Much of what I end up watching at the San Francisco International Film Festival is a matter of pure serendipity. I pick the film that’s about to start playing. But there are also times when I very much want to see a particular movie.
Saturday afternoon and evening, I did one of each. And serendipity won.
After the Animated Shorts screening, I took a longer-than-usual break, skipping such promising titles as Big Sur and Big Blue Lake for a documentary on fishing that had received some interesting buzz.
One could make an fascinating and informative documentary about a fishing boat that plows the choppy waters off the Massachusetts coast, but Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel chose not to. Leviathan consists almost entirely of badly-framed close shots of objects, waves, pieces of the boat, and so on. You get some idea that life is difficult and dangerous on these boats, but that’s conveyed in the first five minutes. There’s no narration and we never get to know any of the men we fleetingly see (there are far more close-ups of dead fish than living humans). With the exception of one shot near the end, we never get a sense of the vessel as a whole. The film contains some visually striking shots, but it lingers on them way too long, turning visually striking into boring. I’m happy that people push the cinematic art with daring experimentation, but sometimes, the experiment fails.
You have two more chances to miss Leviathan at the festival. It’s screening tonight at 8:45 at the Pacific Film Archive, and will be back at the Kabuki on Thursday, May 9, at 5:30. Amazingly, Leviathan is on the Festival’s list of films that "have secured U.S. distribution or are in negotiations with a U.S distributor."
After that torturous experience, I randomly picked a movie starting at the right time, and found a gem:
A In the Fog
Think of this as a rural, Eastern European version of Army of Shadows. In Nazi-occupied Belorussia, two resistance fighters set out to execute a man whom they believe is cooperating with the Nazis. Things don’t go as planned, and the three men are trapped in ways they didn’t expect. Each man gets his own flashback, which tells us more about him and how he ended up in such a dangerous line of work. Writer/director Sergei Loznitsa (adapting a novel by Vasil Bykov) creates a suspenseful story in a way that’s unknown to today’s commercial filmmakers. He rarely cuts and moves the camera sparingly, giving us the chance to examine the characters and their environment as they work through their impossible situation.
Unfortunately, I caught the Festival’s second and final screening of In the Fog. But it’s been picked up by Strand Releasing, and will play in American theaters. Don’t miss this one.