The best of the bunch was "Nostalgia for the Light" (8), an unexpectedly probing meditation on the importance of looking deeply for the truths we don't want to see. It's set in Chile's Atacama Desert, which, at 10,000 feet above sea level, is a perfect vantage point for astronomers to ponder the marvels of the universe. Atacama also is the site of a concentration camp where Salvador Allende sent political prisoners before they "disappeared." Thirty years later, in the shadow of the observatory located in this desert, a small band of women still devote endless hours to searching for their loved ones' remains--and it turns out there are some interesting parallels between the work of astronomers and the work of those searching for the truth of Chile's past. Director Patricio Guzman rewards the patience this film demands with profound insights about the temerity it takes to be a truth-seeker, especially in the face of our collective desire to forget. Challenging and deeply moving.
"The Colors of the Mountain" (7) is a fictional story but stays very true to the life of small-town people caught between rebel and government forces. It's set in a mountain village in Colombia, and is told from the point of view of Manuel, a young boy whose life revolves around playing soccer with his little band of friends. The children stay focused on their small concerns of school, soccer, and friends--but their parents live in dread of the competing forces around them. The film conveys this difference in perspective very well, and also the sense of how quickly life can disintegrate in times of conflict. I appreciated how the director did not try to load the scales for dramatic effect; the simple facts are challenging enough, and you see here how instanteously one must be able to move on, even from extreme loss.
"Circo" (7) follows a family-run circus as they travel through small towns in Mexico in search of an audience. The circus has been the focus of this family's life for generations, but it is a dying art and the work never stops. At the center of this struggle is Teno, who does everything from pitching the circus tent to taming tigers to training his four young children in various circus acts. He also must pay a never-ending debt to his father, who seems to own both him and the circus, and must field the frustrated litany of complaints from the wife he married when they were both teenagers. One gathers that she is probably right about Teno's father's exploitation of the family and the things the circus life requires their children to do without. But for Teno, the circus is all there is. This documentary's observations are so plain and so acute, you feel as though you have been traveling with the family.
I don't really recommend the last four films. "Black Bread" (5) is a mainstream Spanish film focused on events during Spain's civil war, largely through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy, but the themes have been treated better elsewhere (most notably in "Pan's Labyrinth"). Although its production values are high, the plot here is often muddled, the boy is not particularly interesting or likeable, and the big emotional moments actually lack impact. "When We Leave" (3.5) has won lots of critical notice for its treatment of a story of a Turkish woman living in Germany who brings shame to her family by leaving her abusive husband--but it is so clumsy in its handling of these themes that I found it frustrating. A filmmaker who aims to depict culture clashes this huge needs more insight; in this film, none of the Muslim characters make sense or are believable, so I left feeling manipulated. "Carancho" (2.5), from Argentina, features the wonderful Ricardo Darin and an actress who looks like she could Rosario Dawson's sister, Martina Gusman, in a thriller involving a doctor and a shady lawyer who helps people get insurance money. But it is so full of noise and car crashes that it actually feels assaultive. Finally, "The Woods" (1) is an exercise in wasted talent in the service of a sort of anti-cleverness. It's the work of Matthew Lessner, a young director from Roseburg, who gathered a bunch of his friends to film a story (if you can call it that) about a group of listless youths trying to build a utopia out in the woods. It's beautifully filmed, but has absolutely no ideas animating it. The director appeared at the screening I attended and contributed to my disgust for the film by confirming, in spades, his utter lack of a useful thought. It probably won't help his next film that critics have been fawning over him.