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Best of AFIFEST: Wajda, Bergman and Oliveira


AFIFEST 93 opens Thursday with a gala invitational showing of the restored version of Anthony Mann's 1961 epic "El Cid" a few tickets to which are still available for the public--and then begins in earnest Friday at Laemmle's Sunset 5 theaters, where 150 films and shorts will be screened over the next three weeks, from Friday to July 1.

Perhaps it's not one of the world's first-tier film festivals--not in the league of Berlin or Cannes, which have many more millions to work with--but after seven years, Los Angeles' American Film Institute International Film Festival, or AFIFEST, has definitely come into its own, assuming its identity as L.A.'s main cinematic window on the world.

What exactly does AFIFEST 93 offer?

For one thing, it will run longer, with an added week of screenings, and have much more public accessibility. The Sunset 5 theaters are centrally located at 8000 Sunset Blvd., and the number of films screened each day has been cut to no more than five or six, to eliminate the problem of pictures competing with each other. (It will actually be possible for an obsessed movie buff to see every film in AFIFEST this year.)

As usual for a Ken Wlaschin-programmed show, it's heavy on good British films, heavy--perhaps too heavy--on independent American films and very good on unusual entries from offbeat places all over the world. The 40 countries represented include Burkina Faso ("Sababu" on June 12) and the Georgian Republic ("Waltz on the Pechora," on June 14).

This year's retrospective subjects are two masters from Eastern Europe: Poland's Andrzej Wajda and Yugoslavia's Dusan Makavejev. (Makavejev will attend, and Wajda may as well.) And there are also tributes to Miramax, Israeli cinema and science-fantasy author Ray Bradbury--who will share his own cinematic passions at screenings of films he loves and films he's written (June 14-17).

What are the festival's top films? After the first four weeks of review screenings, The Times' Kevin Thomas and I have selected three films as our personal "Critics' Choices" this year: Daniel--and father Ingmar--Bergman's "Sunday's Children" (Sweden), Manoel de Oliveira's "Day of Despair" (Portugal) and Wajda's "The Promised Land" (Poland).

"Sunday's Children" (shown July 1) is, like last year's "The Best Intentions," another largely autobiographical screenplay by Ingmar Bergman. This time he deals with his childhood and his pastor-father, ending in a devastating coda on their last years together that then flashes back hauntingly again to the past. "Best Intentions" didn't get its critical due last year, though it contained some of the most moving writing of Bergman's entire career. And so does "Sunday's Children." The surprise is that the direction, by Bergman's 30-year-old son, Daniel, almost matches Bille August's. This film is, by turns, sunny, ribald, sarcastic, sensitive, deeply perceptive and poignant: a fine debut for Bergman fils and another testament of genius from Bergman pere .

"Day of Despair" (next Sunday), by contrast, is a tableau-picture of almost formidable austerity and immaculate severity, by a director whose history is among the most curious in all international cinema. The 84-year-old Manoel de Oliveira, who has been making films since 1932 (he was the star of Portugal's first sound film), achieved world fame and many international prizes only after he passed 60; his productivity has actually increased , to one a year, in his 80s. The subject: Portugal's great, suicidal 19th-Century novelist Camila Castelo Branco. The time: Castelo Branco's terrible last years. The treatment: uniquely personal, high style, eccentric and unforgettable.

Poland's Wajda, who rose to international prominence in the 1950s with the "Ashes and Diamonds" trilogy, is one of the personal favorites of festival director Wlaschin--who gives us here the Wajda we're not as familiar with. 1956's "Kanal" (June 22) is on the retrospective--so is the 1981 hit "Man of Iron" (July 1), which has a Lech Walesa cameo--but the other titles are largely unfamiliar: a 1976 Joseph Conrad adaptation, "The Shadow Line" (June 29); a powerful 1961 suspense tale of the Warsaw Ghetto, "Samson" (June 23); the 1972 period ensemble study "The Wedding" (June 28); the haunting 1970 sibling rivalry drama "The Birch Wood" (June 24) and the 1976 "The Promised Land" (June 27), which Thomas calls "a massive, magnificent three-hour triumph: an epic tale of three young men, all awe-inspiringly ruthless anti-heroes, who attempt to launch their own mill at the century's turn."


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