The Grande 4-Plex (at Figueroa and 3rd streets, downtown L.A.) commences a new "Documentary Days" cycle Friday with a one-week run of Frederick Wiseman's monumental and consistently absorbing four-hour, eight-minute "Belfast, Maine," a moving portrait of the beautiful old port city and its inhabitants. The renowned Wiseman, known for such landmark works as "Titicut Follies" and "High School," doesn't ask questions but trusts in his formidable powers of observation. He chronicles everyday life in Belfast, a well-preserved 19th century city with a contemporary sensibility. He shows us how it functions in the realms of law, politics and, above all, social and health services, and celebrates the dignity of legions of blue-collar workers who calmly perform their tasks with unfailing expertise, whether in making doughnuts or canning sardines. He is also drawn to artists, teachers and craftsmen and all manner of public gatherings, whether they be a flower-arranging class, a baptism or a man giving a lecture on the Civil War, to which Belfast contributed 858 soldiers, resulting in 100 casualties. What you won't see are any Daughters of the American Revolution meetings.
Wiseman and his splendid cinematographer, John Davey, frame myriad vignettes with montages of images of the natural and architectural splendors of the city and its surrounding rural areas. Wiseman skirts neither rundown trailers and debris-ridden country yards nor the town's fine collection of period homes, but he does focus on some trailer residents and shows no interest in Belfast's elite, whether they be old families or the nouveau riche. What concerns him is how well-served the city is by its compassionate and dedicated ranks of caregivers, who pay close and kindly attention to the poor, elderly and ailing. Wiseman takes the measure of Belfast, not by its monetary wealth or fancy amenities, but by its collective concern for the needy, and in this regard the city, reassuringly in these impersonal times, comes out a resounding winner. (213) 617-0268.
The third annual Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival opens a 10-day run at the Egyptian Theater on Friday at 8 p.m. with the U.S. premiere of Antonio Serrano's sure-fire crowd-pleaser, "Sex, Shame and Tears" ("Sexo, Pudor y Lagrimas"), a tempestuous romantic comedy about the entangled lives of two attractive couples living across the street from each other in expensive high-rise apartments in the heart of Mexico City. Ana (Susana) hungers for more love than her diffident writer-husband, Carlos (Victor Huggo Martin), seemingly is capable of giving her. Across the street Andrea (Cecilia Suarez) is fed up with her highly successful and very handsome but philandering husband, Miguel (Jorge Salinas). While Tomas (Demian Bechir), a playboy friend of Carlos and Ana, shows up for an extended stay, Miguel invites a visiting old flame, Maria (Monica Dionne), to stay with him and Andrea.
Serrano is a playwright who became a top soap-opera director, and he certainly knows how to milk the misery of the upper middle classes for all it's worth. Each of his six principals recites veritable arias of woe that suggest that the culture of machismo conceals a lot of sexual dysfunction. In an effective big-screen debut, Serrano leavens the melodramatics with welcome humor, and his film is a fine showcase for his charismatic and capable cast.
Alejandro Agresti's "Wind With the Gone" (Saturday at 7:15 p.m.), a whimsical and surreal allegory of much charm and imagination, takes us to a village, Rio Pico, in the South American region of Patagonia, whose inhabitants' only contact with the outside world is through movies, which arrive worn-out, with reels out of order and entire sections missing. The community nonetheless becomes addicted to these movies, which in turn give them a fragmented view of the world and of themselves. Eager to escape a miserable existence in Buenos Aires, Soledad (Vera Fogwill) steals her cab and winds up--at the end of the road--in Rio Pico.
Pedro (Fabian Vena), the most intense film critic ever--and that's saying a lot--is drawn to her, just as innkeeper Dona Maria (Angela Molina) finds unexpected romance with the arrival of a faded French film star (Jean Rochefort), invited to Rio Pico by his ardent fans.
Rio Pico represents the state of isolation and ignorance in which Argentina existed in the 1970s, yet Agresti also celebrates the soon-to-be-lost happy innocence of the community. He also pays homage to the power of the cinema to shape our imaginations, and his film is an affectionate tribute to Molina, Rochefort and Dumont. "Wind With the Gone" is uneven, with not all of its elements and characters as well-integrated as they could be, but is endearing in its tender and wistful sensibility, and in its affection for the movies and those who make them.