As the robber barons in charge of America attempt to isolate our country from the rest of the world, the Portland International Film Festival makes its annual cinematic case for humankind’s inherent interconnectedness. The 88 feature films and 48 shorts that the NW Film Center has collected will pack Portland theaters for the next two weeks, bringing a can’t-eat-it-all smorgasbord of movies from every corner of the globe. While the diversity of this year’s lineup outlines how privilege, race, and geography can divide us, the films themselves successfully argue that many of our struggles and ambitions are universal.
PIFF’s pulse-taking of global cinema is highlighted by a remarkable movie made close to home: Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete (Feb 28) was shot in Portland and in Burns, Oregon, and adapted from Portland-area writer/musician Willy Vlautin’s magnificent 2010 novel. It’s a difficult but extraordinary movie to sit through; while Vlautin’s humanism cushions the book’s tragic but ultimately hopeful story of a latchkey teen and his horse, Haigh’s film is observational and conspicuously unsentimental, keeping in line with Vlautin’s unadorned prose style but giving its rawer elements a knife’s-edge immediacy. Charlie Plummer as the 15-year-old boy is restrained but riveting to watch, and Steve Buscemi, as a no-bullshit horse trainer, is at his very best.
The American high-desert milieu of Lean on Pete finds its inverse in Australian director Warwick Thornton’s excellent historical drama, Sweet Country (Feb 17 & 19), set in a barely civilized 1929 Northern Territory. An Aboriginal man, Sam (Hamilton Morris), kills a “whitefella” in self-defense, and a search party—including Sam Neill and Bryan Brown—pursues him into the inhospitable outback. If the film has a weak point, it’s how Sam’s wife is relegated to the background for much of the story, but her experience, and indeed her muted presence, gives the film a powerful undercurrent, and Thornton avoids the easy tack of turning the imperfect Sam into a martyr. The film deftly echoes Australian classics like Wake in Fright and Walkabout along with American westerns, but its depiction of institutional racism set against impassive terrain feels altogether unique.
While the diversity of this year’s lineup outlines how privilege, race, and geography can divide us, the films themselves successfully argue that many of our struggles and ambitions are universal.
Israeli director Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot (Feb 18 & 19) deals with similarly heavy topics, but its intimate familial tragedy is given a comically surreal bent. An older married couple receives news that their soldier son has been killed in action, but after we bear witness to their suffocating grief in the film’s opening stretches, an extraordinary central section unfolds, showing the son at his military post at a border checkpoint. Essentially a self-contained film on its own, this wonderful middle act uses bizarre visuals and a dry comedic tone to depict the dehumanizing day-to-day boredom of the young man’s assignment even as it reveals the undeniable tug of hopefulness and potential in his life. Maoz’s visuals are unforgettable: a riderless camel, a shipping container sinking into the earth, a young Arab woman caught in a searchlight. Even if Foxtrot’s other two-thirds don’t quite match this sequence’s marvelously audacious storytelling, the pieces add up to a powerful whole.
The fragmented storytelling techniques of Félicité (Feb 16 & 17) are just as unorthodox; Senegalese director Alain Gomis follows the titular singer (an astonishing Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu) as she roams the streets of Kinshasa trying to raise money for her son’s operation. An electric band of Congolese musicians and an orchestra playing classical music function as dueling Greek choruses, and Gomis uses head-on close-ups to explore the spaces between his characters’ outward expressions and inward emotions. While the movie’s thrust of plot dissolves midway through, its observations of Félicité’s life—and her budding relationship with a sweet but philandering drunkard—are refreshingly free of moralist narrative conventions.
Indonesian revenge flick Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Feb 19 & 25) is less inclined to let its offenders off the hook, and it pairs its tale of beheadings, mummies, and ghosts with a ferociously welcome feminism. Marlina (Marsha Timothy) is subjected to robbery and rape, but her resolve never breaks, and the film finds time between the blood and killings to depict an affecting camaraderie between Marlina and a motherless girl. Meanwhile, the chilly Hungarian drama On Body and Soul (Feb 16 & 24) has even more blood—albeit much of it bovine, as its story of dream-entwined coworkers is set in a slaughterhouse.
Romanian farce 6.9 on the Richter Scale (Feb 17 & 21) should be avoided; it manages to be both sexist and unsexy, with a dreadful musical interpretation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice unconvincingly contextualizing its leading man’s marriage to a moody, one-dimensional caricature of female insecurity. Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel’s Zama (Feb 18 & 21) is far more artistically successful, but its story of an 18th-century Spanish functionary stranded in a remote Paraguayan outpost is deliberately disorienting and patience-testing.
But the films mentioned earlier should absolutely be sought out—amidst the dozens of other films at this year’s PIFF, all of them offering passport-free journeys to all kinds of new places and perspectives.