guangli's mock-doc about laid-off Shanghai workers, Go for Broke; and The Pinochet Case, a devastating indictment of the former Chilean dictator by Madrid-based Chilean exile Patricio Guzmán.

There are other gems scattered through the schedule. Joseph Gaï Ramaka's Karmen Geï, a wild adaptation of Carmen in a Senegalese setting with over-the-top sex and violence, shows that Africans dig '70s blaxploitation, too. From Germany, Sven Taddicken's cute My Brother the Vampire has Tom Tykwer-style fun with a developmentally challenged young man named Josch (actor Roman Knizka, in full Crispin Glover mode), obsessed with sex, as are his brother and sister. And then there's the return of Seijun Suzuki, cult-lionized director of oddball '60s Japanese gangster and spy flicks. At age eighty, Suzuki comes roaring back with a typically fun-to-look-at, difficult-to-follow caper called Pistol Opera, a shoot-'em-up full of arty absurdities and colorful fantasy sequences -- right where he left off. Austin Powers, eat your heart out.

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