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DISPATCH FROM SPAIN | Local Heroes Stroll the Fuschia Carpet and Boys Conquer the Screen in San Seba

DISPATCH FROM SPAIN | Local Heroes Stroll the Fuschia Carpet and Boys Conquer the Screen in San Seba

Cutely, and accutely, billed as the “Gothic Rio de Janeiro of Spain,” the capital of the Basque region is the perfect place not to be in the cinemas. With its majestic beaches, picturesque surrounding mountains, a Jesus statue on the hilltop, small cobblestone alleys in the old town, and massive stone structures of centuries-old buildings that appear like movie sets, San Sebastian offers plenty of distraction from the silver screen.

Sure enough, guests, press and industry alike, are usually allowed to chill out a bit. By 3.p.m every day, the festival’s futuristic center, the Kursaal is totally deserted. Everyone’s out for a siesta. The shops are closed, the beaches are crowded. “What’s here not to like? I have a guilt complex. I’m used to busier festivals,” confides a foreign publicist, apparently a San Seb virgin. The mode here is sit back and relax. It’s not Cannes, babe.

Samira Makhmalbaf, the 28-year old scion of the Iranian filmmaking clan, was in town to present “Two-Legged Horse” in the competition. Her 20-year old sister had her turn here last year, when she became the discovery of the festival with “Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame.” The problem with both sisters’ films is that they would make excellent shorts, but the feature length “Buddha” (which ran out of steam already around 60 minutes, despite its relatively short 81 minute duration), nor Samira’s latest offering seems to be able to fill out sufficiently.

“Horse” gives a stark image of a rigidly and fiercely feudal society where, amidst widescale poverty, money dictates how people relate to each other. In this timeless social system everyone is either a master or a servant – children are no exception. If one of the child protagonists did not have a worn-out, 20th century suit on, the story, which features people in traditional clothes, could just as well have taken place in 100 B.C., or A.D. 400, for that matter. Shot in Afghanistan, Samira’s fourth feature film centers on a motherless, one-legged boy, son of a whealthy father. He grumpily faces a noisy crowd of underage, orphaned street kids to pick one among them, a runner (quite literally), who would take him to school on his back every day. Why he selects a boy of arrested development, might be up to debate, but perhaps he knows his bossy temperament will most effortlessly be imposed upon this poor kid whose tick face hosts a wide array of idiotic grimaces.

The performances, like in “Buddha,” are excellent, the Makhmalbaf ladies have great talent for spotting expressive faces and naturally talented pint-size actors, but when the mean kid-boss tries stoning the helpless horse-boy for the umteenth time, the whole concept feels overtly repetitive and trite. Only when the horse-boy is cogged a horseshoe on his feet, and his head is covered by a horse mask, do we realize, what, as a vague assumption, was lurking in our minds: that we actually were watching a parabolic fable about the nature of opression – and so the timeless characteristics of the set and locale may be indeed intended and suggestive.

More straightforward lesson about power and abuse is “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas,” in which the 8-year old son of a Nazi general leaves Berlin as his family packs up to get transfered to a remote villa in the countryside, in fact, right next to a concentration camp – or a ‘farm,’ as the boy is told, where the inmates allegedly are growing vegetables, when they are not busy entertaining each other in the cofe quarters. “You promised it will be miles away,” a shocked Vera Farmiga exclaims to her hubby. “It is,” replies David Thewlis – only their precious son can see it from his window upstairs. Cut off from his urban playmates, the mansion is too boring for the boy who soon wanders out to the forest, and stumbles upon the ‘farm’ where he befriends a fainting, pale boy in the nominal striped pyjamas, sitting behind the barbed wires, barely alive.

Shot in Hungary, this Miramax release (out in US cinemas in November) brings up the usual moral dilemmas about how long one can turn a blind eye to what’s going around him politicaly, though “Pyjamas” is a much more compelling piece of cinema than the similarly Budapest-bound production, Toronto-entry “Good,” another moral exercise about collaboration in the Nazi era. “Pyjamas” carries on like one of those traditional, academic (and mildly boring) period pieces for quite a while, until things get a bit screwed up in the second half of its running time. The heart-rendingly tragic ending, which goes from striped to stripped, gives a gripping finale to this adaptation of the best-selling John Boyne novel, yet the movie is euphemistic enough in its depiction of camp life (gruesome elements are kept in check, no killing, shooting, torture are ever shown).

Asa Butterfield and Vera Farmiga in a scene from Mark Herman’s “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.” Photo credit: David Lukacs/Miramax Films

Another film that held its international premier in town was “Le Belle personne,” the third, definitely final, and even more definitely minor piece in Christophe Honore‘s Parisienne trilogy, following the fraternal story, “Inside Paris,” and the romantic musical “Love Songs,” all starring the intellectual pin-up boy, Louis Garrel. A third take on the lives of Parisian youth, a high school-set, grayish, autumny retelling of the 17th century author, La Fayette’s novel “La Princesse de Cleves,” feels like being comprised of the rainy day outtakes of “Love Songs.” But hey, was there any sunshine in that movie at all?

Third take quikcly turns into third rate, and the ‘deja vu’ is there not only because a sing-a-song scene unexpectedly turns up near the end, (sung by Otto, a rejected lover, as a prelude to his suicide), but the derivative quality is strongly felt also because the story is lacking anything substantial. Carefuly chosen, thoughtful faces of late-teen boys and girls keep the beauty ratio consistently high throughout the whole film – but that barely qualifies for cinematic greatness, let alone originality. Thus the petty love crimes, infidelities, and betrayals kill (screen) time rather insignificantly, save for the third act, where Garrel becomes more love-sick than he ever used to (whew!), and gets caught up in a scheme to disguise a gay love affair between two of his students. It is only here that the movie takes on more beefy proportions and has enticing plot-points to offer.

Otherwise, this made-for-TV film (co-financed by the cultural channel, Arte) will remain notable only for establishing Garrel as an adult character. He’s not the melancholic, sexually radiant, tight-lipped garcon anymore. Moody as he appears again, at 25, he now plays a teacher – ironically, his screen-lover in “Love Songs” (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) plays one of his pupils.

When asked about whether he feels less of a rebel now, the 39-year old director, who has emerged in the French film scene with his provocative incestal drama, “My Mother” (Ma mere) told indieWIRE, “In France when you start out, you feel you have to make something provocative, to make a noise, unless they won’t notice you. I’m older now, and more mature, I hope. For three years I’ve been shooting a new film every January. I did not set out to make a trilogy, it just turned out that way. I feel they’re like letters. Something invokes it, I write it, then shoot it.” Continuing, Honore added, “‘La Belle personne’ was ‘inspired’ by (French President) Sarkozy’s speech about what should be taught in schools: instead of old literature, the students should learn how to work, he claimed. These three films are my film letters: they all came together very quickly. I was writing in November, shooting in January. I raised about 1.5 million euro for each, just enough to make them and keep my freedom. Now I’m going to do something more complex,” he said before he was chauffeured away to Bretagne, France, where he is currently shooting a family drama with Chiara Mastroianni and Jean-Marc Barr in the leading roles.

In some sense, this year’s guest roaster seems like a reunion of San Sebastian regulars. Michael Winterbottom once had been a subject of a full retrospective, and premiered some of his films here over the years (“9 Songs,” “The Cock and Bull Story”). His “Genova,” fresh out of its Toronto bow, is a coming-of-age drama ripe with grief and slightly supernatural elements. The film met with a dumbfounded reception at the press screening, sparsely interrupted by a few lukewarm applauds.

San Sebastian from up high. Image courtesy of Spanish Travel Bureau.

San Sebastian has been famous, and quite unique, for its incredibly rich and diverse trinity of annual retrospectives that traditionally are devoted to a national or regional cinema (this year it’s Japanese film noir), a contemporary filmmaker (this time, Terence Davies), and a director of classics (now Mario Monicelli). Thoroughly enthused, as I was, about the Davies showcase, and fairly amused by his presence on the opening night’s stage where the rediscovered British auteur (already booked for a Tribute in Thessaloniki) has taken a bow next to a carbon cut-out, lifesize replica of his figure; I, on the other hand, was left unimpressed, and have been bitching about the festival’s choice of Monicelli with fellow critics, old Hollywood cinephiles of my kind, who all long for the days when we were treated with full Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Anthony Mann, or Robert Wise retros in San Seb, that presented the career arc of the studio system directors bridging the Dream Factory’s silent and talkie era. Well, not this time…

It was good to see the 93-years-old Italian maestro, Monicelli, if not for else, walking the (not-so red) carpet much more confidantly and firmly than the somewhat huncback, and limpy Woody Allen, who is exactly 20 years his junior. Monicelli is on his way to become the greatest biological wonder of cinema, next to Manoel de Oliveira (turning 100 in December) – yet, eventually, “a mild case of bronchitis,” according to the official explanation, prevented him from giving a press conference.

The opening night was elevated by some passengers of the Hollywood-Spain bandwagon. Antonio Banderas picked up his Donostia Award from Pedro Almodovar. Woody Allen presented his “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” and stood at the fucshia carpet (to hell with the costumary, boring red) flanked by his leads, Rebecca Hall and Javier Bardem, glowing in his most dashing form. This year’s Oscar winner in the supporting actor category for his work in “No Country for Old Man,” Bardem also took a National Prize from the Spanish Government at a separate ceremony in San Sebastian.

True, the opening night’s glory is in part a testament to Spanish talent and its international reach, but there are other factors behind this triump: money and demographics. The growing Latino population in the U.S. needs Spanish-speaking stars, hence the rise of Spanish actors into worldwide stardom through Hollywood movies since the ’90s; plus Spain in itself is one of the top ten film markets, with its power and monetary means is able to singlehandedly fund a Woody Allen or a Milos Forman movie (“The Ghosts of Goya“). The audience was more than ready to embrace the home-grown talents: never mind that the opening film, “The Other Man,” starring Banderas himself, is based on a lousy script, feels utterly contrived, if downright terrible, and has the dubious honour of turning even Liam Neeson into something of a broad over-actor, so to speak. And our beloved hero of the night, Banderas? Well, he’s just plain bad in his latest role. We all know too well that on glitzy occasions like this, such minor details do not matter. The audience gets carried away by the so-called ‘star power.’ So they were.

Next up for a big time salute is Meryl Streep, who is going to grace the Basque seaside resort with her presence mid-week, to accept the Donostia Award. The festival runs through Saturday, 27 September.

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