From the latest European imports to unique local events, there’s a bountiful spring crop of cinematic culture this week, so let’s get right to it.
The worst thing about Romanian auteur Cristian Mungiu’s latest film, R.M.N., is the title. First of all, it has nothing to do with Richard Milhous Nixon, which feels perilously close to false advertising. Second, it’s in fact the abbreviation, in Romanian, for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, the phenomenon behind MRI scans. Again, not terribly enlightening, as the film has very little to do with medical science or technology.
The real topic of R.M.N. is globalization and its effects on an ethnically mixed village in Transylvania, Romania’s westernmost province. Here, Hungarians, Romanians, and Germans generally coexist and share a ubiquitous disdain for the Roma, whom they insist on calling gypsies. Here, local work is scarce: Resource-extractive industries such as mining and forestry have dried up, so many of the village’s men have journeyed abroad for jobs.
One of them is Matthias (Marin Grigoire), who, as the film begins, violently quits his job at a German slaughterhouse after a supervisor calls him a “lazy gypsy.” Returning to his hometown just before Christmas, he attempts to resume his paternal duties towards his young son Rudi, who has recently stopped speaking after being terrified by something he saw on his walk to school. Rudi’s mother, Ana (Marcina Bârlădeanu), allows Matthias to stay with them, at least temporarily.
Matthias attempts to reconnect with a former lover, Csilla (Judith State), who now manages a local, female-owned bakery. The bakery is in desperate need of workers, and when none of the locals apply for its minimum-wage positions, Csilla brings in three immigrants from Sri Lanka (Amitha Jayasinghe, Gihan Edirisinghe, and Nuwan Karunarathna).
This, naturally, triggers economic and racial resentment among the majority of the populace. The Sri Lankans are quiet, polite, hard-working, and, Csilla repeatedly emphasizes, completely legal. But ignorant concerns about their hygiene and cultural practices gradually mount, culminating in a riveting, fifteen-minute shot depicting a town meeting devoted to whether they should be allowed to stay.
That’s the showiest, but not the only impressive single-take sequence in the film. Mungiu captures most scenes in real time, enhancing both the sense of place and narrative tension. As violence increasingly looms, the enigmatic Matthias’ reaction to events becomes key, culminating in another bravura one-shot scene involving much more movement.
Mungiu has been rightly heralded as an incisive chronicler of his troubled nation’s social and political controversies ever since his second feature, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, won the Cannes Palme D’Or in 2007. This may be his best film since then: Like it, R.M.N. tackles a hot-button issue through character and incident. Only rarely does it feel didactic, and when it does it raises concerns that are common, and valid, among native Romanians.
For instance, one character is a French ecologist in town to do a study on the bear population. When he lauds Western culture, he’s met with the point that the only reason Western European culture exists is because Eastern Europeans held the line against invaders, from the Huns to the Ottomans, over the centuries. Conversations like this one show that Mungiu isn’t interested in moral judgments as much as in a holistic depiction of the intractable problems resulting from post-industrial global capitalism.
At one point, Matthias’ father has a medical scare and undergoes an MRI scan. Mungiu has explained that the idea of scanning inside the brain, where primal instincts of tribalism and otherness originate, inspired his title. He would have been better off with another he apparently considered, Europe 2.0. In any case, there’s an authenticity and an empathy to his filmmaking that is the perfect antidote to the seductive lure of “us versus them.” (R.M.N. opens Friday, May 5 at Regal Fox Tower)
GOINGS ON ABOUT TOWN:
As traditional models of film distribution, especially independent and international film, continue to buckle, exhibitors have been forced to get creative. The results are frequently, as they are this week, fascinating:
- The 1999 cult classic The Woman Chaser played at Cinema 21 on its original release, and then became a home video hipness signifier before largely vanishing from sight for years. Now, film programmer Eliot Lavine has gotten his hands on a 35mm print of the film’s original cut, featuring a different (better) lounge-music score and including a moment of gasp-inducing violence that was cut after its festival screenings. The story, based on a 1960 novel by pulp legend Charles Willeford, centers on Richard Hudson (the great Patrick Warburton), a sleazy used car dealer in L.A. who decides to go into the movie business. Shot in black-and-white, and full of skewed camera angles and deadpan chauvinistic banter, it also includes one of the goofiest ballet scenes ever committed to film. Director Robinson Devor, who will be present at this screening, went on to collaborate with Seattle writer Charles Mudede on the equally eccentric movies Police Beat and Zoo. (Wednesday, May 10, Cinema 21)
- You’ve heard of blaxploitation and sexploitation, and maybe even nunsploitation and Ozploitation. But what about Hagsploitation? The programmers at the Clinton Street Theater didn’t invent the term, but they may be the first to dedicate a block of screenings to films about witches and adjacent terrors. The series kicks off this week with a couple of relatively mainstream titles (The Witches of Eastwick and Practical Magic), but the highlight is the epic documentary on folk horror films, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, which screens on Monday. The sorcery and silliness continue through May 20, with a full schedule available at www.cstpdx.com.
- Last year, the Cinemagic Theater had success with weeklong programs dedicated to the distinctive terrors distributed by indie monolith A24 Films. Now, it’s turning its attention to the equally distinctive output of boutique label Arrow Video. The company’s releases typically focus on the types of genre flicks Cinemagic specializes in, such as Re-Animator (screening in 35mm) and the Christopher Lee-Peter Cushing team-up Horror Express. It’s also a rare chance to see Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys on the big screen. Full schedule available at the Cinemagic website.
- The Austin, Texas, based Montopolis has been creating unique “indie chamber music” for years, often playing in conjunction with silent films. They’re bringing their score to accompany the seminal Russian experimental documentary Man with a Movie Camera to Portland for a screening that simply can’t be replicated at home. (Unless, I suppose, you hired Montopolis to come to your house. It seems much easier to just buy a ticket.) (Saturday, May 6, at Cinema 21.)
- The amazing, locally made (in part) documentary Sam Now, which had a pair of screenings at Cinema 21 last week, airs on PBS’s Independent Lens series. It’s beenSam Now, Reed Harkness, amazing to watch director Reed Harkness’ years-long quest to tell this very personal story reach fruition. (All PBS stations, Monday, May 8.)
Wild Life: The Oscar-winning filmmakers of Free Solo return with another documentary about people who risk life and limb to experience the greatest thrills the outdoors have to offer. This time, the focus is on Kris and Doug Tompkins, who (along with Yvon Chouinard) were responsible for massively successful apparel companies The North Face, Patagonia, and Esprit. Like Chouinard, who announced he was giving away Patagonia last year, the Tompkinses seem never to have succumbed to the greed virus, and engaged in a decades-long project to buy up unspoiled land in Chile and Argentina to protect it from development. After Doug’s untimely death, Kris carries on his work, serving as proof that not all billionaires are evil greedheads. In other words, they do have a choice. (Opens Friday, May 5, at Cinema 21, with co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi in attendance for a post-film Q&A that evening.)
Chop & Steele: Wisconsin heroes Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett are the demented brains behind the Found Footage Festival, which has toured the country (including Portland on multiple occasions) presenting their assemblage of jaw-droppingly bizarre VHS programming culled from the thrift stores and dumpsters of America. They also started a side gig as pranksters who would get themselves booked on local TV morning news programs as “Chop & Steele,” a strong man act, even though neither of them is particularly fit. Bumbling through episodes of clumsy mayhem while perma-grinned hosts patiently endure, they punctured the notion of these shows as actual journalism. And then they got sued for fraud by one of their victims’ corporate owners. This hilarious, unexpectedly touching, documentary documents their legal struggle, and serves as a general advertisement/retrospective for the glory of the Found Footage Festival. Appreciations from famous pranksters Reggie Watts, the Yes Men, and Bobcat Goldthwait testify to their antics as legitimate comedy, even if their appearance on America’s Got Talent hadn’t already done so. (You’ve got to see it to believe it.) (Plays Monday-Thursday, May 8-11, at the Hollywood Theatre.)
Other People’s Children: The latest sophisticated, seemingly effortless French drama about and for adults makes the lack of such American films all the more annoying. Here, Rachel (Virginie Efira, who played the title role in Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta), a schoolteacher in her late 30s, falls for a divorced automotive designer (Roschdy Zem) with an adorable four-year-old daughter. Fearing that she’s nearing the end of her own child-bearing years, Rachel finds herself craving the affection of the girl, in a way that threatens her new relationship. Tales of blended families are nothing new, but Efira’s grounded, sensitive performance and writer-director Rebecca Zlotowski’s incisive, sexy script makes this one stand out. (Opens Friday, May 5, at Living Room Theaters.)
On the Edge: This excellent Belgian policier begins with a horrific accident in which a young man falls onto the tracks in front of a Metro train driven by Leo Castaneda (Antonio de la Torre). The plot quickly thickens when it turns out that the victim was Leo’s son, and that he had a bullet in his lung when he plunged to his doom. Leo tries to get to the bottom of his son’s death, in a race against a squad of detectives investigating a brutal heist. Full of twists, believable relationships, and captivating performances, it’s a gritty thriller that keeps you guessing until the very end. (Available on DVD & Blu-ray, and most VOD platforms.)
THE REST OF THE WEEK:
FRIDAY: A group of white women are forced to confront their inherent racial biases in the documentary Deconstructing Karen, (Clinton Street Theater); Trippy conspiracy theories get musically explosive treatments in the double feature The Secret Life of Plants and Repo Man double feature (Hollywood); Travis Bickle rides again as Taxi Driver kicks off a weeklong run (Academy); Parker Posey hits her ’90s-it-girl apex in Party Girl (Hollywood)
SATURDAY: The one, the only Citizen Kane (Cinema 21 AND the Hollywood); the one, the only The Seven Samurai (in 35mm) (Hollywood); Portland EcoFilm titles The Last Apple & The Illusion of Abundance (Hollywood)
MONDAY: Blaxploiation classic Cotton Comes to Harlem (in 35mm) (Hollywood); a filmmaking English farmer leaves behind a cache of bizarre home movies in the documentary A Life on the Farm (HWD)
TUESDAY: Bette Davis has eyes in the classic 1940 melodrama The Letter (Kiggins Theatre), Young people around the globe rally for change in Dear Future Children (Clinton Street); Kung-Fu Theater presents Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (in 35mm) (Hollywood Theatre)
WEDNESDAY: Radical activism and psychedelic aesthetics dominate in the 1971 Japanese revolution call Throw Away Your Books Rally in the Streets (Clinton Street); rival teams of archivists compete to see who can unearth the most bizarre old reels in a 16mm Showdown (Hollywood)
THURSDAY: Mimes play tennis in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 iconic portrait of mod-era London Blow-Up (in 35mm) (Hollywood)