By Ali Moosavi.

San Sebastian is a beautiful coastal town in the Basque region of Spain. It has one of the oldest film festivals in the world which somehow has not become as prestigious or glamorous as Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Toronto. Perhaps that is not such a bad thing. For film lovers, it means that it is far less hectic and crowded than, say Cannes. Also, whereas in Cannes only those with press accreditation are allowed to watch the films in the Official Selection and Un Certain Regard categories, at San Sebastian the public can buy tickets for all the films and even gala screenings and opening and closing ceremonies. Judging by the talent from the world cinema attending this year’s festival, they certainly feel that San Sebastian is as prominent as the so called A-List ones. It is also the most important festival for Latin films. The festival is slotted right after Venice and Toronto and immediately before London Film Festival.

The Basque people are proud of their heritage. All the festival brochures are written in English and the Basque language, which is different to Spanish. A lot of references to Donostia can be seen in the festival. Donostia is the Basque name of San Sebastian.

The festival films were divided into 19 categories including Official Selection, Donostia Award Screenings, New Directors, Latin Horizons, Pearls, Culinary Cinema, Made in Spain, Basque Cinema, Retrospective, etc.

The Donostia awards were introduced in 1986 as a kind of life achievement award. The first recipient was Gregory Peck and since then the award has been given to such screen stalwarts as Glen Ford, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert, Robert Mitchum, Lana Turner, Catherine Deneuve, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Jeanne Moreau, Francis Ford Coppola, Isabelle Huppert, Warren Beatty, Woody Allen, Liv Ullman, Max Von Sydow, Vittorio Gassman, Dustin Hoffman, Agnes Varda, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Hirokazu Koreeda, and many other cinema greats. This year’s recipients were the Greek director and master of political thrillers, Costa-Gavras, the great, and in my humble view under-appreciated, American actor Donald Sutherland and home favourite, Penelope Cruz. All three Donostia award recipients this year had films in the festival.

Costa-Gavras, known for political thrillers such as Z, State of Siege and Missing, was at San Sebastian with Adults in the Room, which makes a return to his homeland for this 86 year old Greek filmmaker. The film is about the Greece Debt Crisis of 2015 and based on the book by Yanis Varoufakis, who was the Minister of Finance at the time. The Eurogroup, which consisted of finance ministers of the European Union (EU) clearly emerges as the bad guys in the film. They rejected every solution that the Greek Government proposed for ending the crisis and forced Greece to sell the family silver, such as all the ports and airports, to private buyers. Only Christine Lagarde, Chairman of the International Monetary Fund comes out with any degree of ethical integrity and conscience. In order to distinguish the film from similar documentaries and TV series, Costa-Gavras has added a few cinematic touches, one example being the EU ministers encircling the Greek delegation and engaging in a macabre dance. The film’s music, by Alexandre Desplat, reminds one of Mikis Theodorakis’s music for films like Z.

At the ceremony, Costa-Gavras humbly accepted the award and it was left to the actors in his film to sing his praise on stage.

James Franco achieved a personal triumph with the award winning The Disaster Artist, which he directed and starred in. He has taken on the same double duties in Zeroville. Franco plays Vikar, a movie fan obsessed with the film A Place in the Sun. So obsessed that he has tattooed the faces of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor on his shaved head. Vikar gets a job in a Hollywood studios, building movie sets. The events in Zeroville takes place from the late sixties (at the time of the Sharon Tate murders, so comparisons with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are bound to be drawn) to late seventies. During this period Vikar meets Dotty (Jackie Weaver), an experienced film editor who teaches him editing techniques and helps him to graduate from set maker to film editor. At the centre of the film, is a love story between Vikar and Soledad (Megan Fox), an actress who starts in B exploitation movies like Vampyr Lesbos for Rondell (a delicious performance by an uncredited Will Ferrell), king of schlock pictures. Vikar is hired by Rondell to edit one of his latest films, starring Soledad. However, Vikar wants to turn schlock into art, which inevitably result in confrontations with Rondell.

Zeroville is packed with movie references. We see Arthur Hiller having a hard time getting Ali MacGraw fluffing the line: Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Scorsese and Spielberg are seen discussing their plans to make Taxi Driver and Jaws respectively. Vikar is sent to Philippines to help in the production of Apocalypse Now and we see Coppola arguing with Brando over playing a scene. Seth Rogan also plays the cigar smoking writer of Apocalypse Now (clearly a reference to John Milius, though none of the directors or actors referred to in Zeroville are named). Wim Wenders and Gus Van Saint have cameo roles. Franco tries to create an almost surreal Hollywood environment, similar to the one created by David Lynch in Mulholland Drive but I think that he bites off more than he can chew and, to a great extent, the films goes off the rails. Still, film buffs will enjoy Zeroville though others may find it too uneven and convoluted.

For film buffs, Delphine Seyrig’s name will always be synchronous with “A” the haunting and illusive brunette woman in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961). In fact, Seyrig and Carole Roussopoulos, a film director, were very active in the Women Rights movement in France in late sixties and early seventies. Using archival material, Roussopoulos’s granddaughter Callisto McNulty has made the documentary Delphine and Carole, covering these two women’s activities, as well as other notable women rights activists such as Jane Fonda, Chantal Akerman, Ellen Burstyn, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras and others. Seeing this documentary now, with the MeToo movement and the fall from grace of sexual predators such as Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ayers, one can sense the time and effort taken by women to reach this point.

A welcome fact at San Sebastian was that women film directors were conspicuous by their presence this time. Proxima (Alice Winocour) depicts the challenges that a woman astronaut, who is also a single mother, has to face in order to realize her lifelong ambition of going on a space mission. Sarah (Eva Green) is a French astronaut selected for a joint US-European space mission. She is separated from her German husband (Lars Edinger), who also works for the space agency, and lives with her small daughter. The preparation stages for the space mission take place in Russia. So, Sarah asks her estranged husband to stay with their daughter in Russia while she prepares and goes on the space mission. While in the Russian camp, Sarah has to deal with the aggressive macho behaviour of the US astronaut (Matt Dillon), while bearing the pain of being separated from her daughter. Winocour has managed to make all the characters real and believable. They all have their faults and strengths and unpredictable behaviours. Within a strong narrative, Winocour paints vivid portrayal of an ambitious woman facing the challenges and dilemmas standing in her path to achieving her dream.

Another female directed film at San Sebastian was The Audition (Ina Weisse). During an audition for a place at a prestigious music school, a talented young violinist is spotted by Anna (Nina Hoss), one of the teachers, who takes it upon herself to train the boy. Though Anna makes an immediate, impulsive decision to take on the young violinist as a student, she is inordinately indecisive in all other matters in her life. Although she seems to be happily married with a loving spouse and a young son, she takes on a lover. He indecision is highlighted in a scene when she and her husband go for a meal to a restaurant. She cannot decide where they should sit, changing tables a few times and what she wants to eat; she ends up swapping her dish with her husband’s. Weisse and her script writer Daphne Charizani delve deep into the fragility and unpredictability of a woman for whom the multiple tasks of being a musician, a teacher, a wife and a mother prove too overbearing. The one who is damaged most by Anna’s erratic behaviour is her young son, who is about the same age as Anna’s new student. He feels neglected by his mother, specially since he is also a talented violinist. Anna is a very complex character and it required a very skillful actress to portray her. Luckily for Ina Weisse, she had Nina Hoss, so memorable in the Christian Petzold films Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014), to play Anna. Nina Hoss very deservedly received the festival’s Best Actress award, which she shared with Greta Fernandez for A Thief’s Daughter.

Women’s struggles in a patriarchal society such as Egypt, was the subject of another female directed film, Noura’s Dream. Noura (Hend Sabri) has a menial job and has to provide for her children as her husband is in jail. Noura is desperate to divorce her husband while he is still in jail so that she can marry her lover. However, the limited women’s rights in Egypt does not grant her this wish. To make matters worse, and potentially catastrophic, Noura’s huband is released early from prison and finds out about her affair. Noura’s Dream is a realistic, but at the same time very violent and disturbing film. The Tunisian director, Hinde Boujemaa, has pulled no punches in depicting the violence on screen and paints a very gloomy picture of life for women in Egypt. However, she leaves a ray of hope in the end.

Night FallsThe Retrospective section was devoted to the Mexican director Roberto Gavaldon, who between 1936 and 1979 directed 55 films. Nineteen of his films were restored for this retrospective. I managed to catch three of them. Night Falls (1952) is a film noir starring Mexico’s superstar of many decades, Pedro Armendariz. He plays Marcos, a champion of Jai-Alai (a game not too dissimilar to squash), who is a bit of a playboy. He has concurrently intimate relationships with three women. One is an older rich lady, another is a singer in a nightclub and third one is a young girl hooked on him. When the young girl becomes pregnant, her father and brother tell Marcos that he must marry her or he will face jail as she is underage. Marcos agree but has other plans which involve the criminal underworld. There are a few twists and turns in Night Falls and it is an entertaining, though not classic, film noir. Next was Rosa Blanca (1961). This film was a little too hot for the Mexican authorities who withheld its release for a number of years. It is basically a tale of greedy American corporates exploiting the less sophisticated Mexicans. Rosa Blanca is the name of a ranch owned by Jacinto (Ignacio Lopez Tarso), a simple-minded Mexican, for whom the wellbeing of his family and workers on his ranch come above everything else. A large multi-national oil company is exploring for oil in the area surrounding Rosa Blanca and make an offer to Jancito to buy the ranch. When he refuses, they trick him to come to US, murder him there and falsify some papers to show that he had sold the ranch to them. There is a sort of a happy ending of Mexican Government kicking out the oil company and nationalizing the ranch and all the land around it. One wonders if this ending was forced on in order to allow the film’s release. Despite the extremely hammy acting of the non-Mexican actors, Rosa Blanca makes a strong impression with its socio-political messages. The last Gavaldon film that I watched is also his best-known film. Macario (1960), a fable about a poor man wishing for riches, then having his wish granted and seeing that with wealth can come misfortune. Macario (Ignacio Lopez Tarso) is a poor peasant just about keeping his family from starvation by selling wood that he cuts in the forest. One day he witnesses the preparation of a feast for one of the town’s wealthy inhabitants. The sight of the turkeys being cooked makes him confess to his wife later that day that his one wish in the world is to eat a cooked turkey by himself. His wife, overwhelmed by her husband’s seemingly simple, but for them unreachable wish, steals a turkey from someone’s house and cooks it for him. Macario, over the moon once she gives him the turkey, takes it to the forest to eat it in peace and tranquility. However, a strange man appears and asks him to share the turkey with him. He introduces himself as the Angel of Death and tells Macario that in return he will make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. Macario makes a pact with Death and receives a bottle of a potion whose every drop can heal a dying person, but only if Death grants it. With this magic potion Macario indeed becomes very rich but, as every such fable shows, money does not always bring happiness. One of the outstanding features of both Macario and Rosa Blanca is the cinematography by the legendary Mexican cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, who lensed films such as John Ford’s The Fugitive (1947), Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), El (1953), Nazarin (1959), The Young One (1960) and The Exterminating Angel (1962), John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana (1964) and Under the Volcano (1984)…. In fact, Figueroa’s importance is duly appreciated by Gavaldon and his producers; Figueroa’s name is the penultimate one before Gavaldon’s in the credits; an unusually large credit for a cinematographer.

This year I have seen two film named Patrick. Patrick (Tim Mielants) was shown at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and Patrick (Goncalo Waddington) premiered at San Sebastian. In the Portuguese director, Waddington’s film, we are introduced to Patrick (Hugo Fernandez), a young man living with an older, wealthy male lover. All we know about him is that his demeanor does not seem normal. One day he is picked up by the police. We learn that Patrick was kidnapped when he was a child. The police return him to his mother but, apart from more strange behaviour, we still do not have any more background details about him. The visit by his aunt and niece only provides us with more severe examples of Patrick’s abnormal, and increasingly violent, behaviour. We resort to our imagination to picture what has happened to Patrick during the years that he was kidnapped to result in his strange conduct. The ending closes the story but leaves many questions unanswered.

The Endless Trench covers a dark period in Spain’s history. After the defeat of the Left Alliance in the Spanish Civil War in the late thirties, Franco’s troops captured and killed many of the left wing fighters. Higinio (Antonio de la Torre) is one of these left wing fighters who manages to escape from Franco’s henchmen in a breathtaking, stunningly directed, photographed and edited scene at the beginning of the film which no doubt was instrumental in gaining the festival’s Best Director award for the film’s three directors: Aitor Arregi, Jon Garano and Jose Mari Goenaga. After such a hyper-energetic opening, the film slows down significantly as it covers the next 30 years during which Higinio, aided by his wife Rosa (Belen Cuesta) hid behind a false wall, first in their own home and then, when a nosy neighbor and Franco supporter became suspicious, in another hidden room in Higinio’s father’s house. The tension is kept throughout the film as the potentially deadly hide and seek continues. During this time, Rosa gives birth to their son, whom they manage to pass off as the offspring of a deceased close family member. The script by Luiso Berdejo and Jose Mari Goenaga, which was judged the best in the festival by the jury, keeps coming up with various incidents during the 30-year hiding to maintain the narrative’s momentum. Some of these events are disturbing, like the attempted rape of Rosa by a Franco lieutenant. But there is a very amusing scene in which two gay soldiers, unaware of Higinio’s presence in the house, have passionate sex and are then blackmailed by Higinio to bring him food in return for his silence.

The second lifetime achievement, or Donostia award of the festival was presented to Donald Sutherland. He is, in my humble view, one of the most underrated and ender-appreciated actors of the last half century. His performances in films such as M.A.S.H., Klute, Don’t Look Now and Ordinary People look even better today. Amazingly, he has never been even nominated for an Oscar. Sutherland, aided by a walking stick, came on the stage, professed his love for the Basque region and its people and then shouted a slogan in the Basque language which brought the audience to their feet and garnered tremendous applause and admiration from those in the large auditorium.

The award giving ceremony was followed by screening of Sutherland’s latest film The Burnt Orange Heresy, adapted from Charles Willeford’s novel of the same title and directed by Giuseppe Capotondi. Sutherland is Jerome Debney, a famous but reclusive painter who has not produced a painting for decades. Debney is now living in the guest quarters within a large mansion belonging to Joseph Cassidy (a welcome return to the screen by Mick Jagger), a wealthy art collector. Cassidy, desperate to own a Debney painting, enlists the help of art critic James Figueras (Claes Bang) to entice Debney to produce and sell a painting to his generous host. The art critic brings his lady friend Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) with him to the mansion. The Burnt Orange Heresy examines the relationship between art and commerce under the guise of a thriller. It is a fascinating film, deftly directed with superb performances all round, not least by Donald Sutherland.

One of the recipients of the Donostia award last year was Hirokazu Koreeda, fresh from winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes for Shoplifters. He was back in San Sebastian with his new film, The Truth, which is his first non-Japanese language film. The Truth is also a gear change for Koreeda from social drama to broad comedy. As in Shoplifters, The Truth revolves around a family. Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) is a French superstar, now in the twilight of her career. She has just published her memoirs. Her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) is upset about some of the things her mother has written about her and has come to visit her with her American husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke). Also into the mix are Fabienne’s past and present husbands. Fabienne has a supporting role in a film where the young lead actress is flavour of the month and reminds Fabienne of when she was at her prime. The Truth works more successfully as a comedy than a family drama. With a cast like that and Koreeda at helm, it is never less than entertaining though Koreeda’s fans may have had higher expectations.

Adios is a gritty Spanish crime drama. Juan (Mario Casas) has just been released from prison and wants to live a peaceful and crime-free life with her wife and small daughter. But when his daughter is killed in a car accident by one of the cars feeing from a gang shootout, he is out to find the culprit and avenge her daughter’s death. There are the usual ingredients for such policiers: family bonds, betrayals, corrupt police officers (among them, Carlos Bardem, older brother of Javier Bardem), etc. Adios does not bring any fresh ideas into the mix but is always watchable.

The Colombian director Ciro Guerra has exhibited a flair for the visuals laced with a strong narrative in films such as Embrace of the Serpent (2015) and Birds of Passage (2018). For his latest film, Waiting for the Barbarians, he has been given a much larger budget, bankable stars such as Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson and a script by the Nobel Literature Prize winning author, J.M. Coetzee. The central figure in the story is The Magistrate (Mark Rylance) in a small British colony in Africa. He is a kind and decent men and has managed to maintain peace and harmony in his outpost. In comes the ruthless Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) and his second in command, Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson). They consider all the indigenous locals as barbarians and begin a systematic program of their imprisonment and torture. When the Magistrate protests, he is accused of complicity with the locals and jailed. One of the film’s producers, Michael Fitzgerald, who was present at the screening informed us that it had taken 20 years from writing the script to the film being made. All the individual elements of the film, from direction and cinematography to the performances are first class. However, as soon as the Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson characters arrive, we are left in no doubt as to who are the real barbarians. The rest of the film, while reinforcing this point, does not add any more insights to the psychology of the main protagonists and we are left with rather stereotype good and evil characters.

The Wasp NetworkThe last lifetime achievement/Donostia award of this year’s festival was presented to the local favourite Penelope Cruz. The huge Kursaal auditorium was packed to the rafters for this event. Cruz’s husband, Javier Bardem, as well as her costars in her latest film The Wasp Network, Edgar Ramirez and Gael Garcia Bernal were also among the audience. After the introductions and a brief montage of scenes from her films, the festival director announced that he has a surprise in the store for her, and us. Then, from one corner of the auditorium appeared Bono, U2’s front man. He rushed to the stage and warmly embraced Penelope Cruz. He then gave a very generous praise of her and presented her with the award.

Following the award ceremony, The Wasp Network, directed by Oliver Assayas was screened. It is a “based on true events” film about a few Cuban military pilots who defected to US in the 1990’s and joined the anti-Castro movement in Miami. One such person is played by Edgar Ramirez who leaves his wife (Penelope Cruz) and child in Cuba. There are many twists and turns in the story but to me it looked better suited to a TV mini-series than a feature film, specially one from Oliver Assayas.

After the screening, the audience waited in the cinema, near the exit while Penelope Cuez, hand in hand with her co-stars Edgar Ramirez and Gael Garcia Bernal came out of the auditorium and, after taking a few selfies, departed in the waiting limousine.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

Read also:

The Best Iranian Films of the Year: A Personal Selection