Sex, lies and terrorism

San Sebastian's film festival proved unusually controversial, reports Sheila Johnston
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At the tail end of the summer festival season, San Sebastian is inevitably eclipsed by the mighty juggernauts of Venice and Toronto which precede it earlier in the month, scooping major world premieres and red carpet glamour. But this graceful, Belle Epoque spa town draped around a huge bay in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees has a lot going for it: a location of great architectural and natural beauty and some of the best cuisine in Europe.

Such attractions mean celebrities are always happy to find a spot for San Sebastian in their social calendar. This year's guests have included the jury president Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, sporting a crewcut which intensifies his odd, angular features, Terry Gilliam and an irrepressible Cuba Gooding Jr who spent most of his stay badmouthing Hollywood, though his new film, a contract killer melodrama called Shadowboxer, was hardly a recommendation for the US independent sector.

Luckily this year San Sebastian has also had a high number of outstanding films from Europe and Latin America, which bears witness to the fact that world cinema is very much alive and thriving. There will the opportunity to catch many of these at next month's London Film Festival and, eventually, in British arthouses.

After the phenomenal international success of his debut film, Nine Queens, Fabian Bielinsky could easily have made another crowd-pleasing con man comedy. Instead, with The Aura, the Argentine director has come up with something entirely different, though very recognisably his own: the story of a shy, epileptic recluse whose fantasies of pulling off a heist come true through a series of extraordinary coincidences while on a hunting trip deep in the forests of Patagonia.

The Aura is steeped in an eerie hallucinogenic atmosphere (the title refers to the altered sense of reality which apparently precedes an epileptic fit), with brilliant imagery and very little dialogue, despite the fact that Bielinsky is a master of crackling repartee. Steven Soderbergh is unlikely to be lining up for the remake rights, but The Aura suggests that this director is no one-trick pony.

Paradise Now, a stunning Palestinian film about two young men recruited as suicide bombers, was snapped up for British release by Warner Bros, then quietly shelved, perhaps indefinitely, after the London bombings in July. It would be an enormous shame if it disappeared, because it's an urgent, explosive portrait of emotional desperation, shot by the director Hany Abu-Assad with an admirable command of pace, mood and performance.

The film, which in no way endorses the bombers and whose most violent scene involves an assault on a car bumper, found great acclaim here in the Basque country, where people know a thing or two about this subject.

Terrorism is also a peripheral theme in Manslaughter, by the Danish director Per Fly, whose last film, Inheritance, was well reviewed in Britain last winter. In the new movie, a middle-aged lecturer becomes involved with one of his students, a female activist who kills a policeman in cold blood but refuses to confess and, incredibly, is acquitted. He becomes complicit in the cover-up, but the relationship caves in under the strain. It's a sober but thoroughly engrossing morality tale of lies, guilt and their consequences.

Among the other highlights are Andreas Dresen's Summer in Berlin, a wise and witty comedy about two singletons in the big city: it's as though Bridget Jones's Diary had been directed by Mike Leigh, if such a thing can be imagined.

The Sky Turns evokes life in a tiny mountain village in northern Spain with a poignant tone and immaculate eye which recall the spirit of Victor Erice, while The Cave of the Yellow Dog is an affectionate semi-documentary about nomadic life in the Mongolian steppes from the makers of The Story of the Weeping Camel. There's no cute baby dromedary in Yellow Dog, but its three child stars are equally adorable and high scores here in the audience polls indicate that this will be another winner.

Some of the most keenly anticipated movies were more disappointing. Fresh from his critical roasting in Venice for The Brothers Grimm, Terry Gilliam threw his hat back into the ring with yet another new film, an adaptation of Mitch Cullin's fantasy novel Tideland, about an orphan who retreats into a grotesque fantasy world. Alas, this overexcited, American Gothic spin on Alice in Wonderland only prompted a tidal wave of walk-outs.

Charlotte Rampling is the queen bee at the centre of a group of female sex tourists in Haiti in the 1970s in Vers le Sud, a stiffly literary examination of an insidious form of colonial exploitation from the highly regarded French director Laurent Cantet. And, after winning an Oscar for No Man's Land, his coruscating black satire about the Bosnian conflict, Danis Tanovic has, weirdly, chosen L'Enfer (Hell), one of the late Krzysztof Kieslowski's unmade projects as his follow-up - a competent but dismayingly bland family drama set in Paris and starring Emmanuelle Béart.

One of the San Sebastian's most distinguished invitees, Robert Wise, had an unassailable though very sad reason for failing to attend a complete retrospective of his work: he died, aged 91, of a heart attack on the eve of the festival.

Everyone remembers Wise for two classic movies, West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and for his key contribution to Citizen Kane as its editor, but this tribute offered the chance to discover a vast body of lesser-known films, all shining with heart and humanity.