It's that time of year again! Tonight was the opening of the Portland International Film Festival (PIFF), where I've set an ambitious goal of seeing 42 films. We'll see if I manage that (my prior high is 39)--but either way I'll be shooting you lots of postcards from exotic places.
The festival opener was a trip to Andalucia, "BLANCANIEVES" (8) or "Snow White" in English. Some of you may remember that I was pretty underwhelmed by "The Artist" last year and ended up feeling like it was way overrated. This, too, is a silent film--but it succeeds where that film didn't. It is an imaginative revisioning of the story of Snow White, setting the tale in 1920s Spain and grounding it in such staples of Spanish culture as bullfighting and flamenco, and though the story isn't exactly original, the treatment is delightfully playful and culturally aware. Shot richly in black and white, the film is visually stunning and the drama of the story is heightened by an absolutely excellent score (one of the areas in which "The Artist" was weakest). The lead performers are all wonderful and the director has a deft touch with a humor and dramatic flourishes that really works in the silent film format. And, unlike the PIFF openers of the past couple of years, this is my idea of an excellent opening film: very grounded in another culture, and something you might otherwise miss were it not for PIFF.
I caught two preview screenings of Oscar-nominated films earlier this week that were also well worth a look. "KON-TIKI" (7.5) from Norway is a surpisingly affecting depiction of Thor Heyerdahl's famed 1947 journey across the Pacific from Lima, Peru, to the Polynesian Islands. In many ways it's a fairly standard high-seas adventure, except that it is very well-filmed and exciting, with interesting characters whose evolution is thoughtfully portrayed. When did you last see a Hollywood action film that accomplishes those things? Plus, the film rather inspiringly portrays how a strong-willed person may do something impossible because the small pieces of truth he knows give him unshakeable faith in the larger truths he can't see or explain. It will play at the festival on Sunday, February 17, and Tuesday, February 19.
"WAR WITCH" (7), a Canadian production set in the Congo, portrays the story of a child soldier who has been ripped from her village at age 12, forced to kill her parents, and then is given a gun and told that, from now on, the gun is her mother and father. Depicting this kind of unliveable violence often goes wrong in films; the story ends up oversimplified or overexplained and there usually has to be a white hero. This film doesn't fall into those traps; the director has made good choices about how much violence to show and gets wonderful performances from his mostly non-professional cast of young actors. It's not a particularly fun film, but it gives you a very lived-in sense of this very harsh world, and the adolescent at its center is so well-played that she made me think about what she would be like if she lived under different conditions. You can catch the film on Friday, February 8, or on Monday, February 18.
Tomorrow: Another Oscar-nominated film, from Israel, and adventures in Austria and Italy!