I came into the San Francisco International Film Festival straight from a horror festival. Perhaps bingeing on movies that weren’t exactly going for subtlety altered my senses, but what greeted me in SF felt like the perfect antidote: a handful of memorable, effectively understated films across a variety genres.
All About the Feathers
Neto Villalobos’s All About the Feathers—the first Costa Rican film to play the SFIFF in its 57-year history—is a mellow, somewhat screwball comedy that matches the demeanor of its protagonist Chalo, a wholly likeable but dispirited security guard who’s set on breaking into the thriving yet illegal cock-fighting game to liven up his life and make some cash in the process. He finally gets ahold of a nice-looking rooster—appropriately named Rocky—and is determined to make a champion out of him. Chalo and audiences alike grow very fond of the mischievous Rocky, and man and bird provide the grounding for an unusual buddy film. Chalo also makes some new human friends—including an endearingly awkward teenage boy he meets on the bus and a trusty woman who works nearby as a maid—and they help him on his new endeavor that may just turn out to be more trouble than it’s worth. Generally as light as Rocky’s feathers, the movie gets its occasional tension from the risk of Rocky wandering off, or worse, losing a fight (but have no fear, we are subjected to no more than a few moments of beak-to-beak combat).
It’s a very promising debut for Villalobos, who also produced, wrote, and edited the film that, with its naturalistic feel, cast of mostly nonprofessionals, and dry humor and charm, is far less precious than it sounds. New Yorkers can catch it next month at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where the film will screen as part of Latinbeat.
On the surface, the solitary oil worker at the center of The Reconstruction couldn’t be more unlike the affable Chalo. The film opens with an expressionless Eduardo (Diego Peretti) driving right on past the scene of a car crash, cold to a woman’s frantic screams for help, his actions immediately putting his character into serious question. That he has a chip on his shoulder is clear, but learning why takes more time. So in return for a little patience we are invited to get to know him, and the sad details of his life, as he dutifully if uncomfortably takes over the task of tending to an old friend’s store—as well as his wife and two daughters—after his sudden death. The broken-hearted widow quietly accepts Eduardo’s presence, while the girls are more forthcoming in questioning his gruff behavior and atrocious table manners. Naturally, a bond develops. And one particularly striking scene in which the widow reaches in to caress Eduardo while he’s showering—one lost soul grasping for another—defines the movie, which arouses profound feeling with few words, and is devastating in all its simplicity.
Argentinian director Juan Taratuto and Peretti have in the past collaborated on two fluffy romantic comedies. I have not seen them, but if they are half as effective in making people laugh as The Reconstruction is in making them cry, I will hunt them down right now (they’ve never been released in the U.S.).
And, finally, the fest’s third highlight was an intriguingly lo-fi sci-fi Twilight Zone–ish offering playfully called Coherence. Despite an introductory scene that involves a disrupted cell-phone call between a couple announcing word of an impending comet, followed by the mysterious cracking of the woman’s iPhone screen, the film initially looks to be a typical chamber drama, as a group of friends gather for a dinner party. But beyond the human dimension, James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence is a true tale for the technological age. At first, things start to go slowly awry: with electricity out, cell and Internet service down, the four couples are at a loss—they even have to refer to a science-nerd book for guidance! Yet because it not only reminds us that we may have forgotten how to function without our gadgets, Coherence is also a tale for all ages, in that it’s also about people losing track of their very selves. That’s quite literally expressed here as it emerges that each guest appears to have a double (or perhaps more)—a development that sets off an evening of fear, doubt, and mind-bending puzzle-solving. The film, set mostly within the walls of one house, has deservedly won a few screenplay and audience awards over the course of its festival travels.
It’s also worth noting that Coherence positively outclassed another fest selection with a doppelgänger twist, The One I Love, in which an on-the-rocks couple, played by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, go away to the country to try to spice up their marriage, but when they encounter alternate, “improved” versions of themselves in the neighboring guesthouse, all manner of confusion and jealousy ensues. But whereas that film, also clocking in at a crisp 90 minutes (give or take a few minutes), becomes grating and tiresome, Coherence—a movie better experienced than described—leaves you craving more. You can get your first taste in theaters today.