Big Screen Berkeley: 60th San Francisco International Film Festival

Jaclyn Jose in Ma’Rosa: “a satisfying slice of neo-realism”

The 60th San Francisco International Film Festival plants its flag in Berkeley on Thursday, April 6, with almost 30 different films screening at Pacific Film Archive through Sunday, April 16. Over the next two weeks I’ll be pointing you toward some of the festival’s most intriguing selections, but be sure to visit SFIFF’s online schedule for the full menu – I’m sure to have overlooked something.

An examination of police corruption and the drug trade, Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s dramatic feature Ma’Rosa (screening at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Apr. 8) was presumably completed before President Rodrigo Duterte’s election victory last May. There’s no evidence here of the “anti-drug” dirty war that’s since followed, with the film focusing instead on the routine deal-making and backstabbing that lie at the heart of the trade.

With the help of their three teenage children, Rosa (Jaclyn Jose) and Nestor (Julio Diaz) run a convenience store in the slums of Manila. Their profit doesn’t come from candy and cigarettes, however, it comes from the crystal methamphetamine – colloquially known as “ice” – they peddle under the counter.

After a neighbor snitches on them, Rosa and Nestor are arrested and their merchandise seized. The police generously offer to make the whole thing go away in exchange for the name of the family’s supplier and 50,000 pesos in ‘bail money’, which the children are hurriedly despatched to collect by any means necessary.

In the Duterte era, it’s easy to imagine Nestor – and perhaps even Rosa – ending up dead after “resisting arrest,” but even if real life has passed it by, Ma’Rosa remains a satisfying slice of neo-realism. Anchored by Jose’s defiant performance as the tough-as-nails matriarch, it’s a festival highlight.

A scene from World Without End (no reported incidents)

Screening at 6:30 p.m. on festival opening day, Thursday, Apr. 6, World Without End (no reported incidents) is a curious but engaging filmic essay from documentarian Jem Cohen, who recently delivered PFA’s annual Les Blank Lecture. Shot in Southend-on-Sea, a damp English seaside resort, the film blends lingering shots of nature, glimpses of nearby industrial wasteland Canvey Island, and interviews with locals, including a nationally renowned curry chef, a hat salesman who explains the relationship between millinery and the class system, and a particularly clueless schoolboy.

There’s also a lengthy segment on the local music scene featuring Chris Fenwick, long-time manager of pub rock legends Dr. Feelgood. If you enjoyed such films as Oil City Confidential or The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, World Without End offers further thoughts on what makes Essex, Essex.

Eric Ruffin and Chloe Levine in The Transfiguration

It’s not often that horror films get non-specialized film festival airings, but The Transfiguration – fresh off its ‘Un Certain Regard’ nomination at Cannes — is a worthy exception. Screening at 8:15 p.m. on Sunday, April 9, it’s perhaps best described as a cross between Midnight Cowboy and George Romero’s classic chiller Martin, with Milo — a young man with a vampire fixation (Eric Ruffin) — and his emotionally vulnerable neighbor Sophie (Chloe Levine) standing in for Ratso and Joe Buck.

Genre fans will appreciate the film’s many movie references, as well as cameo appearances by horror icons Larry Fessenden and Lloyd Kaufman. And if you miss it at the festival, don’t worry – The Transfiguration will be rolling into art-houses soon.