I started the day early in order to catch an 8am screening of Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (d.Bestor Cram), though it wasn’t quite worth it. A fairly adequate documentary, though rather randomly conceived, it takes as its focus the fantastic gig Cash played at the California prison in early 1968, released as a terrific and much-loved live LP.

Details of how the concert came about, along with others Cash played at San Quentin and elsewhere, are covered in no great detail, filled out with sketchy material on how the concert was something of a post-drug dependency comeback, the story of Cash’s sponsorship of Folsom inmate and songwriter (“Greystone Chapel”) Glen Sherley and the latter’s post-incarceration decline and suicide. There’s also plenty of time given engagingly, but not really relevantly, to the story of another inmate present at the gig, along with some old audio of Cash musing on his childhood, and innocuous talking heads from band members and children (some of which I am sure I’ve seen before).

Songs from the concert are accompanied by rather desperate music video-style animation and photo collage/montage and the overall result is as diffuse and superficial as the “Classic Album” pocket book upon which the film is based. Worst of all, there’s not a single frame of footage the concert (in fact there were two that day, not that you’d know it from watching this, and both were filmed in their entirety) but one does at least get some nice footage from The Johnny Cash Show and elsewhere, and a decent idea of how Cash exuded a real sense of kinship with the inmates of the gaols at which he played, without actually having been banged up himself – there but for the grace of God went he. And of course the music is fantastic.

Coming off like Y tu mama tambien crossed with Romeo and Juliet, Amar a Morir (d.Fernando Lebrija) is a mish-mosh of all kinds of things, as rich kid Alejandro flees Mexico City under the shadow of manslaughter, arranged marriage and a repressive father. Naturally, he finds the countryside at first hostile and then welcoming. He falls for forbidden local beauty Rosa, is pursued by the one-eyed henchman (looking distractingly like Rob Schneider) and vaqueros of local boss El Tigre (his plantation mingles papayas with ganja) and achieves something or other significant by learning how to surf. Themes of city/country opposition and personal redemption are sketchily drawn at best. Innumerable second-hand tropes are placed before us without development (corrupt senator, a cabinet of automatic weapons – what did Chekhov say? – and a kindly beach-front cafe owner with alleged powers of witchcraft).

Stock scenes – a clifftop leap, torture to Mexican party music – are under-realised through poor execution; the most interesting location, an airy rural graveyard, is wasted on the most second-rate telenovela revelation and reaction. All that said, there is a certain comfort and enjoyment in the shameless accretion of such familiar material that only occasionally pauses long enough to take itself too seriously, and it’s a close run thing which are the more ridiculously beautiful, the beaches or the two young leads – José Mariá de Tavira looks better and better the more beat up he gets and despite the body of a 13 year-old boy, Martina Garcia is simply luminous. And for all its clumsy predictability, it boasts an ending of such satisfyingly outrageous romanticism that one is inclined to look kindly on all that has gone before.

Briefly noted:

Vacation (Kyûku) (d.Kadoi Hajimi): I wouldn’t normally mention this, as I only caught part of it, but what I saw was extremely impressive, worthy of obvious comparisons with Oshima, and looked head and shoulders above anything else at the festival. One of the guards on death row receives a week’s honeymoon vacation in exchange for assisting in the execution of a quiet prisoner whose crime we never learn. The film quietly shows how the experience effects the guard’s dealings with his home life, a new bride and an unwelcoming adoptive son. The pace is slow, observant – measured rather than stately – with direction (particularly in the color palette) of the highest control, and builds to a climax of quietly devastating power. I am itching to see the whole thing.