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44th Portland International Film Festival (PIFF44): Take 2

Bitter Love (Finland, Poland, Sweden | 2020)

dir. Jerzy Sladkowski

(87 mins)

Program notes: On a Russian cruise ship of the cheaper kind, everyone is looking for love — and luckily find it.

The program notes do not get it quite right. The everyone are a diverse lot on a cruise down the Volga River. Most are older, traveling alone, hoping to meet someone.

A middle-aged woman separated from her husband by her choice hopes the cruise will help her decide whether to take the next step and file for divorce. She relates her story to an older man who plays guitar and writes plaintive songs of love and loss that he performs sometimes for others, sometimes alone in his cabin. He tells of his love for a woman nineteen years younger and the end of the affair. If he were younger, he says, maybe the two of them…

A young woman, traveling alone, is an actress, her boyfriend of four years a composer with a child from a previous relationship. She wanted to get married. His reluctance leads her to reconsider hew own feelings. She loves him, she says, but is okay being apart.

Another young woman, an aspiring opera singer, is on the cruise with her boyfriend, who works in America coaching singers. She plans to accompany him when he returns there, each of them a little unsure how it will work out.

A woman who reads the cards, tells fortunes, and plays matchmaker is bitter about her failed marriages and declares men are pigs.

An unmarried couple together for twenty-two years is looking to rekindle a spark. They bicker. She wants him to shave his beard, apparently a longstanding bone of contention. He grudgingly agrees but says that he cannot do it all at once. Not surprisingly, she is not amused when he starts by having the singer/songwriter shave one side of his face.

The passengers tell their stories to one another. Their pasts are colored by disappointment, loss, regret. The future is uncertain. They look to Chekhov stories and Anna Karenina for insight into themselves and their lives.

The film's pace mirrors the boat's procession down the river. Scenes onboard are punctuated by languid shots of river, landscape, sky in night and shadow, a pervading melancholy. And a semisweet ending.

Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness (Switzerland, Germany, France, Iran, Lebanon, Luxembourg | 2019)

dir. Massoud Bakshi

(89 mins)

Program notes: In Iran today: 22-year-old Maryam accidentally kills her husband, Nasser, 65 years old and is sentenced to death. The only person who can save her is Mona, Nasser's daughter. All Mona has to do is appear on a popular live TV show and forgive Maryam. But forgiveness proves difficult when they are forced to relive the past.

Yalda is an Iranian winter solstice celebration of the renewal of the sun and the victory of light over darkness.

The film takes place in the studio and on the set of the television show Joy of Forgiveness where Maryam's life hangs in the balance. Nasser Zia was the wealthy owner of an ad agency. Maryam's father was his driver. Mona is the daughter of another wife from whom Zia is separated. She is a professional with degrees in graphic design and business. She worked with Nasser at the agency. When Maryam's father died, leaving his family impoverished, Nasser and Mona give her a job at the agency although she is poorly educated and unqualified. Mona treats Maryam as a younger sister and Nasser falls in love with her.

The host of Joy of Forgiveness exhorts viewers to send in texts about the show. If a certain number is reached, the sponsor will pay half the blood money owed the victim's family. Double that number and the sponsor will pay entire amount. Viewers are also encouraged to text their votes for whether Maryam should be forgiven.

The drama mounts onstage with Maryam's determination to tell her story rather than simply play the role of abject suppliant begging forgiveness. For her part Mona is reluctant to forgive but in desperate need of the blood money that will come only with forgiveness. Backstage the show's producers are thrown into a tizzy as suspense builds with each new revelation and unexpected turn.

Not transcendent but quite good.

Slalom (France | 2020)

dir. Charlène Favier

(93 mins)

Program notes: 15 year-old Lyz, a high school student in the French Alps, has been accepted to a highly selective ski club whose aim is to train future professional athletes. Taking a chance on his new recruit, Fred, ex-champion turned coach, decides to make Lyz his shining star regardless of her lack of experience.

Lyz is alone, parents divorced, her mother with whom she had lived leaving for a job in Marseilles, father somewhere else. Her talent as a skier is matched by her drive to be the best. A teammate tells her that Fred the coach crushes you, you listen, and you get better. Lyz asks if it works. For some it does.

The dynamic is cliche. Fred had to give up competitive skiing after two knee operations. Through Lyz he is reliving his own dreams of glory. Director Charlène Favier makes it ring true.

The relationship between coach and athlete takes a creepy turn that is all too predictable. Disturbing, uncompromising, sometimes difficult to watch. Favier does not go in for histrionics or melodramatic flourishes. The restraint with which she plays out her story makes it all the more compelling. Noée Abita as Lyz conveys with a look a range of emotions, determination, confusion, joy, resolve, and at the end an inner strength that sees her through. She pulled me in to care about what happened to her.

Not a a happy ending, stark, uncompromising. Near superb.

More anon.

Yr obdt cinephile

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