41st Portland International Film Festival features hidden gems from Tunisia, Spain, Romania

Not every movie worth seeing at this year's PIFF stars Juliette Binoche or Isabelle Huppert

I recently wrote a piece for The Oregonian listing the ten most anticipated films of this year’s Portland International Film Festival. This made sense because (a) people likes lists; (b) the early deadline for the piece meant there was precious little opportunity to actually see the films; and (c) it’s a relatively easy way to concoct a PIFF primer for casual movie buffs.

By “casual movie buffs” I mean folks who might dip their toes into subtitled waters once in a while if the film was made someplace they’d like to visit, but who won’t necessarily be trying to sneak chocolate bars into the latest Polish zombie flick or avant-garde effort from Iran. Don’t get me wrong: anyone who patronizes PIFF (or pays money to see a foreign-language film under any circumstances) is a cut or three above the typical American moviegoer in terms of sophistication.

But Portland’s true connoisseurs of cinema know a couple things that normal people don’t.

First, they know that most of those hotly “anticipated” titles, starring Juliette Binoche or Steve Buscemi or whoever, will most likely be returning to a local arthouse screen at some point in the next few months, whether it’s the Hollywood, Cinema 21, the Living Room, or (shudder) the Regal Fox Tower (a place I always refer to by its full corporate name just to invoke the image of a haughty vulpine monarch perched on the pinnacle of an antiseptic office building).

Second, PIFF veterans know that, quite frequently, the true joys of the festival come from those under-the-radar oddities you only go see because everything else is sold out, or because you lost a bet. It used to be that anything from outside Western Europe, Japan and maybe South America was officially cinema exotica, but these days the borders of middlebrow taste are drawn more along lines of genre than geography. For every familiar, universal story of familial reconciliation from Nepal, there’s a thrash-metal musical based on Joan of Arc. For every potent tale of a mother’s love and dedication from The Congo, there’s a button-pushing story about racial epithet-filled rap battles from California, USA.

With that in mind, I’ve started burrowing through the overwhelming number of advance screeners, trying to focus on the stuff that wouldn’t ordinarily jump out at me. I’m dying to see the final film from Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, or the new documentary by the indefatigable Alex Gibney, or the documentary about Mister Rogers, or (especially) the movie based on Willy Vlautin’s novel “Lean on Pete.” And I’ll get to all of them. (To be honest, I would have already watched those last two if they were available, but alas…)

One great example of a film worthy of discovery but at risk of getting lost in the vast ocean of PIFF is Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s fiction feature debut, “Beauty and the Dogs.” It catches the eye with an opening scene at a party that begins with two friends in a bathroom and ends with one, Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani), leaving with a guy she just met. This all unfolds over the course of one seven-minute shot, as do each of the next eight scenes in the film. The second chapter starts with Mariam and her new friend at a clinic trying to obtain medical certification of the rape she has just endured at the hands of the police.

From there, Ben Hania’s formal gambit pays off as it enhances both the tension and the dread of Mariam’s efforts to report the crime over one long night. “Beauty and the Dogs” depicts Tunisian society’s relative cosmopolitanism as well as its persistent misogyny, and features a powerful central performance by Al Ferjani. Ben Hania’s previous film, “The Blade of Tunis,” was a fake documentary in which she tried to track down a criminal infamous for slashing random women’s buttocks, so she’s clearly not afraid of engaging in critiques that require extra bravery even in the more Westernized parts of the Arab world.

Different in almost every way from “Beauty and the Dogs,” the Spanish animated feature “Birdboy: The Forgotten Children,” fairly matches it in intensity despite being a cartoon featuring a bunch of talking animals on a journey. This isn’t a family-friendly romp, though—it’s set in a dreary post-apocalyptic world, and in an early scene our young mouse-eared protagonist’s verbally abusive father accuses him of being on cocaine. But neither is it some Ralph Bakshi-esque exercise in raunchy subversion: there’s real pathos in the quest of Dinki and her friends, a rabbit and a fox, to track down her old friend Birdboy, a reclusive junky and quasi-folk hero who lives in the middle of a vast wasteland. Co-director Alberto Vázquez based this visually original, tonally unique tale on his own graphic novel, which he initially made into a short film that played at the Northwest Film Center in 2015.

For a more conventional experience, and one with at least a little bit less existential foreboding, check out “6.9 on the Richter Scale,” a Romanian romantic comedy (Romromcom?), centered on a seismophobic actor in Bucharest experiencing crises both domestic and professional. He’s terrified that the apartment he shares with his depressed, jealous-minded wife won’t survive the earthquake he’s sure is imminent. He’s playing Orpheus in a stage production opposite a pretty but talentless Eurydice. And then the father he hasn’t seen since he was five shows back up in his life, trailing carnal chaos in his wake. A far cry from the dour films (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”) its home country is known for, this wry and charming movie culminates in a bizarre musical fantasia.

These options only scratch the surface, of course, of an event that includes nearly 90 features and eight programs of shorts. But they serve as a useful reminder that in Portland’s annual cinematic cornucopia, some of the most delectable treats can be found almost by accident.


“Beauty and the Dogs” screens at 8:45 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 16, at the Laurelhurst Theater, and 4:15 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 18, at Cinemagic.

“Birdboy: The Forgotten Children” screens at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 17, at Cinemagic, and at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 17, at the Empirical Theater at OMSI.

“6.9 on the Richter Scale” screens at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 17, at the Whitsell Auditorium, and at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the Regal Fox Tower.

For a full schedule and details, visit https://nwfilm.org/festivals/piff41/


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