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50th San Francisco International Film Festival at PFA

Friday, April 27, 2007
4:30 p.m. Opera Jawa
Garin Nugroho (Indonesia/Austria, 2006)

"In a pig's liver, one can see an entire life." This porcine prediction, made by a sage street singer at the beginning of masterful Indonesian director Garin Nugroho's gorgeous, otherworldly epic, establishes an appropriately superstitious and magical tone for the fateful narrative about to unfold. Updating an ancient Sanskrit love triangle among spoiled royals—reimagined here as married pottery artisans Siti and Setio and village fat cat Ludiro—Nugroho has fashioned an all-singing, all-dancing morality play that pits cultural tradition and marital fidelity against radical uprising and erotic freedom. When Setio embarks on a long journey away from home, Siti's fidelity is tested by the fiery writhings of Ludiro (a scene-stealing Eko Supriyanto, who held his own against Madonna as a dancer on her Drowned World tour). Nugroho envisions this romantic intrigue through a heady, sensual mélange of haunting gamelan melodies, acrobatic choreography, and Javanese shadow puppetry. Much like Matthew Barney, he is a wildly ambitious conceptual artist with a flair for cinematic excess, filling the screen with razzle-dazzle imagery—hundreds of candlelit masks, a maze of coconut shells, a beating heart wrenched from its lovelorn body—yet always attuned to the tragedy of his timeless tale. One of seven films commissioned by Peter Sellars for his New Crowned Hope festival commemorating the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, Opera Jawa is at once a requiem for victims of violence and natural disaster, a postmodern movie musical, and a foot fetishist's dream: not even a long look at that telltale pig's liver could have predicted the scene in which Ludiro caresses Siti's face with his bare sole.

—Steven Jenkins

• Written by Nugroho, Armantono. Photographed by Teoh Gay Hian. With Artika Sari Devi, Martinus Miroto, Eko Supriyanto, Retno Maruti. (116 mins)