Filmmakers frame stories around family struggles

A first-rate film festival needs two ingredients: new movies by world-class directors, and an underlying theme that ties the program together.

This year's just-concluded San Francisco International Film Festival had both, reconfirming its status as one of the most artfully assembled American film events.

Even better, the theme I detected throughout much of the festival was a worthwhile one - concern for family values in the broadest sense - and it emerged not from an agenda of the festival's programmers but from the strong, sincere interests of filmmakers in many nations and societies. Indeed, the multicultural nature of modern family life was central to several movies that made strong impressions on critics, industry professionals, and everyday moviegoers.

Most striking was the hefty number of films dealing with adoption, and cross-cultural adoption in particular. One of the most enthusiastically received was First Person Plural, a deeply personal documentary made by Deann Borshay Liem about her decision to find her biological parents in Korea after growing up in a northern California family.

It was shown on the same bill as Our Silent Traces, by French documentarists Sophie Bredier and Myriam Aziza, a stylistically different look at Bredier's similar effort to trace her Korean roots. Both movies contain touching portrayals of family love on the part of biological and adoptive families alike. So does Missing Boy, by Tove Torbirnsson, about a Swedish adoptee who found his family in India after an arduous pilgrimage.

Not all the family-oriented documentaries dealt with adoption, of course. American Gypsy: A Stranger in Everybody's Land is Jasmine Dellal's entertaining visit with a gypsy clan in the Pacific Northwest, detailing the love-hate relationship its members have with the larger community.

Sound and Fury focuses on two Long Island families deciding whether their children's deafness should be treated by surgical means or not viewed as a disability at all. Even the feisty Live Nude Girls, UNITE!, about a unionization effort by "sex industry" workers, offers a moving portrayal of the bonds between an exotic dancer and her disapproving mother, a renowned professional yearning to steer her daughter to a different path.

Among fiction films on the program, Chin Up! is Slveig Anspach's sensitively directed look at a pregnant woman diagnosed with a serious illness, featuring a superb performance by Karin Viard, a rising French star.

New Dawn, a compassionate tale of friendship among working-class men, is capably made by Emilie Deleuze, the daughter of Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher whose innovative writings have had a huge influence on contemporary film theory - although they've had little influence on his daughter, judging from her surprisingly conventional style. Also ingratiating is Shower, by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yang, a robust new talent with a gift for bittersweet humor.

New commercial offerings like The Virgin Suicides and Up at the Villa also graced the festival, as did sparkling pictures by several renowned international masters. The Letter, by Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, tells the delicate tale of a woman who resolves a moral dilemma by turning to religion. Moloch, by the towering Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov, pays a chilling visit to Adolf Hitler's household as Nazism lurches through its final days. Time Regained is Chilean director Raoul Ruiz's ambitious adaptation of Marcel Proust's unsurpassed novel of life, love, and remembrance.

The soft-spoken melodrama No One Writes to the Colonel shows the continuing brilliance of Mexican director Arturo Ripstein, who told me in an interview that he plans to work only with digital video - an unexpected direction for the cinaste who created the Rembrandt-like expressiveness of the exquisitely filmed movie shown here.

Many of the festival's best offerings will appear on commercial screens in weeks to come, demonstrating that family values and excellent cinema are alive and well as we enter into the new century.

Confirmed theatrical openings include 'Time Regained,' June 16; 'Shower,' July 7; 'Live Nude Girls, UNITE!' and 'Sound and Fury,' this summer. 'The Virgin Suicides' and 'Up at the Villa' are playing at theaters now.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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