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San Sebastian Basque diaries: crowd pleasers and more

by Alex Deleon, San Sebastian

The Donostia-San Sebastian film festival on the incredibly picturesque North Spanish coast, ("NAZIOARTEKO ZINEMALDIA" in the exotic Basque language of the region), has opened heavily "front loaded" as the saying goes these days, which means that many of the big guns, films with high prize potential, have already been fired off in the first few days. The festival opener was, appropriately, "Obaba", one of the most eagerly awaited Spanish films of the year based on a Basque language best seller by the outstanding Basque writer, Bernardo Atxagas, and directed by Montxo Armendariz who also has Basque family roots. Three stories that interweave in time branch out into numerous characters painting a collective portrait of the lives of some of the inhabitants of the small Basque town of Obaba.

On day number two, Per Fly's Danish entry, "Manslaughter"(Drabet) received a lengthy well deserved ovation at the morning press screening in the big hall, and was followed by a very energetic press conference. Among other possibilities besides director Fry, debuting actress Beate Bill will definitely be in contention for a best actress prize. Day three was marked by two more strong films with prize potential. The German dramatic comedy "Summer in Berlin" directed by Andreas Dresen with a beautiful script by
Wolfgang Kohlhaase and three -- repeat, three -- award worthy acting performances by Nadja Uhl, Inka Friedrich and Andreas Schmidt was followed, at the nightcap Gala by another highly touted Spanish film, "Seven Vigins", a rather brutal look at the slum youth of Seville, starring eighteen year old Juan José Ballestas, who even at this tender age is being billed as the next Javier Bardem. More about these films further on.

A certain sad note was cast over the opening ceremony when American director Robert Wise (91) who is being honoured here with a special life's work prize and a full retrospective of his films, passed away in Los Angeles literally on the eve of the festival. His wife was here to accept the prize for the bed-ridden helmer, hurried back to the States on the morning of opening day and, sadly, could not be on stage for the opening gala. In her stead the award was received in Wise’s name by American actress Angelica Huston, who is presiding over the Official Competition jury this year and was herself the recipient of a career award a few years back.

Other Americans being honored here this year with career “Conchas” (the seashell, or concha, being the symbolic equivalent of Oscar in this seaside city) are actors Willem Defoe and Ben Gazzara. The selection of such somewhat off-beat and slightly less than glamorous character actors for the distinction reflects the art-house bias that is particularly strong this year. Popular Afro-American actor Cuba Gooding Jr. has also been seen around town in connection with his latest film, “Shadowboxer”, screening in the
Zabaltegi (open Zone) section. Besides the full Robert Wise retrospective, the distinctively “off Hollywood” New York based cult director Abel Ferrara, with a still growing filmography going back to 1971, has a 21 film retrospective going for him, and yellow Abel Ferrara posters are to be seen in all the darker bars around town. Ferrara has his own private version of extra-violent film noir and certain favored actors such as Christopher Walken and Harvey Keitel. For my money his undisputed masterpiece is “Bad Lieutenant” (1992) starring Keitel as the baddest, most corrupt cop in New York City police history – a black diamond. On the down side however, “Blackout” (1997), featuring top model Claudia Schiffer in her film debut and a truly disgusting Dennis Hopper (is he ever anything else?), is a good candidate for the “ten worst films of all time”. In this one Ferrara achieved the nearly impossible – making Claudia Schiffer look homely. Ferrara is an uneven, often crude, director to say the least, but certainly an unusual one with good moments even in his bad films, and some very good films (like “Bad Lieutenant”), but so full of sleaze and cruelty that it takes a strong stomach to digest them. His new film, “Mary”, starring French actress Juliette Binoche as a modern day Mary Magdalene (ulp), should be something to see.

In contrast to last year when several Hollwood productions were in the running and glamour heads Annette Benning and Jeff Bridges were the career honorees, at ‘Donostia 53’ there is not a single American film in competition. Of course, since this festival comes in the latter part of the year, all the hot Hollywood items tend to get gobbled up by earlier Class-A festivals, but that does not detract one bit from the quality of the Donostia selection.

As far as English language productions are concerned, though not from Hollywood, the following are on the oficial agenda: “The World’s Fastest Indian” (New Zealand), starring Anthony Hopkins and Diana Ladd; “A Cock and Bull Story” (UK), by Michael Winterbottom, and “Tideland”, the latest offering from Terry Gilliam, with Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly. Spain is represented with five titles, Argentina with two, Brazil one, France one, Germany one, Denmark two, Eastern Europe with one each from Slovenia and the Czech Republic, and Asia with a Korean film, “April Snow” and “Xiang ri kui” (Sunflower) from China, with popular actress Joan Chen. Of particular interest on the Latin American side is the Argentine film “Iluminados por Fuego” (Iluminated by Fire) which is the first film to view the Falkland Islands War of 1982 from an Argentine point of view and has raised quite a bit of controversy in Argentina because of its grim view of the absurd South Atlantic war against England in the Margaret Thatcher days, a war which most
Argentinos would rather forget. “Fastest Indian”, incidentally, directed by Roger Donaldson, will be shown out of competition as the festival closer.
“Zabaltegi”, a Basque word hard to translate but rendered loosely as “The Open Zone”, is a kind of catch-all section embracing forty titles divided into three parts; “Pearls From Other Festivals” (13 films), the “New
Directors” selection, (19 films), and a “Special Screenings” section, the remainder. “Zabaltegi” could easily be a festival in its own right and is always full of discoveries. The “Other Festival” clones include: Woody Allen’s latest “Match Point”, Ferrara’s “Mary”; “Broken Flowers”, a new Jim Jarmusch film starring Bill Murray and Susan Stone! -- (how’s that for an odd coupling?) -- the wonderful documentary “Inside Deep Throat” which was a one of the highlight this year at Berlin, and Rodrigo Garcia´s “Nine Lives”
(Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Sissy Spacek), which took the top “Golden Leopard” prize at Locarno a month ago.
Another one which looks interesting is French-Canadian entry “Vers Le Sud” (Heading South), which stars flawless-in-French Brit actress Charlotte Rampling as a middle-aged sex tourist in Haiti, latching on to a beautiful young black boy against the brutal dictatorial regime hovering in the background. Rampling is quite versatile sexually (at least on film) and once made it with a chimpanzee in Nagisa Oshima’s “Max Mon Amour” (1986), a film which has been called “The Greatest Ape Romance Since "King Kong."
Still going very strong at age sixty (born, 1945) Rampling is probably the best looking femme her age to be glommed on international screens and – animal banging aside – a most elegant actress always a pleasure to watch.
Alex Deleon


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