San Sebastian sees pickup activity

Lange, Hopper receive awards

SAN SEBASTIAN — After last year’s low-key post-9/11 edition, the 50th San Sebastian Film Festival has returned to form. With so many pics having already played at Toronto, the fest offered no big international discovery, at least before Sept. 25. But this year’s event, which will have wrapped Sept. 28, received three important birthday presents: a clutch of largely Spanish-lingo pics invigorating its Official Selection; stars that gel with a festival that abhors purely commercial filmmaking; and a vast local industry turnout, rounded out by a small but growing number of international acquisition execs.

As of Sept. 25, homeboy Fernando Leon’s “Mondays in the Sun,” a smilingly bitter look at the plight of unemployed shipbuilders, figured as the clear competish frontrunner. Crix and auds also warmed to Adolfo Aristarain’s twilight love story “Common Ground,” which offers a bleak if ultimately optimistic future for Argentina. The portrait of a self-confessed serial killer, mockumentary “Aro Tolbukhin,” would win the out-there film award, if such a plaudit existed.

Of foreign competish entries, “Whale Rider” played well with auds, though local crix’ reactions were more mixed. Susanne Bier’s Dogma “Open Hearts” clicked better, drawing praise as a credible meller. Few Spanish reviewers claimed to be scandalized by Carlos Carrera’s “The Crime of Padre Amaro”; more seemed struck by the perf or looks of Gael Garcia Bernal (“Y tu mama tambien”). Bowing Sept. 26, “Historias minimas,” an intimate three-parter from Argentina’s Carlos Sorin, was working up a good buzz.

Genuine — if small — discoveries at San Sebastian increasingly come from its Made in Spanish or Zabaltegi New Directors sections. Standouts this year were led by a hidden gem, Argentine family-reunion drama “The Musical Chairs” from Ana Katz. Further highlights included Sergio Bellotti’s river gangster drama “South East”; a one-night take on the Mexican underbelly, “Dark Cities”; psychodocu “Pinochet’s Children”; and, from reports, FBI worm-can-opener “Galindez.”

The stars delivered. Francis Ford Coppola, the 50th edition awardee, proved big in every sense: his warmth, the swell party he hosted for Thai epic “The Legend of Suriyothai” and his ambitions for cinema, extolled at a near-two-hour press conference, as a solution for mankind’s problems.

Dennis Hopper was touchingly emotional when accepting a Donostia award; another Donostia award recipient, Jessica Lange, proved charming and urbane.

Underscoring growing interest in the Spanish-lingo pic production, San Sebastian saw a larger bevy than ever of international acquisition and sales execs. That spurred many companies to tie down and announce sales deals: Sony Pictures Classics officially confirmed it has acquired North American and Australian rights to Coppola’s reworked “Suriyothai,” while Canada’s Cinemavault took the rest of the world. Columbia TriStar Film Distributors Intl. closed the world outside North America and Mexico on “Padre Amaro”; Spain’s Wanda Films took international on “Historias minimas,” Paris-based DMVB closed international on Chilean pic “El Leyton,” which drew a largely upbeat response, and Peppermint took worldwide on “Pigs Will Fly.”

(David Rooney contributed to this report.)

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