The best of the bunch was "The White Meadows" (10), the work of Iranian director and screenwriter Mohammad Rasoulof, who currently is a prisoner of his government. I have never seen anything like this mesmerizing film. It follows Rahmat, an older man who travels between salty white islands on a bleached sea, visiting scenes of despair and cruelty, listening to people's heartaches and collecting their tears in a tiny pitcher. He treats these tears as precious; it is rumored that he turns them into pearls, and perhaps in some sense he does. He encounters a succession of preventable tragedies: a beautiful young woman, buried in salt, whose death is unexplained but is seen as a relief because she made the men in the village tremble; a village whose inhabitants are enacting a strange and brutal ritual to appease a fairy who they believe holds the power to address their sorrows; a young virgin whose village sacrifices her to the sea in hopes of obtaining rain; a man whose village is punishing him for choosing the wrong color to paint the sea. In each case, Rahmat serves as a nonjudgmental witness, carefully collecting and preserving the tears of the lost and the suffering. Gorgeously shot, the film kept our audience absolutely spellbound. Full of metaphors that are simultaneously clear and enigmatic, it seems, at the least, a parable about the brutality wrought by corrosive collective thought. You can still catch it in Portland on Monday--and so far it's the best I've seen. I expect it will end up on next year's ten best list. (In Iranian; showing again 2/14)
I also loved "A Family" (8), a Danish film that deals very sensitively with issues of family, legacy, and mortality. Ditte, a successful young woman who runs an art gallery in Copenhagen, has just been offered her dream job in New York. She's the eldest and apparently the favorite of the four children of Rikard, who is the last in a line of prosperous bakers, proud purveyors to the Royal Court. Ditte's life is thrown into upheaval by the news that her powerful father is dying of an incurable illness. She is the most like her strong father, and each does combat with the question of the meaning of her father's legacy and what Ditte's loyalty to him demands of her. The other members of the family, too, are fully realized: each struggles differently; each behaves badly according to the extremes of his or her essential character, and then each, at least partially, rights himself or herself. It's painful and poignant to watch, but an absorbing portrait of how people who are basically healthy and good but also flawed cope with the inevitable human tragedy. And an array of wonderful performances is topped by Jesper Christenson's insightful depiction of a man's fight with his own death. (In Danish and English; playing again on Monday night, during the same slot as "The White Meadows").
The last of my recommended films from this batch is "Of Gods and Men" (8), the French film that won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year. It is based on the true story of a group of French monks in Algeria who found themselves threatened by Muslim extremists rebelling against a corrupt government. The group of men, aged from their fifties to their eighties, have lived peacefully among a poor group of Muslim villagers for decades, and are genuinely and rightly afraid of what fate may befall them. The film very respectfully captures their religious practice and also their struggle as individuals and as a community to carry out their principles of faith when put to the test. I was surprised to see later that some reviews suggested they did not seem to be fearful and were portrayed as too heroic; to me the monks seemed quite human, their fear apparent, and their struggle instructive. The film is filled with scripture and beautiful chants sung by the monks as part of their religious practice, especially moving when you know they are anguish. A rare cinematic experience of inspiration. (In French and Arabic; may well get a theatrical release soon.)
Now to the other end of the spectrum. "Son of Babylon" (4), from Iran, depicts the journey of a 12-year-old (who seems more like 8 or 9 years old) and his grandmother across Iraq right after Saddam Hussein is toppled, in search of the boy's father. The cinematography is intermittently compelling in capturing scenes of desolation, but the story seems somewhat half-baked, as though the main characters are just types rather than fully fleshed-out individuals. And the acting, especially by the boy and his grandmother, seems pretty bad, unless Iraqis commonly yell at each other even when they are not angry. (In Kurdish and Arabic.)
"Barbershop Punk" (3.5) is a U.S.-made documentary about Robb Tolposki, a Hillsboro, Oregon software engineer who discovered, while trying to share his collection of barbershop quartet recordings, that Comcast was secretly blocking his uploads. Tolposki's experience sparked a debate about media corporations' attempts to control free expression. Unfortunately, the film's talking-heads format is dull and not very illuminating, especially since a lot of the interview subjects (including Tolposki himself) either speak in clichés or talk like geeks (or both). (Playing again on Thursday, 2/17.)
Finally, it is beyond me how "Incendies" (2) could have scored an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film given any number of much finer qualifying films. The action in this Canadian film about family secrets veers back and forth from the present day to a woman's life in Lebanon in the 1970s. In the present, the woman has left a will which sadistically involves her young-adult children in her painful past. I'll admit that the acting is fine and the story diverting--until in the last half an hour the story spirals and left me feeling angry. For all the time the film spends in Lebanon, you never really learn much about the political context that drove the mother, and the film's big revelations feel forced and manipulative. Note to the Academy: just because a story is complicated doesn't make it good, people. Sheesh. (In French and Arabic.)