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My PIFF43: Take 3

This morning Governor Kate Brown declared a state of emergency in Oregon. All large public gatherings over 250 people are canceled statewide for four weeks. Governor Brown's declaration was soon followed by a NW Film Center announcement that today's film festival screenings have been canceled and more information would be forthcoming in the afternoon. About an hour ago I received an email announcing that the remainder of the festival has been canceled.

I had already been leaning heavily toward not attending any more films. Today's developments spare me from having to make a decision. Following are my humble reports on three more films. A final PIFF report will be posted tomorrow or Saturday to close it out with concluding thoughts about this year's festival and the last two takes on films I caught. I saw some good ones.

Now, on to better things, more from the 43rd Portland International Film Festival.

Martin Eden. Adapted from Jack London novel of same name (1909). It is difficult to tell exactly when it is supposed to take place. Sometimes the setting seems to be early 1900s, at other times events appear to be happening in the years leading up to World War II.

Martin Eden is a young working-class fellow, a sailor and laborer, habitually underfunded, living with his sister and her husband, who is not enamored of Martin's inability to contribute to rent and household expenses and his general want of enthusiasm for gainful employment that would enable him to do so.

Martin is intelligent, good-natured, and handsome. Women tend to fall for him, and he is not averse to casual entanglements. He gains entreé into a wealthy family when he comes to the defense of a boy being roughed up by a bully. Naturally Martin falls for the boy's older sister, Elise.

A man of limited formal education, Martin embarks on a path of self-education and reads voraciously, partly to impress young Elise, who is still in school herself, and partly because he is not content with his lot.

Shortly after meeting Elise he has to ship out to earn money. Upon his return, he tells her "During these months I've reflected on my situation. And I felt a creative spirit burning inside, that urged me to turn myself into one of the eyes through which the world sees. I want to become a writer."

He studies and writes with a furious passion, sending his stories off to magazines, collecting rejection after rejection until at last one is accepted. Eventually his books are published, he becomes famous and wealthy, and he is changed by it in ways that are not for the better. Unhappiness is only one of them.

Through it all Martin exhibits no sense of self-awareness. He is oblivious to his cruel treatment of Elise and of another woman who is love with him. Yet he treats with great kindness the widow and her family who take him in and give him a room where he can live and work while writing his stories and trying to get them published.

Once he has money he gives it away freely to the widow and others in need, even to a union organizer he knows, a socialist, despite being an avowed opponent of socialism, having along the way adopted a philosophy of extreme individualism based on his reading of Herbert Spencer, a Victorian biologist and philosopher associated with crude social Darwinism who popularized the term "evolution" and coined the phrase "survival of the fittest."

Early on I rather liked the film even though the character never quite resonated. It falls apart somewhat after Martin becomes a successful author. He responds poorly to success and gorws increasingly unlikable, unconscious of his cruelty, more self-absorbed than ever. A good-enough film but in a way a disappointment because of the failure to deliver on its early promise.

Martin Eden (Italy/France/Germany)

dir. Pietro Marcello

(125 mins)

The Moneychanger is an absurdist, farcical, semi-dark crime story about a Uruguayan money launderer in the 1970s. Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler) is an unremarkable man, a mediocrity utterly devoid of scruple or any other redeeming quality. Dolores Fonzi is great as Humberto's wife, Gudrun, daughter of his mentor, whom he ultimately betrays.

Humberto's trade brings him into association with a parade of corrupt politicians, crooked businessmen, and outright criminals whose venality and ruthlessness know no bounds. Not particularly bright, he is out of his depth from the beginning. His greed for "the stuff that makes life worth living" leads him from one perilous entanglement to another. Harebrained schemes to extricate himself only dig deeper the hole he is in.

As a husband Humberto is an unfaithful little weasel, as a father just kind of there. Gudrun is a tough baby, without illusion, presumably putting up with it all because she and the two children are well provided for financially, if in no other way. She offers no quarter. When Humberto advises her, pregnant with their first child, to check with her gynecologist because she "might have caught something" from him, she knees him where it hurts and walks away with only the coldest, most disdainful of looks, not a word spoken, nor need be. Later, when he tells her he wants a divorce, she says, "I forbid you." End of discussion.

My favorite scene, endearing Gudrun to me forever, comes when Humberto fakes a heart attack to buy time to figure out how to slither out of a potentially fatal situation involving a massive sum of illicit funds. Concluding from her misinterpretation of various clues that the heart attack was precipitated by a visit to a brothel, Gudrun grimly mounts Humberto in his hospital bed and tries to finish him off. As I say, dark humor.

Not a great film, but amusing, one that grew on me as it went along, maybe in large part because I just enjoyed watching Gudrun mess with Humberto, who without question deserved it.

The Moneychanger (Uruguay/Argentina/Germany)

dir. Pietro Marcello

(97 mins) Federico Vieroj

To the Ends of the Earth is a delight, maybe even a joy, from beginning to end. Yoko is an intrepid and determinedly perky TV reporter, the only woman on a small Japanese crew filming a travel feature from Uzbekistan. Her real ambition is to sing on stage. The film is by turns light-hearted, suspenseful, and playfully absurd. Yoko soldiers on gallantly when a local fisherman attributes his inability to land a legendary fish to the presence of a woman's scent that the fish picks up on. To get the shot just right she repeatedly endures an amusement ride that leaves a cameraman shaky while she delivers her lines on cue before grabbing a paper bag and proceeding to lose her lunch. In another scene she must sample and pretend it is delicious Uzbek cuisine hastily prepared because the crew arrived after the little shop had closed, with the consequence the rice was not cooked. Off camera Yoko explores Tashkent, dashing off randomly whenever something catches her eye, wandering through what look to be some dicey sections of the city while wearing very short skirts in what I imagine is a culturally conservative country.

Atsuko Maeda is endearing as Yoko in this charmingly offbeat film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. I felt better when I walked out of the theater than I did when I came in. I liked it a lot.

To the Ends of the Earth (Japan/Uzbekistan/Qatar)

dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

(120 mins)

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