San Francisco International Film Festival 55: 'Abramovic,' 'Neighboring Sounds,' and Kenneth Branagh

Festivals
by Meredith Brody
May 2, 2012 4:19 PM
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"Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present."
Kind of a light Festival day: viewed a DVD that I loved, saw a new movie onscreen that was a first feature and reminded me why we go to film festivals, went to a cocktail party that didn’t feel like one, and attended Kenneth Branagh’s tribute for the Founder’s Directing Award.

First up, the DVD: “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present.” For years I’ve been on the fence about Abramovic: sometimes I thought she was a terrific self-promoter and narcissist who relied on cheap and obvious stunts, often involving violence and/or nudity. Other times I was able to acknowledge that “terrific self-promoter and narcissist” was part of the job description of a performance artist (or even artist, tout court ), and that the work could actually be compelling. I wasn’t able to see the retrospective show at MOMA from which the title of the documentary is drawn. For the duration of the show the artist was present literally: all day she sat across from a changing array of people who stayed as long as they chose, wordlessly.

During the show I became addicted to a portion of its website that showed portraits of each of the people who sat across from her, plus one new photo of Marina taken each day, for the performance piece that she created for the show. The information included how long they sat (times ranged from one minute to the entire seven-hour day, probably enraging the people patiently lined up for their turn), and the comments section sometimes identified who the sitters were. I was drawn to both the faces and the cult quality that the piece engendered, revealed in the comments.

The reverent, engaging documentary showed me more than I knew about her, and afterwards I felt more generous and open to both the artist and her body of work. The last section, covering the performance piece, gave me more of a “you are there” feeling than I’d had obsessively tracking the sitters online.

Then I went to see “Neighboring Sounds,” a 2-hour-and-ten-minute Brazilian debut feature that arrived with the imprimatur of the Rotterdam Film Festival and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s influential New Directors/New Films series.  Director Kleber Mendonça Filho has previously made shorts and documentaries (some of which can be viewed online).  “Neighboring Sounds” follows the assorted inhabitants (some middle class, some wealthy, and their staff) of a few blocks in the Brazilian coastal city Recife, after they hire a nighttime security patrol. Work, parties, visits to country houses: the episodic structure meanders its way to a surprising conclusion that seems to come from another genre entirely. Filho has an interesting eye, his actors gave naturalistic performances that felt of a piece, and as the tone varied, the rhythm of the film stayed constant. One of the better films I’ve seen at SFIFF, and from a young director to watch.
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