An oddity in an odd land

Times Staff Writer

Among the films available for preview in AFI Fest 2003 was a group so diverse and impressive that it augurs well for the 17th edition of the festival, which runs today through Nov. 16 at the ArcLight.

Dagur Kari's "Noi Albinoi" is a stunningly simple yet completely original coming-of-age story set in a community of fewer than 1,000 people on an Icelandic fjord. There's a beguiling sense of absurdity that emerges in the delicious tension between humor and pathos in this irresistible film about a 17-year-old bald and slim misfit Noi (Tomas Lemarquis), who longs to escape a stark and boring environment. Noi is regarded more as a village idiot than as a rebel with an innate brilliance that no one is equipped to handle, not even his loving grandmother and father, a tormented alcoholic.

Every inept move Noi makes only worsens his situation, but the way Kari, in a feature debut of extraordinary promise, wraps up his story is highly imaginative and resonant with implications.


Between cultures

Wang Xiasoshuai's "Drifters" ia demanding, bleakly beautiful study of a young man (Duan Long) repatriated from the U.S., to which he had emigrated illegally, to a listless existence in his stark coastal town in the Fujian province. He drifts into an affair with a vivacious performer in a Shanghai opera troupe but is energized when he learns the son he fathered in America is now in his village with his rich, recently returned grandfather. The plot is propelled by the grandfather's adamant and cruel refusal to allow contact between father and son, dubiously citing American law and violating ancient Chinese tradition regarding a father's rights. Wang, best known for "Beijing Bicycle," depicts his hero as caught between two cultures and political systems and is implicitly critical of both.


Skewering society

In Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's bitterly amusing "James' Journey to Jerusalem," its hero undergoes an odyssey that in its satirical way is as devastating as that of "Drifters." Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe's James is a naive, good-hearted Christian Zulu who embarks on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land only to be arrested by immigration in Tel Aviv and wind up in the highly exploitive migrant labor pool. But James is a fast learner and is soon exploiting his exploiters. That his employer Shimi (Salim Daw) and Shimi's elderly father Sallan (Arie Elias) are three-dimensional characters makes all the more biting Alexandrowicz's broadside at contemporary Israeli society, skewering its greed, materialism, corruption and lack of respect for its elders -- plus a nasty, unabashed racism.


Under Taliban rule

Siddiq Barmak's "Osama" is as harsh as it poetic, the first feature of the post-Taliban era in Afghanistan, exposing the hellish plight of women under that previous regime. When her husband is killed by Russians in the battle for Kabul, a widow finds herself in a terrible situation, struggling to survive in a society that dictates a woman cannot leave her home without a legal male companion. Finally, this woman, who has been working the best she can in bomb-damaged hospital, is forced to pass off her 12-year-old daughter (Marina Golbahari) as a boy so she might leave the house to help support her mother and grandmother. The daughter's indoctrination into the Afghan male world and her eventual fate could scarcely be a more devastating -- or calmly eloquent -- condemnation of the Taliban.


A history of hope

Between Feb. 17, 1943, and March 6, 1943, the Aryan wives of Jewish husbands detained in the former Jewish Welfare Center at 2-4 Rosenstrasse, Berlin, demonstrated in increasing numbers for the release of their spouses awaiting transport to concentration camps. Against this courageous, little-known demonstration Margarethe von Trotta has created the compelling "Rosenstrasse," a fictional tale inspired by actual individuals. A young New Yorker, Hannah Weinstein (Maria Schrader), travels to Berlin to meet the 90-year-old woman, Lena Fischer (Doris Schade), who 60 years earlier gave shelter to Hannah's mother (Jutta Lampe), who refuses to speak of her painful past. In flashbacks Lena, a beautiful baroness who married a Jewish musician who became one of the Rosenstrasse prisoners, is played by top German star Katja Riemann. Once again Von Trotta has made a splendid film celebrating the strength and resilience of women.


Great expectations

The Laemmle Theaters' outstanding 2003 Documentary Days series concludes with Tom Curran's "Adrift: Lost on the Road of Expectations," in which the filmmaker explores how well he and his three siblings have lived up to the expectations of their father, who died when Curran was 12.


Screening Room

AFI Fest 2003

Info: (866) AFI-FEST, or

Where: ArcLight Hollywood,

6360 Sunset Blvd.

"Noi Albinoi," Sunday, 8:30 p.m., and Tuesday, 10 p.m.

"Drifters," Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.

and Nov. 15, 6:30 p.m.

"James' Journey to Jerusalem," Saturday, 6 p.m., and Sunday,

3 p.m.

"Osama," Monday, 6:45 p.m.,

and Wednesday, 5 p.m.

"Rosenstrasse," Wednesday,

9:30 p.m., and Nov. 14, 3:30 p.m.

Documentary Days

"Adrift" screens weekends at

11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Fairfax Cinemas, (323) 655-4010; Nov. 15 and 16 at the Monica 4-Plex, (310) 394-9741; Nov. 22 and 23 at the Playhouse 7, Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; and Nov. 29 and 30 at the Fallbrook 7, West Hills, (818) 340-8710.

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