In 1919 Freud asked the question: “What is horror?” And what a looming question it …
The chirping jingle preceding each screening created its own small tradition at the 39th annual Portland International Film Festival. Most times the tune struck up, at least a couple audience members’ arms undulated in time, as if joyfully waving for help from a faraway plane. The song made for an appropriately sugary pairing with the montage of Voodoo Doughnuts decorated by flags and iconography from around the world.
Another tradition — at least at the five screenings I attended — was the irony with which the festival trailer’s memorable pink hue faded into disturbingly bleak filmic worlds. In addition to taking audiences to Greece, Iran, Denmark/Afghanistan, 1990s Germany and 1980s Spain (the full festival slate featured films from three dozen countries), this quintet expounded on the darker side of human behavior, specifically what a protagonist will do with no space between back and wall.
The waning and encore PIFF screenings continue through Monday, and you can find all remaining show times here. Remaining showings for the titles reviewed in this piece are listed below. The Northwest Film Center and the festival’s many generous volunteers also encourage you to visit nwfilm.org to keep up with more programming and to vote for your festival favorites here.
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We Are Young. We Are Strong. | Germany, 2014
We Are Young. We Are Strong assembles a couple brain-searing images, courtesy of its exploratory camera meeting Joel Basman’s spring-loaded body.
This dramatization of early ‘90s rioting and neo-Nazism in the German city of Rostock ignites in black and white with director Burhan Qurbani’s lens fascinated by the bodily danger of the eerily open slum.
Rostock’s small world of crisis hinges on Stefan (Jonas Nay), the teenage son of a local politician, and the crew of rightwingers he’s joined out of boredom or disenfranchisement; we don’t quite know. The gang is all too adept at entertaining itself while waiting for a nightly clash with the police, which is where Basman’s frightening performance arrives. His wildcard character Robbie throttles himself, spars with compatriots and turns the “Heil Hitler” salute into an undisciplined-looking punk flourish.
We Are Young. We Are Strong. is incredibly enthused in its dramatic look at the gang’s quasi-political hackery and young love affairs. Only, that’s not the movie it set out to be. The film’s fatal identity problem is in wanting to be a shadow of Do The Right Thing, while structuring itself like Crash.
As we move hour-by-hour toward the climactic riot, we meet civil servants, the Vietnamese refugees and your casual German xenophobes all landing somewhere on the racist spectrum. The movie seems duty-bound to this everyone-is-connected framing, but when the story can’t bring itself to be interested in anyone but the white nationalists — it either abandons plot lines or doesn’t give the other characters anything to do when it matters — you have to wonder why Stefan commands the script’s bulk. The time spent with him just being a young German man is, in effect, the script’s choice not to let the audience be with politicians or police or the violence’s actual sufferers.
It’s a movie that ends up feeling raw, artistic and just removed from beautiful in its portrayal of youth’s short memory, the sickening catharsis of branding yourself a victim and a Nazi in a country just 40 years away from genocide. That’s an act so self-centered only a teenager could manage it.
* * *
Marshland | Spain, 2014
(Encore Screening Monday, Feb. 29, 6 p.m. at Whitsell Auditorium)
Marshland offers little the world hasn’t seen in the cinema of odd couple cops, rural corruption and serial killers mutilating young women. But if you’re not exhausted by the idea (certainly the production side of the entertainment world is not), it stands tall in execution and backdrop.
In 1980, Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) is a tainted upstart detective in the newly non-fascist Spain and his partner Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) is an apparently good-natured relic of the old state. The Madrid detectives are called to the remote Guadalquivir Marshes on a missing — but, c’mon — persons case. What fundamentally binds Juan and Pedro isn’t completely clear, though the movie makes you passionately believe it exists. When they find their two missing girls tortured and murdered, the men light each other’s cigarettes in a pretzel of a handshake. They’ll be connected by the violence this investigation is going to require.
There’s an obvious True Detective (Season 1) comparison hanging here, as well as other outsiders-try-to-solve-rural-murder movies, like In The Heat of the Night and Insomnia. Marshland is a detective story where the searchers have their own pasts, sure, but they also must learn the rules of the swamp. In a country doing internal battle with its social and economic systems, the urbanites are both ahead of this world’s development and behind its self-preserving know-how.
But as the mystery really comes to center, we’re in the realm of noir for noir’s sake. The ensuing clues and trinkets are so conspicuous that their resurfacings are answers to rhetorical questions. Young women only serve as victims to the social poles of conservatism and deviance. Darkened side characters serve to be suspicious and that’s nearly all. Marshland is going where it’s going, and its ambiguity is an unambiguous character.
At just over 100 minutes, it has time for neither True Detective’s false promises nor its amazing ability to slowly enter a world. The winner of ten Goya Awards last year, Marshland’s painterly overhead shots are unmistakable and so are the limitations of its influences.
* * *
Chevalier | Greece, 2015
Six bored men, all between 35 and 65, are on a boat trip and start playing an all-encompassing, score-blind game. They want to determine who is “the best in general,” and they’ll judge appearance, smarts and physicality over a period of days. On its sleeve, that’s a fun premise: a couple montages, hit some beats, have them ultimately realize the game was a bad idea for their friendships and mental health.
The sparse Greek comedy Chevalier is a take on what a group of men does left to its own devices. Like Lord of the Flies, but confined to a luxury yacht in the Aegean Sea. The take is certainly directed at aging men, poking fun at impotence, patterns of baldness and spare tires, but the film loiters frustratingly between funny-because-it’s-true and the socially absurd. When you most want meaningful conversations, Chevalier doesn’t care to comment, except with director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s visual imagination. What follows is a character study, but without the bricklaying of a weekend-away ensemble movie.
The group’s runt, played by Makis Papadimitriou, gives the strongest performance with his counterparts often feeling impenetrable. That’s in part because they don’t want to let on any vulnerability once the game begins.
So it’s like a cinematographer’s take on experimental comedy; it boasts some amazing directing, but to what end? You’re introduced to the men stripping rubber wet suits off their variously hairy and paunchy torsos, and you’re instantly in a foreshadowing position of judgment. There are a couple set-the-tone rowing machine shots between the group’s patriarch and his daughter’s ex, once perfectly in sync during the workout and once tellingly oppositional.
In the script, Chevalier is still pacing from joke to joke, but a ruleless game in which the players don’t openly address each other, well, that provides about as much structure as you’d expect. Nor do I buy that someone wouldn’t object to playing or try to quit the contest.
Had this been a drama with a few expository scenes and four fewer characters, the human side might have landed. If the party had murdered each other and sunk the yacht off the Athenian coast, the commentary might have. As is, I wanted to go home and I couldn’t see why the characters didn’t too.
* * *
Nahid | Iran, 2015
Speaking of a film leaving the onus of interpretation on its audience, enter Nahid, the story of the eponymous Iranian divorcee reckoning with her hardheaded teenage son, deadbeat ex-husband and the kind, unflappable businessman who wants to marry her.
Thirty seconds after the closing credits, an older gentlemen, who clearly could not lope away from this screening fast enough, reviewed Nahid to his companion with legitimate rancor in his voice: “… a stupid movie about stupid people doing stupid things.”
I can’t agree, but director Ida Panahandeh does leave the door wide open, and probably even wider–feeling for an American audience. I’ll grant the theater sidewalk critic that Nahid’s choices to act destructively for and against her self-interest could seem hopeless, inexplicable. A bit less reductive summary than “stupid people doing stupid things” might be: Nahid is a sequence of repetitive daily happenings in which the characters follow momentary emotions into and out of corners. The “why” questions are yours to answer.
In some ways, Nahid never had a shot at simultaneous love, motherhood and financial stability. In another, it’s a cautionary tale about closing yourself off from all types of love, even if your world made you that way. You wouldn’t quite call Nahid a pathological liar as she begs, borrows and steals to pay rent and send her boy to a private school he hates. It’s more secrecy-as-instinct. Don’t tell anyone your business and you’ll always have a way out. As Nahid both infuriates and elicits an audience’s hopes, Sareh Bayet gives the deepest, toughest, best performance in the films reviewed here. Bayet is asked to embody a person who the POV-agnostic story could make react to anyone else’s whims in a given scene.
More watchable than that uncertainty is the portrait of Iran, specifically in Nahid’s drab, rainy seaside town. It’s decidedly capitalist, surprisingly permissive (until it isn’t), peering at social progress complications not dissimilar from those in 2011’s A Separation. In the absence of much religious fundamentalism, citizens are still ruled by family approval and public appearance. Nahid never once shows us a police officer or soldier, but the people manage intimidation within themselves. Poverty and professional ceilings confuse custody and remarriage options. In this Iran, social morays are bending, bending, bending. Right up until they snap back across your face.
* * *
A War | Denmark, 2015
(Last screening Saturday, Feb. 27, 8:30 p.m. at Regal Fox Tower)
A writer-director splashing three straight Danish language films into American indie movie conversations and onto its screens seems like an impressive feat. To their credit, Tobias Lindholm’s The Hunt, A Hijacking, and now 2015’s A War, are all well-constructed, topical offerings. (Also, A War is up for Best Foreign Language Film at Sunday night’s Academy Awards.)
But what’s perhaps most appealing about the trio are their troublingly human, breakdowns in communication: in confused molestation accusations (The Hunt), language-barriered piracy negotiations (A Hijacking), and now in the rules of military engagement. Lindholm has a real talent for putting shaky cameras in people’s nervous faces and asking what consequences may grow like tumors from small lapses in judgment.
A War is a fairly simple movie about a complex military job, and with some very convincing two-note performances: from the very noble and all the way to the very sad in Pilou Asbaek and Tuva Novotny. As husband and wife, they’re set apart with Asbaek commanding a Danish infantry unit in Afghanistan and Novoty raising their three children back home.
Many an ambitious action director has made an intense war rendition and then faltered when actors had to convince you they care for each other. Asbaek and Novotny are instantly sympathetic in having bitten off more than they can chew and not wanting to let on as much. Things aren’t falling apart for Mrs. Pederson at home, but you can see exactly how they could. Mr. Pederson is trying to lead what’s essentially a benevolent security force against the Taliban, but his human touch might do more harm than good.
In this way, Lindholm is so stirring when it comes to threats, the blow-ups actually feel a little disappointing. As capable as he is with landmines and quick cuts, he’s even better with feinting moments of crisis and then recoiling at the last second.
His English titling approach is notable here too: another incident-implying article “A” paired with a dramatic noun (a la A Hijacking). Lindholm wonders more tensely than perhaps any working director what disasters an average day may yield.