by InRO Staff Festival Coverage Film

Portland International Film Festival 2020 | Dispatch 2: Martin Eden, State Funeral, The Fever

March 13, 2020
Photo: Venice Film Festival

The Hollywood machine may be pumping its brakes right now — with an ever-growing list of release date delays announced across the next month and rumors of movie theaters temporaily suspending operations in the wake of COVID-19’s recently-announced pandemicity — but we at InRO are soldiering on. In our second dispatch from the 2020 Portland International Film Festival, we continue taking on films in the home stretch of their international festival runs, including: Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden, Sergei Loznitsa’s State Funeral, and Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven, among others. We’ll be back next week with more from Portland. 


Martin Eden

Martin Eden — a character first created by Jack London, in 1909 — is largely defined by the many interpersonal and socioeconomic conflicts that make up his beleaguered existence: he’s too ambitious to continue his life as a sailor, so he aspires to better himself; his family is not of the necessary class for him to get an education, so he must become a self-taught writer instead; he rejects socialism, but continues to live off of the support of others while his work continues to be ignored; and, ultimately, he’s too prideful to accept recognition when it finally comes to him, years later. Martin Eden’s own self-guided narrative is recognized as one that fervently promotes individualism. Italian writer/director Pietro Marcello‘s adaptation plays its hand subtly: the ways in which these disparate political ideologies intersect and interact within Eden’s life are suffused, throughout, with an approach to storytelling that abandons didacticism in favor of properly (and effectively) exploring the many internalizations that end up destroying him.

While most contemporary period pieces are content to just vaguely express these ideas in service of some grander thematic terms, Martin Eden refreshingly works through its class politics in real-time; Marcello gives complete narrative agency to our titular protagonist, while still imbuing the ideas of his film with a palpable urgency. Much of what helps to cast these conflicts in a more personal light comes from Luca Marinelli’s performance as Eden. This isn’t a traditionally flashy role, but Marinelli has such a distinctive presence, both psychically and emotionally, that he’s able to inhabit the screen with the same type of conflicting temperament that has defined this tragic hero type for over 100 years, one that wavers between the nobly ambitious and the stubbornly conceited. Paul Attard


The Fever

“They woke up something that was asleep inside of us. They made us see what we didn’t know.” The imprecision of this statement — spoken by Justino (Regis Myrupu), an indigenous Desana man who lives and works in the industrialized port city of Manaus, on the Amazon River in northwestern Brazil — typifies both the theme and tone of Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever, as does its slight menace. An unnerving anxiety informs even the commonplace in this film: professional opportunities prove worrisome rather than celebratory, the shifting of branches suggest unseen threat, small talk on the job bristles with microaggressions and internalized colonial legacies, — and a simple fever, inexplicable but mild, is the manifestation of all these modern agonies. Without romanticizing traditional indigenous culture, Da-Rin makes Justino both man and metaphor, his struggles felt through his stoic endurance. But Justino’s heritage also uniquely situates him as a man displaced: He’s frequently depicted alone, ‘the widower,’ “the Indian,” unique in his extended family as a city resident, and now facing the prospect of his daughter’s imminent relocation to pursue medical studies.

But what Da-Rin is particularly interested in is an exploration of the twinned displacing elements of industry and indigeneity. And to that end, the dehumanization and the tedium of commerce, and its inevitable progress, are unambiguously reflected here: the cacophonous din of moving parts is presented in contrast with the cricket-and-wind near-silence of evenings spent at home, while wide shots capture the mundane geometric metals and dulled colors of shipping containers. Still, The Fever is largely a film of gestation, with insinuations of a particular terminus feeding its ominous mood. And so as the film, feeling all along deeply indebted to Apichatpong Weeresthakul, begins to more closely resemble Tropical Malady rather than the Syndromes and a Century influence of its first half, its clear influences begin to undo a bit of the dark spell it has cast, the cribbing a subversion of its very specificity. Da-Rin demonstrates a delicateness when it comes to both  form and tone, and even emboldens her film through a sober approach to content. But the filmmaker also suffers when executing according to familiar modes of opaque, elliptical narrative, and as a result, never really manages to find her own voice in the jungle. Luke Gorham


State Funeral

Josef Stalin died on March 5th, 1953, at his Kuntsevo dacha, following a cerebral hemorrhage and a few days of complete immobilization. His body was embalmed and placed on display from the 6th to the 9th of that month, at which point he was taken, by procession, to be buried in Lenin’s Mausoleum. Sergei Loznitsa edits together footage found in the Russian state archive from these four days. The footage was originally taken for a film, The Great Farewell, which was banned after an initial screening for Soviet officials, but it continues to live on as a document of a landmark event, one that marks a shift in power, the ramifications of which were felt across half of the globe. State Funeral has a number of movements, from the initial dispersal of news to central Asia and Siberia to the gatherings of mourners in Eastern Bloc cities such as Berlin, Warsaw and Prague. Much of this would be considered impressive even if it were televised in our contemporary moment: the condensing of thousands of reactions into a montage of loss and apprehension; the dashes of Soviet red in an otherwise greyish palette; the 21-gun salute that brings to a halt every organ of the nation for a moment of silence, finally releasing the energy invested in Lenin’s disciple.

But perhaps the highlight of the film comes with the speeches delivered by the figures standing atop Lenin’s mausoleum. To see Malenkov and Beria delivering their eulogies, flanked by Voroshilov and Khrushchev, gives us a proper glimpse of this volatile moment, one where the key players vying for power bid farewell to the old Soviet Union and the man who “managed to transform a backward country into a powerful, industrially and agriculturally developed state, […] free of economic depressions and unemployment.” These words of Malenkov ring especially true in a speech concerned with little besides lionizing its subject. But, of course, much remains hidden here and Loznitsa is sure to remind us of this fact with his closing messages. Making reference to Stalin’s crimes (with frankly exaggerated statistics) and Khrushchev’s period of ‘de-Stalinization’, Loznitsa makes clear that this ritual of extolment is simply a surface beneath which lies the bodies of so many enemies of the state: an ending that might have seemed offensively reductive had it not been preceded by the words of Malenkov. It’s obvious that Loznitsa is instructing us to feel a certain way about this event, and it may well belie Stalin’s real place in history — that of the “most inscrutable and contradictory character” who helped stop international fascism and purged a million of his own people. Sam Redfern


It Must Be Heaven

Elia Suleiman: actor, director, “citizen of the world.” It Must Be Heaven follows Suleiman as he journeys from his native Palestine to Paris, and then to New York, using his artistic status as a passport and a platform from which to broadcast empty truisms about the universal nature of human experience. But, you know, with laughs. Comedy is, as ever, a matter of taste, and so while I’m forced to concede that Suleiman’s bromidic drolleries must constitute someone’s idea of a joke, I’m not inclined to grant him the validation of even a stray chuckle: Has any popular concept been more thoroughly bankrupted by our present moment than the bland, totalizing credo of “global citizenship?” Can anyone really feel the warm fuzzies because yet another movie flattens the contingent inequities of time and place in order to tell us, with a smile, ‘we’re all really the same’? It certainly doesn’t help that Suleiman, as messenger and lead actor, is a lifeless gnome-like presence. A generous description might label his style Keatonian, though Keaton didn’t need a foppish scarf and an immovable sunhat to act as sartorial stand-ins for a screen personality.

As director, Suleiman possesses maybe two or three visual ideas, though he strongly prefers one: sometimes things over here look like things over there. Because warmed-over humanism is his chosen mode, his facile symmetries are meant to reinforce — as the press notes say — the “unexpected parallels” that he discovers while travelling the globe. They’re also meant to be funny. That they fail as comedy is perhaps forgivable. That they turn disparate places and people into easily readable mirror images, which provide us the comfort of the familiar only because they reflect back a portrait of ourselves, is more worthy of condemnation. And even if It Must Be Heaven is too dull to be offensive, it is shockingly deluded about the current state of affairs — and that’s no laughing matter at all. Evan Morgan


Balloon

Tibetan director Pema Tseden’s artistic intention, in both his films and short stories, has been to realistically depict the daily lives of Tibetans, without the exoticizing lens employed by others who’ve made films about them — especially those made by non-Tibetans. Balloon continues this mission, with a potent yet subtle streak of surrealism and mysticism. The film is set in the early 1980s, shortly after China imposed its one-child policy (which was slightly relaxed for ethnic minorities, such as Tibetans), including stiff fines for violators of the policy. This is the historical backdrop through which we view the lives of a rural Tibetan family of farmers. Dargye (Jinpa) and his wife Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo) live with Dargye’s father and their two rambunctious young sons, whose playful acts of mischief play a large role in driving this narrative. Initial scenes often play as a subtly droll sex comedy, as the kids play with “balloons” (which turn out to be actually blown-up condoms given to their parents by the local clinic for family planning). Dargye has a very pronounced sex drive — he’s jokingly compared to the rams he herds for a living — which causes potential financial danger for the family, as he must be careful not to get his wife pregnant again, lest he incur a fine. His boys, who continually find hidden condoms, cause all sorts of trouble for the family, who live in a very conservative and easily scandalized rural Tibetan community. (Much humor is mined from the fact that the farm animals have far more sexual freedom than the humans who raise them.)

A more serious subplot concerning Drolkar’s sister (Yangshik Tso), now a Buddhist nun, serves as counterpoint. She runs into her old lover (Kunde), whose perceived mistreatment drove her to the monastery, and he gives her a novel that he wrote, which was inspired by their relationship, hoping to clear up, in his words, a “misunderstanding” about what happened between them. Tseden relates this beautifully told tale through intimate, expressive camerawork, vivid depictions of the dreams and visions of its characters, and vibrant performances by actors who exhibit the authenticity of non-professionals — even though they mostly aren’t. The Tibetan Buddhist belief in reincarnation figures largely in this story, and Tseden cleverly connects this with China’s state-imposed family planning to deliver an unstated, but unmistakable, indictment of the ways religious beliefs and authoritarian governments collude to deny women control of their own bodies and destinies. Christopher Bourne


The Moneychanger

Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger is a mess — an overly familiar rise-and-fall narrative that’s been stripped of all meaningful detail and specificity, with a sketchy character study nestled in the center. It is, perversely, a study of an unrepentant loser, a mook, a moocher who stumbles ass-backwards into success thanks to a rigged system. It’s a fairly rote rebuke of capitalism, and an amusing take down of mediocre male privilege, here detailed in the story of Humberto Brause (played with an unfailing devotion to looking ridiculous by Daniel Hendler), who, over the course of two decades, becomes the de facto head of money laundering operations for most of southern Latin America. After a ridiculous introduction, where Brause (who narrates most of the film) declares money “the root of all evil” over a scene of Jesus of Nazareth flipping over banker’s tables, Veiroj attempts to walk a fine line between documentation and absurdity, like mixing Goodfellas with Syriana and Buñuel. He’s not particularly successful at it. There’s a disconnect between the relatively staid visuals and Hendler’s loopy, goofball demeanor. The actor gets a lot of comedic mileage out of a ridiculous mustache and a droopy hound-dog face, but he never convinces as someone who could accomplish what his character supposedly does.

Starting in the 1950s as a young apprentice, Brause begins his wayward journey by handling money for corrupt politicians that his boss won’t touch. He gets busted and goes to jail, but the film skips over most of this. Brause gets out and almost immediately starts breaking the law again. In showing dealings with various shady characters in Brazil and Argentina, Veiroj flirts with a whole lot of geopolitical history, invoking the specter of U.S.-funded dirty wars and violent regime change all over the continent. Like most everything else in the movie, this stuff exists mostly in the margins; Veiroj never gets into the nitty-gritty details of how these dealings would actually work. Like Brause’s marriage and children, everything becomes a stripped down plot point, a narrative cog, something to get Brause from point A to point B and create conflict. Ultimately, Veiroj can’t seem to reconcile the main contradiction here: that Brause is a coward and a simpleton who somehow becomes massively successful through currency manipulation and a willingness to make deals with all sorts of unsavory types. That contradiction is clearly part of the point, and the basis for much of the film’s dry comedy, but by making Brause a mostly passive observer, Veiroj also seems to be letting him — and by extension the audience — off the hook. Daniel Gorman


Dogs Don’t Wear Pants

Depiction of extreme pain is not the most distressing thing about Finnish BDSM comedy Dogs Don’t Wear Pants. Frequent scenes of a dominatrix strangling a bereaved man until he’s near death don’t even register as outré after the first time. No, what’s hardest to swallow about Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää’s third feature is just how straight it is. With his wife dead, and his teenage daughter more distant every day, cardiac surgeon Juha (Pekka Strang) begins seeing a dominatrix, Mona (Krista Kosonen), after an accidental encounter during which he’s mistaken for a client in Mona’s sublime red lair, and strangled with a riding crop. Unable to breathe, Juha finds himself in a hallucinatory intimacy with his drowned wife, the only gratification, sexual or otherwise, he’s likely felt in years. So obviously, over the course of a few sessions, Juha falls for Mona. Less obvious is why Mona seems to reciprocate — even as she tries to keep him at a distance. What she finds so powerful in her sessions with Juha — to the extent that she’s no longer able to perform adequately with her other clients — is conveyed only  by Kosonen’s performance: the actress is quieter and more nuanced than the neurotic Strang, and thus destined for lesser acclaim. Kosonen does a lot with a little, but it’s always hard not to think: ‘Him?!’ The film’s second half becomes heavy on incident and light on psychology, as Juha’s newfound addiction further pushes his daughter away and leads him to dangerous new extremes, which read, in the moment, like worrisome moral indictments of the very thing the film previously characterized as cathartic. That the ending flips back to a non-puritanical, less after-school-special view of BDSM would come as a relief if that same ending weren’t borrowed from the ‘go and get her’ moment at the end of countless romantic comedies. The contrast between what Dogs Don’t Wear Pants seemingly ought to be — what it, in its best moments, is — and the direction in which Valkeapää takes it is as striking as the difference between Mona’s evocative subterranean lair and the drab Helsinki above it. Chris Mello


Anne at 13,000 Ft.

Anne at 13,000 Ft. only occasionally utilizes medium shots, and nothing wide, so committed is it to staying close to its titular subject, to actualizing the suffocating feel of her existence. Anne’s (Deragh Campbell) presence vacillates between lax and unhinged, with a kind of frenzy always apparent beneath the surface. Sometimes, this is played endearingly, all pranks and eccentricity, in a way that evinces a puckish quality — that transforms Anne’s nonconformist energy into a grounded realization of a manic pixie dream girl (sans dream). At other times, Anne’s actions are discomfiting, and often attributed, by herself, to a miscommunication or stick-up-the-butt unreceptiveness to her own self-perceived charms. What Anne at 13,000 Ft. is ultimately up to, then, remains appealingly vague, sometimes suggesting an lack of preparation for both the idleness and anxiety of adulthood, sometimes a more nefarious psychological disturbance. Rules constantly prove inhibiting to Anne, and behavior modification seems mostly unattainable. But certain details of chronology, paired with the accelerated narrative progression, suggest a more sudden onset of difficulty for the character.

Director Kazik Radwanski’s approach remains steady, and effective, regardless: A handheld camera maintains proximity to Anne, flitting about faces in flux. Uncertainty and concern and exasperation is captured, not only in Anne’s expressions, but in those of people around her. This unease and volatility adds to obvious tonal and dramatic similarities to John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. But Anne at 13,000 Ft. stands on its own — thanks to its opacity. Where Cassavetes opted for an expansive treatment, for deeper theme-building, and for more of a study of external stimuli, Radwanski’s film is all concision, the lack of context resulting in something closer to car-crash viscerality than psychological probing. To this end, the latter film becomes more kinetic as its condensed runtime elapses, the increased emotional and relational chaos reflected in more disorderly images and bristly lensing. All this informs the final image here: a moment of welcome calm, the screen emptied of Anne’s presence for the first time as she finds respite, by choice, in freefall.  Luke Gorham

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