PIFF 2018: Take 4


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

Foxtrot (Israel/Switzerland/Germany/France, 2017) dir. Samuel Maoz (108 mins) Trailer

Foxtrot opens with a knock on the door. The woman who opens it does not need to hear a word from the two Israeli soldiers standing before her. Her son is in the army. Knowing what they must be there to tell her, she goes into shock and collapses, a response for which the soldiers come prepared with an injection that will put her out for four or five hours, as they explain to her husband. Someone will be sent to attend to her when she wakes up.

The story plays out in three discrete segments. The first is long and overwrought as husband and wife respond to the death of their son. After a while their reactions, especially the father's, become so extreme and protracted that they seem over the top even in this terrible circumstance. Then comes another detachment from the army to inform the parents there has been a case of mistaken identity.

The second segment shows the son on duty at an isolated roadside checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. Intervals of tedium are interspersed with intense anxiety each time the young soldiers must inspect a car that pulls up to the checkpoint. Humor and trivial conversation are interwoven with a palpable sense of foreboding that this is building toward something that will not turn out well despite the earlier revelation that it was not the son who was killed. The film is beautifully shot throughout but especially in this segment where the desolation of the place and the isolation of the terribly young soldiers are brought out admirably.

The first two segments are overly drawn out until the second comes to a head with an awful incident at the checkpoint that cannot be said to be anyone's fault. As the officer who comes to the checkpoint to investigate puts it, in war, shit happens. The incident is buried, an outcome foreshadowed by the use of code phrases when the soldiers radio in to headquarters to report what happened. The cover-up is just a matter of established protocol.

The third segment goes a long way toward redeeming the film as it returns to the husband and wife after an indeterminate amount of time has passed. They are now estranged, still grieving. A secret is revealed that goes a way toward explaining the husband's actions in the first part of the film. Light is cast on the strange emotional dynamic between them. At the very end the son's fate turns out to be a matter of pure absurdity. As you can probably tell, I have mixed feelings about Foxtrot. It is a good film, emotionally draining, moving, almost compelling, but not one I would see a second time.

The Rider (United States, 2017)

dir. Chloé Zhao (104 mins) Trailer

Brady is a young horse trainer and rodeo cowboy whose identity and sense of self-worth are chiseled away after a bronco throws him and steps on his head, leaving him with a plate in his skull and neurological and other health issues. He has no other job skills or experience and no education, not even a high school diploma or a GED.

Brady lives with his father and younger sister. His mother is dead. His father drinks too much and flushes away rent money in the slot machines. Brady's sister has a mental disability and a lovely heart that lights up the world for those around her. Then there is his best friend, a one-time champion bull rider, young, handsome, invincible, now in a rehab facility unable to speak, barely able to move without assistance, a consequence of his own rodeo injury. An inner tenderness, a beautiful unselfconscious gentleness, comes out whenever Brady is with his sister or his friend or working with a horse.

The Rider begins slowly and I was drawn in gradually by Brady's attempt to recapture his identity as horse trainer and rodeo cowboy. By the end I was fearful of the risk he took on as he tried to recover something that he might not be able to recover. I cared about what would become of him.

Born in Beijing, raised in the UK and USA, director Chloé Zhao captures the melancholy sublime of a South Dakota landscape whose horizon is as vast as the existential horizon for Brady and his friends is narrow. This is the first of her films that I have seen. I look forward to more.

Scaffolding (Israel/Poland, 2017)

dir. Matan Yair (90 mins) Trailer

A good part of Scaffolding is devoted to depicting 17-year-old Asher as a thuggish jerk. He disrupts class, argues with teachers and school officials, gets into altercations. An English teacher makes some kind of connection, but it is a troubled one. Asher's father is a brusque, no-nonsense type who owns a small scaffolding business. He has no use for books or culture and cares only that Asher do just enough to graduate. As he sees it, his son's future lies in the scaffolding business. He needs no more education than is required for that.

As the story progresses we begin to have some sympathy for Asher as more is revealed about his home environment and his relationship with his father. The film hints that the teacher has sparked something in him, that he could almost dream of a different, richer way of living, but the capacity to have that dream, to say nothing of realizing it, lies beyond his conceptual grasp. It is not that he is unintelligent or altogether unfeeling. There are glimpses of Asher's better side, but they remain too vague and fleeting to offset or undo the unlikable character that has already been established. This is unfortunate. I would like to have liked this one more.

Spoor (Poland/Germany/Czech Republic/Sweden/Slovakia/France, 2017) dir. Agnieszka Holland (128 mins) Trailer

Hunters who wreak bloody havoc on the animal population of the region in season and out, political corruption, sexual exploitation, a despicable priest, and on the other side a single old woman, a semi-retired, part-time elementary school teacher who cares about the environment and whose students love her. Then her dogs mysteriously disappear.

The police are indifferent to the holocaust perpetrated by the hunters and the disappearance of her dogs, so the old woman carries out her own campaign to uncover the truth and see that justice is served. When hunters, among them the mayor and a local oligarch/sleazebag, begin to turn up dead, the old woman suggests to the prosecutor that animals are committing the murders and cites ancient and medieval cases where animals were prosecuted for crimes. She may even halfway believe it.

In cahoots with a sweet young woman used and abused by the oligarch/sleazebag and a nerdish computer programmer with epilepsy who works for the police department, the old woman does what she can to make the world a little bit better place in her neck of the woods. Along the way we are treated to a thrilling escape and a lovely little romantic development.

Spoor is uproarious and uplifting, an idiosyncratic thriller with more humor than the capsule summary above might suggest. I like this one a lot.

Zama (Argentina, 2017)

dir. Lucrecia Martel

(115 mins)

Trailer

Sometimes you get one that is odd and interminable. Zama. Shades of PIFF misadventures past with T-Bone and the missus when we endured Jean Gentil (Dominican Republic) in 2011 and another year some Russian slog set at an arctic weather station.

Don Diego de Zama is a Spanish magistrate stationed in a Paraguayan backwater of late 18th century vintage, so the festival notes have it. Zama's life is marked by daily tedium and a succession of humiliations as he waits for the governor to write the king to request his transfer to the city of Lerma, where I gather he will rejoin his lady, Marta. The governor puts Zama off time and again before he finally writes the letter. More time passes before the governor informs him that a second letter, which can be sent a year after the first letter, will be required. Through it all Zama becomes more and more disheartened.

The tenor of the film alters when Zama volunteers for an expedition in pursuit of the legendary bandit Vicuña Porto. Before this Porto has been reported dead on many occasions and even once had what are purported to be his ears presented to the governor, who treasures the gift. Porto is portrayed by an actor who reminds me of a young Michael J. Pollard in appearance and in the way he brings a bizarre and improbable humor to the role of notorious bandit.

Zama's appearance has changed for this half of the film. Previously clean-shaven and well groomed, the Zama who volunteers has an unruly beard and disheveled clothing. The first part of the film is disjointed, with puzzling, dream-like sequences. The second half is disjointed and puzzling throughout. A woman who read the novel, said to be an Argentinian classic, again per the festival notes, told me she thinks the second half of the film is the hallucination of a Zama gone mad. That sounds plausible.

I found Zama aimless, pointless, incoherent. I do not regret the two hours passed watching it. That's the best I can say.


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