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Think Globally, Screen Locally BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN 28TH ANNUAL WORLDFEST-HOUSTON INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL L IKE ALPINE, Amarillo and Seguin, Houston is a one-newspaper town, but the aerospace capital harbors galactic aspirations. When Babylon on the Buffalo Bayou screens a group of new movies, it calls the event WorldFest, and it opens the eclectic extravaganza with duelling bagpipes and mariachis. Klieg lights illuminate the skies above Meyerland Plaza, the nondescript shopping center where two of six screens at a General Cinema multiplex are set aside for 10 days to indulge those afflicted with uncommon cases of cinephilia. On April 21, three days after the demise of the Houston Post, the 28th annual edition of WorldFestwhich began in Miami and moved first to Atlanta and then the Virgin Islands before settling in Houston 18 years agocommenced operation. Opening night drew a capacity crowd to Burnt by the Sun, which has already won an Oscar for foreign-language film. J. Hunter Todd, WorldFest’s irrepressibly upbeat founder and director, introduced his initial entry as not just the best foreign-language film but simply the best film of the year. And Houston’s Barnum was not vending bunk. Dedicated to “everyone who was burnt by the sun of the Revolution,” Nikita Mikhalkov’s plangent drama focuses on a single day in 1936, when Colonel Sergei hero of the Bolshevik victory two decades earlier, receives a surprise visit from an agent of Stalin’s secret police intent on private revenge. Burnt by the Sun is a magnificent evocation of a distant summer day in a dacha vibrant with the doomed colonel’s extended clan. The gorgeous performances are worthy of Chekhov, and of Todd’s hyperbolic praise. In previous years, WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival drew on a small world. This edition does include Kim Henkel’s bloody Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dan Mirvish’s quirky Omaha, the Movie. But, commencing with a Russian treasure and concluding with Funny Bones, a British drama about a Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. fails to measure up to his famous father ences much to see that is of genuine import. In an annual instance of crass cross-town antagonism, the Houston International Festival, which each year celebrates the arts, crafts and cuisine of a different nation, opened on the same day as WorldFest. But, focusing on Turkey, where Kurds and secularists find little to celebrate, the former seemed less worldly than WorldFest. In Gerard Corbiau’s Farinelli, Belgium’s finalist for foreign-language Oscar, WorldFest offered the portrait of an 18thcentury castrato. A high note was also struck by a lovely account of Pablo Neruda’s friendship with a modest mailman during the leftist poet’s exile from Chile on the island of Capri in the 1950s; Englishman Michael Radford directed Frenchman Philippe Noiret in this Italian delight. Boro Draskovic’s Vukovar Poste Restante is a wrenching tale of cross-cultural romance set and filmed within the devastation of contemporary Croatia. The Key, an Iranian entry by Ebrahim Forouzesh, depicts the mischievous resourcefulness of a 4-yearold boy locked alone with his baby brother into their apartment while their mother goes shopping. Other international features include Jan Hrebejk’s Big Beat Hector Carre’s The Happy Failure The Last Lieutenant Maugg’s Der Olympische Sommer \(The Kuo’s Panda the Sun Meckler’s Sister My Sister \(United KingSpring of Joy Though it billed itself as a salute to 100 years of motion pictures, the 1995 WorldFest included no silent films and no retrospectives. Its sole acknowledgment of cinema’s centennial was inclusion of several films from France, where the Lumiere brothers began exhibiting slightly before movie pioneers in other countries. Paris had promised a package of 10 films including an early Lumier, but the plan apparently fell victim to the inefficiencies of Gallic bureaucracy. WorldFest procured for itself five new French films, among them Robert Enrico’s three-hour epic account of The French Revolution, starring Klaus Maria Brandauer, Jane Seymour, Christopher Lee, Sam Neill and Francois Clouzet. In Guy Jacques’ Je M’Appelle Victor Moreau plays a crippled recluse who has not left an attic for 30 years. In Pure Formality, Giuseppe Tornatore directs Gerard Depardieu and Roman Polanski in a cat-and-mouse encounter between a man who claims to be a famous author and a police inspector who doubts it. In 1992, WorldFest showed 150 entries at theaters scattered across Harris County. This year’s selective program, reduced to 49 features, 52 shorts and 10 videos, is far more manageable and consistent. If you want to find a turkey, you have to look to the arts of Ankara at the Houston International Festival, not to the roster of films that were judiciously gleaned from more than 300 submissions. Todd, who expanded the franchise two years ago to South Carolina, for a November WorldFest-Charleston, aptly describes the 1995 operation in Houston as a “lean, mean movie machine.” For 1996, he promises further pruning, so that avid audiences will be restricted to a regimen of merely 40 films in 10 days. However admirable its individual offerings, what good is WorldFest? Visitors to Sundance and Telluride are able to discover virgin works not yet bought for distribution or brought to publicists. But many WorldFest films have already been seen at other festivals and are exhibited for publicity, not discovery. Trailing clouds of Oscar glory, Burnt by the .Sun was scheduled for national distribution a week after its Houston screening, as was My Family, the saga of a quintessential Mexican-American familia directed by Gregory Nava and starring Jimmy Smits and Edward James Olmos. You need not rush to Meyerland Plaza to catch James Gray’s Little Odessa, with Tim Roth and Vanessa Redgrave, or James Lemmo’s Bodily Harm, starring Linda Fiorentino and Daniel Baldwin. But Todd estimates that fully one-third of his offerings will never be seen in local theaters or even on TV. As congenial as it is to attend a series of first-rate offerings slightly prior to their first commercial run, it is for independent and foreign features and for shorts that all the effort of a festival makes divinest sense. Nowhere else but Houston are you likely to see Ed Asner in The Golem, as a rabbi wise to the avenging monster in a seedy LA neighborhood. After discarding earlier bulk, the WorldFest monster is more haunting than ever. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21 ,