PIFF 2018: Take 3


41st Portland International Film Festival (February 15 – March 1, 2018)

Ice Mother (Czech Republic/France/Slovakia, 2017) dir. Bohdan Sláma (106 mins) Trailer

Ah, where am I? Which one is this? I may be reaching saturation.

Hana is a widow, age sixty-seven, living alone. Her two sons are pieces of work. I believe that would be the technical term. One is brought to the edge of financial ruin by his compulsive investment in rare books that he hopes to sell at a huge profit someday when he has a complete collection. His wife and two daughters are fairly ordinary. The other son is a successful businessman, straitlaced, uptight, maybe a little cowed by his wife, a doctor, next to whom he comes off as a carefree madcap. For the wife, think of Frazier's ex-wife Lilith from the TV show. That will give you an idea. Their son is an understandably unhappy little boy who finds refuge in video games and habitually refuses to do as he is told.

One day while out walking Hana and her grandson come upon a distinctly oddball group of ice swimmers and make their acquaintance after she resuces Brona, who does not exactly have a knack for recognizing his limits. Brona lives with a collection of twelve chickens, among them Adele who is prone to depression, in a camper-van vehicle that may be about as old as he is. Soon Hana and Brona take up with one another, while he becomes pals with the little boy, whom the group takes under its collective wing, developments that meet with the consternation of Hana's sons.

Ice Mother is a film with warmth, humor, and an offbeat charm. I would not say it has a happy ending. It ends on a note of affirmation. One of my festival favorites.

Un beau soleil intérieur (Let the Sun Shine In) (France/Belgium, 2017) dir. Claire Denis (95 mins) Trailer

It pains me to say that a film with Juliette Binoche is at best so-so. Un beau soleil intérieur not without redeeming elements and moments, but it is not a film you need to make an effort to see.

Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is a painter in her 50s, divorced, searching desperately and unsuccessfully for love, fearful that she will never know love again. Much of the film consists of dialogue, Isabelle and the man of the moment talking, questioning, feeling one another out, hesitant to be the first to make a move. Well, except for the married banker who takes sex with Isabelle for granted while having no intention of leaving his wife. The actor, a younger man, also married but it's over with his wife although he has not told her yet, tells Isabelle they went too fast, they should have waited. "This isn't a love thing," he says. "There's ambiguity, but not love."

Gerard Depardieu makes a brief appearance at the end as a psychic Isabelle consults about her affairs. Will this one be the one? Or that one? The psychic's advice is couched in ambiguity and double meanings galore as he sees her meeting someone whose description has a remarkable resemblance to himself. Above all, be open, he tells her. I would like to see this segment again. I suspect I may have missed a double entendre or several.

It's a sad film with amusing moments. I talked about it briefly afterward with a new PIFF pal who takes the same bus home that I do. She did not care for it because there is no development of character. Isabelle repeats the pattern over and over, unable to escape from it. Yesterday another PIFF-goer told me she and everyone on the row where she sat hated it. They wanted the characters to stop talking such nonsense. The criticisms are fair. Even so, there is some vague sense in which I enjoyed the film.

The Rape of Recy Taylor (United States, 2017)

dir. Nancy Buiski (91 mins) Trailer

Recy Taylor, age 24, married, with a daughter, was abducted while walking home from church one night in September 1944 and raped by seven teenage white boys in Abbeville, Alabama. She stood up and spoke out about it. The boys gave conflicting accounts of what happened that night. Some said she was a prostitute they paid for services which she willingly provided. None was convicted of a crime.

The documentary relates Recy Taylor's story within the broader context of slavery and racial practices and attitudes that endured long after it ended. The rape of black women by white men is part of our history. The belief that black people are inferior to whites, somehow less than human, is part of our history.

The audience responded with generous applause at the end. My PIFF pal at the bus stop found the film moving and revelatory. She grew up out west and had no idea things like this happened in the South. I found it astonishing that anyone would not have at least some inkling about these things, although I know they got short shrift in classroom history books when they were covered at all.

The Rape of Recy Taylor is a hard film to watch. Her rape and the willful failure to bring the criminals to justice is horrific. Maybe the film had less impact for me that it did for others in this Portland audience because I know atrocities like this happened. It was not a regelation. I had no direct or even second-hand experience of them, but I know they happened. Less so, I think, at least in parts of the South by the time I came of age in the 1960s than in 1944, but they happened.

What struck me most was the shock of familiarity in the interviews with several old men, brothers of the boys who raped Recy Taylor, and an older white man identified only as an historian, though at one point he notes that he has no formal training as such. I recognized their words, attitudes, and rationalizations from my childhood. It is one thing to recall the way white people fifty or sixty years ago spoke of the need for blacks to know their place, quite another to hear it said today. Things are not as they were in 1965 when I was thirteen years old and our school district made its first, tentative steps toward integration. We have come some way since then. But events of the past few years have driven home how paltry and miserable the progress has been.

Sweet Country (Australia, 2018) dir. Warwick Thornton (113 mins) Trailer

Sweet Country is a heartbreaking tale based on a true story. The place is Australia in the 1920s. Sam Kelly, an aboriginal stockman, and his wife, Lizzie, go on the run after he shoots a drunken white landowner in self-defense. After eluding his pursuers Sam gives himself up upon learning that his wife is pregnant.

The landowners are a mean, brutal men. The unspoken, unquestioned assumption that "blackfellas" were there to serve "whitefellas" is as terrible as the casual cruelty that goes hand in hand with it.

The outcome of Sam's trial is mildly surprising. What comes after seems in retrospect inevitable.

Well done, worth seeing, but not pleasurable. I am glad I saw it. I would not see it a second time.

#Cinema

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David Matthews

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