The first movie ever shown in the White House was, shamefully, “Birth of a Nation”—the racist 1915 original, not the Sundance-wowing sensation. It was during FDR’s administration that an old cloak room was converted into a 40-seat cinema. The first President to screen an X-rated film was, of course, that old scamp Jimmy Carter (it was “Midnight Cowboy,” and it had been re-rated R by then). Richard Nixon’s favorite movie was “Patton,” a fascinating choice.
These have been your obligatory bits of Presidential moviegoing history, as the holiday today allows for a full day’s worth of screenings at the Portland International Film Festival. As usual, we’re here to steer you towards the cinematic equivalents of Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson, and away from the Fillmores and Pierces. Here we go:
“Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One”: Portuguese director Miguel Gomes has a habit of slyly mixing reality and fiction in a way that makes subtle but potent points about both aesthetics and politics. That trend continues in the first section of his three-part, six-hour magnum opus, which was inspired by the economic austerity programs imposed in Portugal in 2013 and 2014.
Gomes opens with an attempt to link the story of a shipyard’s closing and subsequent mass layoffs with the plague of wasps assaulting the country’s apiary industry. He then explicitly kicks things into Scheherazade mode, presenting a series of dry-witted, somewhat drawn-out parables. In one, the bankers and functionaries in charge of Portugal’s economy are rendered harmless after a witch doctor gives them all what amounts to a permanent Viagra overdose. In another, a village must decide the fate of a controversial cockerel, whose early-morning crowing disturbs sleep patterns but warns of impending disasters.
To be honest, it’s probably a good thing these three sections are being screened on separate days. Six hours of this didactic, if smartly rendered, stuff, could be enervating. But in normal, feature-sized doses, it’s an engaging, allegorical take on the failures of neoliberalism and the unsettled fate of the working class.
(Portugal, 125 min., in Portuguese, French, German, and Mandarin with English subtitles) Mon., Feb. 15, 8:30 p.m., Cinema 21
“Magallanes”: In the same way that European filmmakers continue to explore the aftermath of World War II, Latin American cinema keeps finding new and compelling ways to tackle the years of terror that gripped so much of that continent in the 1970s and 80s. This year’s PIFF includes “The Club” and “The Pearl Button” from Chile, “The Clan,” from Argentina, and “Magallanes,” from Peru, all of which reckon with the crimes committed by military dictatorships of decades past.
The title character in “Magallanes” works as the personal assistant to a retired colonel, and drives a cab during his off hours. One day he recognizes a fare—a woman whose imprisonment and repeated assaults at the colonel’s hands he had witnessed years ago. He digs out an old photo of the colonel and the woman, and decides to use it to blackmail the colonel’s son, a wealthy lawyer. Things, as they always do in stories like this, get out of hand.
Mexican actor Damian Alcazar is great as the conflicted, morally flawed Magallanes, and Argentine veteran Federico Luppi exudes banal, invincible menace as the colonel. First-time feature director Salvador del Solar weaves a tale combining the sleazy suspense of a solid film noir with the ethical potency of a historical exposé.
(Peru, 105 min., in Spanish with English subtitles) Mon., Feb. 15, 9 p.m., Moreland Theater
“Disorder”: Director Alice Winocour’s first feature, 2012’s “Augustine,” subverted the historical drama genre with a fact-based story about a 19th-century doctor and the seizure-afflicted young woman he tries to treat. In her second, “Disorder,” she subverts the bodyguard-thriller genre with another story about the intense relationship between a man and a woman thrown together by circumstance.
Belgian star Matthias Schoenaerts (“The Danish Girl,” “Rust and Bone”) plays a PTSD-afflicted French veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan who’s having trouble integrating back into ordinary life. In a necessary but unlikely plot twist, he’s abruptly hired by a wealthy, possibly corrupt businessman to look over his estate—and his wife—during his absences.
The trophy spouse is played by Diane Kruger (“Inglourious Basterds”), and if you’re expecting Kevin Costner-Whitney Houston sparks to fly, you may be disappointed at the slow burn that develops instead. In fact, the weakness of “Disorder” (originally titled “Maryland” after the mansion where most of it takes place) is that Winocour can’t decide to what degree she wants to satisfy audience expectations and to what degree she wants to frustrate them. Still, the magnetic leads make it worth sticking with this one.
(France, 98 min., in French with English subtitles) Mon., Feb. 15, 6 p.m., Cinema 21; also Thur., Feb. 18, 8:30 p.m., Regal Fox Tower