Death in San Francisco

in 56th San Francisco International Film Festival

by Vincent Musetto

One prominent theme in the 11 movies I and my fellow FIPRESCI jurors saw at the 56th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival is death and dying. Take the compassionate Memories Look at Me (Ji Yi Wang Zhe Wo), from China, directed by and featuring Song Fang, a star of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon (Le voyage du ballon rouge). In Memories Look at Me she’s a Beijing woman who goes to Nanjing to visit her aging parents (played by the director’s real parents). The main subject of their conversation is the plight of aging and approaching death.

In the semi-autobiographical Youth (Jeunesse), directed by Louis Malle’s middle daughter,  Justine, a college student (Esther Garrel, daughter of director Philippe Garrel) falls in love for the first time just as she faces her dying father’s  final days. The Cleaner (El Limpiador), by Peruvian director Adrian Saba, treats dying on a larger scale — a mysterious epidemic that is eviscerating Lima’s adult population but sparing its children. A lonely, middle-aged forensic cleaner shelters an orphaned boy he discovers at one of the clean-up sites. The film — with scant dialogue, action and characters — contains an exceptional performance by Victor Prada as the title character.

And in the meditative Mai Morire, by Mexican director Enrique Rivero, a woman returns home to care for her dying 99-year-old mother. The film will haunt viewers long after they see it.

Death has little to do with the film that won the FIPRESCI prize, Nights With Theodore (Les nuits avec Theodore), a life-affirming French movie by Sebastien Betherder. Clocking in at a scant 67 minutes and a mix of fiction and documentary, it follows the adventures of a young man and woman who meet at a party in Paris and afterward  sneak into a park and spend the night there, returning night after night until fate intervenes.

The most visually beautiful of the 11 films is Chaika, set in snowy Siberia and directed by Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain. A young prostitute gives birth to an illegitimate son and is taken in by a downtrodden sailor. The brutal winter landscape is breathtaking, with the final scene especially stunning.

The best performance in the 11 films is given by Sanem Oge in the Istanbul-set Present Tense (Simdiki Zaman), helmed by Belmin Saylemez. Oge tugs at the heart as a young woman — jobless, lonely and facing eviction from her apartment — who dreams of escaping to the United States.

Me and You (Io e Te), Bernando Bertolucci’s first film in a decade and his return to Italy after a long absence, was not eligible for any prizes, but it was one of the festival’s hottest tickets. The coming-of-age yarn about a teenage boy and his junkie half-sister is entertaining, but no where near the standards of the director’s early work. Bertolucci, 73 and confined to a wheelchair after back surgery gone wrong, has an unbilled cameo in the first scene. The director has just been chosen to head the international jury at the Venice festival, which opens Aug. 28.

Vincent Musetto