Saturday, February 27, 2010

PIFF Final Four

Well, it had to end sometime--but this year's PIFF was memorably good. Here are some notes on the last four of the 31 films I saw:

"Nothing Personal" (9) was one of my favorites of the festival. The first film of Polish director Urszula Antoniak in a Irish/Dutch production, it depicts the connection that grows between a fiercely independent young Dutch woman and a gentle Irish widower. As the film opens, the resourceful woman traipses through the rugged landscape of Connemara in Ireland, shunning human contact and living on what she can scrounge out of garbage cans. She eventually stumbles on the home of the widower, Martin, on an isolated lakeside bluff, and he offers to feed her in exchange for work. She agrees, but only on the condition that they exchange no personal information.

The relationship that quietly grows between them is intense and elemental. She at first is curt and absolutely unyielding in her determination to keep him at a distance; he responds with patience but also insists on a measure of respect. They talk little, but observe much, and form a connection that is stripped of artifice and layered with small kindnesses. The paucity of information exchanged between them feels stark at times but comes to feel spacious, respectful, a fitting acknowledgement of the essential mystery of every human being (a mystery that it strikes me people mostly avoid noticing). Antoniak handles this material with a sure hand, and rewards the patience and attentiveness the story demands from the audience. Moving and profound.

"The Inheritors" (8) offers an opportunity for close observation of the lives of children in rural northern Mexico who, from the time they can walk, must work long hours to contribute to their families' survival. The director of this poetic documentary wisely dispenses with commentary and even with many words, instead painstakingly documenting the daily life of these children as they cut cane, gather firewood, harvest tomatoes, peppers, corn, and beans, herd lifestock, weave baskets, and carve wooden figures to sell. The images of such small children at such arduous work instead of in school or on a playground is jarring; it's clear this life is all they know. This film captures the dignity of the lives they lead, and also makes one ashamed at the rhetoric used to disparage immigrants who seek a better life in the U.S.

I don't think "Shameless" (5) is really up to the level of other films by Czech director Jan Hrebejk ("Divided We Fall" and "Beauty in Trouble" are his best). Despite good performances and capable direction, the story of a TV weatherman who hits his 40s and suddenly feels so distracted by the size of his wife's nose that he is compelled to leave her and resume his apparently arrested adolescence never really leads anywhere. It's a pleasant enough diversion but no more.

Still, I liked it better than "Looking for Eric" (4), in which British director Ken Loach ("The Wind the Shakes the Barley") departs his usual social realism genre to make a sort of romantic sports comedy. Why? I can't think of a reason, although apparently I might feel differently if I was a fan of French soccer legend Eric Cantona. Since I'm not (and since the film didn't change that), there wasn't anything to distract me from the fact that this story of a middle-aged man who is pulled out of depression by means of imaginary therapeutic conversations with his favorite soccer star was neither amusing nor heartwarming nor believable.

By the way, one of the best films of the entire festival, "A Town Called Panic," just opened at the Hollywood. Don't miss it!

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