Tuesday, April 24, 2012

SFIFF ’12: The Double Steps

Francois Augiéras definitely painted for posterity.  After vandals destroyed a set of his desert bunker murals, he painted another, deliberately burying all signs of it in the sand.  The European expatriate painter would only trust future generations to respect his work.  Both a fictional Malawian and Spain’s leading contemporary artist Miguel Barceló search for those lost murals in Isaki Lacuesta’s odd hybrid The Double Steps (trailer here, which screens during the San Francisco Film Society’s 2012 San Francisco International Film Society.

Augiéras does not appear directly in Steps, but his spirit appears to inhabit Abdallah Chambaa, a former soldier, mustered out of service by his commanding officer uncle, with whom he was involved in an incestuous relationship.  Chambaa soon becomes as bandit, as former soldier often do, but he also has a compulsion to paint.  Periodically, Steps also follows Barceló in real life Mali, producing new work inspired by Augiéras and searching for the legendary murals.

Frankly, Steps is probably more interesting to read and write about than to watch.  In no way should it be thought of as Raiders of the Lost murals.  Feverish in tone, it has a loose narrative, featuring frequent shifts in time that are sudden, yet ill-defined.  Lacuesta also simultaneously shot a documentary about Barceló that probably offers more of the historical and artist context many viewers might be wondering about.

Lacuesta’s hazy style keeps his cast at an emotional arm’s length from the audience.  At least Diego Dussuel’s breath-taking cinematography somewhat pulls them back in, capturing the rugged beauty of Mali’s landscape, especially the cliffs Barceló explores looking either for Augiéras’ murals or his own inspiration.  Steps is a film anyone seriously dealing with art cinema will eventually have to take into account, making it a completely appropriate, even valuable, programming selection for the festival.  However, those looking for an unpretentious film to get caught up in should probably look elsewhere. 
In fact, there are some great films to choose from at this year’s SFIFF, including the inspiring and infuriating Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Hong Sang-soo’s characteristically clever The Day HeArrives, the intriguing interconnected German trilogy Dreileben, the outstanding documentary-lament for Cambodian cinema Golden Slumbers, Mohammad Rasoulof’s timely but intimate Goodbye, the surprisingly effective true story of French injustice Guilty, the breezy profile of the festival’s honored guest Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema, the cerebral science fiction fable Target, Andrea Arnold’s challenging adaptation of WutheringHeights, and Carol Reed’s always classic The Third Man.  Undoubtedly an interesting work best appreciated self-selecting cineastes, The Double Steps also screens again tonight (4/24) as part of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.