San Sebastian Film Festival: Days Six and Seven

A few festival favourites, Aita, Beautiful Boy, Barney's Version and Sarah's Key

by Amber Wilkinson

There's always a great feeling of satisfaction when a film you think should win a prize at a competition actually does. It happened to me earlier this year when Debra Granik's excellent Winter's Bone took the narrative prize at Sundance - and again when I discovered Peter Mullan's Neds had walked (or perhaps run) off with the Golden Shell for best film and Silver Shell for actor Conor McCarron. The success must have been all the sweeter for Mullan considering he thought his film "was about to disappear down the fucking plughole" after missing out on being selected for Cannes and Venice.

I saw eight out of the 15 in competition films at the festival and, of them, Neds was far and away the most accomplished (although documentary Genpin (which took home the FIPRESCI critics award) came close. More generally, I felt the strongest films - Bosnia comedy/drama Cirkus Columbia, the gritty and gripping Chilean drama Post Mortem, accomplished debut October, impressively acted Beautiful Boy and absorbing thriller Carancho - were in the festival's other sections.

On the final couple of days of the festival I was able to take in a handful more, including in competition film Aita (Father), which is the sort of film that is very hard to quantify in terms of a star rating. Those who like clear narrative dramas and story will be incredibly frustrated by this langourous look at the caretaking goings on in an elderly house. In fact, one critic behind me at the screening I attended spent most of the final 20 minutes whistling at the more slow-moving moments, until the icy stares from those around him finally registered. What is interesting about the film, though - aside from some very beautiful framing and cinematography (for which it was awarded a prize - is its mixture of this incredibly naturalistic snapshot with much more avant garde techniques. At points during the film, what appears to be found footage is seen to play out across the white internal walls of the house. It's pictures are hard to discern but involve peopl and evoke the idea of ancient history stretching back within the confines of the building. Not for the casual cinema-goer and, if I'm honest, I'm not sure I would race to sit through it again, but there are definitely charms to José María de Orbe's debut, if you are prepared to give yourself up to its rhythms.

Beautiful Boy also requires you to buy into a slower pace, although it is much more conventional in terms of its storytelling. It takes the idea of a teenager's shooting spree - raked over so much in recent years by way of the likes of Bowling For Columbine, Elephant and The Class - and flips it on its head, examining not the motivation of the child, but how the parents cope in the aftermath.

Michael Sheen proves that he is more than just a go-to man if you need a Tony Blair mimic, completely inhabiting devastated dad Bill, as he tries to come to terms with the devastation caused by his son (Kyle Gallner). He is matched perfectly by Maria Bello as grieving mum Kate as they grapple to hold on to their marriage and sanity in the wake of the carnage. There is an immediacy to their performances, which cuts through any suggestion of 'Hallmark TV grief'. The emotions feel raw and real and Shawn Ku's direction shows remarkable restraint. Where some films feel manipulative in terms of emotional highs and lows, here a gradual build up of grief, bewilderment and a fear of what the couple may have unwittingly created, means moves into sadness and catharsis are fully earned and believable. Although essentially a gripping two-hander, there is excellent support from Meat Loaf, Moon Bloodgood and Alan Tudyk.

Sadly, despite some equally excellent acting from the central pair of Paul Giamatti and Rosamund Pike in Barney's Version, the emotional notes, particularly towards the end of the film, ring considerably more falsely. Set over a 30-year period, the film tracks the life of Barney Panofsky - a hard living and impetuous soul, prone to mistakes in the romance department. Giamatti and Pike are so watchable that much can be forgiven, but you can't help feeling there is a better version in here somewhere, underneath the overwriting. Full review here

My final film of the festival was closing night film Sarah's Key - yet another drama that suffers from an overdose of sugary sentamentalism and unecessary gloss. That said, tribute must again be paid to the central actor - in this case the ever watchable Kristin Scott Thomas - who really salvages more from this than the scripting deserves. It's one of those movies with a pretty Big Concept. In this case, charting the persecution of Jews in France through the investigations of journalist (Thomas), who discovers that a little girl, who shut her brother in a cupboard before being shipped off to a camp, has a connection to her own family. The story of little Sarah and her bravery back in 1942, proves far more compelling than the modern-day aspect of the drama, concerning - for the most part - whether Thomas will go through with a pregnancy or, as her husband (Frederic Pierrot) would prefer, has a termination. As the film progresses, all of the action moves to the present day and the pacing starts to take lessons from a snail. The drama of Julia's modern life quite simply can't compete with the history lesson that has gone before and attention spans run out long before the runtime.

And so, that's it for another year of pintxos and pictures in the Basque country, Hasta la vista, San Sebastian.

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