Poster for <em>The Unknown Woman</em>.

WRAPPING IT, GUTSILY: With a more subdued and soggy atmosphere than the film festival’s opening night 11 nights earlier, SBIFF 2008 ended on a strong and happy note on Sunday night. Well, the happy note came in terms of the satisfaction of another rich and dense edition of festival that keeps rising in the international ranks, and again kept serious cinema customers mostly glowing. It was happy, also, in that Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore‘s latest film, The Unknown Woman, capped off the 11-day festival with a closing night film much stronger and more festival-worthy than we’ve come to expect from this spot in the SBIFF program.

Poster for <em>The Unknown Woman</em>.

Happy, though, isn’t the most precise adjective to describe the nature of the film itself, an elaborate tense Hitchcock-ian mousetrap punctuated by graphic violence and sex (and sexual violence) and general nastiness beneath the cool visual scheme and lush, insinuating musical score. Suffice to say, this is a very different film from Tornatore’s classic heart-warming paean to cinema, Cinema Paradiso. But it made for an ideal – if shy of uplifting – festival aperitif, a nice finishing touch for a festival chock full of impressive goods this year.

THE WORLD OUTSIDE THE METRO: While we got insights about the world from a bold roster of films from around the world – and from beyond the usual Western European cinema sources – a solid program of documentaries also opened eyes and hearts, in more of a direct reality check kind of way.

One of the several moving socially- charged docs, part of the was Angels in the Dust, director Louise Hogarth‘s clear, focused, and moving portrait of a private orphanage and school outside of Johannesburg, run by the Cloete family for nearly twenty years. At the center of the operation is the heartfelt dynamo and avid activist Marion Coete, who we watch in action as she comforts children and AIDS victims, and afflicts adults who mistreat them. Aside from the alarming details about the troubling social conditions in this country, gripped by a full-on AIDS epidemic, we get a poignant perspective on the too-often neglected aftershock of the epidemic: the children here are orphaned or soon to be orphaned because of AIDS. Hogarth wisely keeps her focus tight, conveying the broader situation by telling stories of specific orphans, with the powerful force that is Marion Coete at the center.

After the screening, director Hogarth, who lives part of the year in South Africa, talked about her own transformation while embarking on this project. “I was hearing about the orphan situation and I was seeing it,” she said. “You would see kid washing the car windows and see desperate people by the side of the road. I found myself being not that sympathetic. I heard other sad stories and thought that someone has got to tell the story of what’s happening to the kids, because it’s not really on the larger agenda. As an example, this year, they have the International AIDS conference, this year in Mexico City, and orphans aren’t even on the roster, they’re not even a consideration.

“So I started looking for some way to tell the story in a human fashion. Friends told me about the Cloetes. This friend was telling me that ‘they’re just angels in the dust,’ and she started to cry. I went down to see them, and immediately when I met Marion and Con -particularly Marion – I just loved her and everything that she is doing. A lot of the issues she was dealing with are issues we have in the U.S.

“I don’t want to make a documentary just to kind of suck the audience dry. I want to try to give something back. The spiritual crisis and what we’re doing with our lives to make a difference, these are issues we all concerned with, and death and dying, an issue we often push aside but they don’t at all. Rape is another issue.”

SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT: It can be hard to run from one film to another without traces of culture shock. A world or two, for instance, separates the compassionate Angels in the Dust and the perky/edgy American indie film Fix, which lionizes a charismatic addict’s self-indulgent follies on the teetering path to rehab. But Fix is an entrancing and deceptively deep film, which director Tao Ruspoli disguises as a cinema verite-meets-reality television romp about a documentary maker and his partner’s efforts to steer his charming rogue of a brother to a rehab in Anaheim in time to beat the demands of The Man. Really, it plays like an irreverent adventure – a day in the life of a charming rogue – tooling all over Los Angeles, from Lost Hills to Watts to Palos Verdes and more. L.A., the sprawling landscape of broken dreaming, is the tacit umbrella character here, in a film of surprising intrigue and creative bodaciousness.

Ironically enough, Fix won the Heineken Red Star Award, presumably on the basis of its artistry, not in the “Most Substances Abused in a Single Film” category.


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