Big Screen Berkeley: More SF Int’l Film Festival; ‘Amazing Grace’

The Little Comrade is set in Stalinist-era Estonia and takes place only a few years after the Soviet Union occupied and re-annexed the Baltic republics

The 62nd San Francisco International Film Festival continues at Pacific Film Archive this week with a full slate of programming, including two very worthwhile documentaries and an excellent Cold War drama.

But wait, there’s more: for those of you with copious free time (or a long Easter weekend), the Elmwood has a music doc that definitely belongs on your must-see list.

We’ll start with the aforementioned drama, Seltsimees laps (The Little Comrade, screening at PFA at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 18). Directed by Moonika Siimets, the film is set in Stalinist-era Estonia and takes place only a few years after the Soviet Union occupied and re-annexed the Baltic republics.

The titular comrade is 6-year old Leelo (cute-as-a-button Helene Maria Reisner), daughter of laborer Feliks (Tambet Tuisk) and teacher Helmes (Eva Klemets), a former school principal recently demoted for displaying insufficient loyalty to the USSR. Her demotion means that the family has been forced to vacate their comfortable accommodations; as the story begins, they’ve just been exiled to a broken-down cottage on the outskirts of town.


Things go from bad to worse when old school chum Paul (Juhan Ulfsak), now employed by the NKVD (the KGB’s predecessor agency), arrests Helmes for possession of an Estonian national flag. His wife summarily dispatched to a Siberian labor camp, Feliks now has the unenviable task of raising Leelo alone and trying to explain to her why mama won’t be coming home any time soon.

Deliberately paced but never dull, The Little Comrade is blessed by Reisner’s guileless performance, gorgeous location photography in a small Estonian town that looks like one of those quaint Swiss ‘chocolate box’ villages, and a low-key approach that heightens viewers’ emotional responses without feeling remotely manipulative. It’s a lovely little film with a charming protagonist.

‘Wisconsin Death Trip’

Wisconsin Death Trip: James Marsh’s 1999 screen adaptation examines a century of Midwestern death, disease, and depression, all of it seen in chilly black and white

If you’ve never seen Wisconsin Death Trip (screening at 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 20), prepare yourself for a unique if somewhat challenging experience. Based on Michael Lesy’s 1973 book of the same name, James Marsh’s 1999 screen adaptation examines a century of Midwestern death, disease, and depression, all of it seen in chilly black and white. If you’re familiar with the book, you’ll have an inkling of what to expect — if not, perhaps listen to some goth rock before entering the auditorium.

‘The Edge of Democracy’

The Edge of Democracy provides a thorough review of the recent twists and turns taken by Brazilian politics

Screening at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 21, The Edge of Democracy provides a thorough review of the recent twists and turns taken by Brazilian politics. Directed by Petra Costa, the daughter of activists who fought against the military junta that ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985, Democracy details the oligarchic fightback that led to the imprisonment of a former President, the impeachment of a sitting President, and the recent election of a fascist to replace them. Though almost two hours in length, the film plays like a thriller, and even those familiar with the whole sordid story will find themselves captivated.

‘Amazing Grace’

Amazing Grace brings the story of Aretha Franklin’s best-selling gospel album to the big screen

Finally, Amazing Grace (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday) brings the story of Aretha Franklin’s best-selling gospel album to the big screen. For fans of Aretha, this is a holy grail of sorts — the footage was originally shot in 1972 by director Sydney Pollack, but remained unreleased until now — and is well worth your time. It’s a treat to see James Cleveland, Clara Ward, the Reverend C. L. Franklin, and, erm, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts all in the same room at the same time.