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Premiere of 'Life Is Beautiful' Opens AFI Fest


The AFI Film Festival opens tonight at 7:30 at Mann's Chinese theater with a gala premiere of Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful," a high-risk Chaplinesque allegory of good and evil, filled with pathos and humor, and set against an increasingly anti-Semitic World War II Italy. It won the grand jury prize at Cannes, and Miramax will release it Friday at selected theaters.

"Life Is Beautiful" is the first of 12 features screening in competition at the Chinese. Films in the new directions--i.e., American independents--European film showcase and documentary categories will screen at the Monica 4-Plex while the world cinema section will screen at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills. Throughout the festival, special events will be held at various venues.

There's never a shortage of gems at the AFI Film Fest, and this year is no exception. Like Benigni, but in an entirely different manner, Czech director Vladimir Michalek and writer Jiri Krizan have delved into the evil of World War II to create the superb and suspenseful "Sekal Has to Die" (Chinese, Sunday at 7 p.m. and Oct. 29 at 2:15 p.m.), which turns upon an extraordinarily well-structured and well-developed script.

The time is 1943, the place is a Moravian village untouched by the German Occupation of Czechoslovakia. In fact, there's not a German soldier in sight to mar the beautiful vistas of wheat fields or the quaint town, yet "Sekal" evolves into a Holocaust drama--even though neither a Nazi nor a Jew nor a concentration camp is ever on view.

A singularly nasty villager, Sekal (Boguslaw Linda) has started blackmailing the prosperous, elderly farmers of the community into selling their property to him at ridiculously low prices by threatening to denounce them to the Gestapo on trumped-up charges. A young man, Jura (Olaf Lubaszenko), arrives with a letter from the brother of the mayor, requesting that he give shelter to the stranger, a farmer fleeing the Gestapo. Starting work as a blacksmith, Jura begins to impress the locals with his strength of character and independence as Sekal makes life increasingly miserable for them. Inevitably, the farmers will try to force Jura into assassinating Sekal.

The filmmakers miss no implications nor any opportunities to heighten the tension of the predicament they have so artfully created. To begin with, it is this profoundly religious, ultra-conservative community that has turned Sekal into a vengeful monster, tormenting him his entire life for having been born out of wedlock. What is so special about this picture is how the filmmakers introduce and develop with complexity the moral dimension of their story.

Set in rural Austria a decade or so earlier, Stefan Ruzowitzky's "The Inheritors" (Music Hall, Saturday at 2:45 p.m.) has a similar style and impact. This ironic fable commences with a wealthy farmer unexpectedly leaving his entire holdings to his peasants, an unthinkable turn of events that challenges the heirs to assume their rightful legacy while inciting a greedy landowner into an escalating, ruthless rage.

The result is a stirring tale of class warfare and hypocrisy, shot through with humor, pain and eroticism, that in its increasing darkness foreshadows the Anschluss soon to overtake Austria. "The Inheritors" opens at selected theaters on Oct. 28.

Salvador Carrasco's "La Otra Conquista" (Chinese, Saturday at 7 p.m. and Monday at 4:45 p.m.) is a dazzling, stupendous historical re-creation: Mexico in the brutal aftermath of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1521. It combines the grandeur and stateliness of a Sergei Paradjanov tableau vivant with the color and passion of a Maria Montez epic--and this is not meant pejoratively but to suggest that Carrasco has struck a daring balance between a stylized form and unbridled emotion.

"La Otra Conquista" is heady stuff, loaded with extravagant spectacle, turmoil and suffering, as the Spanish conquerors attempt to force Christianity on the murdered Emperor Moctezuma's son Topiltzin (the poised and exotic Damian Delgado).

Deftly adapted by director Ventura Pons and Sergi Belbel from Belbel's play, "Caresses" (Monica 4-Plex Tuesday at 1:45 p.m. and Wednesday at 9:45 p.m.) is an impeccably acted, caustic "La Ronde" for the end of this century, in which 11 people come in contact with each other, in musical chairs, linking the first person to the last. The point it makes so adroitly is about the lack of communication and, beyond that, tenderness in so many relationships in today's world.

The central relationship of "Sweety Barrett" (Chinese, Sunday at noon and Oct. 29 at 9:30 p.m.) is familiar: that of a seemingly slow-witted man and a small boy. Yet, with a grim Irish port town as his setting, debuting feature writer-director Stephen Bradley gives his film a shocking turn of events.

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