The Northwest Film Center has just wrapped up its epic, weeks-long centenary tribute to Ingmar Bergman. I was going to write “iconic Swedish director Ingmar Bergman” or “canonical philosopher of cinema Ingmar Bergman” but, you know, if you’re reading this column and need to have Ingmar Bergman identified for you, you might be in the wrong place.
Anyway, having concluded this remarkable service on behalf of Portland’s cinephiles, the Film Center is returning to its (ir)regular programming. Up this weekend, by chance or design, are a pair of Brazilian films with distinctly different vibes but some interesting commonalities.
“Araby” (no apparent relationship to the James Joyce story in “Dubliners”) is an intimate, class-conscious story about a working-class stiff for whom very little goes right, at least for very long. Co-directors Joao Dumans and Affonso Uchoa have constructed a two-tiered, bifurcated narrative, the first act of which focuses on teenaged Andre (Murilo Caliari). Under the opening credits, Andre steadily bicycles up a steep mountain road towards the ramshackle dwelling he shares with his younger brother and his aunt. As he does, the haunting lyrics of Jackson T. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” play behind him: “Wherever I’ve gone, the blues are all the same…”
That sentiment dominates the film. Andre, a few scenes later, happens upon the victim of an unspecified accident at a nearby factory. Told to fetch the man’s handwritten journal, Andre ends up sitting down to read it. And, twenty minutes in, we’re presented a title card for “Araby” as its main story begins. The journal’s author, Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), talks us in flashback through his journey across southern Brazil, working (mostly as a fruit picker), loving, singing, and frequently suffering. It’s never clear whether what we are seeing is a “real” flashback or simply Andre’s imagination, prompted by the increasingly lyrical diary entries he reads.
In the end it doesn’t really matter. In an admittedly refreshing change from “long cinema” tropes, “Araby” clocks in at a reasonable 98 minutes, saying and showing what it’s got and then moving on. The movie’s Steinbeckian–or, dare we say, Vlautinian–empathy for its downtrodden characters and unforced familiarity with their milieus is its primary asset.
On the other end, superficially at least, of the narrative spectrum, is “Good Manners,” a clever social satire disguised as a horror flick wrapped inside a melodrama. Like “Araby,” it splits its story in two, leaping forward several years in time about an hour into the film.
The setup involves an African-Brazilian nurse, Clara (Isabél Zuaa), who goes to work as a nanny for a wealthy single mother-to-be, Ana (Marjorie Estiano), in São Paulo. Co-directors (can’t anyone make a movie by themselves anymore?) Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas unobtrusively explore issues of race, class, and sexuality as the women grow closer over the course of Ana’s increasingly odd pregnancy.
This plot line comes to a climax with a birth scene that’s like something from an early Cronenberg movie (or maybe Larry Cohen’s “It’s Alive!” is a more apt comparison). After that shocking development, the aforementioned time shift occurs and “Good Manners” becomes a story about a misunderstood monster and the mother who tries to protect him from the world (and vice versa).
Embodied in a poignantly pitched performance by young actor Miguel Lobo (apparently his real name), the poor child puts up with his caretaker’s overprotectiveness until one fateful day when a meddling neighbor fries him up some steak for lunch. From that point on, the movie owes a significant debt to Rick Baker’s legendary makeup work on “An American Werewolf in London,” if you catch my drift.
At more than two hours, “Good Manners” overstays its welcome just a bit. But when you factor in that you’re sort of getting two movies for the price of one, the length becomes a bit more excusable. This is one that should be fun to see in an enthusiastic crowd on a cloudless Saturday night.
ALSO WORTH NOTING:
“Dear Cecil”: As we continue to move towards a world in which every fashion designer worth their logo will have a feature documentary made about them, famous costume designer Cecil Beaton gets his turn. The Oscar-winner (“My Fair Lady”) has the added appeal of being a multi-disciplinarian aesthete, working in production design and photography and being a skilled diarist. Next up: Alexander McQueen in “McQueen” on August 10. (“Dear Cecil” opens Friday, July 27, at the Living Room Theater)
“Down by Law”: Jim Jarmusch’s third feature (and second to get distribution) is the eternally hip story of three losers who end up in the same New Orleans jail cell together. John Lurie, Tom Waits, and Roberto Benigni (before he became insufferable) are utterly perfect, and this is probably the perfect choice for the Hollywood to screen in memory of cinematographer Robby Müller, who died earlier this month. It’s a sad and beautiful world. (Screens on Wednesday, July 31, at the Hollywood Theatre).