Thursday, October 8, 2015

Vancouver International Film Festival 2015: Part One

 Arabian Nights, Volume One (The Restless One) 

The bees are dying, the shipyards are shutting down, and the director is so overwhelmed at the thought of turning such misery into art that he’s become a fugitive from his own film crew. So begins the first volume of Arabian Nights, Miguel Gomes’ ambitious three-part epic of modern Portugal in the grips of austerity. Mixing self-referential farce with sober documentary, the film gleefully cartwheels over the divide between fact and fantasy. The Restless One, the most eclectic of the three films, shows Gomes testing the limits of the robust storytelling contraption he has engineered, cobbled together from the structure of One Thousand and One Nights and fed by the findings of Portuguese journalists. In this volume alone we move from a clairvoyant talking rooster to an arson-driven love triangle acted out by teenagers and narrated in text speak. Silliness and subversion—abundant in the story of how Portugal’s political and economic leaders were cursed with permanent erections—exists alongside compassionate portraits of the country’s unemployed, who offer some of the film’s most stirring moments. The most profound rebuttal to a ruthless economic system can simply be to assert the humanity of those left outside it, and the unconscious smile on a woman’s face as she listens to her husband’s description of their first meeting holds more power than any polemic. 

One Floor Below 

Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas was a domestic drama stretched taut until it became a thriller. His latest, One Floor Below, is the opposite: a flat, uninspired suspense setup that ends up as a pointed study of family dynamics. Sandu Patrascu, a kind of oracle of the Romanian DMV helping people navigate the punishing bureaucracy surrounding vehicle registration, overhears a violent argument between a neighbour and her lover. But when the woman is later discovered dead, he declines to tell the police about the incident, either out of shame over his voyeurism or guilt over his inaction. Enter Vali, the creepy maybe-murderer, who swiftly insinuates himself into the Patrascu family. While Sandu seems more at home jogging alone with his dog, Vali enjoys an easy rapport with the man’s family, offering computer advice to his wife and bonding with his son over videogames. From a certain angle, the tension between the two men could even be read as more a matter of jealousy than anything else. But Muntean, committed to making a sober study of a man plagued by his own conscience, dutifully follows the familiar story to its expected conclusion with little to offer that would elevate it above a dozen other routine protect-your-family thrillers. 


There’s only the slenderest spine of a dramatic arc in Paradise, yet every mundane moment is ripe with dread in this closely observed portrait of life for women in Iran. Hanieh, a 25-year-old single teacher living with her pregnant sister, struggles to get a transfer to a school closer to home, but director Sina Ataeian Dena is more often drawn to the cruel details that provide texture to her day. Elderly women chastise younger ones for talking to men on the bus. Groups of men make catcalls. A harsh bang that sounds like an explosion turns out to be nothing more than a soccer ball kicked into the schoolyard by a group of boys playing outside, roaming freely while the girls endure break-time in an Orwellian indoctrination factory (recess is scored by the voice of the principal barking out commands on how to dress and behave). Hanieh—portrayed with sullen gravity by Dorna Dibaj—drifts through it all in a half-numb haze, often filmed in shallow focus by Dena in order to isolate her even further from a society she loathes. Meanwhile, news of two missing girls drops from the television like a casual threat, and the film’s ambiguous final moments underscore the fear that follows Hanieh. Every stranger holds the promise of good or evil, help or homicide, and the only certainty the women can have is that he is the one who holds all power in the encounter.

The Thoughts That Once We Had 

After the festival’s screening of The Thoughts That Once We Had, Thom Andersen remarked in a Q & A that it would be his final film about film. So it should not be surprising that the film serves more as a loving compendium of the director’s obsessions than a focused essay. Taking the film theories of Gilles Deleuze as a starting point, the film launches into a distinctly personal history of cinema, making it a curious combination of academic argument and private reverie. Perhaps that explains why the film feels at times so obscurely organized as to seemingly be devoid of structure altogether. Even though the film lacks narration—too polemical, he explained afterwards—it is loosely arranged around quotes from Deleuze and others, in addition to brief textual interjections from the director himself. Not that obliqueness needs to be a complete liability, particularly when dealing with a sharp wit like Andersen. Often, the most compelling sections arise from the director pursuing his own idiosyncratic interests into such strange cul de sacs as Timothy Carey’s acting career and the similarities between Chubby Checkers and Hank Ballard’s respective versions of “The Twist.”

But does it add up to anything more than a bravura exercise in cinematic scrapbooking? Given that the director seems more interested in creating an open-ended meditation rather than a conclusive statement, that question may be impossible to answer. I would suggest that the deeply private significance of these clips—clear for Andersen, if not always the viewer—is crucial to the film’s effect, however. The orphaned quotes and stray images are like ghosts, and like ghosts each contain the flickering vestiges of something that once lived. They also contain traces of the viewer. When Andersen watches Debra Paget dance her snake-dance, he sees not only her lost youth but something of his own. Every image we consume becomes remixed in our private mental cinema, playing out in an unending loop in our imaginations and covertly tracing the shape of our own lives in the process. Every movie is a home movie.

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