There's no mistaking it: Like any good regional importer looking to tap into economic recovery, the 34th annual Portland International Film Festival is diversifying. For the first time, PIFF is expanding across the Willamette River, adding two new eastside venues to its roster: the Hollywood Theatre and CineMagic. Recognizing that theater pubs have become ubiquitous, the festival is adding booze to its mix, with two pop-up bars—PIFF Lounge in Nel Centro, and PIFFbar, across Hawthorne Boulevard from CineMagic. The NW Film Center has even tapped Grindhouse Film Festival guru Dan Halsted to curate four new, blood-soaked genre films for a program called PIFF After Dark (it starts next weekend). And the opening-night picture (Potiche, Newmark Theatre, 7:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 10, not screened for critics) stars Catherine Deneuve because, shit, who doesn't love Catherine Deneuve? But the crucial question stays the same: How's the quality of the merchandise? We'll let you in on a little secret: We're impressed.
The First Grader
58 [GREAT BRITAIN] A "true story," they tell us—and it is, up to a point. An 84-year-old Kenyan and former Mau Mau freedom fighter (Oliver Litondo) wants to go to an overcrowded grade school, with 6-year-olds, to learn to read. The kids are cute, the old man is saintly and stubborn, and his own personal Mrs. Chips (Naomie Harris) is a caring and staunch advocate even as the whole of Kenya seems to amass its forces against his noble aspirations; mobs of parents even throw rocks at a schoolhouse containing their own children. It is, of course, a heartwarming, Oprah-ready tale of adversity overcome and justice finally done, but the script is a pure Hollywood farce of 1-D characters whose climactic speeches suddenly change the world. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. BW, 6 pm Friday, Feb. 11. WH, 6 pm Monday, Feb. 14.
43 [CZECH REPUBLIC] Now here's an interesting decision: Bringing your mistress over to the house for a heart-to-heart chat with your wife. It provides the best scene in the movie, but backfires as a domestic strategy—so the foolish husband decides he'll just discredit his wife's sanctimonious Velvet Revolution-hero father, who once committed similar crimes of the heart. The farce investigates the tragedy, and the result is the very definition of middlebrow, though that doesn't make it bad. What makes it bad is director Jan Hrebejk's strange anti-instinct for editing: He lingers on faces, only to cut away at the exact moment you'd like to see an actor's response. AARON MESH. WH, 6 pm Friday, Feb. 11. BW, 3:30 pm Sunday and 6:45 pm Monday, Feb. 13-14.
78 [RUSSIA] A slow roil of narrated but barely narrative picaresque, Silent Souls believes confidently in its own poetic significance, and it's not entirely wrong. Aleksei Fedorchenko's movie is a hymn to the lost customs of a Finno-Ugric tribe called the Meryans—a people whose ceremonies include tying colorful ribbons to a bride's pubic hair, walking on thin ice in hopes of drowning, and eulogizing the sex life of the recently deceased before cremating them on lakeside funeral pyres. These rituals may be entirely invented (Fedorchenko has been coy), but that possibility only makes the sub-Tarkovsky ruminations more beguiling. AARON MESH. BW, 6:15 pm Friday, Feb. 11. WH, 4:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 13.
Son of Babylon
72 [IRAQ] A road film with exceedingly grim overtones, Son of Babylon follows a young boy and his mother as they traverse post-Saddam Iraq searching for the boy's father, who's been missing since 1991. As the pair bounds between Ba'athist prisons, torture centers and mass graves, Mohamed Al-Daradji's film offers a glimpse of the consequences of violence. While the movie struggles to land between high drama and political statement, it's an eye-opening glimpse at common people whose lives are shredded. AP KRYZA. BW, 6:45 pm Friday, 8:30 pm Saturday and 8:15 pm Sunday, Feb. 11-13.
If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle
65 [ROMANIA] For some reason (Ceauşescu? Let's say Ceauşescu), the New Romanian Cinema's signature image is the protracted, quotidian appointment placed within an unacknowledged context of horror. In director Florin Şerban's juvie-jail bummer, this engagement is a climactic, uneventful coffee date—the larger agony is every frustrated desire and explosively wrong decision of Silviu (George Pistereanu). He's two weeks from being paroled from a shabby, almost summer camp-like boy's prison, but that's one week too late to keep his pipsqueak brother out of the clutches of the mother he despises. Silviu is a patient and doggedly persistent teen, but he doesn't have a lot of imagination, and finally he runs violently out of ideas. He has so much that he wants (whistling isn't really on that list), which means it's too bad he's in a Romanian movie. AARON MESH. BW, 7 pm Friday, 5:15 pm Saturday and 9 pm Tuesday, Feb. 11-12 & 15.
90 [CANADA] The most visually arresting dispatch from Canada's young, beautiful and prowling since Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the second feature from 21-year-old director Xavier Dolan is a slow-motion plunge into a flood of pheromones. A Quebecois In the Mood for Love in red leopard-print pumps, Heartbeats observes best pals (Monia Chokri and Dolan) both smitten with a curly blond Adonis (Niels Schneider, ominously introduced wearing the candy-heart sunglasses of Sue Lyon in Kubrick's Lolita). Dolan is both properly distanced from the blissful aches of infatuation, and physically alert to them: I watched with a grin, and my toes tingling. Heartbeats is a fresh perception of an age-old truth: Love is like a cloud, holds a lot of rain. AARON MESH. BW, 8:15 pm Friday, 6 pm Sunday and 6:45 pm Tuesday, Feb. 11, 13 & 15.
86 [CANADA] Lebanon breeds melodrama—the country itself is tragic melodrama. Based on the play by Wajdi Mouwad, Denis Villaneuve's Incendies is a multilinear, intergenerational, resolutely Francophone and -philic drama in which two Canadian-raised twins go to south Lebanon to find their father and brother, according to the terms of their mother's will; interleafed throughout is their mother's own harrowing saga during the Lebanese civil war. The wild narrative implausibilities and telegraphed classical gesture—tragedy twisted around tragedy like a snake around a sword—paradoxically elevate what might have been mere formalist weepie into beautiful, affecting politico-Oedipal fable of often wrenching force. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. WH, 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 11. BW, 4:15 pm Sunday, Feb. 13.
The First Beautiful Thing
73 [ITALY] The First Beautiful Thing has all the trappings of a sappy melodrama: mother in hospice, junkie son, estranged father, reunions, revitalization and self-actualization. Clichés aside, director Paolo Virzì has crafted a bittersweet drama that defies convention while playing it close to the heart, tracing 40 years in the life of Anna (the luminous Micaela Ramazzotti), a devoted mother whose insulated son (Valerio Mastandrea) is forced to reconnect with her in hospice, triggering flashbacks to the chic Italy of yesteryear. Touching, elegant and witty, it's a thing of beauty itself, making it easy to forgive its overindulgence in the requisite corn. AP KRYZA. BW, 8:45 pm Friday and 7:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 11 & 13.
Good Morning to the World
71 [JAPAN] Originally a student film—with attendant amateur cinematography, quirk-riddled nonsequential storytelling and quiet meanders—Hirohara Satoru's Good Morning to the World nonetheless offers a winningly empathetic portrait of hapless latchkey teen Takahashi Yuta (Koizumi Yoichiro) as he attempts to cobble together the life of an equally abandoned homeless man who's been beaten to death by a pack of young hoods. Takahashi is less Holden Caulfield than bewildered future Walter Mitty, sheltered from life mostly by his own mute fear of it, and so his dreamworld self-interviews, obsessiveness and coming-of-age trek to the exurbs seem less conceit than true extension of character. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. BW, 9:15 pm Friday, 3:30 pm Saturday and 7:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 11-13.
Short Cuts I: International Ties
75 The most expansive of the cartoons in this program is The Gruffalo, a pretty, 27-minute children's-storybook adaptation about an imaginary beast. It is, of course, terribly disappointing to find that the Gruffalo is not voiced by Mark Ruffalo, but the actual vocal work here is very expressive—especially Tom Wilkinson as a fox. No words are needed for Joanna Lurie's more ephemeral (but no less cute) French animation The Silence Beneath the Bark, which features cooing worm-people eating snow. AARON MESH. WH, 12:25 pm Saturday, Feb. 12.
48 [HILLSBORO, OREGON] Making an interesting documentary about net neutrality is, let's say, an uphill battle. So it's fairly impressive that directors Georgia Sugimura Archer and Kristin Armfield have achieved averageness with Barbershop Punk, a somewhat alarming report on how the sinister tentacles of Comcast wrap around our free expression (and file sharing). The best bits feature Robb Topolski, a Hillsboro software engineer, barbershop-quartet enthusiast and accidental neutrality crusader with a Glenn Beck-like penchant for tearing up when he thinks about Important Freedoms. The worst bits feature Henry Rollins. AARON MESH. BW, 1 pm Saturday, Feb. 12.
77 [FRANCE] Although its slow unfolding creates the illusion of profundity, Abbas Kiarostami's chatty meditation on art and love uses nonstop verbiage to mask rather trite insights into what the former means and how the latter works. That said, it's always a pleasure to watch Kiarostami unfurl his traveling long takes, and with Certified Copy he has found something sublime to follow: Juliette Binoche, who here delivers an iridescent performance, an effortless dance of flustered fragility and deep sorrow. This is middling Kiarostami, but it might be Binoche's greatest achievement. CHRIS STAMM. WH, 3 pm Saturday and 8:45 pm Monday, Feb. 12 & 14.
His & Hers
9 [IRELAND] The concept is intriguing enough—70 interviews with 70 Irish women, proceeding from early childhood to one-foot-in-the-gravehood—but the limited scope of His & Hers renders femininity as a barren moon orbiting the verdant planet of manhood. Ken Wardrop's creepy love letter to women who tend to hearth and home omits all but the most chaste and simple desires from its subject's testimonials, and the result is a composite portrait of the perfect maid. The final moments are certainly moving, because it's damn near impossible not to be touched by images of senescence, but death in this case actually seems like a welcome end to a life of straightening the sock drawer. CHRIS STAMM. BW, 5:45 pm Saturday and 6:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 12 & 15. WH, 2:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 13.
The White Meadows
66 [IRAN] Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof has crafted a somber meditation on human sorrow following a man tasked, mysteriously, with traveling by boat to a series of small islands to collect villagers' tears. Heavy stuff, but Rasoulof finds beauty in almost every scene, from the way the sea and the sand seem to become one and the same to glorious shots of shorelines bathed in white. If only the storyline matched the scenery, the film would be a triumph. Instead, it's a bit of a depressing slog…and a dull one at that. AP KRYZA. BW, 6 pm Saturday and 8:30 pm Monday, Feb. 12 & 14.
Human Resources Manager
72 [ISRAEL] Human Resources Manager begins as a film of cynical, comic savagery; a young Romanian worker at Israel's second-largest bakery is killed in a suicide bombing, but is kept on ice by a local newspaper so they can savage the bakery in print for not even noticing she was dead. The titular human resources manager (played by Mark Ivanir with caustic sadness worthy of House, M.D.) must then bury the woman in her homeland for the sake of PR, except that no one in Romania seems to want the body. The latter part of the film is eaten up with a lightly sentimentalized road trip that buries (if quite personably) the kernel of A.B. Yehoshua's novel A Woman in Jerusalem: that the immigrant always goes unclaimed by everyone. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. BW, 8 pm Saturday and 2:45 and 5:15 Sunday, Feb. 12-13.
Of Gods and Men
87 [FRANCE] A movie so serious that Ingmar Bergman would tell it to lighten up, Xavier Beauvois' Grand Prix-winning study of devotion and doubt fixes its patient gaze on a brotherhood of French monks whose quiet lives of faithful service are threatened by the Algerian Civil War. Beauvois evinces a deep and abiding reverence for the deliberate rhythms of ritual, and although I am by no means a believer, Of Gods and Men builds to an affirmation of faith so stunningly transcendent that I emerged from the theater with some understanding of what the glory of God might feel like. CHRIS STAMM. WH, 8:15 pm Saturday, Feb. 12.
93 [DENMARK] Watching war doc Armadillo—which follows Danish soldiers in a contested Afghan valley—you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a Michael Bay production. Kinetically shooting with two cameras, and eschewing talking-head interviews, director Janus Metz Pedersen is as interested in showing combat as he is in offering an indictment of a military in which soldiers treat enemy forces like targets in Call of Duty, even as cameramen are wounded and soldiers are confronted with accusations of misconduct. It's a gut-wrenching achievement in which the myths of wartime heroism are crushed under the weight of reality. War really is hell, and Armadillo transports you into the Seventh Circle. AP KRYZA. BW, 12:15 pm Sunday and 6 pm Monday, Feb. 13-14.
Short Cuts II: International Ties
82 This is definitely the most star-studded shorts program this year, with animation eminence Bill Plympton exploring a more vibrant palette in The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger. and Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation) recruiting Chloe Sevigny for his first foray into narrative filmmaking, All the Flowers in Time. But it's Lipsett Diaries that makes this omnibus essential. Theodore Ushev's homage to the frantic film experiments of Arthur Lipsett, who committed suicide in 1986, braids painterly animation, fevered narration (delivered by wunderkind Xavier Dolan) and a clanging score by Canadian noise-niks Set Fire to Flames to capture a cracking mind's flustered visions. CHRIS STAMM. WH, 12:15 pm Sunday, Feb. 13.
67 [NEW ZEALAND] Taika Waititi, in the first part of Boy, applies the same broad Napoleon Dynamite ain't-we-retro-trashy pop-culture brush as in his first feature, Eagle vs. Shark, but this time around the batshit antics are balanced with a slow-dawning reality principle that eventually impinges on the characters' fantasy-addled lives. Title 11-year-old character Boy and shanty-town Maori cohorts (other characters are named Rocky, Falcon Crest and Michael Jackson) improvise amid the rubble until Boy's oafish dad resurfaces from prison and pretty much screws everything up so consistently that even his young children are forced to notice; what had been an exercise in style and suspended disbelief becomes something instead much closer to home, if perhaps too late to fully register. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. BW, 1:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 13.
52 [CHINA] Feng Xiogang has been called the Spielberg of China, and as if to prove the point he's made his own Saving Private Ryan, albeit as multigenerational mainland melodrama; after manipulative, sopping sentimentality to establish our care for the family and its young twins, they are then killed, amputated or ripped apart, along with many thousands of others—in gripping, soul-bruising, brilliantly filmed detail—by the 1976 Tengshan earthquake. Later on: adoption and unwanted pregnancy for the daughter, compulsory cinematic patriotism, a life of unmitigated suffering for the mother, enough tears to re-drown Indonesia, infinite hope and resilience, and filmic epigraphs for those who heroically got crushed by poorly made buildings. Come for the pain, if you must. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. WH, 7 pm Sunday, Feb. 13. BW, 7 pm Monday, Feb. 14.
79 [MEXICO] This keen yet unobtrusive doc by Aaron Schock follows ringmaster Tino Ponce and family as they make the rounds of rural Mexico with their humble one-ring circus, the major draw of which seems to be candied apples and the chance that something horrible might happen to the man on the motorcycle in the steel cage. But the odd world of itinerant circus performers is almost incidental to Schock's pursuit of a more universal issue: What do you owe a family you had no choice but be born into? Schock observes the conflicts and compromises that devolve from this cutting question with a refreshing empathy—there's no freakshow at this circus. CHRIS STAMM. BW, 8:45 pm Monday, Feb. 14.
84 [UNITED STATES] At first blush, The Woodmans appears to be yet another well-meaning bit of hand-wringing over some damaged family's special brand of disarray, but director C. Scott Willis uses the sad story of Francesca Woodman, whose post-suicide fame as an exhibitionistic photographer overshadowed an entire family of committed artists, to investigate more involuted emotional thickets. "I am so vain and I am so masochistic," writes Francesca in her journal, speaking for pretty much anyone who has ever tried very hard to make good art; The Woodmans delicately sketches the ramifications of being so good at giving into that vanity and masochism that loved ones can only stand back to admire the sacrificial beauty of it all. CHRIS STAMM. WH, 6 pm Tuesday, Feb. 15.
85 [AUSTRIA] Andreas Lust may be the most fit man in PIFF history. Two years ago, he spent a good portion of Revanche running, literally, from guilt. With The Robber, he jogs his well-formed ass all over Austria as a real-life marathoner with an addiction to bank heists. The film plays out as an examination of single-minded obsession, with Lust's fleet-footed criminal driven by adrenaline, which turns him into a robotic monster continually pursuing stimulation. But The Robber is less an action film than a drama with great foot chases, a controlled thriller that goes the distance. AP KRYZA. BW, 7 pm Tuesday, Feb. 15.
70 [UNITED STATES] The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is such a perpetual clusterfuck, it's difficult to see anything except the big picture. With Budrus, documentarian Julia Bacha trains her lens on a small Palestinian village's attempt at nonviolent protest when Israeli troops descend on their olive groves to build a border fence. As pacifism and force come head to head, Bacha gives us something we seldom see when discussion of the occupation comes up—human faces, on both sides, striving to make their voices heard amid a world of shouting. AP KRYZA. 8 pm Tuesday, Feb. 15.
55 [JAPAN] A nation's domestic cinema continues to grapple with the themes of Ozu—social duty, filial loyalty, heavy drinking—though I don't remember Tokyo Story containing the line, "This watermelon grew from your poo!" The titular heroine (Hikari Mitsushima) reluctantly travels home to helm her dying dad's freshwater clam-packing facility; eventually she writes it a stirringly odd commercial jingle ("From the bottom of our river, into your hearts"). Mitsushima and her director, young tyro of quirk Yûya Ishii, travel a familiar arc from catatonic deadpan to jubilant mediocrity: This is the Japanese fisherfolk Little Miss Sunshine, basically. AARON MESH. BW, 8:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 15.
Steam of Life
89 [FINLAND] If you see only one movie about naked Finnish men lounging in saunas this year, make it a porno. But if you see two movies about naked Finnish men lounging in saunas this year, make the second Steam of Life, a deeply moving study of the raw emotions men feel while sweating their balls off. In carefully framed vignettes recalling Ulrich Seidl's non-fiction films, various dripping dudes gather round hot rocks to discuss lost loves, pet bears, dead children and even, once in a while, joy. Consider this the movie His & Hers should have been: a documentary that finds messy universal truth in a strictly delimited sample group. This is also the first time since junior high that a bunch of really sweaty naked guys has made me cry. CHRIS STAMM. WH, 8:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 15.
Portland International Film Festival Ticket Outlet:
Portland Art Museum Mark Building, 1119 SW Park Ave., 276-4310, nwfilm.org.
General admission $10, PAM members, students and seniors $9, children 12 and under $7, Silver Screen Club memberships from $300.
BW—Regal Broadway Cinemas, 1000 SW Broadway
WH—Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave.
Showtimes listed are for Feb. 10-15 only. Some of these films will show again next week.
WW was unable to screen the following PIFF films by press time. So you're on your own for now.
[FRANCE] Catherine Deneuve saves the family umbrella factory. Newmark Theater, 7:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 10.
[INDIA] A poor man considers killing himself for government money. BW, 9 pm Friday, 2 pm Saturday and 12:45 and 5:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 11-13.
[DENMARK] A dying man tries to save the family bakery. BW, 3:15 and 8:45 pm Saturday and 9 pm Monday, Feb. 12 & 14.
Behind Blue Skies
[SWEDEN] A teenager works black-market jobs. BW, 5 and 7:45 pm Saturday and 1:30 and 8:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 12-13.
A Barefoot Dream
[SOUTH KOREA] An aging soccer star aids kids in East Timor. WH, 5:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 12.
[AUSTRIA] Circus performers adopt a toddler. BW, 6:15 pm Monday, Feb. 14.
The Light Thief
[KYRGYZSTAN] An electrician fights greedy developers. BW, 6 pm Tuesday, Feb. 15.