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Past Article

San Sebastian 04
By Juan Manuel Freire
January 2, 2005 - 1:57 PM PST

From Allen to Zabaltegi.

The 52nd San Sebastian Film Festival ran from September 17 through 25, 2004, and Juan Manuel Freire sent fast and furious dispatches to GreenCine Daily.

September 18.

Two years ago, Lucas Belvaux surprised us with his notable Trilogy - three films involving the same characters and touching on the same basic storyline and approached from the framework of three different genres, the comedy, the thriller and the drama. Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda - its world premiere also opened the San Sebastian Film Festival yesterday - plays a rather similar game. It tells the same story from two one points of view, one tragic, the other comic, and goes even further by juxtaposing the drastically contrasting results instead of reserving an individual film for every mood. The challenge results in a perfect and enchanting jam of two types of films Allen has made before - intimate, sad, Bergman-inspired drama and neurotic romantic comedy. It?s the best Woody Allen in ages and it deserves universal acclaim. Word of mouth.

September 19.

Two unique gems were on offer on the restless second day of screenings in San Sebastian. The competition section presented an unlikely pretender in the form of the one-of-a-kind pop-porn film Nine Songs from the maverick British director Michael Winterbottom. It's been widely regarded as a shocking film in which a couple has sex, goes to some gig, then has sex, goes to some gig and so on. Such a plot summary, though not entirely unattractive, doesn?t do justice to a true cinematic challenge, a pure and perceptive depiction of these two people's lives. We are permitted see everything - the little, dumb words, the ridiculous dances, the dialogue of the eyes, and also, yes, the sex, in all its spiritual and carnal strength, all its life. We?re permitted to see everything invisible and visible. Everything. And when the end comes, the pain is almost unbearable.


San Sebastian's Zabaltegi section is reserved for discoveries from other festivals, and one of the highlights is a co-production from New Zealand and Great Britain, In My Father's Den. Writer-director Brad McGann's film was recently hailed at Toronto and it's easy to see why. It?s sweeping, liquid cinema, navigating back and forth in time with the fluidity of Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, showing a great care for framing and creating a trance-like sense of hypnosis. And the story is not just an excuse for aesthetic exploration, but a dense, hot-blooded account of a group lives held as prisoners to the past - and eventually victims of it. Imagine Mystic River set in Twin Peaks and you're almost there. I didn't want the movie to come to an end. Emotional bliss.

September 21.

The latest surprise from Zabaltegi section has come in the form of an adult tale starring almost exclusively young girls. Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence is not a perfect movie - it's even more pretentious than Mike Figgis's latest outings, and it's overlong, and derivative. But Hadzihalilovic's unusual film - apparently, she and agent provocateur Gaspar Noé are an item - arouses a sense of risk, even danger sadly missing in the vast majority of selections at the festival, and that's something to appreciate.


Innocence is a place. The film centers on life in a school for girls which serves as a handy metaphor for, yes, innocence. The always painful passage from infancy to adolescence is presented in the form of a quasi-Victorian tale with hints of the supernatural - young girls learning the facts of life through a series of symbolic accidents, meetings and various objects at play. The idea is simple, of course, and it falls flat in the middle of the race - when it begins to feel like a short film obliged to be a long one. But the filmmaking is, nonetheless, utterly fascinating, mixing Lynchian claustrophobia with the floating magic of fairy tales for an intense cinematic experience.

A lot of people walked out of this screening. Hopefully, they had something much better to do. And hopefully, they weren't the same people who cheered the sloppy, pedantic Roma, currently ringing in as a favorite of the official section. More notes to come from San Sebastian.

September 22.

This morning, San Sebastian's film festival offered the opportunity to delve deep into the mysterious, head-spinning, mind-numbing Spider Forest, a curiosity from South Korea's Song Il-gon. Like Japanese master Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Il-gon spices up the thriller genre with bits of sci-fi, psychological drama and dirty realism, developing a challenging proposal which unnerves and fascinates. Deciphering the plot is almost impossible, but it's not exactly necessary when you're wrapped up in such powerful visuals. The film has a lyrical and violent style evoking emotive fascination and gruesome impact.

If I had to choose a directing award just now, I'd have no doubt.

September 23.

Colombian director Victor Gaviria, of La vendedora de rosas (The Rose Seller) fame, is competing in San Sebastian with Sumas y restas (Additions and Subtractions), a naturalistic thriller set in Medellin in 1984, the days of greatest narco-trafficking activity in the city. It's been six years since the last film from Gaviria, but the wait has been worth it - thanks to an abstract sense of action, sharp social commentary and flesh-and-blood characters. Like an extended episode of Miami Vice shot through with the oblique realism of La ciénaga, this is surely one of the more original features in festival's competition section.

Today's second surprise appeared in the Zabaltegi section in the form of a South American comedy full of silent gags. The film's called Whisky and it's not a comic take on She's So Lovely as some might suppose, but rather, both a sad and funny Green Card-type of story. As the movie develops at an almost morose pace and with a subtle sense of humor, the name Aki Kaurismäki soon springs to mind. Nonetheless, directors Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll reveal a style of their own soon enough, one of tenderness, absurdity, compassion and, let me say, genius. We should keep an eye on them. Closely.

The Awards.

Bahman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly has won the Golden Shell at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Turtles Can Fly

Goran Paskaljevic's Sam Zimske Noci came in close, receiving the Special Jury Prize. And Chinese director Xu Jinglei scored, rather unfairly, the Silver Shell for Best Director.

Thankfully, Adolfo Aristarain's Roma didn't win a thing, but sadly, the more adventurous selections in the official section have gone out either empty-handed, as in the case of Spider Forest, or with rather anecdotical awards - look at the Jury Award for Best Photography for Nine Songs, for example. The best news is that the Mercedes-Benz Youth Award has gone to Brad McGann's In My Father's Den, possibly the best film I saw at this festival. Now that's good taste, my young viewers!

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From Allen to Zabaltegi.

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Juan Manuel Freire
A journalist and editor, Barcelona-based Juan Manuel Freire is co-author of Teen spirit: De viaje por el pop independiente.

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