SFIFF, weekend one: city songs and auteur-itis

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By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The first Saturday of the SF International Film Festival is usually loaded. This year, the broad array of movies included some disappointments: the documentary Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts showed that Phil's a genius with wide-ranging talents and interesting friends, but it lacked drama; Ermanno Olmi's One Hundred Nails was a letdown from the director of the masterpiece The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978).

The Castro had the day's best films, starting with Carlos Saura's magical Fados, so far one of my favorites in the festival. Fado has recently come back in a big way and Saura does little more than stage several music videos back-to-back with no commentary. But each segment overflows with its own narrative and emotional power, aided by Saura's expert staging and cinematography (the screen fills with huge squares of bold colors).

Carlos Saura's Fados completes a trilogy by the director

Next up was the restored print of John Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven (1945), which is one of the most unique movies from the studio system; it's a film noir photographed in dazzling Technicolor rather than the traditional black-and-white. (In those days the format was usually reserved for musicals and cartoons.) Gene Tierney received her only Oscar nomination as the psychotically jealous green-eyed beauty who systematically attempts to destroy all the men in her life.

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Gene Tierney looks skyward and drags victims downward in Leave Her to Heaven

Sunday was uncharacteristically beautiful in San Francisco, so I limited myself to Eric Rohmer's new film, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon. Here's the problem with the French auteur theory: if a certified auteur like Rohmer makes a film as bloody awful as this one, you're still supposed to take it seriously. Rohmer is masterful at making contemporary films about smart, young French people who talk a lot and eventually fall in love (or not). The best of these are the ones fall into his three series: "Six Moral Tales," "Comedies and Proverbs" and the "Four Seasons."

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The swooning in Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon isn't contagious

When he deviates from this successful formula (as with his last two films), Rohmer is a bit harder to take. Based on a novel by Honoré d'Urfé, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is set in the 17th century, when shepherds dressed and acted like passive, helpless women. The movie depends on grand overwhelming passions sending spectators into collective swoons, but Rohmer's approach is too intellectual. He never even gets close to the corporeal level the material demands. The hero argues with his beloved and tries to kill himself. Nymphs rescue him, he whines and frets a lot and eventually disguises himself as a girl to win her back. The only thing missing is a scene in which he weeps while watching Oprah and then asks someone to open a tight jar lid for him.

The great Village Voice film critic J. "Jim" Hoberman also came to the Kabuki today to accept the Mel Novikoff award and to present José Luis Guerín's amazing must-see film In the City of Sylvia. More on that coming soon.

Take a walk to see In the City of Sylvia

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