Hangover Cure 

Less is more at the 51st annual San Francisco International Film Festival.

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The SF International has a classics division. Veteran auteurs Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer have been such frequent contributors that their fans could count on them practically every year. Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two, the prolific master's 68th film, was reportedly inspired by the same real-life events as Milos Forman's Ragtime, the murder of a rich old hedonist by a jealous young man, also rich, over a poor beauty. Chabrol's wry version pits aging novelist François Berléand against hot-blooded playboy Benoît Magimel for the affections of TV talk-show host Ludivine Sagnier. It shows May 1 at the PFA. Chabrol is 77 years old. Rohmer is 88, and The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, his take on the ancient Gallic legend of a shepherd and a lady, would seem to clash with the contemporary settings of most of his work in the last thirty years. But this film may be his last. The PFA screening takes place April 29. Meanwhile, Italian director Ermanno Olmi (Il Posto) has decreed One Hundred Nails to be his final film as well. In it, a restless philosopher (Raz Degan) vandalizes one hundred old manuscripts by driving nails through them, then finds solace in a shack by the River Po, where he rediscovers the art of living simply. Olmi's elegiac work plays Friday, April 25 at the PFA.

The village picture, a staple of film festivals since they first began, takes welcome new shape in several SFIFF offerings. In such low-key, often non-linear films as Thai director Aditya Assarat's Wonderful Town and Huling Balyan Ng Buhi (or the Woven Stories of the Other) by Sherad Anthony Sanchez of the Philippines, we see a 21st-century experimental wrinkle on the familiar village formula — instead of straightforward sagas with deliberate narrative thrust, we explore the inner workings of the characters obliquely, with detours. An amiable example of this is Liew Seng Tat's Flower in the Pocket, with two young Chinese-Malaysian brothers making their unsteady way through life without a mother, while their neglectful father tends to his mannequin workshop. It screens at the PFA on May 3.

In the same neo-village-pic vein is the beautiful Cochochi, by the Mexican directing team of Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán. Another two young brothers, Evaristo and Tony from the indigenous Rarámuri people in the mountains of Chihuahua, undertake the task to deliver some medicine to their aunt on the other side of the sierra, and have adventures along the way. The boys are anything but carefree and they don't speak unnecessarily. But they are dignified, and we are treated to the greenest, coolest, mistiest Mexico imaginable. See Cochochi May 5 at the PFA. Barcelona, as glimpsed inside the flat occupied by the characters in writer-director Ventura Pons' Barcelona (A Map), is just a big village where a cross-dressing, terminally ill, Maria-Callas-worshipping former opera house usher and his equally complex wife preside over their eccentric house-share tenants — all of them with the rebellious, iconoclastic spirit that makes that Catalan city unique. You'll have to trek to the Kabuki to see it, April 26 and 28, and May 1.

The lives of lower-middle-class African Americans in the Mississippi Delta make another neo-village-pic, Ballast, one of the best surprises of the year. The debut feature of Lance Hammer, who wrote, produced, directed, and edited it, Ballast deals with yet another pair of brothers in trouble — one living, one recent suicide — and the tough details of life in one of the poorest regions in the US. The cast of non-actors achieves poignancy no amount of trained preparation ever could. It opens commercially this summer, but you can catch it early at the PFA, May 2, with filmmaker Hammer. Among other films from the African-American experience, Barry Jenkins' Medicine for Melancholy rings true for its romantic portrait of Micah and Joanne, a pair of "alternative" modern lovers negotiating their urban dreams in present-day San Francisco. It plays the PFA May 4, with Jenkins in attendance.

One more African-American-themed movie, Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, shows how one of the country's oldest black neighborhoods viewed itself and its role in history, before and after Hurricane Katrina. Director Dawn Logsdon and writer/narrator Lolis Eric Ellie's remarkable documentary gathers together a wealth of historical footage to show just how special the place was, and how it has changed. It's at the Kabuki, May 3, 6, and 7.

The SFIFF takes a special interest in documentaries, and one of them is an absolute must-see despite its un-sexy subject. Fernando E. Solanas' Latent Argentina laments the "mental colonialism" that caused that country to sell or give away most of its industry after the world's economic powers (led by you-know-whom) decided that Argentina was to stop being a producer and to concentrate instead on supplying raw materials to multi-nationals. Want to know how Argentina became the "poor man of Latin America"? This doc explains, and praises its newfound resistance to privatization. It plays the PFA on Sunday, April 27.

South American overtures of a different kind are the subject of Theodore Thomas' Walt & El Grupo, a splendid record of Walt Disney's 1941 sojourn in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, ostensibly to foster good will and gather material — Disney was really escaping from a strike at the Mouse House (April 26, 28, and 30 at the Kabuki). John Gianvito's Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (Sunday, May 4 at the PFA) achieves a remarkable "people's history" of the US simply by showing memorials to massacred Native Americans, slave rebellions, labor martyrs, civil rights champions, and other progressive folks, with only the sound of the wind through tall grass and trees on the soundtrack.

Two docs take skeptical looks at China's economic boom: Du Haibin's Umbrella, in which consumer-crazy factory workers contrast with university graduates who can't find a job except in the army (April 29, May 2 and 8 at the Kabuki); and Up the Yangtze, Yung Chang's portrait of the life-altering effects of the massive Three Gorges Dam project (PFA, May 8). More worthwhile docs: Peter Galison and Robb Moss' US security deconstruction, Secrecy (PFA, May 5); The Judge and the General, a study of the legal case against Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile, by Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco (PFA, May 6); Stranded, Gonzalo Arijon's harrowing account of a 1972 airline crash in the Andes that forced its survivors to resort to cannibalism (Kabuki, April 27, 29, and May 1); and, just for fun, Cachao: Uno Más. The April 28 screening of Dikayl Rimmasch's exuberant musical profile of the late Cuban mambo king at the Kabuki is followed by a Cachao memorial concert at Yoshi's San Francisco.


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