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Crime Pays (Artistically) at Festival

by Josef Woodard
Crime, of the passion, lifestyle and organized types, does pay off in terms of the SBIFF 2009 fare. In some of the better films yet seen at the festival, criminal activities, in varying degrees of graphic violence and with radically different artistic flavorings, make for ripe artistic pickins.
Probably at the top of the crime pic pick list was Santa Barbara's first chance to check out the rightfully touted Gomorrah, Italy's Oscar submission (which, alas, didn't make the Oscar short list) and one of the more dazzlingly artful mafia films you'll ever see. While director Matteo Garrone's film starts out with a ritual burst of orgiastic violence-the old bloodbath at the spa shtick-it quickly takes a more cinematically inventive turns, away from the American-made cliches of gangster flicks and TV's "The Sopranos" (ironically, a model for the young thugs in training).
Although seemingly slipping into a cinema verite-like patchwork of loosely-related stories, and creating a vivid but detached portrait of a region in the clutches of corruption and turf warring, the film tightens its structural knot works as it goes. By the end, we've gotten a thrilling movie experience but also a sobering joyride of a film about the real life, really ruthless Comorra syndicate.
From quite a different corner of the world and film vocabulary comes bizarre Bulgarian film Zift (Arabic slang for "shit"), directed with poise and slobber by director Javor Gardev. The film leads us, in high and low style, into the world of an imprisoned thug, a heist gone wrong, and a femme fatale who may be more fatal than purely feminine. In other words, film noir feeds strongly into the film's highly stylized and sometimes crude, blackly comic sensibilities laced with that Eastern European fatalist atmosphere.
Film noir also informs the basic narrative of the slow-brewing and fascinating Turkish film Three Monkeys, yet the elements of film noir have been turned inside out and slowed down to a hypnotic pace. In some ways, director Bilge Ceylan adamantly avoids the powerful linguistic influence of Hollywood, keeping the sex and violence-though central to the tale-out of the picture. Instead, he allows the power of the sustained, well-composed and darkly beautiful image prevail in luring us into the characters' sad fates and half-buried hopes.
Count Three Monkeys as one of the memorable and potent films this year with a slow and patient approach to storytelling, alongside the remarkable Kazakhstan film Tulpan and the strangely meditative Japanese film Vacation, which traces the twin trajectories of a condemned man and a rather haunted prison guard starting a new life.
In other crime news, but from a more mainstream cinematic mode, Landscape No. 2 is your basic Hitchockian Slovenian thriller. A complex and effectively propulsive plot involves petty criminals who are one-upped by a far more bloodthirsty foe. Eroticism is served up with coyness (including the festival's best sex-in-the-supermarket scene) and the otherwise familiar crime thriller nastiness is underscored by an intriguing subplot involving the massacres in Slovenia when the Soviet bloc descended upon the region. No wonder Eastern European film, and culture, leans towards edginess.
Beyond just the various cinematic virtues of the now six-year-old Latino Cinemedia series, there is some venue-related pleasure in seeing films from Mexico and other part of Latin America in the Metro 4-the former home of the Spanish-language Mission theater.
On Tuesday, one could go from a smaller theater at the Metro compound to see the gritty folkloric three-story Mexican film _Purgatorio
(based on stories by Juan Rulfo, directed by Roberto Rochin), and then head up the street to the spacious Arlington to catch director Roberto Sneider's lavishly-produced and sexually-charged historical drama Tear this Heart Out. While both films are good rather than great, the series and the festival affords us a rare opportunity to see what's happening, cinematically in the rest of the Americas._

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