"Walking," wounded: Charms accumulate in Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Still Walking."

SFIFF52: "Lightness of Being" – Eight Wry Films

Dennis Harvey April 24, 2009

The eight films in the San Francisco International Film Festival Lightness of Being spotlight aren’t necessarily "light" in the sense of being pure comedy, though humor is definitely a part of their appeal. Instead, this octet of features stretching from Broadway to rural Portugal, from back-room politics to everyday obstacles in Palestine, offers armchair travel of a soulful sort: glimpses—usually sympathetic, sometimes sardonic but always entertaining—at ways of life that at base aren’t so different from our own. Yet, of course, it’s the differences that make them fascinating.

A literal day-in-the-life slice, Rashid Masharawi’s Laila’s Birthday follows middle-aged Abu Laila (Mohamed Bakri) through the frequently onerous hours of his taxi shift in a Gaza city. He has a few rules (he won’t drive to security checkpoints; he won’t take customers bearing arms), but they barely thin the procession of variously exasperating and sad customers. They range from a housewife who leaps out at the sight of a queue (without knowing what it’s for—but hey, it might be something good) to a guy just released from 11 years in prison, and another who complains about not being killed when Abu Laila accidentally hits him.

Bombs, breakdowns and bureaucratic snafus. impede a day our hero hopes to survive just so he can celebrate his daughter’s birthday at its end. Laila’s Birthday casts a wry eye on what people do to get by in near-impossible circumstances.

Harried in other ways are the protagonists of Gianni di Gregorio’s Mid-August Lunch and Christos Georgiou’s Small Crime. The former is about an aging bachelor still living with ancient mum in their Rome flat. When his landlord offers to forgive some debts in return for briefly taking in his own elderly ma, Gianni (played by the director himself) soon finds himself in cat-herding charge of no less than five old ladies who delight in one another’s company while running him ragged. Gomorrah screenwriter di Gregorio used nonprofessionals to play those parts in this semi-improvised miniature, which is as light and flavorful as a first course of prosciutto and mozzarella.

Likewise getting no respect from those he’s protecting is Small Crime’s young Leonidas (Aris Servetalis), sole policeman on a picturesque Greek island. Treated more as a gofer than an authority figure by gossipy residents who live off the tourist season, he finds his luck changing when a) the local drunk’s falling death gives him something real to investigate, and b) the local celebrity, a glamorous Athens TV hostess, returns to her home town for some R&R and possible cop-ulation. This charming comedy-slash-romance is the next best thing to an actual Grecian vacation.

All work and no play makes anything but dull the protagonists in several other Lightness selections. James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo’s Every Little Step chronicles the intensive process of auditioning actor-singer-dancers for the recent Broadway revival of A Chorus Line—which, you’ll recall, is itself about a fictive musical’s exhausting auditions for chorus roles. Local maker Jonathan Parker, who previously crafted clever updates of Melville’s Bartleby and Henry James’ Washington Square (as The Californians), brings his droll sensibility to the contemporary art world in (Untitled). Adam Goldberg plays a classically angst-ridden "misunderstood" artist, a composer of atonal music who resents his brother’s success as a commercially salable painter. But when they lock horns over the favors of a comely NYC gallery owner, that sibling dynamic undergoes some surprising changes.

Even more cut-throat than any downtown art scene is the top-shelf political world of Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop, a quintessentially witty and savage British satire. When a perpetually dithering M.P.’s latest foot-in-mouth statement makes him an unexpected hot pundit at a key moment—when both U.K. and U.S. are preparing for Iraq invasion while claiming they’re not—corridors of power on both sides of the Atlantic throb with reactive back-stabbings and favor-swappings. Like an Office episode on overdrive, this manic, giddy exercise is frequently hilarious, and scarily close to real-world behaviors.

Unclassifiable as reality, narrative or prank is Miguel Gomes’ Our Beloved Month of August. Sometimes onscreen explaining to locals that he’s making a feature best described as Little Red Riding Hood: Terror Vision (or arguing with his producer), Gomes shoots the myriad regional dance bands that play Portugal’s small towns in the summertime. Yet elements of fictive storytelling—a forbidden romance, incestuous undertones, perhaps a killer on the loose—gradually invade this quasi-documentary with (staged?) making-of sequences. Wonderfully freeform yet handsomely crafted, a full two and one-half hours but buoyantly accessible, this playful whatsit is easily one of the most original works you’ll find in SFIFF 09.

Last but far from least is Still Walking, the latest feature from Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda of After Life and Nobody Knows. Prodigal son returns from big city (here Tokyo) to visit aging parents, all old wounds of paternal disapproval, past family tragedies, et al., rising once again to either sever or heal damaged relationships once and for all. Still Walking might recall Ozu in its attention to the everyday, revealing character idiosyncrasies, the drama inherent in tiny domestic details—and in resistance to conventional plottiness or payoff. You could drop in on any typical, low-key five minutes of seriocomedy here and think, "So what?" But this wonderful film can’t be experienced in excerpt; its ample charms are cumulative. While there’s plenty in this year’s SFIFF I haven’t seen yet, Still Walking is the most enthusiastically recommended among those I have—indeed, it would be one of the best movies of this or any other year.