Wednesday, February 9, 2011


It's one of my favorite times of the year--the Portland International Film Festival is in town. Every year I up the ante and try to see more films and this year I may approach 40 films--we'll see! I intend to blog everything I'm seeing, even if the entries are brief; many of these films will make it back around to theaters and the ones that don't often show up on Netflix, so hopefully I'll be able to scope out stuff that you might otherwise miss.

I attended the opening film tonight and also have managed to catch several preview screenings, so here's what I've seen so far:

The opening film, "Potiche" (6), wasn't really my cup of tea, but I give the filmmakers some credit for carrying through on a (rather simple) idea in fine style. It's a comic jab at French society, with Catherine Deneuve as Suzanne, the always cheerful, perfectly coiffed wife of a cartoonish philandering husband who treats her (and everyone else) like complete idiots but is himself driving into the ground the umbrella factory that she inherited from her father. Everyone thinks of her as a "potiche" (basically, a decorative object)--until the stress of a strike wrecks her husband's health and she must take over the company. It turns out that she's a stylish and humane leader, and also her own person; I liked that the film doesn't concentrate on just putting her with a different guy (Gerard Depardieu has fun playing her easily wounded ex-lover, whom she keeps lightly rebuffing). Overall, though, the film never elicited more than a smile from me.

The best of the preview films was "La Pivellina" (7), an Austrian production set in Italy. It's codirectors, an Austrian and an Italian, here make their first foray into fiction after directing documentaries, and the realistic tone of their film reflects that background. The story involves an older middle-aged couple who are small-time itinerant circus performers living in a trailer outside Rome and getting by on occasional small jobs and smaller audiences. One day, while out searching for her missing dog, the woman comes upon an abandoned toddler in an empty park. She stays with the youngster for awhile, but when no one shows up to claim her she takes the child home and discovers inside her jacket a note from the girl's mother, pleading whoever finds the girl not to call the police and promising to return for the child. Although the woman's husband worries that they should involve the police sooner rather than later, their long experience with living on the fringe (not to mention their pity and affection for the child) fuels their reluctance to involve the authorities. So, they keep the girl and treat her as one of their family, fully intending to return her should her mother reappear. The film has no real plot, but simply follows the lives of these outsiders, and the bonds of affection and resourcefulness that make their lives go. The directors' observant eyes and handheld camera work, and their ability to coax wonderful performances out of a cast of mostly non-actors (including the toddler), makes for one of the more absorbing exercises in neorealism that I've seen. (In Italian; playing on 2/14, 2/16, and 2/17)

I was slightly disappointed in "Kawasaki's Rose" (6), the latest film of a Czech director, Jan Hrebjek, whose other films (especially "Divided We Fall" and "Beauty in Trouble") have managed to tell compelling political stories with a lot of insight. Here he tackles a story of how the Czech Republic's Communist past led even some of its best citizens to compromises that are not well understood decades later. It's a compelling theme, but the treatment here is more melodramatic than illuminating. The plot involves a revered Czech dissident whose scoundrel of a son-in-law, a filmmaker, thinks he has uncovered pay dirt that reveals the elder is not such a hero. I like stories like this, but this one felt like a slog to me; we hear the different characters talk about what they think happened but none of their perspectives is particularly reliable and the differences between them is interesting but doesn't lead beyond the predictable. (In Czech and Swedish; playing on 2/11, 2/13, and 2/14)

I was even more disappointed in "Human Resources Manager" (4), an Israeli film that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. It follows a workaholic human resources manager in a large Jerusalem bakery who gets stuck cleaning up the mess when one of his employees, a Romanian immigrant, is killed in a suicide bomb and sits in the morgue for several days when no one can identify her. Somehow (I never quite understood how but everyone seemed to agree) this is the bakery's fault, because no one missed the woman when she didn't show for work. The reason, though, is that the night manager on her shift fired her because he was in love with her and his wife found out, but he kept her on the payroll. A tabloid picks up the story, and the manager then embarks on a publicity trip to return her body to her family in Romania. It seems like there might be the elements of an interesting story here, maybe involving anonymous immigrants to Israel or the lasting effects of Soviet militarism in Eastern Europe. But beyond some stock characters (the workaholic manager who neglects his family, the woman's angry teenage son, her rustic home villagers) and disparate whimsical elements (including a trip in a repurposed Soviet tank), the filmmaker doesn't appear to have a point anywhere. At least I couldn't find it. (In Hebrew, English, and Romanian; playing on 2/12 and 2/13)

Although I have admired other films of Danish filmmaker Susanne Biers ("After the Wedding" and "Brothers"), her most recent film, "In A Better World" (6) is not up to their level, and definitely did not deserve the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film (particularly against the far superior "Biutiful," which also is up against it for the Oscar and is, in my view, the best film of the year). Although the performances are all fine, the screenplay seems driven more by a desire to be provocative than by actual insight into how human beings work. The plot involves two Danish families with middle-school-age sons, Christian and Elias; Christian channels his rage at his mother's death into an excuse to take vengeance against bullies, including the one tormenting Elias. The relationship between the two boys has its moments, as does the relationship between Elias and his father, a principled doctor who makes regular trips to treat refugees of tribal warfare in Africa. But the bully theme is laid on with a trowel; besides the school bully, Elias's father encounters adult bullies both at home and abroad, and tries to model non-violent principles for his son, who finds them unsatisfying and is drawn to Christian's more vengeful approach. These dilemmas (and a few more thrown in for good measure--the separation of Elias's parents and Christian's anger at his father) are real as far as they go, but aren't depicted with much nuance, and the resolution of all of them at the end is pretty unsatisfying, as though it was simply time to end the movie. (In Danish, Swedish, and English; playing on 2/20 and 2/21)

The worst of the preview screenings was "The Whistleblower" (2), a Canadian film "inspired by" the story of Kathy Bolkovac (played here by Rachel Weisz), an American police officer who went to work as a peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia and uncovered a brutal sex trafficking ring that was facilitated by UN peacekeepers themselves. I don't know what it is about sex trafficking that seems to make filmmakers think they can get by with such dishonest storytelling (maybe it's the whole righteous indignation thing)., but this is the second PIFF film I've seen on the subject that I think does more harm than good to an important topic. (The other is "Trade" from 2007.) I don't have any trouble believing that things this awful happen and that people high up in the power structure are involved. But the fact that the villainy here is so evil does not give the filmmakers license to lie and be manipulative to hammer their point home--in fact, the more complex and terrible the story, the more important it is to be truthful in the depiction of motive and dialogue and political mechanics. The real Bolkovac is listed as a consultant to the film and I don't doubt that she saw some horrible things--but she entrusted her story to the wrong filmmakers. Although, if she is as big of a naive idiot as depicted in the film, then she probably doesn't realize that. (Primarily in English; playing on 2/18, 2/20, and 2/21)

As you can see, I haven't been thrilled with most of the films I've seen so far--which means the best is yet to come!

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