Only one year younger than Sundance, the SBIFF is a very civilised affair, living up to its title with films from all over the world, unspooling in the theatres up and down State Street, and with only a faint whiff of Hollywood taking a short vacation to pat itself on the back.

I was not too fussed to miss the Opening Night Gala, which was Nothing But The Truth, a political thriller inspired by real events (Judith Miller/Valerie Plame). Directed by Rod Lurie it stars Kate Beckinsale, Angela Bassett, Alan Alda and Matt Dillon, and despite the festival’s reputation for somewhat lacklustre gala pictures, it seems to have gone down pretty well.

Day 1 was pretty good to me. I started with Ocean (Okean), set in Cuba, a basic country mouse story in which Joel, spurned in love, leaves his fisherman’s co-op for Havana. From the natural ocean to the human ocean, Joel bobs aimlessly around, and is heading off somewhere else by the end of the movie. As portrayed by Jorge Luis Castro, he’s a corkscrew-haired youth with an occasionally winning smile, but rather a passive void at the centre of the film. The supporting cast is more colourful, and the best parts of the picture tend to be angry women calling one another “chica”. Women loom large in Joel’s life, but the camera prefers the naked male torso. The director is a Russian, Mikhail Kosyrev-Nesterov, who once in a while exhibits a nice touch: amidst the miasma of wobbly close-ups there’s a hint of social documentary on a fishing boat, at a hay-threshing plant and during a students’ communist rally; elsewhere there’s a strange cake-eating scene and a lover’s argument in which the dialogue is replaced on the soundtrack by a lovely Cuban guitar song. The ocean itself is ravishing and Havana looks fantastic, but the slightly lame drama hogs the show.

From Russia, The Ghost (Domovoy) seems to have proved particularly popular so far, and not entirely without justification. The opening is symptomatic: a well-done but stock scene of writer’s block, complete with dark apartment, bright empty laptop screen, rain, whiskey.. It’s a well-presented film that’s nearly very good, although how the callow writer of thrillers gets to know the mysterious assassin of the title and ends chained to a pipe in a remote shack, is not quite as intriguing as it should be (and that finale unfortunately reminiscent of Russ Meyer). The writer Prachenko is an awkward rather than interesting mixture of endearing and loathsome; Vladimir Mashkov as the Ghost looks too much like Paddy Considine to be taken seriously; and Prachenko’s constantly returning girlfriend is just an idiot. The questions raised by a writer’s need (or not) actually to experience that of which he writes, and the attendant implications for imagination, are probed, but insufficiently, and the envelope of wobbly camerawork is pushed to some kind of limit. But every single hit is carried off with real panache, and while the film suffers from a certain two-dimensionality and predictability, it’s basically pretty good, and mainly disappoints in the feeling that it could have been better.

Yesterday’s best film for me was definitely Paoilo Sorrentino’s Il Divo. Giulio Andreotti has been a member of the (notoriously self-serving) Italian parliament since the late ’40s and is an icon in Italy, hence the title. He’s also been charged 26 times with things like, oh, murder, extortion, bribery etc. He’s now a retired parliamentarian, and a senator for life. That’s Italian politics for you. In this extraordinary film, events (and reminiscences) from a period in the early 90s running up to Andreotti’s trial for Mafia connections (charges dismissed!) are presented in a remarkably reconstructed documentary style, snappily-paced, with captions, clearly factual episodes and the imagining of more more private scenes perfectly sewn together with first-class montage. It’s true that a greater knowledge of Italian politics than I can boast would probably yield deeper resonances, but it still feels like a dizzying roller coaster - not an easy film to follow in close detail. The best part is the bizarre figure of Andreotti (Toni Sercillo) at centre-stage; with hunched back, strange ears and a poised, gliding walk, he looks for all the world like Nosferatu in large spectacles. His eerie acceptance that the evil he has done is for the good of the country is as much to do with Machiavelli as it is with his being the leader of the Christian Democrats, and a daily attendee at Mass. Part political record, part interrogation, part imaginary confession, it’s an extremely impressive, one-of-a-kind picture.

My day ended with a red carpet extravaganza at the splendid Arlington theatre, for the presentation of the Montecito Award to Kate Winslet. She wore a rather nice tight black and white number that Bai Ling’s enormous scarlet dress desperately failed to upstage (what the hell was *she* doing there?); “interviewed” by Leonard Maltin, Ms Winslett was perfectly charmingand amusing, and accompanying clips of her films really did prove what a good actress she is (still don’t want to see The Reader tho).

images courtesy: SBIFF