Top pic picks

SFIFF: Short takes on festival flicks

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14-18: The Noise and the Fury

The White Meadows (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran, 2009) This latest by the recently jailed Iranian director of Iron Island (2005) is a stark, visually striking allegory whose natural settings (the salt formations of Lake Urmia) could hardly be more surreal. Aging Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi) rows his little boat from one tiny island community to another, collecting tears from variably aggrieved locals so they can be absolved of their sins — just how, neither they or we know. During his latest travels he gains a teenaged stowaway, then a blind-struck painter as passengers; witnesses a couple of village rituals that prove fatal for their main participants; and experiences other curious events that scarcely prompt a raised eyebrow from him. As with so much modern Iranian cinema, Mohammad Rasoulof's film carefully renders its political symbolism so abstract you can dig endlessly for hidden meanings, or simply lose yourself in the hypnotic black-and-white-in-color imagery of black-clad people on bleached landscapes. Fri/23, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki; Sat/24, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki; Sun/25, 8 p.m., PFA. (Dennis Harvey)

Nymph (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand, 2009) Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Girl cheats on boy with boss. Boy falls in love with tree. So are the broad strokes of Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang's jungle-horror, Nymph, a city-to-country romance that deftly weaves strands of urban anomie, sexual dysfunction, and rural mythos into a dreamy, arboreal fantasia. One might be tempted to reference Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009) and fellow Thai helmer Apichatpong Weerasethakul's 2004 breakout, Tropical Malady, as obvious points of reference, but that would derogate the potency and intensity of Ratanaruang's singular, artistic design. The director of Last Life in the Universe (2003) and Ploy (2007) creates a tropical mise-en-scène that is less cinematic than immersive, developed largely by his use of tight, suspenseful close-ups, fluid camera work (including a 10-minute opening sequence that is practically gymnastic), and a transfixing ambient score. But unlike Tropical Malady, which leveraged much of its second-half's novelty from overwrought, homoerotic tropes and a condescending nativism, Nymph's descent into the jungle is only the beginning of this powerful love story. Fri/23, 9 p.m., Kabuki; Sat/24, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki; April 28, 4:45 p.m., Kabuki. (Erik Morse)

Around a Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette, France/Italy, 2009) Around a Small Mountain (or 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup) is New Wave doyen Jacques Rivette's return to the whimsy of 1984's Love on the Ground, another exploration of theater staring eternal demoiselle Jane Birkin. In Mountain, Birkin plays Kate, a prodigal daughter who has returned to her deceased father's circus after an unspecified trauma forced her into a 15 year absence. En route she encounters Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), a peripatetic who instantly discovers in Kate a fellow improviser for his acrobatic feats of conversation. In hopes of learning her secret past, Vittorio follows Kate and her shabby troupe from performance to performance through the tiny towns of the Cevennes. Along the way, Rivette treats his audience to a mish-mash of sideshow sketches, enchanting dialogues and haunting soliloquies, all beneath the magical totem of the big top. The film is spellbinding ode to the theatre of everyday life and the actors who prance in and out of its cirque. Fri/23, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki; Sat/24, 4:15 p.m., Kabuki; April 28, 6:30 p.m., PFA. (Morse)