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SFIFF 53 Day Two: Constantin and Elena, Rivette’s Around a Small Mountain

SFIFF 53 Day Two: Constantin and Elena, Rivette's Around a Small Mountain

Meredith Brody starts seeing some movies at the SFIFF.

The first full day of screenings starts gently, with nothing scheduled before 3:30 in the afternoon. (A patron standing in line outside Theaters 3 & 4 in the Kabuki asks director of programming Rachel Rosen if they haven’t been let in “because the Q and A [from the previous movie] is running long.” Startled, she says “These are the first screenings of the day!”)

While waiting for Constantin and Elena in Theater 3, I chat with a lovely woman from “the former Yugoslavia” whose hot dog I had admired at the concession stand (really). She and her husband have tickets to ten movies over the festival’s two weeks. They have two young children, “or we’d take off from work and be here all day, every day.” That’s the spirit!

Constantin and Elena proves to be the perfect festival film (and, hey, its website says it’ll be at nine festivals in one month, including Brussels, Bratislava, and Buenos Aires, and that’s just the Bs): a loving, obsessive, slow-moving but charming look at the day-to-day life of a Romanian couple, married for 54 years, who now farm and weave in a small village. The filmmaker, Andrei Dascalescu, has worked as a film editor and sound engineer, notably with Francis Ford Coppola and Walter Murch on Youth Without Youth. Murch encouraged the project, which got further support from such organizations and workshops as Lisbon Docs. I imagine a life on television after the festival circuit.

Afterwards I check out the press and filmmakers’ lounge, a couple of blocks away on Fillmore. There’s always the essential festival lifeblood – coffee — available there, plus the best-stocked daily-changing assortment of food I’ve ever seen at a film festival (well, it’s San Francisco, after all). This early evening there’s unusually succulent slices of hangar steak supplied by the South End Grill ‘n’ Bar on Valencia in the Mission, delicious enough that I would visit the place for that alone.

When I admire the two-level storefront space, which is right next to a similar storefront that houses the press office, executive director Graham Leggat says it’s one of the perks of the recession: a plethora of available empty space. (I think there’s been a plethora of available empty space since the ill-advised destruction of the once-vibrant Fillmore for “redevelopment,” an ongoing nightmare.) Nevertheless, there’s a fancy party going on right next door at a new hip-hop styled clothing store.

When I stop to chat with festival programmer Sean Uyehara outside the theater where the Persistence of Vision award is about to be given to animator Don Hertzfeldt, he urges me to go in and find a seat – “It’s a sell-out.” When weak cheers greet the knowledge that Hertzfeldt was born across the bay in Fremont, he indicates that he doesn’t think Fremont deserves them.

Having only seen a few of the 33-year-old’s nihilistic handmade short films, no wonder the thought of something Hertzfeldt regards as a lifetime achievement award leads him to wonder if the festival won’t come back in ten years and tell him that he didn’t fulfill his promise. He’s obsessed with illness, death, and pain, which even translated into witty form, as exemplified by his trademark minimalist stick figures (which he calls “drawing round head after round head”), proves a bit dispiriting for this sensitive viewer.

Maybe the last film of the day, Around a Small Mountain, the new film from one of my favorite auteurs Jacques Rivette, will cheer me up. It’s set in a traveling circus! It stars Jane Birkin and Sergio Castellitto! Before it starts I chat with a young Italian, Paolo, who is also attending the maximum number of events she could fit into the day. She’s seen two worthy films I caught at one of the festival’s earlier press screenings: the powerful The Man Who Will Come by Giorgio Diritti, set in northern Italy during WW II, where the Germans fight the partisans, committing atrocities as brutal as those in the concentration camps; and The White Meadows from Mohammad Rasoulof of Iran, whose political satire is hidden in magical-realist fables, but still managed to get the director arrested (along with director Jafar Panahi) last month. (They’re both currently out on bail).

Alas, although there are some beautiful sequences, the Rivette feels like two-thirds of a film; chunks of the plot and exposition feel like they’re missing, and not in a good way. (It doesn’t help that the first two reels are out of focus, and that one of the speakers kicks in and out, too. Projection: the last line of defense in exhibition. And we’re at a festival!)

But tomorrow is another day.

Here’s a NYFF video on Around a Small Mountain:

[Herzfeldt with SFIFF’s Rosen.]

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