51ST SAN SEBASTIAN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL - 9/18/2003-9/27/2003
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 2003 

O Camino das Nuvens (The Middle of the World) (Official Selection, New Directors)
The Middle of the World Director Vicente Amdrim makes his feature film debut with an almost unimaginable road movie. Based on the true story (screenplay by David Francia Mendes) of an uneducated, unemployed truck driver (Wagner Moura) who takes his wife Rose (Claudia Abreu) and their five children on a 2,000 mile journey on four bicycles to find a job in Rio de Janeiro, "The Middle of the World" is a warm portrait of a family linked strongly by love under arduous circumstances.

A family who have stopped to note a sign proclaiming themselves to be at the middle of the world panic when they realize baby Sisco is missing.  A truck bears down on the infant, obliviously playing on a median strip in the middle of nowhere and is snatched up, out of harm's way. Cicero is on a mission to earn a thousand a month, just the right amount and no more he figures he needs to support his family.  The family have many adventures along the way.  They meet and befriend a homeless bum who pops up again further along the trip to return the favor.  They stop for a while in a town famous for hammock making, but Cicero's male pride is injured when Rosa earns money but he does not, so they move on.  Eldest son Antonio is chagrined, having begun a flirtation with a local girl, and makes his first challenge to stay behind.  Antonio's coming of age story is integral to the film, and his relationship with his father is complex. While Rose and second eldest Rodney sing for changes outside a restaurant, Cicero admonishes his eldest, Antonio, for his surly attitude.  Later, when Antonio gets his nose sliced defending his mother from an irate property owner, Cicero begins to recognize his son's entry into manhood, offering the boy a cigarette and extending more leeway.

When things begin to look particularly glum, Cicero pushes on, assured that reaching the town of his patron saint will solve their problems, but they are met with a village living off of tourism that refuses to offer help until Cicero accomplishes the impossible by lifting the table of the saint, an act that is said to clear one's sins.  Later, Cicero counters Rosa's earlier disappoint when he appeases her by accepting work from a shady hustler with some of their children which turns out to be a demeaning display at a tourist resort.  The film ends atop Rio's Sugarloaf mountain, the parallel journeys of Cicero and his son complete.

Amdrim's unique little film features terrific performances from his two leads, who make their love for each other palpable.  That the relationship has imperfections makes it stronger and truer.  Amdrim also excels with his use of locations - a seemingly abandoned building, roads with no end, religious shrines and truck stop video booths, all imaginatively shot by cinematographer Gustavo Hadba.  "The Middle of the World" is an unusual story, full of heart and well told.  B

Robin:

Unemployed truck driver Romao (Wagner Moura) has made the tough decision to take his family from the poverty-stricken northeastern Brazil to the land of milk and honey: Rio de Janeiro. But, without money or a car, the only alternative for the man, his pretty, young wife, Rosa (Claudia Abreu), and their five youngsters is to make the trip – all 2000 miles of it – with their makeshift collection of four bicycles. This begins the telling, by director Vicente Amorim, of the true-life story of a family of modern day adventurers who begin their new life which begins in “The Middle of the World.”

This is the kind of film fare that is a boon to the film festival circuit with its endearing nature, its handsome, likable cast and feel-good story made all the more so by the fact that it is based on true events as this plucky little troupe - mom, dad and their five kids – make the truly incredible journey.

Things start off on an exciting note as Rosa and Romao gaze at the sign telling them that they are at The Middle of the World. But, before they can ponder where they are and the journey before them they realize that their youngest, a toddler, has disappeared. Not only that, they see him in the middle of the road and a huge trailer truck is bearing down on the little guy! It is very exciting and it gets your attention for the rest of this adventure yarn.

As if crossing thousands of miles on bicycles with little kids in tow isn’t enough, the couple’s eldest, young Antonio (Ravi Ramos Lacerda), is fast approaching manhood and begins to challenge his father’s authority. This coming of age sidebar is effectively and lovingly told and there is a real sense of acceptance by Romao as he realizes that his boy has, indeed, become a man.

“The Middle of the World” has such a strong sense of adventurous spirit that is should cross into venues other than just the Spanish language market. The universality of this hopeful, positive tale should have across the board appeal. I give it a B.

With only four days left of the festival, we discover Bar Gorriti which becomes our favorite pinchos place.  Meat skewers, croquettes and miniature cutlet/eggplant combos are cooked by a woman behind swinging doors as three men keep the food and drink moving up front.  Cold temptations include thinly sliced tongue covered with onions and pickles and sundried tomatoes topped with a tart leek salad.  A simpler, one woman operation around the corner, Kukaluka, has the area's best roasted pepper and anchovy sandwiches.

21 Grams (a special screening unannounced in the festival lineup) - click link for review

Donostia Award winner Sean Penn press conference
Sean Penn     Sean Penn     Sean Penn
This the first (and only that we attend) press conference that warns against taking pictures, perhaps in deference to Penn's prior pugilism towards photogs?

Penn seems tired and chain smokes throughout.  He's asked if there is a connection between the traffic accident in "The Crossing Guard" and "21 Grams" and replies that no, not by design, it is just a fear of all parents.  Another journo inquires if "Dead Man Walking" forms a before and after break between comedy and drama (clearly having forgotten "Sweet and Lowdown").  Penn says he's never thought of it before and would have to look at his own filmography, although clearly that performance is a touchstone for him.  Asked to comment upon the editing style of "21 Grams," Penn informs that the film was written that way.  In order to shoot the film, which was shot as if the stories were linear, a second, sequential script was prepared for the actors.  He tells us he got involved with the project after having been introduced to Iñárritu by Julien Schnabel (the San Sebastian fest supporter and Latin Horizons jury president nods to the room from the sidelines) and Javier Bardem.

The San Sebastian film catalog describes Penn as the last rebel of American cinema.  Penn's comment is that he has a necessary level of dissatisfaction.  He declares Woody Allen 'an interesting fellow' with a smile and proceeds to talk about direction style by saying that some are completely malleable and others put you in a paper room like a wild dog, paint your coat and see what pattern appears on the paper.  He says Brian DePalma is a very operatic director.  Asked about his own direction of his '11 September' segment, Penn says he wasn't commenting politically, but giving his own reaction to the event, which was a feeling of loss.

Finally Penn is asked about his reaction to receiving the award and the fact that he is its youngest recipient in the event's fifty-one year history.  Penn replies that it is difficult without 'accusing yourself of some degree of wonderfulness' and then laughs and says if he could put his internal organs on a plate next to those of other winners, he might not look so young after all. He also notes that this is an award given in an environment full of people who love film (and notes with mock surprise that he's still waiting for someone to 'act like a prick') that is given in a a thirty minute ceremony as opposed to the Academy Awards where one suffers for hours in uncomfortable clothes to watch sometimes mind bogging choices be made.

Te Doy mis Ojos (Take My Eyes) (Official Selection)
Take My Eyes Luis Tosar ("The Weakness of the Bolshevik") returns in competition with his second knockout performance (although his "Bolshevik" perf is more multi-faceted) as an abusive husband in "Te Doy mis Ojos."  Both Tosar and his costar, Laia Marull, will go on to win Silver Shells for Best Actor and Best Actress for this film.

Almost paralyzed with fear, Pilar (Marull) listens for an approach as she gathers her small son Juan and her belongings before slipping out of her apartment and boarding a bus.  She arrives at her sister Ana's (Candela Pena) and says in wonderment 'I'm still wearing my slippers.'  Ana gives comfort and asks few questions, but when she returns to Pilar's apartment to gather more belongings, she observes that the kitchen has been violently busted up and finds hospital documents recording her sister's physical abuse in a drawer.  Ana freezes when her brother-in-law Antonio (Tosar) unexpectedly arrives, but leaves unscathed.

"Take My Eyes" takes an unexpected route from this point.  While coscripters Alicia Luna and director Iciar Bollain portray Antonio trying to woo his wife back, courting her at her new place of work at an art museum with gifts of flowers and earrings, promising to change, they also portray what appears to be a sincere attempt by this man to correct his behavior by attending therapy.  But Tosar continues to waver between love and rage, viciously kicking a soccer ball at his son, pounding the steering wheel on the way home from his brother's, where he feels he's been slighted.  Bollain explores the phenomenon of battered wives from both an inherited viewpoint, with Pilar's mother Aurora (Rosa Maria Sarda, "All About My Mother") lobbying for her to stand by her man, just as she did even while Ana almost loses her closeness with her sister demanding that she leave him.  We see that Antonio's rage is born of his own insecurities.  When he cannot reach Pilar via cell phone from his job selling kitchen fixtures he imagines the worst and when he sees the self confidence radiating from her in her new job explaining fine art as a museum guide, old habits return.  Tosar retains a small level of sympathy even revealing himself as a monster and Marull blooms from nervous rabbit to assuredly attractive career woman.  Together, the costars generate real heat during the film's one sex scene, although Tosar retains a sinister edge.  The couple are backed by groups of their own gender, with Antonio's therapy group a typical example of macho posturing and Pilar's female coworkers delightfully funny and supportive.  The Spanish tourist city of Toledo provides a nice backdrop for the film's artistic subplot.  B+

Robin:

A distraught woman, Pilar (Laia Marull), hurriedly tosses some clothes in a case, rousts her sleeping son and rushes off into the cold winter night still wearing her slippers. She has finally had it with her abusive husband, Antonio (Luis Tosar),and all the lies about her mysterious injuries and the nights spent in the emergency ward. But like many abused wives she accepts, once again, “I promise, I’ll change,” and moves back home in “My Eyes for Yours.”

Spanish director/screenwriter Iciar Bollain, with co-scripter Alicia Luna, garners a pair of character studies by her stars in a compelling, emotionally involving story of a woman living in a long-abusive marriage. Pilar is attractive, intelligent and, finally, reaching a breaking pointing with her acceptance of the ill treatment by Antonio. Her departure, though, is short-lived as he slowly, inexorably wears down her resolve with sweet talk, silly presents, the promise to get help and, as always, the vow that he will stop his hurtful ways.

Pilar, while separated, began doing volunteer work at a local museum. She likes the work so much that she and a couple of co-workers take on paying jobs as museum guides. Antonio’s jealousy rears its ugly head once again and he humiliates Pilar in a shocking display of brutality as she prepares for her new job. Director Bollain and her talented cast and crew keep you on the edge of your seat in tension and wonder about how things will end.

“My Eyes for Yours” is a well-crafted urban family drama that transcends its Madrid locale into a universal story that could be placed anywhere in the west. The effective performances by Tosar and Marull keep you involved with Pilar’s plight and have you rooting for her to break free of Antonio. Tosar is frightening as a man who is consumed by his imagination, seeing his wife’s interest in art and having a job as a threat. In the end, he is his own worst enemy.

“My Eyes for Yours” garnered both Best Actor and Best Actress Silver Shell awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival.” I give it a B+.

Wenn der Richtige Kommt (When the Right One Comes Along) (Zabaltegi, New Directors)
When the Right One Comes Along Paula (Isolde Fischer) is a hulking young cleaning woman with a naive approach to life.  When the Turkish security guard, Mustafa (Can Sengül), at the Mannheim office building they both work at begins sharing breaks with her, Paula imagines a romance.  When Mustafa simply disappears one day, replaced by a new guard, Paula and her 'celebrity' friend Frau von Dewitz (Helga Grimme) harass his father, who tells them Mustafa has returned to Adana in Turkey. Undaunted, Paula goes there without an address or phone number and enlists the aid of Hilton hotel clerk Arcan (Arcan Arican) to find him.

Directors Stefan Hillebrand and Oliver Paulus set out to shoot a fiction film like a documentary and forged their own 'Dogme' type rules as follows:

-     Beginning with the first day of shooting, the story develops exclusively through improvisation. (note: we understand the term improvisation to mean the interaction of intuition, creativity and technical skills.)

-     No more than three characters may be defined and cast before the beginning of the shooting, while all other characters are cast on the spot depending on the scene. The actors are not informed about the tasks and intentions of their acting partners. No scene is shot more than once.

-    Even the cameraperson has no information about the contents and course of the scene before the shoot. The original locations and prevailing conditions form the background of the scene.

Without having had this knowledge before seeing this film, "When the Right One Comes Along" played like a sometimes amateurish, thoroughly engaging story with a very charismatic star in Fischer.  A couple of unfortunate choices in the film's midsection and ending held it down. Armed with the above information, one's admiration for what the filmmakers were able to achieve gains ground.

Fischer is a force of nature, a woman whose innate sweetness and hearty good nature mostly override her sometimes embarrassing tendencies, which often include her complete disregard for her appearance.  When she mistakes Mustafa's description of his after work hangout as an invitation, she arrives in a garish, girlish dress that draws the jibes of his friends. 'It might be better if you left now,' Mustafa tells her gently, a sentiment repeated later in the film.  Sengül is quite good as the genial, kind Mustafa, but even better is Grimme as a woman one can only imagine used to have some level of Bohemian notoriety which she no longer has the money to prop up.  Paula doesn't see this and we're shocked when it is revealed. The dissolution of their friendship just as they set off to travel together to Turkey is one of the film's bumps.  Paula would seem to have truly met her soulmate in Arcan (press notes imply he is a real Hilton hotel clerk cast on the spot), but the film doesn't satisfy in this area, leaving Paula pretty much back where she was at film's beginning, one huge, daffy adventure under her belt.  (The film also stumbles, amazingly only for the second time given its improvised, one shot nature, with a badly mangled 'explanation' as to how Paula finds Mustafa.)

"When the Right One Comes Along" is an experiment with the spirit of Percy Adlon's 1987 "Sugar Baby" and Isolde Fischer gives a star-making performance.  Hillebrand and Paulus were given special mention in the New Directors Award category.  B-

Robin:

“When the Right One Comes Along,” by co-helmers Stefan Hillebrande and Oliver Paulus, is the modern fairy tail about a true naïf, Paula Hartnagel (Isolde Fischer), who believes that she is destined to find love one day. She works as cleaning lady in an office building in Munich and, one day, meets Mustafa (Can Sengul), a newly-hired Turkish security guard. In short order, she thinks that she has found her true love, though Mustafa doesn’t know it yet. When he casually tells her about the bar where he and his friends hang out she takes the conversation as an invitation. She dolls herself up and goes to the bar only to be humiliated by his friends.

Soon after, Mustafa does not show up for work and she learns that his father ordered him to return to Turkey and get married. Undeterred, she makes plans for her and her friend, Mrs. Von Dewitz (Helga Grimm), to make the journey to Adana, Turkey – the only information they can get about Mustafa. No address, no phone number, no clue as to where, in a city with a population of over a million, he might be. Mrs. Von Dewitz becomes timid and breaks her agreement to go on the trip and Paula decides to go it on her own.

I won’t go on and spoil the fairy tale adventure for those interested. I, personally, found this to be a low-grade effort with an unbelievable naivety that made me feel like I was watching a German TV after-school special. Paula is painfully innocent and without a clue and her impossible trek - something akin to going to Cleveland to look for a guy named John who used to work in Boston and that’s all you have to go on. The fantasy element does not work for me but the film had surprisingly good buzz at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon but I give it a C.



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