What might be the strongest film in the AFI Fest 2003, Rodrigo Belott's corrosive, erotic "Sexual Dependency," screens Friday and Saturday as the festival comes to an end this weekend.
The film, which focuses on five young people in both South and North America yearning for love and sex, reveals much of the dynamics of modern society in the Western Hemisphere. Perhaps never before, and surely not in this way, have the Americas been shown to be a whole -- with machismo knowing no borders, with women, particularly those of color, and gays at special risk. "Sexual Dependency" has the passion and scope of "Amores Perros" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien."
For all the immediacy and vitality of the five deftly linked vignettes, presented in split-screen images that occasionally fuse into one, each of the five individuals is in differing ways in the thrall of antiquated attitudes and values. All surface in a media-saturated world promoting a physical perfection unattainable for most people.
A Calvin Klein-like male underwear billboard in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, proves to be a leitmotif for the entire film, with its model even becoming one of the film's five key characters, a college football player-model (Matthew Guida) whose spectacular looks and physical prowess belie his growing inner conflicts over his homosexuality. Belott, a producer, director and cinematographer whose hometown is Santa Cruz, wrote "Sexual Dependency" with Haitian American Lenello Moise, a playwright, actor, choreographer, activist and last year's Grand Poetry Slam Champion, which suggests why the film has such a rich and complex perspective.
Stick with the dust-dry absurdist tone of the first 15 or so minutes of Bent Hamer's lovely "Kitchen Stories," during which Sweden's Home Research Institute, in its postwar zeal to increase efficiency in the country's kitchens, sends 18 observers to a rural Norwegian town to study the culinary habits of confirmed bachelors. The story follows one observer, Tomas Norstrom's Folke, who is to sleep in a tiny trailer attached to his car and is to take notes while perched on an outsized high chair in the kitchen of Joachim Calmeyer's farmer Isak. Just when the silence between Folke and Isak threatens to become intolerably tedious, the observer tosses a clip of matches to his host, who has just run out. The beginning of a friendship between two lonely men has been struck, laying bare the folly of the research project seemingly designed to reduce humans to robots.
The daughters of major Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf are strong advertisements for their father's Tehran film school. First, Samira at 17 made the remarkable "Apple," about a man whose imprisonment of his daughters became a scandal. The filmmaker persuaded the man and his family to play themselves in a retelling of the story. Now, Hana, at only 14, has gone to Afghanistan to make her feature debut with "Joy of Madness." Its objective is as simple as it is inspired: to follow her beautiful and determined sister Samira, now 20, around Kabul as she struggles to cast a movie about a young woman who dares to run for president.
As Hana has said, no one took a 14-year-old girl with a hand-held camera too seriously, while the persistent Samira reveals the wide range of fears, including the cinema itself, still gripping the largely very likable people she interviews. They include a lovely young teacher, clearly ideal for Samira's starring role, but afraid of losing her job; an elderly, distinguished mullah; and a sickly baby whose impoverished grandfather is described to Samira as suffering from "the joy of madness." Hana Makhmalbaf's approach has disarmed many people into revealing how they feel about their lives so severely proscribed by Taliban rule in a country chronically devastated by war.
Stylish and sweet
In the wake of a factory layoff that has cost him his job, the silent hero of Sabu's "The Blessing Bell," a tall, lean, reflective young man (Susumu Terajima), wanders around a big city (possibly Osaka), getting his bearings, following his impulses, becoming caught up in a series of pretty amazing and darkly amusing adventures, until he is able to come to terms with himself. The film's finish is as sentimental as it is heartwarming, but then "The Blessing Bell," while stylish, wisely strives for the pleasantly ironic rather than anything remotely profound.
AFI Fest 2003
Info: (866) AFI-FEST, or www.afi.com/AFIFEST/2003/
Where: ArcLight Hollywood,
6360 Sunset Blvd.
"Sexual Dependency," Friday,
7:15 p.m.; Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
"Kitchen Stories," Today, 7 p.m.; Saturday, 9:30 p.m.
"Joy of Madness," Saturday,
"The Blessing Bell," Friday,
9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 3:45 p.m.