The AFI Film Festival opens tonight at 7:30 at Mann’s Chinese theater with a gala premiere of Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful,” a high-risk Chaplinesque allegory of good and evil, filled with pathos and humor, and set against an increasingly anti-Semitic World War II Italy. It won the grand jury prize at Cannes, and Miramax will release it Friday at selected theaters.
“Life Is Beautiful” is the first of 12 features screening in competition at the Chinese. Films in the new directions--i.e., American independents--European film showcase and documentary categories will screen at the Monica 4-Plex while the world cinema section will screen at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills. Throughout the festival, special events will be held at various venues.
There’s never a shortage of gems at the AFI Film Fest, and this year is no exception. Like Benigni, but in an entirely different manner, Czech director Vladimir Michalek and writer Jiri Krizan have delved into the evil of World War II to create the superb and suspenseful “Sekal Has to Die” (Chinese, Sunday at 7 p.m. and Oct. 29 at 2:15 p.m.), which turns upon an extraordinarily well-structured and well-developed script.
The time is 1943, the place is a Moravian village untouched by the German Occupation of Czechoslovakia. In fact, there’s not a German soldier in sight to mar the beautiful vistas of wheat fields or the quaint town, yet “Sekal” evolves into a Holocaust drama--even though neither a Nazi nor a Jew nor a concentration camp is ever on view.
A singularly nasty villager, Sekal (Boguslaw Linda) has started blackmailing the prosperous, elderly farmers of the community into selling their property to him at ridiculously low prices by threatening to denounce them to the Gestapo on trumped-up charges. A young man, Jura (Olaf Lubaszenko), arrives with a letter from the brother of the mayor, requesting that he give shelter to the stranger, a farmer fleeing the Gestapo. Starting work as a blacksmith, Jura begins to impress the locals with his strength of character and independence as Sekal makes life increasingly miserable for them. Inevitably, the farmers will try to force Jura into assassinating Sekal.
The filmmakers miss no implications nor any opportunities to heighten the tension of the predicament they have so artfully created. To begin with, it is this profoundly religious, ultra-conservative community that has turned Sekal into a vengeful monster, tormenting him his entire life for having been born out of wedlock. What is so special about this picture is how the filmmakers introduce and develop with complexity the moral dimension of their story.
Set in rural Austria a decade or so earlier, Stefan Ruzowitzky’s “The Inheritors” (Music Hall, Saturday at 2:45 p.m.) has a similar style and impact. This ironic fable commences with a wealthy farmer unexpectedly leaving his entire holdings to his peasants, an unthinkable turn of events that challenges the heirs to assume their rightful legacy while inciting a greedy landowner into an escalating, ruthless rage.
The result is a stirring tale of class warfare and hypocrisy, shot through with humor, pain and eroticism, that in its increasing darkness foreshadows the Anschluss soon to overtake Austria. “The Inheritors” opens at selected theaters on Oct. 28.
Salvador Carrasco’s “La Otra Conquista” (Chinese, Saturday at 7 p.m. and Monday at 4:45 p.m.) is a dazzling, stupendous historical re-creation: Mexico in the brutal aftermath of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1521. It combines the grandeur and stateliness of a Sergei Paradjanov tableau vivant with the color and passion of a Maria Montez epic--and this is not meant pejoratively but to suggest that Carrasco has struck a daring balance between a stylized form and unbridled emotion.
“La Otra Conquista” is heady stuff, loaded with extravagant spectacle, turmoil and suffering, as the Spanish conquerors attempt to force Christianity on the murdered Emperor Moctezuma’s son Topiltzin (the poised and exotic Damian Delgado).
Deftly adapted by director Ventura Pons and Sergi Belbel from Belbel’s play, “Caresses” (Monica 4-Plex Tuesday at 1:45 p.m. and Wednesday at 9:45 p.m.) is an impeccably acted, caustic “La Ronde” for the end of this century, in which 11 people come in contact with each other, in musical chairs, linking the first person to the last. The point it makes so adroitly is about the lack of communication and, beyond that, tenderness in so many relationships in today’s world.
The central relationship of “Sweety Barrett” (Chinese, Sunday at noon and Oct. 29 at 9:30 p.m.) is familiar: that of a seemingly slow-witted man and a small boy. Yet, with a grim Irish port town as his setting, debuting feature writer-director Stephen Bradley gives his film a shocking turn of events.
Big, burly, redheaded Brendan Gleeson continues to consolidate his international renown with his portrayal of a simple man of few words who winds up in the fictional town of Dockery after losing his job with a circus. He gets work from a ruthless crooked cop whose bootlegging operation has cast a pervasive evil throughout the community. Dylan Murphy is the local boy with whom Gleeson’s Sweety connects.
Sweety is one of those deceptively simple types who, once a goal has taken root in their minds, won’t be stopped. “Sweety Barrett,” though far from original, nonetheless has a quality of freshness and generates considerable impact. Thomas Mauch, who shot “Aguirre, Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo” for Werner Herzog, gives “Sweety” a bleakly beautiful look.
Bill Condon’s “Gods and Monsters” (Monica 4-Plex, Friday at 8 p.m.), based on Christopher Bram’s novel “The Father of Frankenstein,” is a clever fictional account of the last years and death of James Whale, director of “Frankenstein” and other Universal horror classics plus the second, highly esteemed version of “Show Boat” among other notable films.
As the credits unroll for Karim Traidia’s powerful “The Polish Bride” (Monica 4-Plex, Saturday at 2:15 p.m. and Monday at 7 p.m.), a young woman races through the deserted nighttime streets of a Dutch town, not stopping until she collapses on a field, where she is discovered by a farmer, Henk (Jaap Spijkers). She is Anna (Monic Hendrickx), duped into coming to the Netherlands for work only to find herself trapped in a brothel.
As a woman who has just escaped white slavery, Anna is very lucky. Henk is a tall, good-looking single man, the strong, silent type but kindly. She stays on as a housekeeper for Henk with the idea of earning enough money to return to Poland, but as the film’s title suggests, these two individuals ever so gradually start falling in love. Algerian-born Traidia, drawn to themes of the foreigner’s experience in a new country, develops their relationship with the utmost tenderness, credibility and gentle humor.
Nadia Tass’ “Amy” (Music Hall, Monday at 7:15 p.m. and Oct. 29 at 9:30 p.m.) is a shameless yet potent heart-tugger, which finds an edgy, hostile young woman, Tanya (Rachel Griffiths), despairing of getting her 8-year-old daughter, Amy (Alana DeRoma), to hear or to speak--until she ends up in an old house in a seedy residential enclave in an industrial section of Melbourne. Across the street lives Robert (Ben Mendelsohn), a free-spirited rocker to whom Amy responds and with whom she starts singing.
Both mother and daughter are deeply traumatized by a tragedy that occurred three years earlier, and you know from the get-go they will have worked their way through it by the time the film is over. Still, Griffiths and Mendelsohn are both very good, and DeRoma can really belt out “Stand by Your Man.” “Amy” goes way over the top, but it delivers the goods for audiences who above all want their movies to have lots of heart.
There are no false notes in the stylish, beautifully structured “Jerome” (Monica 4-Plex, Saturday at 4:30 p.m., Wednesday at 1:45 p.m., Saturday at 6 p.m.), a miracle of economy and psychological validity. A macho-looking but acutely sensitive Bakersfield factory welder (Drew Pillsbury) one day has finally had it after years of grinding routine and takes off for Jerome, Ariz., where he dreams of becoming a junk sculptor.
Pillsbury plays to perfection one of those individuals with an imaginative life beyond the comprehension of family and friends. Written, directed and produced flawlessly by Thomas Johnston, David Elton and Eric Tignini, respectively, “Jerome” suggests that freedom is illusory and that the struggle against fate may be futile. For tickets and a full schedule of films and events: (213) 520-2000.
John Fisher’s “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” which opens a one-week run Friday at the Grande 4-Plex, is a well-crafted romantic comedy but too talky and too lacking in individuality to hold much interest. RonReaco Lee and Deanna Davis star as an African American college couple whose pattern of constantly breaking up and making up gets a bit tedious after a while. The film, which proceeds with the smoothness of glass, however, is a splendid showcase for the attractive and talented Lee and Davis and others, especially Jade Janise Dixon as the witty and confident new girl in Lee’s life. (213) 617-0268.