What to watch - Page 3

The Guardian staff's short takes on the San Francisco International Film Fest's must-sees

Kelly Reichardt's new frontier story Meek's Cutoff tilts decisively toward socially-minded existentialism


The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica, Romania, 2010) Andrei Ujica's three-hour documentary uses decades of propagandic footage to let the late Romanian dictator — who was overthrown by popular revolt and executed in 1989 — hang himself with his own grandiose image-making. While the populace suffered (off-screen, you might want to bone up on the facts before seeing this ironical, commentary-free portrait), the "great leader" and his wife Elena were constantly seen holding state dances, playing volleyball, hunting bear, and vacationing hither and yon. (We even see them on the Universal Studios tour.) There's no surprise in seeing them greeted with enormous pageantry in China; but it's a little shocking to see this tyrant welcome Nixon (in the first-ever U.S. presidential visit to a Communist nation), lauded by Jimmy Cartner, and hobnobbing with Queen Elizabeth. This grotesque parade of self-glorifying public moments has a happy ending, however. Sat/23, 12:45 p.m., Kabuki; Sun/24, 5:15 p.m., New People; May 1, 1:30 p.m., PFA. (Harvey)

Life, Above All (Oliver Schmitz, South Africa/Germany, 2010) It's tough enough to simply grow up, let alone care for a parent with AIDS and deal with the suspicions and fears of the no-nothing adults all around you. Rising above easy preaching and hand-wringing didacticism, Life, Above All takes as its blueprint the 2004 best-seller by Allan Stratton, Chandra's Secrets, and makes compelling work of the story of 12-year-old Chandra (Khomotso Manyaka) and her unfortunate family, unable to get effective help amid the thicket of ignorance regarding AIDS in Africa. After her newborn sister dies, Chandra finds her loyalty torn between her bright-eyed best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), who's rumored to hooking among the truck drivers in their dusty, sun-scorched rural South African hometown, and her mother (Lerato Mvelase), who listens far too closely to her bourgie friend Mrs. Tafa (an OTT Harriet Manamela), for her own good. Cape Town native director Oliver Schmitz sticks close to the action playing across his actors' faces, and he's rewarded, particularly by the graceful Manyaka, in this life-affirmer about little girls forced to shoulder heart-breaking responsibility far too soon. Sat/23, 4 p.m., and April 28, 6 p.m., Kabuki. (Kimberly Chun)

The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Poland/Sweden, 2010) One of the clichés often told about art is that it is supposed to speak to us. Polish director Lech Majewski's gorgeous experiment in bringing Flemish Renaissance painter Peter Bruegel's sprawling 1564 canvas The Procession to Calvary to life attempts to do just that. Majeswki both re-stages Bruegel's painting — which draws parallels between its depiction of Christ en route to his crucifixion and the persecution of Flemish citizens by the Spanish inquisition's militia — in stunning tableaux vivant that combine bluescreen technology and stage backdrops, and gives back stories to a dozen or so of its 500 figures. Periodically, Bruegel himself (Rutger Hauer) addresses the camera mid-sketch to dolefully explain the allegorical nature of his work, but these pedantic asides speak less forcefully than Majeswki's beautifully lighted vignettes of the small joys and many hardships that comprised everyday life in the 16th century. Beguiling yet wholly absorbing, this portrait of a portrait is like nothing else at the festival. Sat/23, 12:30 p.m., SFMOMA, and April 27, 9 p.m., Kabuki. (Sussman)