Since Christmas season begins the day after Thanksgiving, we can consider Jeff Giordano’s irresistible feature-length animated film as the kickoff for Valentine’s Day. As its title suggests, Giordano collected audio interviews with a range of smart, self-aware and anonymous Bay Area—and beyond, perhaps—folks all over the sexuality and gender continuum. Does anyone get tired of hearing other people’s sexual experiences, dating philosophies and intimate journeys? Right. Like I said, irresistible.
Romantic Chorus is best watched with a partner and the remote, pausing periodically to discuss the direct relevance of, say, a given speaker’s evolving attitude toward bisexuality. But the pleasure of the film extends beyond the pithy talk, which Gioridano loosely organizes around the inevitably overlapping subjects of sex, monogamy, fear and technology.
Instead of using a single animation approach, Giordano enlisted a stable of artists from around the world. A different animation style is applied to each interview subject, encompassing hand-drawn figures, photo rotoscoping and abstract computer graphics. Consequently, Romantic Chorus plays more like a shorts program than a feature film at times, which has its own charms. All in all, though, it’s a deceptively serious film designed to spark conversation and, perhaps, make-out sessions.
Gianfranco Rosi’s widely seen and admired Fire at Sea (2016), a shattering look of the plight of refugees at sea and their rescuers filmed on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, was strewn with dramatic, high-pitched scenes. His follow-up, Notturno, is a much quieter and more oblique work that evokes torments past and hints at tragedies to come.
Rosi makes observational films devoid of narration or interviews, so it’s on the viewer to discern and interpret the connections between soldiers and civilians, destruction and healing. These are the images that emerge from his calm, steady accretion of landscapes (such as military outposts with a handful of conscripts) and close-ups (of the recuperating residents of a psychiatric ward, who are staging a play). Notturno, which Rosi shot in the adjoining countries of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, is explicitly an art documentary and not a work of journalism or activism.
As such, this melancholy film provides an enigmatic glimpse of places and an experience of peoples we would not encounter without Rosi’s intrepid commitment. Needless to say, Notturno is not a film to be watched with remote in hand.
The Academy Awards, in their infinite and ever-changing wisdom, changed the Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar to Best International Feature Film in 2019. As it happened, Parasite came along and swept up all the top trophies the very next year.
For many years, the Smith Rafael Film Center has presented a series culled from the official submissions in this category, including several that didn’t have U.S. theatrical distribution. This year’s lineup—perhaps because it’s online due to the pandemic—goes further: The program is larger than ever and includes works from countries whose filmmakers we never hear about, such as Tunisia, Peru and Greece.
As rarities go, it’s hard to top a black-and-white film from Saudi Arabia written and directed by a woman. Shahad Ameen’s feature debut, Scales, centers on a fierce girl who grows up scorned because her father defied their fishing village’s traditional sacrifice of a daughter to the sea. That’s right, a feminist arthouse fable from the Middle East.
Guatemala’s extraordinary La Llorona was the runner-up for the San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle’s Best Foreign Language Film award to Another Round, the Danish triumph also included in the Rafael program. (The category should be renamed to keep pace with the Oscars.) Jayro Bustamante also draws on a legend, and deftly mashes up genres, with this saga of a woman seeking revenge 30 years after she and her children were massacred by soldiers. The heart wants what the heart wants.
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