May 2-8, 2007

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God looks out for winos: Paulus Manker plays a street person with wanderlust in 'Slumming.'

European Express

Four S.F. Film Fest features show the up- (and down-) side of the continent, with a detour to Canada

By Richard von Busack

NAGGED IN THE middle of the night by the thought that you'd be happier living in Europe? The South Bay wing of the 50th annual San Francisco International Film Festival—playing for four days, May 6-9, in Palo Alto at the Aquarius Theater—offers a few beautifully written correctives.

Item No. 1: Congorama (May 6, 6:30pm), Philippe Falardeau's dry-comic serenade to perfidious Belgium, starring the great Olivier Gourmet, that paunchy, irritable and plaid-wearing embodiment of "The Ohio of Europe." The actor is regularly seen fighting his way upstream like a half-dead salmon in the Dardennes brothers' neodocumentary classics (L'Enfant, Le Fils, etc.).

In Congorama, Gourmet plays a thwarted inventor with an uneasy connection to Africa. Gourmet's Michel seeks to sell a dysfunctional gizmo to the Quebec government, while also tracking down the secret of his parenthood. Changing the angle about 45 degrees, Falardeau then focuses on a similarly bitter and thwarted French-Canadian son from the sticks, whose father mysteriously vanished with a technological secret of great worth.

God bless him, the director is a fan of world's fairs: plaintive ancient footage of Expo 67 rhymes with a visit to the '58 Brussels fair, where the world first trembled at the sight of that kitsch masterpiece, the Atomium ("The most astonishing building in the world!" claims its website). Less fondly remembered is the film's namesake: the fair's "Congorama" exhibit, commemorating Belgium's contribution to African progress. If only Mr. Kurtz could have seen it.

Item No. 2: Joachim Trier's Reprise (May 8, 9:30pm). Two spiritual great-grandchildren of Knut Hamsen seek literary fame in Oslo. The ghost of punk rock haunts Erik and Phillip, the two best writers in a small gang of snarky artistic benchwarmers. The shaven-headed Phillip publishes a first book, finds true love and promptly has a spectacular nervous breakdown. Seeing this lesson in the consequences of literary success naturally scares Erik silent. He is blocked by a number of other factors. One seems to be his love of rock itself: these boys quote Wittgenstein's line that the really important ideas are communicated with music, not words. And the writer they both worship also suggests that literary effort is futile; he's a fictional Norwegian version of Thomas Pynchon.

Reprise's reprising of Jules and Jim is obvious. Such could be said of 1,000 young-genius movies, so let's focus on a weaker point. Let's have Reprise be the last youth movie that goes in for cinema hypertext: you know, freeze-frame, caption, speeded-up flashback of some insignificant detail—or, anyway, a detail that looks insignificant compared to the juiced-up treatment it received.

Reprise is more effective in the more old-fashioned slow flow of images during Phillip's tragic trip to Paris with his girlfriend. Young filmmakers heed Barry White's Law: "If you don't have slow, you don't have a show." This is a surprisingly unfrantic movie considering that Trier is a distinguished skateboarding champ.

Item No. 3: Michael Glawogger's Slumming (May 7, 6:30pm) pits two natural foes against each other: a pain-in-the-ass wino vs. a savage prepster. The former, Kallmann (Paulus Manker), is ambulatory street debris in Vienna. The latter is Sebastian (August Diehl), the thin-white-duke type, combining the more unsettling qualities of David Bowie and Christopher Walken.

Sebastian has the instincts of a secret policeman. He follows, he spies, he reduces passers-by to social stereotypes. When he sees Kallmann passed out drunk outside a subway station, Sebastian cooks up an idea he thinks would be "lustig" (funny). He and a reluctant henchman haul the unconscious Kallmann across the border and dump him somewhere in Central Europe. Kallmann wakes up penniless, hung-over and sans passport and with the cheerless word "ZNOJMO" staring at him from the front of the train station.

Glawogger keeps the story urgent and unpredictable. It delivers more than just the Incredible Wino Journey of Kallmann finding his way back across the frozen prairie, avoiding both border guards and menacing lawn gnomes. Just as interesting is how the director keeps us uncertain of whether Sebastian merits punishment or redemption. Even at the end, the sleek young sadist's destiny is left enticingly up in the air.

The other dyspepsia-in-Europe films include Rome Rather Than You (May 8, 6:30pm), in which a pair of Algerians attempt to escape the brutal civil war raging in their country for hopes of a new life in Italy. The Caiman (May 7, 9:15pm) is Nanni Moretti's first feature film since that elegant explication of grief, The Son's Room. Here is a dual-pronged parody of the Italian film industry and of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, that unhappy combination of Murdoch and Mussolini.

Mostly, the film is a look backward at the career of a noted fictional movie producer whose films include Maciste vs. Freud, a no-doubt-patriotic epic of the celebrated Italian strongman fighting off an autocrat from Italy's ancient enemy, Austria. Ancient strife, class-war, snobbery, snow—maybe it's not so bad here, after all.

Movie Times The San Francisco International Film Festival screens features May 6-9 at the Aquarius Theater in Palo Alto. See for details.

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