San Sebastian sees stars

Barring disaster, the 43rd San Sebastian Intl. Film Festival will post its strongest edition in years.

From the first day on Sept. 14, when Keanu Reeves and Anthony Quinn rolled into the seaside resort to promo “A Walk in the Clouds,” the town has taken the festival to its heart, turning out in droves to greet the stars, including Mel Gibson (applauded by critics for his direction of “Braveheart”), Spanish helmer Pedro Almodovar (mobbed), Helena Bonham Carter, Catherine Deneuve (who came to collect an honorary Golden Sea Shell as the festival’s tribute to European cinema), Emma Thompson (tubthumping for “Carrington”) and Susan Sarandon (this year’s recipient of the Donostia Prize).

The San Sebastian Festival has, of course, had stars in the past. But all too often, they were way beyond career best and came to reminisce about times past rather than with films in tow.

Critics have generally given the Official Section a thumbs-up. To date, the jewel in its crown has been the world-premiere of Almodovar’s “La flor de mi secreto” (The Flower of My Secret) (see review, page 92), which many reviewers, Spanish and foreign, reckon to be Almodovar’s strongest film to date.

The film’s producer, Agustin Almodovar, has publicly admitted that “La flor” could have gone to Venice but the Almodovar brothers preferred to screen it in San Sebastian as an act of “Spanishness.”

Carl Franklin’s “Devil in a Blue Dress” took the lead among competition films in a local critics’ poll, although reaction was not ecstatic. Agnieszka Holland’s “Total Eclipse,” about French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine and one of the most eagerly awaited titles in competition, drew only isolated applause. Other front-runners for the festival’s top Golden Sea Shell, to be handed out Sept. 23, were Gregory Nava for his Latino family saga “My Family/Mi Familia,” produced by Francis Ford Coppola, and a violent Spanish tale about moral redemption, “Nadie hablara de nosotras cuando hayamos muertos” (Nobody Will Speak About Us When We’re Dead), starring Victoria Abril.

But the keynote of the festival was struck by Reeves, nearly swamped by teenagers, and Gibson, waving to thousands of fans before a big-screen Velodrome showing of “Braveheart.” Gibson went on to get pages of Spanish press coverage while Fox opened “A Walk in the Clouds” Sept. 15, one day after it screened at San Sebastian, to an excellent first-weekend take of $238,576 in Barcelona and Madrid.

“The (San Sebastian) Festival certainly has a strong focal presence to position a film,” said Duncan Clark, vice president, international, Columbia TriStar, in town for the Spanish premiere of “Desperado.”

Foreign journalists’ presence at San Sebastian is still way down compared to other fests such as Venice. But on the basis of San Sebastian’s present edition, fest looks to become a more significant European fall launch pad for upscale American product.

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