PIFF 2017: Take 1


40th Portland International Film Festival/February 9-25, 2017

Lost in Paris (France/Belgium) dir. Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon (84 mins) Trailer

Written by, directed by, and featuring Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel. The festival program dubs Lost in Paris a slapstick ode to Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati, and Buster Keaton. That's about right.

Fiona is a middle-aged Canadian librarian, a gangly woman whose legs are prone to splay at improbable angles. She is at first glance, and even a second or third, lacking in charm, sophistication, and grace, and utterly without pretense or affectation. One day she receives a letter, an urgent plea for help, from her Aunt Martha who lives in Paris. It seems "they" want to put her in a home for old people. Martha does not want to go. After all, she writes, I am only 88.

So Fiona departs for Paris, a city she has always wanted to visit, bearing an immense backpack with a little Canadian flag attached at the top. From the get-go she is beset by mishaps. The backpack gets wedged in the turnstile as she tries to enter a Metro station. A little later she topples backward over a bridge railing into the Seine while posing for a photo taken by a passing jogger to whom she handed her cell phone. In one fell swoop she loses her cell phone and her backpack, money, and passport. And her French is about on a par with mine, which is to say, labeling it rudimentary might be giving too high a mark. Not an enviable situation. Unflappable, she perseveres.

Fiona's backpack surfaces and comes into the possession of Dom, a homeless man who celebrates his good fortune with dinner and bottles of champagne at a nice restaurant, tipping generously with someone else's money. Naturally Fiona is at the same restaurant, dining more frugally on a dinner voucher given her by an official at the Canadian embassy. Their paths thus crossed, Dom is smitten. Fiona is not, but there seems to be no getting rid of him. Adventures ensue as they try to track down Aunt Martha, who is busy eluding the authorities, convinced they are pursuing her so she can be put in the old people's home.

Fiona takes another tumble into the Seine and gets her nose stuck in the elevator doors at a funeral home, Dom delivers an outrageous speech at the funeral service for a woman named Marthe whom he and Fiona mistakenly take to be Aunt Martha. And there is a classic scene on the Eiffel Tower where Dom twirls precariously on a beam while holding over his head a ladder to which Fiona clings.

At the outset I found Lost in Paris a little heavy-handed for my taste, more in the neighborhood of Mel Brooks than Woody Allen. But Fiona and Dom grew on me. By the end I thought it was cute and somewhat sweet. This is one of those films that grow more charming upon reflection in the days that follow.

Glory (Bulgaria/Greece) dir. Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov (101 mins) Trailer

Glory is darkly comedic, with emphasis on the adverb. Tzanko Petrov is a railway worker, reclusive, shy, almost a hermit, living in a shack along an isolated stretch of railroad tracks and tending to his rabbits. One day he comes upon a large amount of cash as he makes his rounds tightening bolts that hold the tracks in place. An honest man, he turns the money over to the authorities, whereupon the Transport Ministry plays up the story to divert attention from charges of corruption being bandied about in the media.

Tzanko could not be more out of his element at the ceremony where the Transport minister honors him for his good deed and presents him with a cheap watch that runs slow. During the course of the ceremony, Tzanko's own watch, a treasured gift from his father with the engraving "To my son Tzanko" on the back, is lost. His attempt to recover the watch is met with bureaucratic indifference. Along the way he becomes the unwitting tool of an investigative journalist out to expose corruption, specifically, the theft of diesel fuel by ministry employees.

PR flack Julia Staykova, the Kellyanne Conway of the Transport Ministry, assumes that Tzanko is no different from anyone else and intends to use charges of corruption to extort money from the ministry. She employs nefarious means to pressure Tzanko into retracting the charges and apologizing to the minister. Meantime, those responsible for the theft deal with the whistleblower in their own fashion. Julia is stricken by remorse when she sees a newspaper story that leads her to believe her actions have put Tzanko in jeopardy, whereupon she launches a desperate search for the missing watch while drinking herself comatose.

The Kellyanne Conway comparison is not quite accurate. Julia is considerably more sympathetic, sometimes even likable, but warped by the demands of the corrupt and dehumanizing bureaucracy that employs her. A hard-driving careerist in a high-pressure position, she instinctively sees and evaluates everything through the prism of the ministry's interests. Other people are means to be used to further the ministry's ends, and her own by the bye. Traces of a fundamental decency surface too late to derail the tragic outcome barreling down the tracks. Things end badly all around.

Like Crazy (Italy/France) dir. Paolo Virzi (118 mins) Trailer

Beatrice (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) is a "guest" at a progressive psychiatric facility in Tuscany. She is a middle-aged woman and meddling busybody, formerly married to a prosperous lawyer, former girlfriend of a young hoodlum, a compulsive talker with delusions of grandeur given to regaling anyone within earshot with tales of dining with Silvio Berlusconi and Bill Clinton. Her case is not helped by 2:15 a.m. phone calls hurling threats and abuse at the judge who issued a restraining order that keeps her from harassing the ex-husband.

Beatrice is fascinated by a new girl, Donatella Morelli (Micaela Ramazzotti), subjecting her to "a sort of love bombing," as a staff member puts it. Donatello is sullen, shy, introverted, with tattoos and piercings, suffering from depression and heavily medicated. Soon enough though a complicated friendship develops between these two tormented spirits.

Beatrice and Donatella escape from the facility in accidental fashion and find adventure, stealing a car from a ponytailed, middle-aged creep who thinks they are prostitutes, stealing money from Beatrice's ex-husband and her mother, stealing money and valium from Donatella's mother, skipping out on a meal at a fancy restaurant, and searching for Donatella's young son who was taken from her when he was an infant.

Like Crazy is by turns funny, dramatic, suspenseful, and poignant. This is becoming something of a pattern with the festival films I have caught thus far. Some close with a concession to hope. Others do not. As Like Crazy plays out, it appears increasingly unlikely that this could turn out well as Donatella careens wildly between moments of lucidity, deep depression, and the manic condition that is Beatrice's customary mode of being. Yet the story concludes with a welcome glimmer of hope and possibility of redemption.

Memo from the Editorial Desk

This piece endured minor stylistic edits after it was initially posted.

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David Matthews

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