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An Opening Dazzler

Pan African Festival begins tonight with Carlos Diegues' fresh, inspired 'Orfeu.'


The eighth annual Pan African Film & Art Festival opens tonight at 8 at the Magic Johnson Theaters with dual premieres: Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," a cross-cultural gangster picture starring Forest Whitaker, and Carlos Diegues' "Orfeu," a contemporary retelling of the same Greek legend that inspired the classic "Black Orpheus" of 40 years ago. Also opening today is the Pan African Fine Arts & Crafts Show, featuring the work of more than 100 artists and craftspeople at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza adjacent to the Magic Johnson Theaters. CCH Pounder is this year's celebrity host.

As always, the far-ranging film festival presents more films and special programs than any one person could hope to attend, and among them a number of outstanding works. "Ghost Dog" was unavailable for preview, but Diegues' "Orfeu" proved a dazzler. The legend of Orpheus and Eurydice has been reworked by everyone from Jean Cocteau to Tennessee Williams, and there's no reason why Diegues, long one of Brazil's preeminent filmmakers, shouldn't offer his interpretation four decades after Marcel Camus made his celebrated version.

Both films are set in Carioca Hill, that vast hillside shantytown overlooking Rio's skyscrapers. Whereas the first was mainly a folkloric transposition of the Greek legend, lush and exotic, Diegues' "Orfeu," while every bit as sensual and picturesque, shows a Carioca Hill menaced by a gang of drug dealers, even as TVs and cell phones proliferate through the dense maze of makeshift buildings.

Based on a play by Vinicius de Moraes, "Orfeu" has as its charismatic star Toni Garrido, who plays a samba composer-performer superstar who could easily move himself and his parents (Zeze Motta and Milton Goncalves) to a safer area but chooses to remain in the neighborhood. He hopes to present a role model, specifically to offer a contrast to his lifelong friend Lucinho (Murilo Benicio), a drug dealer and gang leader. Carnaval looms, and the beautiful Euridice (Patricia Franca), who has just lost her widowed father, arrives to stay awhile with her aunt, only to fall in love with Orfeu and become caught in the growing tension between Orfeu and Lucinho. The Carnaval sequences are ravishing in their glitter and intoxicating in their samba music, and "Orfeu" (which also screens Monday at 8:10 p.m.) emerges as a fresh and inspired merging of romantic tragedy and social consciousness. ("Orfeu" also screens at UCLA Sunday at 7 p.m. at the James Bridges Theater in Melnitz Hall.)

Christian Lara's illuminating "Bitter Sugar" (Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. and Feb. 17 at 10:20 p.m.) imagines a "Court of History," involving people from the past as well as the present putting on trial Ignace (Jean-Michel Marial), liberator of Guadeloupe. Lara makes clear the equation of colonialism and slavery as the French free the blacks of Gaudeloupe when they need them to fight the British only to re-enslave them under Napoleon, sparking Ignace's bloody revolution.

Christopher E. Brown dedicates his quietly harrowing "Metal" (Sunday at 6:15 p.m.) to Charles Burnett, and rightly so, for Brown tells essentially the same story as Burnett in his landmark "Killer of Sheep," that of a hard-working, decent man fighting overwhelming odds to support his family. Yet "Metal" is distinctive in its own right, a more stylized film than Burnett's, one that proceeds in brief, acutely observed vignettes separated by blackouts, with the film's beginning and ending accompanied by somber selections from Bach performed by bassist Kathleen Mertz.

Wedrell James plays an unemployed Hunter's Point, San Francisco, auto mechanic, a proud husband and father as desperate to hold his feelings within himself as he is to find a job; when not looking for work he struggles mightily to get his battered Chevy truck working. Eventually his strong, supportive wife (Vinieta Porter) feels she must tell him, "There are some things you can't fix."

Brown and his actors are masterful in subtlety, conveying the psychological impact of the mechanic's plight upon himself and his family, and without any nudging, that Chevy emerges as a symptom of a cruel breakdown in a racist society. "Metal" is a major work made on a minuscule budget.

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