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SFIFF World Cinema


To make sense of the madness at the festival, SF Station sent our reviewers to report back on some little-hyped hits you may otherwise overlook as well as some misses with interesting titles you may want to think twice about.

Almost Brothers (Brazil, France, Chile 2004)
It's not easy to keep politics from getting in the way of telling a good story as this ambitious new film by Brazilian filmmaker Lúcia Murat shows. Cowritten by Murat and City of God novelist Paulo Lins, Almost Brothers intertwines the personal narratives of two friends, Miguel and Jorge, from opposite sides of the tracks in Rio de Janeiro with the defining moments in recent Brazilian history from the exuberant 1950s through the dictatorship of the 1970s and the racially charged social upheavals in recent years. Through a series of (at times confusing) flashbacks, we witness the shared experiences of these quasi brothers whose relationship and lives mirror the history of the uneasy relationship between the city's middle class and its slum dwellers. When we first meet the two friends, Miguel is an optimistic politician who has come to visit Jorge, an incarcerated drug lord, with a proposition to fight gang activity in the slums. The stakes are high for both: Miguel knows that his daughter Juliana is hanging out with the heavily armed thugs Jorge controls from prison, while the aging Jorge knows that his reign is threatened by a trigger-happy new breed of gang bangers. As the two old friends debate Miguel's proposal, they have to confront how far removed their lives are from the lives they dreamed of in their youths. Shot with a documentary-inflected urgency, Almost Brothers, like City of God, leaves no doubt that the social inequalities in contemporary Brazilian society won't be resolved any time soon. 4/25, 9:10pm at Pacific Film Archive and 4/28, 6:30pm; 5/1, 8:45pm at AMC Kabuki (3 out of 5 stars; MK)

Chokher Bali: A Passion Play (India, 2003)
This film might be a mesmerizing melodrama for someone intimately familiar with early 20th century Bengal, or it could be a fascinating cultural study to someone endlessly patient with historical dramas in which cultural norms clash with individual circumstances. But to someone less familiar with this culture, Chokher Bali is little more than yawn-inducing, drawn-out, and confusing -- despite being prettily filmed. At nearly three hours, and with lengthy subtitles that flash rapidly on the screen, this dialog-rich "passion play" concerns the domestic drama that erupts when a young widow (Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai of recent Bride & Prejudice fame) enters the mansion of a rich Indian family. There's social oppression, forbidden attractions between attractive people, and the widespread effects of colonial history to contend with. If this is your cup of tea then by all means bring a full pot. 4/23, 6:15pm at AMC Kabuki and 5/1, 8pm at Landmark's Aquarius Theatre (2 out of 5 stars; SG)

Duck Season (Mexico, 2004)
Best friends Flama and Moko are stoked: with Flama's mother off to work they have everything 14-year-old boys need to survive a boring Sunday in a drab Mexico City burb: an apartment all to themselves, pornographic magazines, an Xbox console, video games, and tons of junk food. Alas, their plans for killing the day by playing violent video games are foiled by frequent power outages, a 16-year-old neighbor named Rita in need of an oven to bake a cake, and a 20-something pizza delivery guy named Ulises who arrives 11 seconds after the "On Time or It's Free" deadline and refuses to leave without payment. Gradually, as time goes by the four warm up to each other through the stories they tell, and soon adolescent ennui gives way to intimate encounters and personal confessions that culminate in one of the funniest drug sequences in film history when Rita accidentally spikes a tray of brownies with the herb superb by reaching for the wrong ingredients jar. Written and directed by Fernando Eimbcke, and shot in black and white, in a style that is reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, Duck Season is a charming and delightful film that projects optimism and hope as it probes serious realities facing adolescents in their search for a meaningful existence. 4/28, 10am; 4/29, 6:30pm; and 4/30, 4:15pm at AMC Kabuki (4 out of 5 stars; MK)

Into the Picture Scroll: The Tale of Yamanaka Tokiwa (Japan, 2004)
Before manga, scrolls told the important, lasting tales that informed Japanese culture. Into the Picture Scroll depicts an ancient, dramatic, and visually rich story that was painted about 400 years ago on a now-famous collection of a dozen scrolls during Japan's Edo period. The story of a young samurai's revenge is brought to life so cinematically that it raises the bar for all art documentaries to come. With only the infrequent use of actors to convey a general scene, the film makes two dimensions come alive through the sheer power of storytelling, not special effects. Although the especially composed joruri score (ballad singing with shamisen accompaniment) sounds dissonant to Western ears at first, it adds necessary verisimilitude to this stirring cinematic work about a Japanese cultural treasure. 4/27, 3:15pm and 5/4, 6:45pm at AMC Kabuki and 5/2, 9:20pm at Pacific Film Archive (4 out of 5 stars; SG)

Little Sky (Argentina, 2004)
Written and directed by María Victoria Menis, this profoundly moving film tells the real-life story of Felix, an orphaned 20-something drifter and petty thief from one of Argentina's most destitute regions, who upon arrival in a small village in southern Argentina accepts work in exchange for room and board on a small crumbling family farm, where he develops a strange and life-altering relationship with a one-year-old baby. Strong performances, engaging production values, and a minimalist script that flashes out one of the most nuanced and convincing adult-infant relationships ever caught on film, make this simple tale of an unlikely friendship an forgettable experience. 4/24, 3:30pm and 4/26, 6:30pn at AMC Kabuki (4 out of 5 stars; MK)

Of Love and Eggs (Indonesia, 2004)
Using a bustling, music-filled outdoor market in Jakarta as a focal point, Garin Nugroho's life-affirming drama comes across like a sweet fairy tale. Narrated by a deaf girl, the film presents several stories in parallel. A bumbling imam, an orphaned boy, two obstinate girls, and well-meaning stepparents populate this hectic world where special significance is imbued upon prayer rugs, a mosque's cupola, and dozens of fresh eggs. By extracting convincing, heartfelt emotions from the child actors, Nugroho lends the film an element of seriousness; yet the children's antics remain appropriately and amusingly childlike. By giving everything the bright look of an old-fashioned movie set, he also lends the film the look of something classic. Set during the important holiday of Lebaran, when city folk leave town to visit their native villages, Of Love and Eggs displays a variety of complex emotions that can arise when family members miss their loved ones -- even when they haven't gone anywhere at all. 4/28, 6pm and 5/5, 8pm at AMC Kabuki and 5/2 6:30pm at Landmark's Aquarius Theatre (3 out of 5 stars; SG)

Ronda Nocturna (Argentina/France, 2005)
In this nocturnal portrait of contemporary Buenos Aires, junkies, homeless families, dumpster divers, and hustlers roam the streets, parks, and back alleys looking for sustenance, whether it's food, money, safety, or companionship. Raised in the countryside, young Victor calls his particular street corner home. Unfazed by what he witnesses -- not so much actual violence as societal indifference and excesses in various forms -- he makes his rounds, meets his buddies, and plies his trade: trading sex with men for money and some degree of protection. But this is the night of All Souls Day and soon he realizes that not all is what it seems. The minimalist dialog in Ronda Nocturna forces you to watch the evocative, contemplative filmmaking, which only enhances the directness of the subject matter. 4/23, 7pm and 4/25, 4:15pm at AMC Kabuki (3 out of 5 stars; SG)

Three Times Two (Cuba, 2004)
Shot in digital video on a shoestring budget, and blown up to 35mm, this critically acclaimed omnibus film projects three distinct takes on male-female relationships by three of Cuba's most talented young filmmakers. Pavel Giroud's "Flash", a haunting tale about love and death, follows a young photographer obsessed by an enigmatic woman who inexplicably appears in almost all the pictures he takes of Havana's historical districts. Lester Hamlet's "Lila", a politically-inflected musical set in rural Cuba, revolves around the memories of an elderly woman reminiscing about her adolescence and an early love affair with a young man who, one day, decides to join the rebels in pre-Castro Cuba. Esteban Insausti's "Luz roja" captures the chance encounter between an unhappy blind radio announcer and an equally unhappy psychologist that morphs into a steamy, intimate fantasy about two lonely urbanites in search of love and companionship. Smart, intriguing, and full of energy and creativity, Three Times Two, like every student project, has its imperfections, but as far as omnibus films go, it packs three unforgettable punches that will stun, touch, and excite the film buff in you. 4/22, 4:45pm; 4/24, 10pm and 4/30, 6:45pm at AMC Kabuki (4 out of 5 stars; MK)

When the Tide Comes In(France, 2004)
If you're in the mood for one-star hotels, late night beers, and the poetic nighttime glow of an oil refinery, then check out this spot-on charmer by the first-time writing-directing team Gilles Porte and Yolande Moreau (who played the concierge in Amélie) which won the coveted Prix Louis Delluc award for best French debut feature. Modest in scope and bittersweet in sentiment, the film focuses on a middle-aged traveling actress, Irene, whose one-woman show "Sex and Crime" attracts a dubious admirer in Dries, a carnival giants porter. Dries becomes thoroughly enamored with her performance and on-stage character when she picks him out of the audience as a "human prop" for her shtick. For him, it's the beginning of a love story, but in this scenario, the real-life love story that develops between this mismatched pair carries eerie overtones of the dirty story Irene recounts onstage. Coasting on melancholy charm, When the Tide Comes In is the type of flick you will want to warm up to when you're feeling lonely and are in need of cinematic companionship. 4/23, 9:15pm and 4/25, 3:15pm at AMC Kabuki and 4/27, 9pm at Pacific Film Archive (4 out of 5 stars; MK)

Critics: Michael Koch, Stefan Gruenwedel & Matthew Forsman compiled this piece.