The Guardian staff's short takes on the San Francisco International Film Fest's must-sees
Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, France/Chile/Germany, 2010) Chile's Atacama Desert, the setting for Patricio Guzmán's lyrically haunting and meditative documentary, is supposedly the driest place on earth. As a result, it's also the most ideal place to study the stars. Here, in this most Mars-like of earthly landscapes, astronomers look to the heavens in an attempt to decode the origins of the universe. Guzmán superimposes images from the world's most powerful telescopes — effluent, gaseous nebulas, clusters of constellations rendered in 3-D brilliance — over the night sky of Atacama for an even more otherworldly effect, but it's the film's terrestrial preoccupations that resonate most. For decades, a small, ever dwindling group of women have scoured the cracked clay of Atacama searching for loved ones who disappeared early in Augusto Pinochet's regime. They take their tiny, toy-like spades and sift through the dirt, finding a partial jawbone here, an entire mummified corpse there. Guzmán's attempt through voice-over to make these "architects of memory," both astronomers and excavators alike, a metaphor for Chile's reluctance to deal with its past atrocities is only marginally successful. Here, it's the images that do all the talking — if "memory has a gravitational force," their emotional weight is as inescapable as a black hole. Tues/26, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki, and April 28, 6:15 p.m., PFA. (Devereaux)
The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, France, 2010) Fairytales are endemically Freudian; perhaps it has something to with their use of subconscious fantasy to mourn — and breathlessly anticipate — the looming loss of childhood. French provocateuse Catherine Breillat's feminist re-imagining of The Sleeping Beauty carries her hyper-sexualized signature, but now she also has free reign to throw in bizarre and beastly metaphors for feminine and masculine desire in the form of boil-covered, dungeon-dwelling ogres, albino teenage princes, and icy-beautiful snow queens. The story follows Anastasia, a poor little aristocrat, who longs to be a boy (she calls herself "Sir Vladimir"). When her hand is pricked with a yew spindle (more of a phallic impalement, really), Anastasia falls into a 100-year adventurous slumber, eventually awakening as a sexually ripe 16-year-old. It all plays like an anchorless, Brothers Grimm version of Sally Potter's 1992 Orlando. And while it's definitely not for the kiddies, it's hard to believe that many adults would find its overt symbolism and plodding narrative any more than a sporadically entertaining exercise in preciousness. Your own dreams will undoubtedly be more interesting — perhaps you can catch a few zzz's in a theater screening this movie. Tues/26, 6:15 p.m., and April 27, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Devereaux)
THE 54TH ANNUAL SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL runs April 21–May 5. Venues are the Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Castro, 429 Castro, SF; New People, 1746 Post, SF; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third, SF; and Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, SF. For tickets (most shows $13) and complete schedule visit www.sffs.org>.