Most weeks of the year in the Bay Area there’s some film festival or other—sometimes several at once. Amidst such plenty, it’s easy to forget that some local festivals have actually left the building, like Women in Film or Fearless Tales. A more recent casualty was NICE (New Italian Cinema Events), though that annual showcase has more or less morphed under different auspices into the new form of Cinema Italian Style, whose official first edition takes place this weekend at the Vogue.
While dedicated to new Italian feature filmmaking, its opening selection nods to the past with the latest film from 80-year-old Marco Bellocchio, whose first feature Fists in the Pocket made an international splash way back in 1965. No one else of his generation and stature is remains alive and active, let alone still operating at the top of their game: The Traitor is even Italy’s chosen contender for the foreign-language Oscar this year. Indeed, it’s a major work, a fact-based 2 1/2 hour mafioso saga that’s arguably at least as good as Scorcese’s The Irishman, achieving the same narrative scale on a fraction the budget and in about 65 minutes’ less time.
It’s the story of Sicilian Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), a longtime Cosa Nostra associate who was extradited from Brazil (not for the first time) in 1984. Having grown disillusioned with amidst murderous power struggles over the heroin trade, he decided to turn state’s witness, informing on numerous enraged fellow “men of honor” in lengthy, heavily guarded trials whose circus-like atmosphere is colorfully captured here. It’s a big, ambitious, impressive slice of recent Italian history from a filmmaker who’s had a significant place in that nation’s culture for over a half-century.
When Bellocchio was just starting out, Italy was still a major exporter of non-arthouse, highly commercial features worldwide, often grinding out en masse films in a particular exploitation flavor. Before the “spaghetti western,” the favored genre was peplum, or “sword and sandal,” those cheesy pseudo-epics of mythological antiquity that often starred American bodybuilders in togas. The form arguably reached its apex with future great spaghetti western director Sergio Corbucci’s 1961 Duel of the Titans, in which onetime Mr. Universe Steve Reeves and former screen Tarzan Gordon Scott played Romulus and Remus, the shepherding twins whom legend has it founded the city of Rome.
Matteo Rovere’s The First King: Birth of an Empire retells that tale, with Alessandro Borghi and Alessio Lapice now playing the Iron Age brothers. This isn’t an old-style peplum, but a fantasy-tinged action adventure in the mode of such recent, quasi-historical spectacles like 300, Gods of Egypt, and the Clash of the Titans remake. It’s a big, brutal, handsome popcorn epic, even if it does stumble pacing-wise after the midway point. Sorry, there’s no classic “muscle men” on display here. But if you want to see toned (if skinny, and very dirty) men in loincloths—including quite possibly the best-looking shepherds in movie history—this is the movie for you.
Other films in the three-day festival include Stefano Mordini’s murder mystery The Invisible Witness, Francesca Archibugi’s drama Vivere, Gabriele Salvatores’ musical road-trip tale Volare, Edoardo De Angelis’ human-trafficking expose The Vice of Hope, and Daniele Luchetti’s official closer Ordinary Happiness, a fantasy comedy about short-term reincarnation. There will also be some cuisine-related events tied to the festival. Fri/22-Sun/24, Vogue Theatre. More info here.
For a large number of children (and princess aficionados of any age), there will be no film event worth thinking about this week—or probably for a few weeks to come—but Frozen 2, the animated-musical sequel that’s gotten some disappointed early reviews. However, critical consensus doesn’t mean a lot to its target demographic. Adults wanting to revisit a bit of their childhood might be heading instead to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, in which Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers aka Mr. Rogers, and Matthew Rhys the cynical journalist who becomes less so while getting to know him for an Esquire profile. That may sound treacly, but this latest by director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Diary of a Teenage Girl) has been very well-received on the festival circuit.
Other films opening Friday that we weren’t able to screen in advance are Brian Kirk’s thriller 21 Bridges, with NYPD cop Chadwick Boseman hunting down two cop killers; Depeche Mode: Spirits in the Forest (at Embarcadero), a concert film for the veteran Brit synth band; and (at the Roxie) Minhal Baig’s directorial debut Hala, a drama about a 17-year-old Chicago teenager pulled between secular society and her family’s traditional Muslim values.
Also opening on Fri/22:
Gay Chorus Deep South
A couple of years ago in response to the “vitriolic” tenor of the last Presidential election, as well as the resurgence of legalized homophobia as alleged “religious freedom,” the San Francisco Gay Chorus decided to tour the mostly deep-red Deep South. The idea was to bring comfort to embattled communities, and hopefully change some minds along the way. People like the Chorus’ own artistic director Tim Seelig had southern roots themselves, which had in some cases been the source of sexual repression, still-damaged family relationships, and so forth.
This documentary by David Charles Rodrigues charts that trip, which turned out to be educational on both sides—not just for audiences and others on the tour, but for chorus members who often found open minds where they anticipated closed hearts. Still, not all divisions can be bridged, particularly when it comes to matters of religious belief. Though Gay Chorus Deep South may hit its “inspirational uplift” note a bit more shrilly than some viewers can stomach, it too seeks to find common ground between groups constantly pitted against each other in our current culture wars. Roxie Theater. More info here.
One of the films stirring the most excitement on this fall’s film festival circuit was this third feature by Trey Edward Shults. This drama returns to the charged, almost manically tense domestic drama of his striking 2015 Krisha, although with a more ambitious narrative sprawl. The family here are an upper-middle class African-American quartet in South Florida, outwardly living “the good life,” but very much consumed by the discipline and achievement it took to get there in the first place.
Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) is a successful businessman who maintains the body of a pro athlete, and there’s nothing very playful about the arm-wrestling contests he has with teenage son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The latter has plenty of partying friends and a devoted girlfriend (Alexa Demie), but is under so much pressure to excel that the slightest hurdle can send him into a near-panic. The only upside to dad’s high expectations of Tyler is that younger sis Emily (Taylor Russell) gets left comparatively alone. Both kids are wary about accepting the emotional support they desperately need from stepmom Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry)—she’d love to provide it, but there is unresolved baggage in the way from their late biological mother.
Cinematically inventive, energetic, even nervous, Waves stacks causes for concern atop its central characters until inevitably it all crashes down on them in truly catastrophic fashion. Then the film in a sense begins anew, from a different character’s perspective than its long first section. Shults is a stylistically bold director, but not in a flashy, empty way. His dynamic presentation always serves psychological truth, even if sometimes it may feel like too much of a good thing.
That could also be said of Waves in general—it’s almost too rich in themes and conflicts for one narrative to bear. Still, it’s pretty rare these days you get to complain about an American movie having more serious ideas than it can fully handle. This is an imperfect film, but one well worth seeing, and even its flaws are ones of laudable overreaching. Embarcadero, California Theatre (Berkeley). More info here.
Light from Light
Waves’ opposite number is this independent feature, which is also a family drama of sorts but contrastingly quiet, meditative, ultimately balming in tenor. Sheila (Marin Ireland) is an ordinary Knoxville, TN single mom with a well-adjusted teenage son (Josh Wiggins) and a banal dayjob at an airport car rental desk.
But there is something extraordinary in her life, even if she’s rather ambivalent about it: For years she’s had sporadic paranormal experiences, and sometimes works with a volunteer group to offer her “gift” to others. As a result, she winds up visiting Richard (Jim Gaffigan), a fish-hatchery worker who’s experienced some poltergeist-y phenomena in the farmhouse his late wife’s family has lived in for generations. Is he being haunted, and if so, by spirits benevolent or malevolent?
This may sound like a setup for a horror film, but Paul Harill’s film doesn’t go in that direction at all. Instead, it’s a non-religious affirmation of things (spirits if you like) beyond our full understanding that is lovely, nuanced, and finally quite moving. Neither frightening or mawkish, Light From Light is an unusual drama of the supernatural that is very small in scale yet leaves an indelible impression. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.