MADRID — Nestled between two hills and built on a sweeping curve of beach, San Sebastian is perhaps Spain’s most beautiful town, with the country’s highest standard of living, certainly its finest food.
Running Sept. 21-30, the 54th San Sebastian Film Festival aims to draw upon a little of the distinction and distinctiveness of its years as a classy belle epoque resort, to restore to the festival that air of exclusivity that has sometimes looked a little stale in recent years.
This slight readjustment of the fest’s boundaries is reflected principally in the number of San Sebastian exclusives that fest director Mikel Olaciregui has roped in: more than 30 world premieres across five main sections.
Olaciregui downplays the premieres, stressing quality: “You can have a great festival with no premieres and a terrible festival full of them,” he says.
But it’s true that recently San Sebastian’s thunder, with regard to Spanish preems, has repeatedly been stolen by Venice and Toronto: Even last year’s opener, Montxo Armendariz’s “Obaba,” had screened previously at the Canadian fest.
No danger of that this time — of the 16 competition films, 11 are world preems. What Olaciregui is looking for is what he calls “visibility” for movies — no more than seven preems a day, he figures, so that fewer films slip completely off the media radar.
The biggest draw is probably the out-of-competition international opening of Lars von Trier’s satire on corporate life, “The Boss of It All.”
Other name helmers pepper the official section in the highest-profile lineup in years: Agnieszka Holland with “Copying Beethoven,” in which Ed Harris’ composer falls for Diane Kruger’s assistant; John Boorman, with the identity theft drama “The Tiger’s Tail”; and Tom DiCillo’s buddies-gone-wrong pic “Delirious” — one of three U.S. productions in a section that last year featured exactly none, reflecting a broadening of the festival’s agenda to include less demanding auteur fare.
“But,” stresses Olaciregui, “it’s worth remembering that those three selected films represent a range of American cinematic values — there’s a big studio item and a strictly indie piece.”
The traditionally catholic section genre-hops to embrace “Ghosts,” Nick Broomfield’s British documentary on Chinese seafood harvesters. Official Section Spanish-language interest focuses on five entries. Carlos Sorin’s “El Camino de San Diego” shows the Argentinean vet returning with an on-the-roader about a soccer fan tracking down his futbol hero.
Home-grown fare features three auteurs little-known even at home, each with promising track records.
Antonio Chavarrias’ “Celia’s Lives,” a murder investigation drama and a study of Barcelona’s darker side, looks to consolidate the helmer’s reputation for gritty social realism. Victor Garcia Leon’s caustic family drama “Vete de mi,” in which a middle-aged guy finally reappraises his values, recalls the emotional authenticity of his 2001 debut “No Pain, No Gain”; and in Javier Rebollo’s edgy “Lo que se de Lola,” a Parisian voyeur is troubled by the arrival of an ebullient Spanish woman in his apartment block. Fest’s Horizontes Latinos reps a wide range of contempo themes and styles, drawing on two main sources — the Latin American fest circuit and San Sebastian’s own Films in Progress project.
For Olaciregui, Horizontes discovers “nuevos valores” — new talents. Standouts this year include Uruguayan co-production “La Perrera” by Manuel Nieto Zas. The comedy, developed in Films in Progress, follows the life of a young no-hoper (pic won a Rotterdam fest Tiger); Argentinean Rodrigo Moreno’s stately examination of a politician’s bodyguard “El custodio,” which played in Berlin; Mexican Francisco Vargas Quevedo’s black-and-white alternative war film “The Violin”; and a too-rare example of Bolivian cinema, Martin Boulocq’s debut “Lo mas bonito y mis mejores anos,” in which a guy tries to sell his 1965 VW to raise the cash to escape the monotony of Bolivian backwoods life.
Other items quarried from Films in Progress include Chilean Oscar Cardenas’ “Rabia,” and two world premieres, “La punta del diablo” by Marcelo Pavan (Argentina), in which a neurosurgeon confronts his own mortality, and Diego de la Texera’s “Meteoro” (Brazil).
One major attraction of this year’s Films in Progress is Ana Katz’s “The Wandering Bride”: Katz won kudos for debut “Musical Chairs.” Cinema in Motion, another works-in-progress showcase, plows San Sebastian’s other neighboring film turf: the Maghreb.
As in last year’s galvanizing pilot edition, it again bucks cliches and nails prejudice, both the spectator’s and the region’s.
The Morocco projects are no mud hut chamber-pieces: Mourad Boucif’s “Les larmes d’argent” follows a farm laborer, drafted during World War II; Hicham Falah and Mohamed Chrif Tribak’s “Entre parenthesis” is an ’80s-set political and emotional fresco of left-leaning students who took on the king’s archaic regime. Both underscore the growing ambitions and financial clout of Morocco’s small but vibrant national industry.
Three titles deal with the mistreatment of women. “Mascarades,” from top Algerian actor-turned-helmer Lyes Salem, who won a Cesar for short “Cousines,” is an arranged marriage tale. In Tunisian Kalthoum Bornaz’s “L’Autre moitie du ciel,” twins, a boy and girl, are prized apart by social conventions during adulthood. Most stirring of all, in Said Ould-Khelifa’s “Vivantes” rape victims are ostracized for their social dishonor.
“Ne reste dans l’Oued que ses galets,” says documentarian Jean-Pierre Lledo’s dissection of recent Algerian religious tensions.