The Portland International Film Festival has aged quickly. Two short weeks ago, desperate young people fought for their identity. Last week, PIFF endured the slow burn of middle age. What greets us in the festival's final days? Brutal torture, religious freaks and serial killers.
That's not to say it's been a uniformly bleak year (when is international cinema ever all that uplifting, anyway?). As we part ways with PIFF 2013, seven WW writers offer their favorite scenes.
Critic's Grade: A- [CUBA] This film about three Cuban kids trying to defect to the U.S. got a lot of press because its own Cuban stars are now in Florida, trying to defect. But politics aside, the film itself is a vital story of Havana teens revving high in neutral gear, romantically frustrated or confused, lives entirely determined by an inflow of British and American tourists looking for easy sex or cheap luxury. The teens are therefore desperate to escape across 90 miles of ocean to imagined luxury in Miami. Half coming-of-age story, half heist movie, half sauna, One Night is full to brimming. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. WH, 6 pm Wednesday, Feb. 20. LC, 9:15 pm Thursday, Feb. 21.
Critic's Grade: D+ [JAPAN] Mass gymnastics shows, neo-brutalist architecture, Kim Jong-un's perfectly spherical head—is there anything about North Korea that isn't fascinating? Yes: this film. A sick Japanese-Korean man is given three months to visit his family in Tokyo after 25 years of living in the hermit kingdom. It's a plot ripe with potential, but so little is explored in this glacially slow-moving story that it's not just boring but infuriatingly so. Sure, our main protagonist is in a tough spot: With a minder from the fatherland looking over his shoulder the whole time, he can't speak about his life at home or express any opinion about his new surroundings. So, like us, he just grits his teeth and plods through the entire miserable experience, while family and friends observe quietly and helplessly from the sidelines, mourning what might have been. RUTH BROWN. LC, 6:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 21. C21, 9 pm Saturday, Feb. 23.
Critic's Grade: D- [AUSTRIA] "Jesus, it's so wonderful just to look at you," coos Anna Maria as she gazes up at a painting of Christ's smiling visage. "You're such a handsome man." Anna Maria is a radiologist by day and masochistic zealot by night who opts to spend her vacation going door-to-door with a 3-foot statue of the Virgin Mary cradled in her arms, fishing for converts. When she's not out saving lost souls as a part of what she calls "the church's assault group," she roams about her claustrophobically sterile home, physically abusing herself in honor of the Lord and casting steely glares at her husband. It's excruciating to watch, as though director Ulrich Seidl is punishing his audience for a lifetime of sin. EMILY JENSEN. WTC, 6 pm Friday and 3:15 pm Saturday, Feb. 22- 23.
Critic's Grade: C+ [ITALY] Following the fatal bombing of a Milan bank in 1969, police officer Luigi Calabresi finds himself in deep shit when a prime suspect dies during questioning in his office. Director Marco Tullio Giordana reconstructs the confusion and chaos surrounding the bombing and its investigation, and he succeeds in conjuring some classic intrigue through a stony-faced cast and shadowy cinematography. But the sleekness of this long-winded conspiracy drama renders it bland and dull. EMILY JENSEN. WH, 6 pm Friday, Feb. 22.
Post Tenebras Lux
Critic's Grade: A- [MEXICO] Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas' new film makes no narrative sense. If that's what you want, look elsewhere immediately. It's closest relative is Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, and it likewise aims squarely at transcendence from the fraught territory of the broken-down family. But rather than seeking the source of the universe's creation, Post Tenebras Lux is a sad, violent meditation on the worm in the apple. Or, in this case, the CGI devil in the kitchen who looks just like the Pink Panther. It's received a mixed reception after Reygadas' more focused Silent Light won the Jury Prize at Cannes, but this is a different beast altogether: painful expressionism showcasing nature's beautiful savagery and the claustrophobia of family. MATTHEW KORFHAGE. C21, 6 pm Wednesday and Friday, Feb. 20 and 22.
Critic's Grade: B+ [GREAT BRITAIN] Ben Wheatley's third film manages the difficult task of combining comedy, romance and horror into an ink-black road-trip comedy. It focuses on a gawky couple (Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, who also scripted) as they travel the English countryside visiting tourist traps (the Pencil Museum is a highlight) and leaving mangled bodies in their wake. Unlike Wheatley's hit-man horror flick Kill List, Sightseers genre-hops without losing focus on its characters or tone. What could be a cockney Natural Born Killers somehow emerges as a sweet little film about young love. Remove the violence, and Sightseers would be a twee romance. But add the violence—which Wheatley does with relish—and you've got a rare oddity that manages to tug at the heartstrings even as its heroes explode ventricles. AP KRYZA. C21, 6 pm Thursday and 3:15 pm Saturday, Feb. 21 and 23.
Critic's Grade: B [ARGENTINA] It's not often viewers can say they wish a film had less sex and more religion, but a young Belgian priest getting his jollies (yes, even the very-easy-on-the-eyes Jérémie Renier) is easily the least compelling of the many subplots in Pablo Trapero's White Elephant. In one of Buenos Aires' worst slums, two men of the cloth struggle tirelessly against drug wars, poverty, bureaucracy and their personal demons. The setting is captivatingly squalid, and it's a well-paced story that balances high-tension action sequences with some meaty character portrayals. If only more bandwidth were dedicated to superhero priests fighting drug lords and riot cops, rather than making kissy face with the local girls. RUTH BROWN. CM, 8:45 pm Thursday, Feb. 21. C21, 6 pm Saturday, Feb. 23.
You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet
Critic's Grade: B- [FRANCE] Alain Resnais, 90, continues his astonishing run (41 films in 65 years) with a quasi-theatrical, self-conscious contraption that blinks and whirs and weeps but never really gets moving. A veritable pantheon of French acting eminences playing themselves—Michel Piccoli, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny—gather at an abandoned manor house to alternately observe and perform pieces of Jean Anouilh's 1941 play, Eurydice. Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage," and Resnais seems almost perversely determined to prove him right. Nonetheless, there are moments of charm and levity, including Amalric as a scenery-chewing villain. MARSHALL WALKER LEE. FT, 6 pm Wednesday, Feb. 20. WH, 9 pm Saturday, Feb. 23.
A Eulogy for Piff 2013: Favorite Scenes from this Year's Festival.
Beyond the Hills
Chekhov's elusive endings haunt us, said Virginia Woolf, because we feel "as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it." Romanian director Cristian Mungiu takes a page from Chekhov's book by refusing to wrap up his stunning Beyond the Hills with any kind of pat conclusion. There are no prizes or punishments to dole out, no appended epilogues. In the final moments, Mungiu returns to the uncertainty—the openness—of life, as the camera pushes in on two mysterious figures, unknown and unknowable, who will smoke and talk and laugh and go on living long after the final frame. MARSHALL WALKER LEE.
After depicting with savage realism the kidnapping of a 12-year-old African girl and her forced training to become a guerrilla warrior, the Canadian film War Witch follows its AK-47-toting protagonist into the jungle, where she discovers an ashen figure that appears to be a statue. Suddenly, it opens its milky-white eyes and screams, "Run!" jackknifing the film from a realistic portrayal of a terrifying war into a phantasmagoria where the young heroine is haunted by the ghosts of the fallen. AP KRYZA.
Something in the Air
After taking a quiet bedroom reprieve from a wild, drug-fueled party to dwell on old memories, a young woman opens the door to return to the revelry…and is greeted by a backdraft of fire that fills the room. Backlit into silhouette by the raging flame, she leaps from the second story and off the frame, her fate unknown for an hour of this French film. All metaphors aside, it's perhaps the most beautifully filmed scene I've seen in ages. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
Though the Spanish film Sleep Tight is filled with moments of discomfort and raw tension, it is especially hard to shake the long sequence in which César—a sociopath bent on torturing a young female tenant of the building he oversees—narrowly avoids getting caught by his prey after falling asleep in her apartment. See if you can decide who to root for as you white-knuckle your way through these 10 long minutes. ROBERT HAM.
On a wooden raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the possibility of sudden death looms constantly. When the crew's Peruvian parrot, Lorita, becomes shark chow during an ill-conceived dip in the ocean, the man who loved her most exacts speedy and brutal revenge. Wearing nothing but clingy red undies, he heaves the shark onto the deck with his bare hands and proceeds to straddle its writhing body and stab it repeatedly in the head. Lesson learned: Don't fuck with a Norwegian man's pet. EMILY JENSEN.
When melancholy João takes pretty Sofia to visit his grandfather's sugar plantation, the two tiptoe through a moldering movie house. As she pretends to buy a ticket, the gentle sounds of birds and insects are supplanted by Hitchcockian aural horror. We hear the scratchy recording of screams as João and Sofia look out, calmly, from a crumbling window and into the tropical overgrowth. It's followed perfectly by the next scene's blood-red waterfall: two startling instances of surrealism in this entrancing Brazilian film. REBECCA JACOBSON.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
The trappers in Werner Herzog's pastoral documentary about the Russian taiga rely on the assistance of dogs. In the United States, the dogs' living and working conditions would count as animal cruelty. "Take a look at Zeena," a silver-bearded man says as he points out a white dog. "He's a smart-looking one, but he's stopped working in the taiga. A freeloader, not a real dog anymore." The trapper looks at the snow at his feet and smiles, either for respite from the sun or out of shame. MITCH LILLIE.