Castro Theater, venue for the San Francisco International Film Festival (Opening Night)

In just a few days, on April 19, 2012, the San Francisco International Film Festival will open for its 55th year. The inaugural “International,” as it’s known on the circuit, took place in 1957 and was the first international film festival in North or South America. For 14 days, films from 12 different countries played all over San Francisco. The International has come a long way, as this year it will be screening 174 films from 45 countries.

The International’s existence was due in large part to Irving M. “Bud”  Levin. Perhaps because Levin grew up with movies (his father Samuel Levin built the Balboa, Coronet, Galaxy, Stonestown, Coliseum, Vogue, Alexandria and El Rey theaters-no, they didn’t start off as Crunch gyms), Levin wanted to expose San Francisco to film as an art form. San Francisco, for its part, needed to stay competitive in the arts world and agreed to give Levin’s film festival some credibility by allowing it to use the Art Commission’s name.

If only it were that easy. No funding came with the use of the Art Commission’s name. To make matters worse, the fledgling International lacked support from Hollywood and other festivals of the day: Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Edinburgh. Specifically, the Venice and Cannes festivals fought the International and did not want their film industries to show any of their films at the new festival. Levin had no money, and the rest of the film world was fighting him.

What Levin did have was San Francisco. Local San Franciscans were enthusiastic and proud to be hosting an international film festival, and many volunteered to stuff envelopes and send press releases.   The foreign consulates wanted to celebrate the films from their homelands. It seems almost every consulate hosted a pre- or post-party of the film from its country.

Finally, on December 4, 1957, before a crowded 1,000+ audience at the Metro Theater on Union Street in Cow Hollow, San Franciscans and foreign dignitaries dressed in ball gowns and tuxedos sat in anticipation as the lights dimmed, and Helmut Kautner’s “The Captain from Kà­ ¶penick”  began to play.

Fifty-five years later, many of us San Franciscans take it for granted that we have a world-renowned international film festival showcasing the art of film from around the world. Some films tell the simple story of human existence-the setting and language mere clothing. In other films, such as “OK, Enough, Goodbye” , the country and culture are silent narrators. Some films will be out and out crowd pleasers, like opening night’s “Farewell, My Queen”  and closing night’s “Twixt” .

The International is venued across several Bay Area theaters. San Francisco venues include the Castro Theater, Sundance Kabuki, SF MOMA and the new San Francisco Film Society Cinema.  (If you’ve never been to the Castro Theatre, you cannot consider yourself a true San Franciscan.)

I enjoy fictional films with a good story that draws me in and also offers some insight into this thing called Life. From the list of screeners available to the press, I chose “OK, Enough, Goodbye“-a film that promised to offer a new perspective on the mundaneness of Life; and “Summer Games“-a coming of age story set in Italy (who wouldn’t choose this?).   (I also enjoy good documentaries, but my top documentary choices were not available for viewing at the time of this review.)

Lebanon’s “OK, Enough, Goodbye”  premiered in 2010 and won a major prize at the Abu Dabhi fest. The film’s pace and method of storytelling is definitely not for everyone, as it mirrors the pace of our unnamed hero’s   (Daniel Arzrouni) life as he meanders around the sleepy city of Tripoli. Though if you enjoyed “Jeff Who Lives at Home” , chances are you will also enjoy this sweet and thoughtful movie.

The filmmakers, Lebanese Rania Attieh and U.S.-born Daniel Garcia, introduce our hero lying in bed, yelling for his mother for no other reason than to know where she is. In that moment, the entire mother-son relationship is defined. The following scenes simply texturize the relationship as you watch our hero, a baker, bicker with his mother over taking a trip, dye her hair, and call from his bed at night to make sure she has locked all the doors. The only relationship he has in the entire world is with his mother. As a result, when she leaves him alone-taking a bus to Beirut without telling him-he desperately tries to find another woman to fill that void.

Arzrouni does a wonderful job of conveying the nerd-ish and child-like discomfort our hero has with women-with awkward silences and averted gazes. We cringe because he’s a mama’s boy and not a man; however, it’s the mama’s boy in every man that teaches him respect for women. This is perhaps why our hero doesn’t fall in line with the other Lebanese men and let the maid service beat his maid when he tries to return her. Instead he drives her all over town trying to find alternative placements for her, and even takes her to a church where she can be with other Ethiopian women.

The filmmakers incorporate documentary-style clips that provide journalistic coverage of Tripoli, including melancholic and beautiful footage of the rotting International Faire of Tripoli site, along with interviews of the side characters, with a particularly disturbing account by little neighbor boy Walid as he talks about punching his friend in the stomach. This perspective of Tripoli condemns our hero to a life of quiet decay.

Though the protagonist is not particularly pleasant, he manages to evoke sympathy in the viewer as he struggles to create a life for himself at the age of forty-after his mother packs their fridge full of food and takes off for Beirut.

Summer Games”  is another festival award winning film. Written and directed by Rolando Colla, it won Best Fiction Film at the Swiss Film Festival and was selected as the Swiss entry for the Academy Awards’ Foreign Film nomination.

Set at a Tuscan beach, Summer Games tells a timeless coming-of-age story if two adolescents.   Nic, played by Armando Condolucci, is the central character-a barely teen who is mastering the skill of not feeling anything. The films introduces us to Nic, sitting in the car while his younger brother, Agostino, and his father struggle to assemble a family-sized tent at a beach campground. When his father asks for help, Nic walks away lost in his own torment.

Nic and Agostino eventually befriend other youths at the beach: Lee, Patty and Marie. It is Marie, played by Fiorella Campanella, to whom Nic is drawn, and it will be Marie who gives Nic a moment so happy and beautiful that it penetrates the walls he has built.

The parents in this movie are a presence-if for no other reason than because they each so palpably have shaped Nic and Marie. Still, Nic and the rest spend hours on end by themselves playing games reminiscent of that played by the youths in Lord of the Flies.

Condolucci is a talent to watch. His portrayal of Nic is full of depth and complexity. Condolucci more than holds his own in those scenes where Nic must confront with and fight his father, played by Antonio Merone.

The Tuscan setting is not central to the movie; it could be set in any popular family summer getaway. Nonetheless, the scenery is beautiful and the glimpse into another culture feels like taking a little vacation in a different world. That being said, Colla’s camera technique skips the glossy sheen and gives the getaway a gritty feel.

Make no mistake, this film is not an idyllic summer romp about losing one’s virginity. Rather, it is about that point in time when we see and accept the truth for what it is-and call it that. It is about how children are shaped by their experiences in life-experiences that can make some want to not feel anything at all.

Of the two films, “Summer Games” definitely has more popular and broader appeal. It’s a very safe date movie bet and definitely worth the price of an evening show. “OK, Enough, Goodbye” will not appeal to everyone, so make sure you know your friend(s) well before you suggest seeing this. This movie is worth an evening full price ticket, but for me it’s one that I’d rather watch at home and digest.

The SF International Film Festival runs from April 19, 2012 to May 3, 2012. For more information, including all the films that will be showing, visit the festival website.

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