Transit (Germany/France). Director Christian Petzold's earlier films Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014) were ample reason to make Transit one of the most eagerly anticipated films of this year's festival. Petzold did not disappoint. The jarring premise of a German occupation of Paris in a contemporary setting was disconcerting at first but I soon got past that and just went with it. People are fleeing Paris for Marseille where they hope to escape by ship before the occupation extends to the entire country. Those without visas and necessary travel documents undertake the perilous journey by foot across the Pyrenees. No explanation for the invasion and occupation is so much as suggested. The crisis of our time is evoked by the presence of North African refugees.
Georg (Franz Rogowski) makes it to Marseille where somewhat by happenstance he assumes the identity of a dead writer whose wife is waiting for him because he has the means to secure her visa and papers so they can sail to Mexico. Paula Beer is haunting as Marie, a woman who left and now waits for the one who was left to return. She has a lover, a doctor, who in desperation finally decides to leave without her. She then falls into Georg's arms, unaware that he has taken her husband's identity.
Did Petzold have Camus and The Fall in mind with role of the café bartender who from time to time narrates the story Georg has told him? The woman who jumps from a bridge with Georg standing beside her? Shame felt by hotel guests looking on as the police drag a screaming woman away?
I was completely pulled into this riveting nightmare of appropriated identity, impulsive choices, inexplicable circumstances, and missed opportunities. An absurdist masterpiece.
The Wild Pear Tree (Turkey/Republic of Macedonia/France/Germany/Bosnia and Herzegovina/Bulgaria/Sweden). An aspiring young writer returns to his home in a small Turkish town after finishing college. There he bides his time waiting to take the exam he must pass so he can waste his youth as a schoolteacher in the east. The alternative is to find a dead-end job in his hometown and waste his youth doing that.
Things at home at not so great. His father, also a schoolteacher, gambles away his earnings, leaving the family impoverished, his mother resentful, his younger sister occupied with her own schoolwork. Sinan pesters a successful local writer, hangs out with old school chums, participates in a lengthy dialogue with two young imams, and wanders around the town he finds dreary and filled with small-minded people. When asked by the writer, he describes his book as a quirky autofiction meta novel.
The Wild Pear Tree runs for three hours and eight minutes. It could have done with some edits and judicious cuts without losing anything. Even so I could not bring myself to walk away. Visually striking. I was almost entranced. Three hours, not much action yet quite a lot happens, and I liked it a lot.
Dir. by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. 188 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.
Sir (India/France). Lovely romance told with restraint, dignity, grace. A favorite. Ratna is a housekeeper in Mumbai with ambition to be a fashion designer. A widow at nineteen, she sends money home so her younger sister can attend school and have a better life. Ratna is
intelligent, sensitive, dignified, with a deep sense of honor and integrity.
Ashwin, her employer, comes from an upper class family. He lived in US as writer of articles for magazines and blogs and half a novel before he was brought home by the illness and death of his brother. Now he is architect in family firm, trapped by duty and obligation in a life he does not want.
Ratna and Ashwin are decent people caught up in a wretched tangle of caste, class, and family. Maybe pride plays a role as well in its way. Ratna knows her place but has her dreams. As does Ashwin.
PIFF pal Jane expressed surprise when I said I liked Sir. She liked it but thought it was a girlie movie. What can I say?
Maya (France/Germany). Opens with return to Paris of two war reporters held hostage by ISIS in Syria. A third reporter remains in captivity. Gabriel declines the offer of counseling and deals with the trauma in his own way by traveling in India, where he lived for a time as a boy. He goes first to Goa where his estranged mother, who works for an NGO in Mumbai, owns a house. There he meets Maya, teenage daughter of his godfather, who tells him that Goa is being ruined by hippies, tourists, and developers. Somewhat predictable but tenderly told love story. Melancholy, bittersweet, beautifully shot. Not a heavyweight film but quite pleasant. This one may be a girlie movie too. I liked it. What can I say?
Shadow (China/Hong Kong). A Zhang Yimou number. Palace intrigue, convoluted schemes, duplicity, treachery, backstabbing, front stabbing. Extravagantly choreographed fight scenes. Buckets of blood. The amazing recovery from blows and wounds one might think would be fatal. Zither music. Visually remarkable, just stunning. I don't need to see a lot of movies of this genre, but every now and they can be fun. This one was.
Dir. by Zhang Yimou. 116 mins. PIFF program notes with trailer.
Dogman (Italy/France). Marcello is a dog groomer and small-time drug dealer in a neighborhood terrorized by his brutish friend Simone. Marcello Fonte won the Best Actor award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival for his performance. It's a good performance. A few nice scenes, tender moments, Marcello with his daughter and with his dogs. Otherwise Dogman is a dreary, desolate, violent, ugly film. I don't know why anyone would want to make it.
The 42nd Portland International Film Festival continues through March 21.