SFIFF How to account for the desire for difficult terrain that runs through so much contemporary art cinema? Exploring the margins and crevices of what's readily visible is just what good filmmakers do, but extremes have become commonplace. The irony that these far-flung films live on in the cosmopolitan vapors of the festival circuit cannot be lost on the filmmakers themselves. Remoteness may be a relative matter, with patience revealing islands everywhere, but inaccessible landscapes nonetheless guide a handful of interesting features showing at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival.
The bourgeois couple stripped bare by vacation is a standby of modernist cinema, with Roberto Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia (1954) still the gold standard and Maren Ade's Everyone Else (2009) the best in recent memory. Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet is an almost classical work in this mode. An engaged couple (Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) hire a local guide (Bidzina Gujabidze) to lead them through the magnificent Georgian steppe, and so the psychological roundelay begins. Fraught staging, language difficulties, Gerry-rigged tracking shots, and significant pocks in the Caucasus landscape are all worked out with great expertise but little verve.
Where The Loneliest Planet draws on landscape to reveal repressed instincts, Ulrich Köhler's Sleeping Sickness drifts towards further occlusion. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is the obvious reference point, though here it's a black European who pursues a white man gone native. In the film's first half we watch as rueful Dr. Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma) prepares to leave Cameroon's lush danger with his wife and daughter. The imminent departure emboldens him to accuse the local authorities of bilking international aid donors for a nonexistent sleeping sickness crisis. Then Alex Nzila (Jean-Cristophe Folly) arrives in Cameroon to evaluate the medical program and finds Velten changed: he's in a business partnership with a man he openly despised in the first half of the film, and we hardly hear any mention of his European family. Berlin School director Köhler works displacement as a figure of psychology, politics, and narrative and smartly uses the international aid question as a frame to plunge deeper mysteries of identity.
Conrad is a significant presence in The Rings of Saturn, the peripatetic novel by W.G Sebald that's also the focus of Grant Gee's suitably oblique documentary portrait. Patience (After Sebald) offers astute commentary on the moods of Sebald's prose from thinkers like Adam Phillips, Robert Macfarlane, and Tacita Dean, though Gee succumbs to the spectacle of Google Earth mapping of the novel and some decidedly sub-Sebaldian spiritualism. Still, hearing the author speak his own mind on Virginia Woolf's moth and the phenomenology of walking is worth the price of admission for fans.