51ST SAN SEBASTIAN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL - 9/18/2003-9/27/2003
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2003
(written by Laura Clifford except where noted as Robin)

As we head to the Principe for the first film of the day, a guy wanders along the street with
a beer, presumably still enjoying Saturday night, just like New Orleans.

Donau, Duna, Dunaj, Dunav, Dunarea (Danube) (Zabaltegi)
Danube Goran Rebic's tribute to the myriad cultures along the Danube is a little too episodic, but its semi-mystical touches and oddly collected family make this a small festival gem.

Vienna is 1,927 kilometers from the sea via the Danube.  Eighteen year old Bruno (Robert Stadlober) is brought to Franz  (Otto Sander), owner of the floating Donau Hotel, with a sealed coffin containing his mother, Mara, who asked to be buried at the spot on the river known as Iron Gate.  Mathilde (Annabelle Mandeng) is a junkie whose attention is drawn by a stork which lands on the railing of her Viennese apartment.  She follows it to its home on the Donau, insisting that they give her passage.  The reflection of the bird in a closeup of Mathilde's eye tells her fortune at journey's end.  As the Donau passes the Slovakian border at Bratislava, Mircea (Fiorin Persic Jr.) is hauled aboard after a failed attempt to swim the crossing. The nearly drowned boy makes a connection with Mathilde, the boat's drug addict.  Ship cook Tanja (Denisa Der) loves crewmate Nikola (Svetozar Cvetkovic), but when he won't commit to marriage, she disembarks at her sister's farming village.  In Romania, a gypsy with two women and a baby come on board to provide some entertainment and fulfill Mathilde's destiny. Yugoslavian border guards just throw their hands in the air at the 'ship of fools' which contains an Austrian without a visa, a wanted Romanian and a Yugoslav with a passport from a country which no longer exists.  Nikola disembarks in Serbia, where he has a wife and four children who have survived a war without him.

As the story continues, we learn that Bruno believes he is Franz's son, although Franz says it isn't possible, given timelines.  Connected by the former Olympic swimmer Mara, though, Franz eventually warms to the boy just before returning to his former wife and child in a lyrical repeat of the film's opening frames.  It is up to the last crew member Giorgi (Volodymir Goryansky) to get Bruno to his mother's relatives in Sulina, the 0 Km. point where the Danube turns into the sea.

Rebic's lovely film is a spin on the road movie.  He uses the Donau as a time machine - life stops while aboard the floating bubble, but catches back up when one disembarks.  This is visualized when Bruno finds Mara's collection of Danube waters, bottled at different stops along the way and liberates them, pouring them back into the river.  Images, such as Franz's son Michael sinking beneath the water and the Donau's stork mascot, are repeated as character's lives are touched, giving the film the feel of a fable.  B-

Robin:

Franz (Otto Sander) is the owner and captain of the floating hotel, Danube, a rusting but solid ship that he is piloting on his final voyage. A young man, Bruno  (Robert Stadlober), convinces him to take the body of the captain’s former lover, Mara, to its final resting place at the beginning of the great Danube River. Along the way, others come on board to join the little crew on their 2000-kilometer journey of awakening to Kilometer Zero of the “Danube.”

The real title is “Donau, Duna, Dunaj, Dunay, Dunarea” which reflects the different nations (and languages) that Captain Franz, his crew and passengers must pass through on their way to, for some, a final resting place and, for others, the beginning of a new life.

“Danube” feels a little choppy as it moves from one story to the next and, in dribs and drabs, we get the back stories of the people on board the ship. A despondent drug addict, Mathilda (Annabelle Mandeng), is saved by an understanding young man, Mircea (Florin Piersic Jr.), who almost died trying to illegally cross the river into Austria. He is saved by the captain who, in turn, is sparked back to life with the arrival of Bruno who implies that he is Franz’s son and needs his father’s help to transport his mother’s body to her burial place. Franz’s first mate, Nikola (Svetozar Cvetkovic), returns home to rekindle his marriage. All the while a stork named Grus Grus hovers about as the symbol of freedom, survival and, if not happiness, contentment.

There are pieces missing from “Danube” that keep it from being solidly good, but it is certainly an above average, thoughtful piece by director Goran Rebic that uses well the sad, soulful face of Otto Sander. I give it a C+.

Grimm (Official Selection)

Grimm Writer/director Alex van Warmerdam's ("The Dress") weird amalgamation of Hansel and Gretel and Spaghetti Westerns was one of the most heavily attending English subtitled press screenings, but also one of the largest disappointments.  The film begins with subversive, inspired glee but once Warmerdam abandons direct Grimm brothers influence, his film begins to ramble, eventually running out of gas entirely.

´m hungry´ the far from adolescent Maria (Halina Reijn, "Zus and Zo") tells her parents. ´There´s nothing´ replies their father, who leads her and brother Jacob (Jacob Derwig, "Zus and Zo") through the snow into the woods and abandons them as they gather wood.  In a Blair Witchian sequence, Jacob falls, his face inches from a lethal looking bear trap.  Maria sees a cow, Jacob sees a light, but the starving siblings first stop to eat the animal they've trapped.  'That's my favorite dog you're eating' the farmer from the lighted cottage tells them, before leading them to a hot meal and demands that Jacob perform stud services for his obese wife.  With a little ingenuity, the two manage a hilarious escape, but the film never again achieves these titular heights of black humor.

After killing a potential john in the city (they get a ride in van emblazoned with business name Alex Wolf, shades of Little Red Riding Hood), Jacob obtains a scooter and follows the instructions found in a letter his mother slipped into his pocket ´Go to Uncle Juan in Spain.  It´s warm there. Love mum.´  Arriving instantaneously once they hit the road, they discover their uncle is dead, but Maria meets and marries a handsome surgeon, Diego (Carmelo Gomez, "Secretos de Corazon"), who lives in a rural estate with his sick sister Teresa (Elvira Minguez).  A locked door hints at Bluebeard as do Teresa's urgings to Diego to act.  Maria is happy, but Jacob is miserable and suspicious until he is seduced by maid Sofia (Peggy Sandaal) and upsets the class structure of Diego's home.  Jacob is drugged by butler Luis (Ulises Dumont) and finds himself in the desert with a freshly incision, but manages to get back and escape with Maria.  Is Teresa, recipient of Jacob's kidney, meant to signify Snow White?

"Grimm's" final act finds the duo on the abandoned set of a Spaghetti Western as a storm approaches.  Maria cares for her recovering brother and makes pets of a mule and goat (The Musicians of Bremen perhaps?) until a climatic showdown with the returning Diego.

A reread of the Grimm tales may make this more of a film buff's outing, but frankly one shouldn't have to work so hard to make sense of these meanderings.  Warmerdam's film looks fabulous as cinematographer Tom Erisman moves from the stark, snowy Dutch forest to the sun-splashed colors of Spain.  The accompanying score is also fun, although none of the performances is particularly engaging with the exception of Dumont's unreadable butler.  C+

Robin:

Alex van Warmerdam takes the fairy tale story of Hansel and Gretel and gives it a modern spin with “Grimm.”

The story starts off as expected with a small family living near the survival level in the cold north of Holland. With nothing to eat in the house the father shepherds his children, Jacob (Jacob Derwig) and Marie (Halina Reijn), deep into the forest to gather firewood and then abandons them. Lost in the dark, hungry and cold, they stumble upon a dog caught in a bear trap. They put the poor beast out of its misery and, as a bonus, have a hearty meal of roasted dog. The pooch, it turns out, belonged to a nearby farmer who takes the abandoned pair into his home, but he has a motive other than his supposed kindness.

The farmer has a rotund wife whose sexual desires are ablaze and he forces Jacob, at gunpoint, to service his lusty spouse. The brother and sister are locked in a room and Jacob is sure that he will be called to duty, again, soon. They execute a plan that works far better than expected and make their escape. Jacob finds a note from his mother saying something along the lines of “Sorry, kids, go see your uncle in Spain.” This is where “Grimm” falters and loses its way as it moves away from the fairytale into a story of incestuous jealousy, human organ theft, submission and revenge.

One major problem I have with “Grimm” is its premise that Jacob and Marie, young adults and not outwardly showing signs of stupidity, are so easily lost in the woods by their father. They can’t find their way home but they do make their way to Spain only to learn that the uncle is dead. The next thing you know Marie disappears, Jacob tracks her down to a villa where he finds out his sister is married to a wealthy surgeon, Diego (Carmello Gomez), who cares for his ill sister, Teresa (Elvira Minguez). There is something sinister afoot, though, and jealous Jacob finds himself drugged, abandoned and minus one kidney. This begins a convoluted story of recovery and retribution.

I liked the imagination “Grimm” starts off with but disappointed that it turns into a string of disjointed episode that could be called “The Misadventures of Jacob and Marie.” I give it a C-. 

The Flower of Evil (Zabaltegi) press conference (director Claude Chabrol, actress Melanie Doutey)
                                Claude Chabrol
Although we didn´t see Chabrol's latest due to a lack of English subtitles [note link above, added post festival - ed], we attended to listen to the 'French Hitchcock' who presented Huppert with her award the previous evening. Huppert's frequent collaborator is her opposite, positively twinkling in his spry seventies and anxious to share his sly humor and talk about filmmaking.  Asked why he so often makes a target of the bourgeois, Chabrol replies that he finds it an interesting microcosmos and that he prefers to work more with a microscope than a telescope.  He also states that it is the only class left, mainly because it is the only class that works to keep itself a class. Asked about Huppert, Chabrol jokes that his relationship with her is quite intimate but not sexual 'in case we wanted to know.'  He focuses on female subjects because woman are responsible for the manufacture of human beings and men take revenge against women because they weren´t there at the point of origin.  The he quizzically and comically adds ´My wife only wants to become a man..and I think she´ll succeed.´

Asked about the cuisine in his new film (shades of Hitch again - see "Frenzy") he said ´Lamprey is a speciality from Bordeaux (actress Doutey makes gagging faces during this answer) that Í know is very tasty but looks horrible, the opposite of his family who looks charming, when in fact they are not.  Chabrol has a taste for black humor and says we can and should laugh about horror and not always be desperate - he´d like to think his legacy for the future is that people should try to laugh more than cry.

On filmmaking, Chabrol notes that the camera, with a slight movement, can give a small different impression.  The opening shot of his new film looks down at two women in a greenhouse, looking like they are in jail - it goes unnoticed, but the audience does notice at the end when his main character moves outside - it is dark but there are car lights in the distance - this doesn´t make sense, but he´s moving into the dark.  Asked about his next film he said Ít´s not going to be fun (he's kidding) and is not about the bourgeois class, but a 26-27 year old trying to live a life that´s completely reasonable but is dragged along.  (It should be noted that the English translator at San Sebastian wasn't particularly adept, hence some odd phrasing.)

Noviembre (November) (Official Selection, New Directors)

November Writer/director Acheros Mañas ("El Bola") wondered what would happen if an independent street theater group, like “El Piojo Picón” of his 1970's childhood, existed today where art is so much more closely connected with commerce.  Would they change the world?

Mañas created the group November, whose leader, Alfredo (Óscar Jaenada) is inspired by his handicapped brother in his home town of Lorca.  Arriving in Madrid with his homemade marionettes, he becomes a squatter in an abandoned building and meets others inspired of his vision to interact with the audience and change the world as a free independent theater with no public or private aid.  He forms his troupe with Juan (Javier Rios) and begins by performing as Happy Punks (one member looks just like Siouxsee Sioux) on the subway, then stages 'The Devil's Cherubim' resulting in the first of many arrests.  With eventual wife Lucia (Ingrid Rubio), Alfredo forms documentary theater, but after a senseless attempt to jolt the public with a fake shooting on the streets in a year where a ceasefire has been called with the ETA (Basque revolutionaries), the group crumbles amidst charges of justifying terrorism.  An attempt to underright costs with a producer is done in by Daniel (Juan Diaz) during their first performance, who accuses Alfredo of selling out.  In the final act, November's return by subverting a performance at the Royal Theater turns tragic when Juan is persuaded by Daniel not to alert Alfredo to the presence of Spain's president in the audience.  The film ends with an ironic paraphrased quote from Spanish poet Gabriel Celaya, 'Art is a weapon loaded with future.'

Mañas formats his film like a documentary, where older actors comment upon the movement's past (some years into the future!), with flashbacks to the present filling in the drama.  Mañas has created such vivid political theater within his film, those unfamiliar with the Spanish art movement may believe they're learning about an actual group.  He has also captured an extremely charismatic performance from star Jaenada, whose theatrical persona seems made up of Brandon Lee's Crow and Cabaret's Joel Grey with dashes of Mick Jagger and Tim Curry thrown in for good measure.  Rubio gives good support as Alfredo's romantic interest and coworker. Diaz provides a nice dose of friction as the friend who takes Alfredo's ideas to a point of no return.  Music is integral and Tom Waits tunes add nice texture.  "November" won a Youth Award and would be a terrific candidate for arthouse distribution outside of its own borders.  B+

Robin:

Alfredo (Oscar Jaenada) is a talented idealist who comes to Madrid with the plan to bring performance theater to the public, onto the streets where all can see for free. This charming and charismatic young man forms a troupe, November, of like-minded individuals and they take their skits and plays to the people. They are willing to take risks in getting their art into the world, in a park, a town square or a busy commercial street. There are no limits or censorship as they try to provoke thought and social consciousness but keep having run-ins with the law in “November.”

Sophomore director/writer Achero Manas tells the story of the tiny acting troupe in a way that reminded me, strongly, of Warren Beatty’s “Reds.” Alfredo is the focal point of the story, told in a linear fashion but punctuated by talking head interviews by the former members of November many years into the future. The brief, meteoric rise of Alfredo and his friends is given a mature perspective as the now elder troupe members reminisce over the dedication to their art and unwavering commitment to not sell out, even if it meant doing some jail time.

Oscar Jaenada has a great deal of screen presence as the de facto leader of November and the newcomer has the good looks and acting talent to be a star. Alfredo is portrayed as a young man whose thesping ability and youthful dedication would easily draw others cut from the same rebellious cloth. They are his friends and colleagues and, for Lucia (Ingrid Bubio), his lover, and they help each other perform in a world that is becoming increasingly indifferent. Jaenada is the star of “November” but his supporting cast do fine work in fleshing out the supporting characters to give them real dimension. The device of the interviews works well, also, giving the film a documentary-like feel.

The street performances are elaborately staged and very imaginative. Unfortunately, as the story plays out, the performances are given less and less screen time until we just see still shots as they perform their skits over the years. The finale is well staged and exciting but sad, too. Techs are very good for a small budget film and the acting is well done across the board. It will be interesting to watch the careers of helmer Manas and his star Jaenada. I give it a B+.



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