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Spanish reviewers unhappy with San Sabastian awards

The Sunday morning festival reports in the Spanish papers, whose writers represent a cross-section of leading Spanish film critics, were nearly unanimous in denouncing the prizes dished out the day before by the Angelica Huston led official competition jury. The main prize, which went to the Czech film "Something Like Happiness", came in for the strongest condemnation. Three critics used the word "absurdo" (absurd) to describe the top award, one going so far as to say that there were at least eleven films more prize worthy, while a number of critics called the overall competition slate "extremely weak". Director Bohdan Slama himself expressed surprise bordering on amazement that his unassuming dark-horse picture about a group of losers in a faceless industrial city was selected, but he wasn't complaining, and added that this will be a big boost for Czech cinema which has been lolling somewhat in the doldrums in recent years. The film scored a one-two punch when actress Ana Geislerova was chosen for a best-actress Silver Concha for her role as the neurotic heroine of the piece. I was personally disappointed that this award did not go straight to German actress Nadja Uhl of "Summer in Berlin", to whom I would have consigned a double concha, one for her work as an actress, the other for her understated but overwhelming sexiness, but then I was in thrall the minute she came on screen, so I'm not the one to ask... er, make that a triple whammy!

Even the popular choice of 18 yearold actor Juan Jose Ballesta for his lead role in "Seven Virgins", the hard-edged study of slum youth in Sevilla, came in for qestioning. "Not a bad job" was the general opinion of the Spanish press, but several writers thought that his scene-stealing co-star Jesús Carroza was equally good or better, and should at least have shared the prize with "Juan Jo". Ballestas was also caught by surprise, and hadn't even stuck around until the end of the festival, on a "just in case" basis.
He had to scoot back from Madrid to pick up his concha and said with a winning smile that the best thing about this award was that it will "make it possible for me to get more work" -- a very modest young man for a cat who is clearly well on the way to top Spanish stardom. The tango inspired French film "Je ne suis la pour etre aimé" (I'm not here to be loved) was a favorite of the festival press, and several scribes thought the best actor award should have gone to Patrick Chenais, the hero of that film, as well as the Concha de Oro for best film. My best actor choice would have been Benoit Poelvoorde, the sensitive serial killer of "Entre ses mains", but, let's face it -- he's not very cute.

The other most disputed conchas were the two picked up by Chinese entry "Xiang-Ri Kui" (Sunflower) for best director and best cinematography. Director Zhang Yang has already gained a Best Director concha at this festival for "Xishao" (The Shower) as recently as 1991, but the general feeling of this year's critical establishment was that "Sunflower" is a very run-of-the-mill flick with nothing new to say artistically or otherwise, and was certainly not worth a double whopper. The FIPRESCI award which incomprehensibly went to Terry Gilliam for his latest pile of dis-com-bob-u-lation, "Tideland", was seen in the Spanish press as something to be dismissed as an act of collective insanity. Gilliam gives good press conference, but his "autistic-auteur" films suck.
As for the overall weakness of the official competition line-up, a prevailing opinion was that the total exclusion of American films -- (reverse snobbery, or what?) -- robbed the festival of any dimension of glamour -- ("last year we had glamour pusses galore, Woody Allen, Jeff Bridges, Annette Benning "...) and this glamour deficiency was, moreover, underlined by the selection of two unglamourous character actors, Willem Dafoe and Ben Gazzara for lifetime career awards. Moreover, some felt that there is now too much emphasis on Spanish language films which is edging out candidates from other territories. On the glamour issue festival director, Mikel Olaciregui, responded by saying that it has always been the policy of
the festival to promote actors and directors who represent more independent trends in world cinema whether they have a glamorous aura about them or not, and that Messrs. Gazzara and Defoe are certainly in line with this tradition. "Our lifetime Donostia awards are not given to actors just for their good looks or because they're plastered all over the pages of the celebrity heart-throb magazines, but rather because they have taken risks in their careers and have worked with independent as well as mainstream directors", was his crisp summation on this touchy point. " ... and, with a celebrated Hollywood actress (and director) like Angelica Huston heading our jury you can't say we haven't any glamour around this year", he added defensively.
Asked if he was planning to do anything about Toronto, which comes up immediately before San Sebastian and siphons off a lot of titles, Mr. Olaciregui said: "Toronto is, above all, a giant market place showing more than 300 films and is not a competition festival. We will continue to select films for our competition which have not appeared elsewhere". Ms. Huston herself expressed the opinion that San Sebastian, although it is the only A-Category film festival in Spain, should not try to compete with
Cannes, Berlin and Venice, but should rightfully concentrate on Spanish-American cinema. Olaciregui disagreed, saying that a competitive Class-A festival such as San Sebastian has to remain broadly international and he intends to keep it that way.

On the positive side of the ledger, most everyone agreed on the Special Jury Prize given to Tristan Bauer for his vivisection of the Falklands War, "Iluminados por Fuego", which does nothing if not iluminate the absurdity of that war and the action of the Argentine generals who sent young Argentinos to their death for absolutely nothing. And, finally, the screenplay award to Wolfgang Kohlhaase for my personal festival favorite, "Summer in Berlin", was a walkaway winner with no dissenting voices. There was general agreement that all other areas of the festival, Zabaltegi, (The Open Space),
Latin Horizons, the Untamed Women special, Films Schools Conference, and the two retrospectives, were very well mounted -- and very well attended -- with an estimated 110,000 general admission tickets sold, slightly up from last year's record turnout. For overall quality, interest, and diversity, it is fairly obvious that even if the Official Competition were entirely deleted (of course, unthinkable) San Sebastian would still rank as one of the best and most appealing film festivals in the world.

Alex Deleon, Monday morning quarterback in Donostia

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